01 March 2007


The death of my mother happened while I was on a binge of reading books about exiles, expatriates, and immigrants. Actually, I didn't plan this theme; I didn't see the connections until she died. Only then did I think of her story--born in Japan, involuntarily exiled to Germany, choosing to emigrate to the USA, but never reconciled to American pluralism--in light of those books.

All of these books are excellent; I'd be hard put to rank them. The first one is Philip Marsden's The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. It is a part biography and part travelogue, but as a hybrid it is seamless, with the wholeness of a wonderful novel. Zofia lives in Cornwall, England, and invites her neighbor, Philip, to travel with her back along her childhood roots, in that region of central Europe that has felt the cultural imprint (and the imprint of marching boots) of Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. From the relatively minor skirmishes of class warfare to full-blown revolution and world war, violent forces drove Zofia, her mother, and her whole extended family on the road time and again. Every new emergency, every new occasion of escape and relocation, was faithfully recorded in the mother's diaries, which Marsden drew upon for the raw authenticity of his book.

The Bronski House gave me two powerful impressions, incarnated in its vivid characters and their heartbreaking turns of fate: First, how savage the human waste caused by the vanities of powerful and violent men. Second, how human relationships and dialogues trump every social and cultural stereotype that people raise up to justify their prejudices.

Dubravka Ugresic's edgy but deeply humane novel The Ministry of Pain is superb at portraying the cost of separation from one's homeland, coupled with the aching confusion of seeing one's homeland become a battle of violently competing identities--the situation faced by every refugee from the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia. The language(s) spoken by the refugees among each other is a minefield of unintended and intended belligerence. The protagonist, Tanja, shepherds her Amsterdam university class of mostly expatriate students of Yugoslav literature, through the tides of conflicting emotions and pragmatic survival imperatives, even as she tries to cope with her own realities of financial woes, departmental politics, and the slippery legalities of refugee status. She thinks about the people she has abandoned, while others (first her lover, then one after another of her students) abandon her. Meanwhile, the concept of homeland becomes more nebulous and brittle, and her memories become unreliable.

I loved the author's descriptions of the conversations and preoccupations of exiles when they gather in their Amsterdam hangouts--the deep tissues of grievances, gossip, conventional wisdom, resignation, and "Yugonostalgia." Tanja and one of her students spend a day at the Hague to watch a war crimes trial, and see before their very eyes the poisonous pettiness, the cosmic smallness of the men who gained power by making nationalism lethal. For some, the cost was life itself; others find themselves, as in Marsden's true story, forced into psychic as well as physical displacement among uncomprehending strangers.

The last book I read was the one that affected me most deeply: Nikolai's Fortune by Solveig Torvik. Like The Bronski House, this book is based on fact: every major character of the five generations populating this historical novel actually existed, and all of the major events really happened. The details of daily life and dialogue are beautifully crafted fiction, but they too are based on careful research, even to the point of securing meteorological records from 130 years ago so that we readers can experience a 400-mile trek from rural Finland to coastal North Norway.

The power that forced Nikolai from Finland to Sweden to Astoria, Oregon, and then his unacknowledged daughter Kaisa across the mountains from Finland to Norway was not military or (overtly) political, but economic. Most landless farmers of rural Finland in the 19th century were living on the edge of starvation, except for the lucky few who found generous employers. The rumored limitless prospects of America beckoned many with dazzling promise, while frustrating them with impossible distances; the waters of Norway's Lofoten Islands, teeming with fish, constituted a slightly more accessible substitute.

But the constant spectre of economic distress and dispossession was not all that people faced. The Lutheran church's hold on society was, at the local level, near-absolute. Woe betide a woman whose few minutes of intimacy (real or forced) resulted in pregnancy: whatever the truth, she had no choice but to be publicly humiliated by the priest in front of the whole congregation, after which all felt entitled to treat her as soiled, except for the leering men who felt a different sort of entitlement.

The cruelty of oppressive sexual hypocrisy within a community was matched by the equally ruthless structures of racism and nationalism as soon as two or three communities came into contact--as when the economic refugees of Torvik's novels ran into the Norwegian social scale: native Norwegians on top, Finnish immigrants decidedly below; and the Samis (insultingly labeled Lapps) relegated dismissively to the bottom. As if these poisons were not enough, alcohol and its power to wreck lives is never far from center stage.

The last two generations of the novel eventually followed the mysterious Nikolai to America--to Utah and Idaho in their case--where psychic displacement and dashed ideals result in ghost-like existences remarkably like those described by Ugresic. But what shook me up is the description of the protagonist's mother at the end of the novel; she could have been describing my mother. Neither woman really, fully inhabited either the physical home called America or the web of relationships that might have made this country a home.

There is so much to like about this extraordinary book. To compress a five-generation epic into 300 pages without ever lapsing into dry chronology is truly amazing. The vivid description of the mountain trek from Finland to Norway on foot, in winter is itself worth the price of the book. Many smaller moments are also gems--for example, the small-town child's-eye view of the day World War II ended for Norway: the adults were so deliriously out-of-control happy that, for a moment, the child yearned for wartime stability. And, amidst all the cruelties and prejudices, every moment of cross-cultural kindness in this book confirms the deep insights of Marsden's book: the reward for truly inhabiting one's identity (however hybrid that identity might be!) while still putting humanity first is a source of deep comfort and satisfaction.

I wish I could now compare notes with my mother, listening again to her stories of wartime Japan, the forced repatriation to Stuttgart, and the choice to leave Europe for the USA, a land whose sheer variety of race and ethnicity could not ever suit any system of neat master-race categories. But I can't have that conversation any more with my ancestors. I must have it with my descendants.

I found this week a bit short on righteous links. Weirdly fascinating links--that's another matter. Here's an example--the Evangelical Theological Society's debate on whether God outranks Jesus. Turns out that the issue has implications for whether men outrank women. I would have loved to hear the president of Christians for Biblical Equality call her opponents' position heresy. That matches my conviction that many if not all fundamentalists are actually heretics, but people who believe this are usually too nice to say so.

After I spent so much time discussing books that portray involuntary exile, maybe you'll see why the Supreme Court decision that habeas corpus rights stop at our border is so very distressing to me. Here's the New York Times's Stephen Labaton's summary of the decision:
By a 2-to-1 vote, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the law, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, did not violate a provision in Article 1 of the Constitution that prevents the government from suspending habeas corpus — the right of a detained person to challenge the legality of the detention — except in “cases of rebellion or invasion.”

The court’s majority, citing Supreme Court and other precedent, held that the right of habeas corpus does not extend to foreign citizens detained outside the United States — the prisoners covered by the new law. A lower court in December followed the same logic to the same conclusion in a related case, involving Salim Ahmed Hamdan, whose earlier appeal to the Supreme Court had led to the overturning of the previous Congressional attempts to limit the prisoners’ avenues to the federal courts. [Full article.]
By this logic, all the USA has to do to put someone outside of due process is to lease or capture overseas territory! I cannot understand any useful interpretation of habeas corpus that doesn't define the jurisdiction as anywhere the government in question has the ability to respect or deny habeas corpus--in other words, anywhere the government actually has factual custody of a human being. Any other definition invites trivialization or subversion of the doctrine.

The Environment Committee of Berkeley Friends Meeting is sponsoring a series of talks on climate change and our response. More details on Karen Street's weblog, A Musing Environment. The first talk is this weekend.

Here in Portland, Oregon, on this weekend, Reedwood Friends Church is hosting Friends World Committee's Northwest Regional Gathering [dead link] on "Poverty, Compassion, and Economic Justice." On Saturday evening at 7 p.m., a concert featuring Jill Townley and Aaron Pruitt will raise money for Right Sharing of World Resources.

To follow up on my earlier post, "Can Evangelicals Reproduce?", I want to do my part in circulating important relationship-enhancing resources for the discerning Christian. Item one. Item two.

Here's an extraordinary music video: a clip of Eva Cassidy, performing "Time After Time" at Blues Alley in Washington, DC.


Rich in Brooklyn said...


I don't have much to say about any of the important books you're reviewing here.

But if I understand correctly that the death of your mother happened recently, then I would like (in whatever degree one can do so over the internet) to send you my deep sympathy.

Peace of Jesus,
Rich Accetta-Evans

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Rich. It may be a commentary on our times and the ways the Internet can serve relationships (as well as weaken them, I suppose) that nearly all the condolences I've received after my mother's death came either in e-mail or on this site. They've all been very comforting and helpful to me. Thank you!