Apr 2004 Journal

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Where is the great refugee novel?

One of the outstanding features of the publishing scene in recent years has been the success of immigrant novels. Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Monica Ali's Brick Lane - the one about Pakistanis and West Indians, the other about Bangladeshis - are obvious cases in point. Their subject matter - the culture clash of newcomers from the Third World with the host society - is found to interest a wide readership.

The much-commented-on migration of 'children of the Raj' to the mother-country began in the aftermath of the Second World War. That conflict had likewise been preceded by an influx of around 70,000 refugees from Nazi oppression into the UK - yet our arrival in this country did not inspire a single novel that achieved bestseller status. Of course, the contrast between Berlin or Vienna and London was nowhere near as great as that between an Indian village and Bradford or Burnley. However, despite hailing from First World countries, we lacked other advantages of our postwar successors. We weren't English speakers, had not attended missionary (or other English-type) schools, and knew nothing of cricket or rugby.

Early on our acclimatisation in this country was complicated by the outbreak of war. Officialdom initially lumped us together with 'real' Germans - hence internment - and sections of the public followed suit. Nor was antisemitism a totally negligible force during the war and the birth-pangs of the State of Israel. And the insistent counterpoint to all this was growing awareness of the Pandora's box of horrors subsumed in the term Holocaust.

Despite the obvious plethora of subject matter the author of a German-Jewish refugee saga could get his or her teeth into, no such piece of writing has yet appeared and achieved bestseller status.

How to explain this dearth? My own pet theory is that social class, both of the authors of, and characters in, refugee novels has a lot to do with it. Newcomers to an established society tend to find themselves at the bottom of the heap - from which position the next generation may (or may not) emancipate themselves.

We 'continental Britons', however, tended to project a rather more middle- than working-class image (I have a hunch that this bourgeois label applied more to German than Austrian Jews). Accordingly, such novels as were written about the refugee experience came from the impeccably middle-class pens of Anita Brookner and Eva Figes.

Their style is too well-mannered, not to say anodyne, to give readers the gutsy experience they expect from an immigrant novel. (I also exclude from consideration W. G. Sebald's epic Austerlitz, which focuses on the trauma of a virtual toddler transplanted from Prague to Wales.)

Are we therefore doomed to pass from the scene without leaving a noticeable imprint on English literature? Can we not do for Belsize Park what Israel Zangwill did for Bethnal Green and Louis Golding for Magnolia Street? Is there no Bloomsbury House novel in gestation worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the literary effusions of the Bloomsbury Group?

The answer to all these questions is almost certainly 'No'! Almost - but not totally. I have heard of a writer whose ambition it is to write the defining refugee novel. He knows his way around Bethnal Green as well as around Belsize Square - Bloomsbury House as well as the Bloomsberries. What's more, he has impeccable working-class credentials - having been a domestic servant, a garment worker and a centre-lathe turner. Do I hear you ask 'what's holding him back?' The answer is simple: no publisher is interested!
Richard Grunberger

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