“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience,” wrote Edward W. Said in his “Reflections on Exile”. As he continues, “…our age - with its modern warfare, imperialism, and the quasi-theological ambitions of totalitarian rulers - is indeed the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration.” This month, as wars, armed conflict and civil unrest continue to tear our world apart, we propose you a selection of books looking into experiences of people driven out of their war-torn homelands in search of peace. While realistic in their depiction of exile with its restlessness and uprootedness, these books also offer hope: even in the darkest moments, we can remain human.
In “A Long Petal of The Sea”, the bestselling Chilean author, Isabel Allende, follows a married couple who have to flee from Spain under Franco, through French concentration camps to Chile and later to Venezuela after General Pinochet’s coup. Allende, who had to flee Pinochet’s regime to Venezuela herself, writes both from first-hand experience and historical research.
Spanning 50 years and offering a broad overview of generations and countries, the novel follows a couple who get married to secure their safe passage to Chile. Although this is just a marriage of convenience at first, love slowly grows between the protagonists as they search for a home over the background of upheavals, civil war, and oppression.
“Grey Bees”, first published in Ukraine in 2018, is a novel by Andrey Kurkov, a Russian-born Ukrainian writer known for his dark humour and vivid depictions of life in post-Soviet Ukraine. This novel’s protagonist, Sergey, is a lonely retired beekeeper living in now war-ravaged Donbas. As much as he wants to stay neutral and mind his own “beesness” - if you forgive us the pun - there comes a moment when shelling becomes too much of a disturbance for his bees. Sergey is worried that the honey will have an aftertaste of war. So he loads his beehives into his old Lada and embarks on a modern-day odyssey through Ukraine in search of peace.
Sergey’s journey takes him through the Zaporizhzhia region to Crimea, and Kurkov’s writing gives the story a fable-like quality. On his way, Sergey will have to overcome many obstacles, such as checkpoints, Russian mercenaries and propaganda TV crews, and traumatized Ukrainian veterans. Through the eyes of this mild-mannered man, we get to witness the - somewhat Kafkaesque - cruelty, stupidity and futility of war ravaging his homeland. With some elements of magical realism and an introspective narrative, this book is a comforting read, and one of its messages is that of hope and shared humanity. If you like Bulgakov, Murakami or Kafka - you will surely enjoy Kurkov’s “Grey Bees” too.
In “We are Displaced”, Malala Yousafzai - the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate - shares the experiences of 10 refugee girls from around the world, including her own story. Yousafzai is a female education and children’s rights activist whose story gained attention after she survived an assassination attempt in 2012 in Pakistan at the age of 15.
Malala has collected many of the stories in this book during her campaign for girls’ education. The stories come from different corners of the world - Yemen, Colombia, Congo, Myanmar, Guatemala, Syria, and Uganda - and each chapter starts with a brief introduction by Malala, providing some contextual information and helping to better situate girls’ accounts. The stories are very personal and intimate, allowing us to see beyond the political context and the stigma of being a refugee or asylum seeker. Each story invites us to ponder the trauma and effects of immigration and having to blend in a new environment. And each is a story of struggle but also of hope.
The proceeds from sales of the book go toward Malala Fund, which supports girls’ education in conflict areas.
“The Sympathizer” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel from Vietnamese-American professor and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. This vibrant and multilayered tragicomic novel is written as a confession of an Americanized Vietnamese double agent who fled Vietnam to start a new life in Los Angeles and found himself spying on his compatriots for a higher-up in the Viet Cong.
The novel offers a new and fresh take on the Vietnam war, till now mostly told from the U.S. perspective. As the narrator puts it, “this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors”. It also ponders the role of revolutions and revolutionaries in war and peace, recognizing that a victory in any revolution - even when it’s fought for a just cause - may bring rotten fruit, trumping the values it was fought to protect.
"The Sympathizer" can be read as a war novel, immigrant novel or political and spy novel and will surely please those of you who like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz wrote The Passenger in 1938 in four weeks that followed Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, the pogrom carried out against Jews throughout Nazi Germany in November 1938. At the time of writing, the author, a German Jew, was only 23 and had escaped his homeland some years before the tragic events of November 1938. The author’s short and tragic life ended at 27 as he was transported from an internment camp in New South Wales, Australia, to Britain. A German submarine sunk the ship he was on in the Atlantic.
His novel was rediscovered in a Frankfurt archive 70 years after its writing and has been edited according to the author’s instructions he conveyed in letters to his mother. “The Passenger” tells the story of Otto Silberman, a successful businessman and a German Jew, whose life and world collapse immediately after Kristallnacht. This gripping story follows the protagonist trapped in Germany and endlessly crisscrossing the country by train without any destination or place to hide. A desperate, surreal, and nightmarish journey into nowhere reminiscent of Kafka or Camus.