Tuesday, 12 January 2016
There's no escaping the issue; nor should there be, when every personal story of Syrian refugees helps us to understand that it could be us, that we could be these human beings. In terms of reading, I wasn't trying to avoid the subject, but nor was I actively seeking it out in two of the three books I read in close succession, both of which turned out to locate the present in the near or distant past, adding to an understanding that being an exile, a refugee, an emigrant/immigrant is such a constant part of the human condition (the third book, incidentally, was Diana Darke's My House in Damascus, which gives an equally distressing picture of how everything falls apart over time for those who decide to stay. I hope I'll find time to write about that soon).
Most Europeans of my generation are so lucky never to have experienced it, but surely we all know someone who has, and most of us come, way back, from somewhere else (on my mother's side of the family, my first known ancestor was Jean de Paris, a Huguenot fleeing to London after the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572).
Mark Mazower's Salonica: City of Ghosts is, for much of its duration, a portrait of a city that no longer exists - a special case in Europe where Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians co-existed peacefully - always with a few isolated exceptions - from 1430 to the early 20th century. So this is a book first heartening, then deeply distressing. The stance of the early Ottomans - described by Mazower as akin to the central Asian attitude of the Grand Khan Mongha, for whom the religions of the Empire were 'like the five fingers of the same hand' - had already come as a pleasant surprise to the Archbishop of Salonica, Gregory Palamas, when he had been held captive in 1355. According to Mazower, Palamas found that
Prominent Turks were eager to discuss the relationship of the two faiths with him and the emir organised a debate between him and Christian converts to Islam. 'We believe in your prophet, why don't you believe in ours?' Muslims asked him more than once.
Which takes us back to the fundamentals of Mohammed's original teachings (I've long been meaning to try and sum up here, for myself as much as anyone else, what Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History reveals on that front - 'all is one', in short). Pictured below: an Ottoman family in the house known as 'Las encantadas', with its row of caryatids long since vanished
But the point here is to move on to the arrival of the Sefardim looking for a new home after their expulsion from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. They were more welcome here than in Christian Europe. And despite the official separation of Muslims and non-Muslims, placed in a position of inferiority by what they had to wear, the boundaries in professions quickly became fluid: 'young Muslim boys served as apprentices to Christian shoe-makers; Jewish and Muslim hamals and casual labourers scoured the docks together for work'. And in places of worship, too: Muslim guardians would watch over Christian shrines even where the building had been converted.
So, essentially, Salonica remained until the early 1900s, when the Ottoman Empire crumbled and nationalism rather than religion became the basis for Greeks and Young Turks alike. The First World War pulled things further apart; what endless fires had brought about, temporary tented settlements for those who had lost their homes (one such pictured above outside the walls of the fire-ravaged city), became real in a much larger sense with the almost unbelievable, rigid exchange of Muslims and Orthodox Greeks between Turkey and Greece in 1923-4. !8,000 Muslims were uprooted and removed from the fabric of the city. The picture below is of a mother and child waiting in Salonica to make the onward journey to Thrace.
What finished off Salonica as 'open city' was, of course, the German genocide of the Jews. Christian citizens tried to stop the deportations, or at the very least sympathised as the victims were led to the trains; in a few weeks of 1943, one-fifth of the population was 'disappeared'. Less admirable was the ready appropriation of the deserted shops and houses, and the difficulty of restitution to the few who returned.
Mazower's tale is of a city, not of individuals - despite countless examples of human nature's extraordinary adaptability and survival - while to read George Prochnik's The Impossible Exile is to learn about one ambiguous and mostly very unhappy refugee. Was Stefan Zweig doomed to kill himself (and, much more troublingly, to persuade his younger second wife to join him in death) from the moment he was dispossessed of the Viennese milieu which seems to have been the only one in which he could thrive.
Zweig was a determined, eloquent internationalist - a true humanist European, or rather citoyen du monde - who thought he could settle anywhere but ended up desperately unable to adapt outside Austria. The book's strengths are also its weaknesses - a determination not to give a chronological biography, to leap back and forth in time, which can make for confusion but also gradually pieces together the mystery posed by the beginning: how could Stefan and Lotte end up in Petrapolis, old German-feeling town in the hills above Rio de Janeiro?
There are moments of suspense along the way. The last couple of years read like the final quarter of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, where our heroine seems to be happy, not necessarily heading towards disaster, but keeps taking wrong turns (and right ones, too). Zweig was prone, ever so eloquently, to romanticise new places as paradise - he certainly did so in the case of Brazil - only to be defeated by inner despair, even emptiness. Perhaps the real tragedy was that, for all his vision of what nations should share in common, he had no real grounding in what was only a dream. And his sense of self was being eroded all the time. Prochnik, himself the son of Viennese refugees, writes:
If only a third of European Jewry survived Hitler, only a tiny fraction of those who did escape made it out with their former identities and sense of humanity intact. Zweig's life on the run draws me in in part for the way it presents, as in a tableau vivant, archetypal stages of refugee experience shared by others fleeing a state turned murderous. His story is particularly revealing for what it says about the predicaments of exile that aren't resolved when freedom is regained.
Archetypal, and yet different from other exiles. Zweig came from a fabulously wealthy family, moved among the high literary movers and shakers of the world. What, he asked, did he have in common all the other Jews 'thrown together for persecution'? Prochnik continues:
At least, he writes, their ancestors in medieval times knew what they were suffering for: their shared 'faith and their laws'. But the Jews of the 20th century were no longer a community and had not been one for a long time. They had no law. They did not want to speak Hebrew together. Only exile swept them all together, like dirt in the street: 'bankers from their grand homes in Berlin, synagogue servers from the Orthodox communities, Parisian professors of philosophy, Romanian cabbies, layers out of the dead and Nobel prize winners, operatic divas, women hired as mourners at funerals, writers and distillers, men of property and men of none, the great and small, observant Jews and followers of the Enlightenment.' In a heartfelt cry, Zweig apostrophized: 'Why I? Why you? How do you and I who do not know each other, who speak different languages, whose thinking takes different forms and who have nothing in common happen to be here together?' If Shylock's famous question - 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?' - was intended to show that Jews share a common humanity with all mankind, Zweig approached the injustice of anti-Semitism by revealing the total absence of common ground between the Jews themselves.
Yet others found it, adapted and thrived. Was Zweig too aloof, too fond of talking about universal values but too weak to put them into practice by really getting to know his fellow men from all walks of life? Not for us to judge, who never went through this upheaval - one compounded by shame that the language in which he wrote was appropriated by a destructive regime. Below: Zweig and his mother, who died in Vienna just before the Anschuss, at the home of friends in Vence.
Whateve the answer, it is a complex tragedy. Prochnik is good on paradoxes, on the dismantled vision of the Viennese coffee-house, in his troubled concern for poor Lotte (he is bad, by the way, in the only sphere I know, the musical one, where he tells us that Zweig's adaptation for Strauss was of Jonson's Volpone, with a new title of Die scheigsame Frau, The Silent Woman; of course the original play is Epicoene, or The Silent Woman). The main thing is that I want to go on and read more from Zweig's restless pen, not least his biographies reflecting back on himself of Marie Antoinette, Erasmus and Montaigne.
Finally, a story not of exile but of the pros and cons of emigration told with a complex flow of similarities and differences between home and abroad, John Crowley's film Brooklyn. I've given up on Colm Toibin; I hated The Master as a novel a million miles away from the style of its subject, Henry James - David Lodge's Author, Author is much better in my opinion - and the dialogue taken from the book as rendered by Nick Hornby doesn't strike me as anything special. It's a beautifully crafted but over-clean tale of the 1950s - Todd Haynes's Carol evokes what feels like a much more real world, albeit with less moving portrayals of the central figures - yet the lead performance of Saoirse Ronan is one of the most remarkable star turns I've ever seen on screen.
She lights up within, right from the start; it's the sort of face that makes you want to burst into tears, and I did weep quite a lot. While her character in the book has been described as passive, and Ronan's Christian name rhymes, she tells us, with 'inertia', Eilis, the role she plays, has incredible vitality and strength as well as vulnerabiity. In fact I saw immediately in Ronan the ideal incarnation of Natasha Rostova in War and Peace - a very different character, but one who needs that same incandescence. Someone make another version with her in it before she gets too old (she's 21, but would be convincing as the 13-year-old Natasha, which Morag Hood in the old BBC version wasn't). Interesting that both my friend Simon and I thought of Audrey Hepburn, Natasha in the American film I haven't dared to see - I've braved the BBC serialisation and, though rushed, it's not as bad as I feared - because although our Saoirse looks nothing like her, and isn't obviously beautiful in the conventional sense, she's equally mesmerising on the screen.
The men are very watchable and sympathetic, too, compounding the symmetries; there's the puppylicious Emory Cohen as her American-Italian true love
and Domnhall Gleeson as the Irish 'quiet man', who achieves the difficult job of partly wrenching us, as well as the heroine, temporarily away from Brooklyn affiliations.
Mother and sister are sympathetically portrayed, too; there's not a false note in any performance, so that you buy the more sentimental moments. But the point is, as Prince Andrey says of the young Natasha, that 'there's something special about that girl'. Everyone should go - it's a film which I could take my mother to see - and be spellbound by Ronan's ever-changing face on the big screen.