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The Uprooted

Unsettling Europe

by Jane Kramer
Random House, 217 pp., $9.95

Jane Kramer is right to say that “Europe plays with identity.” She is talking about the sense of nationality and the claim to belong to a community, notions which certainly suffer “elegant manipulations.” But some of these identity games are merciful, designed to save pride. It has for instance always been held shameful to be obliged to emigrate, even when irresistible forces like starvation, merciless landlordism, the devastations of war or racial persecution drive a family to pack and leave its land, its hovel, the graves of its ancestors. The pain with which the Scottish Highlanders, the Jews of the Russian Empire, the landless Slovaks, or the Irish looked back from the rail of the ships as they raised anchor wasn’t only the pain of homesickness or the fear of what a new land might do to their children. For many this was defeat, even a sort of treachery. And in order to cover this shame, Europe invented a game called “America.”

As if the emigrants had died, it was agreed among those who remained that they had gone to a better place. They would improve themselves. It was easy enough to imagine the hardships and sufferings which awaited most of them, in the first generation, but it was not to be thought of. Honor was to be saved. Letters, in any case, soon became infrequent and, when they did arrive, usually put a brave face on things. Correspondingly, Europeans contrived to take as little notice, as possible of the great internal emigrant flows which began to change the demography of the continent in the nineteenth century. The Irish poured into England and Scotland, digging the infrastructure which the industrial revolution required. The Poles came west to work the coal and iron of the Ruhr, laying the foundations of the imperial world-power which was to destroy their own homeland two generations later. Italian and Spanish seasonal workers invaded southern France, as the northern capitals began to demand permanent supplies of green vegetables and Mediterranean flowers.

The work of these millions was needed; their identity was not. They were paying with their labor for the sin of having left their own lands—doubtless ploughed to sterility through their own improvidence—and for the impertinence of speaking queer tongues and worshipping strange gods. In medieval Europe, the irruption of foreigners in large numbers had usually meant the arrival of an invading army or—as with the Scots in Poland—of a tribe of astute traders. The old hostility survived even when the incomers were in a socially weaker position than their hosts.

Today, at last, movements of vast populations have forced themselves upon European attention. Throughout the continent, some twenty million people were uprooted by war and expelled from their homes between about 1943 and 1947. The West Indians, followed by Asians from the Indian subcontinent and East Africa, came to postwar Britain. Over a million Europeans fled from Algeria to France after 1962. And, above all, the industrial boom years in northwestern Europe after about 1960 revived the flow of immigrant contract labor from the south, but on a scale infinitely bigger than any such movement in the past. Even today, after years of recession and oil crisis, there are about ten million migrant workers in northern Europe.

The Common Market countries became the center of a system quite closely related in structure to the ingenious Southern African pattern of “homelands” and apartheid, in which the nation-state actually became the instrument of a new form of colonialism. Poor peripheral nations were allowed to send emigrants to work the factories of the industrial heartlands, on condition that these workers could be repatriated in times when labor demand fell. In other words, industrial capitalism had devised a way of avoiding the social and political problems of unemployment, by simply exporting surplus labor back across a frontier. If the “Golden Triangle” of northern Europe functioned like the white areas of South Africa, then Turkey and Portugal and Yugoslavia functioned like Transkei and Bophutatswana and KwaZulu—the difference being merely that the last three “states” were created expressly to act as labor dumps.

Much has now been written about the Gastarbeiter of Europe, about a continent in which the northern cities are full of foreigners and the southern villages have no young men. (The most piercing book in this literature is still A Seventh Man, written by John Berger with Jean Mohr’s photographs.* ) Governments and social organizations are more aware of how the system works, especially because the imminent entry of Greece into the EEC and the more distant accession of Spain and then Turkey could wreck the north’s vital control of labor influx (free movement of labor is guaranteed to full members of the Common Market). The conditions for the migrants have on the whole improved; the conditions of their home villages and home countries have on the whole grown worse.

But Jane Kramer tries to widen the picture. She sees not only the migrant workers but, in this continent which is now in its turn becoming the world’s melting pot, a whole sub-population made up of those who are not accepted, whether they are contract migrants, refugees, or those who have tried to build their own new world within their own country. She writes of an intolerant, inhospitable Europe which shows one face to the visitor with travelers’ checks and another to the Algerian laborers on the street. She is, after years of experience, disgusted with the official “Europe” which pretends that the west of the continent is just one happy extended family sharing a broad political view. To be “European” means one thing if you are a Dutch bureaucrat or an English farmer or a skilled metalworker in Mannheim, and quite another to the bewildered masses of those who are rootless in the places where roots are supposed to reach most deeply. She asks: “What does ‘Europe’ mean, then, if these nineteen or twenty million people are not included in the word?”

Unsettling Europe consists of fourlong essays, first published in The New Yorker, and written at intervals since 1971. Each is a profile of a family in a context which is in some way alien. Predrag Ilić, from Serbia, lives in a tower block in Södertälje, in Sweden. Akbar Hassan was a prosperous Mercedes agent in Uganda until Amin expelled the Asians; now he lives with his family in the London suburb of Southall. The Martins were pieds noirs—European settlers in Algeria—who fled to France with a million others when Algeria became independent in 1962, and made their new home in a village in Provence. The fourth, in a different category, is the Cecchi clan, a Communist peasant family in the Umbrian village Kramer calls “San Vincenzo.”

Of all Jane Kramer’s virtues, the most engaging is her ability to write with intense sympathy about people she dislikes. There are some sharply disagreeable people in her pages. Predrag Ilić, for instance, is a sullen little man with a grudge against the world who hangs around the town of Södertälje on some kind of spurious sick leave from the car factory of Saab-Scania. He carries around a school copybook in which he makes mysterious jottings, supposed to be mathematical formulae. Predrag’s half-hearted efforts to start a mechanic’s business have foundered. At twenty-nine, he thinks of himself as a finished man and lives off the wages of his good-natured wife Darinka, who manages to look after three young children and hold down a factory job. The other Yugoslav families in the neighborhood see little of each other, isolated as they are by hedges of political suspicion and social jealousy.

The people dream. In Predrag’s home village, there is most of a new house with walls and a temporary roof; work starts on it when he comes strutting home every August and peters out when he returns to Sweden. But there is no job for him in his village. Kramer leaves us with the feeling that, although after eight years he doesn’t speak Swedish and still insists that he despises the country, Predrag has forgotten how to leave Sweden.

The Swedes are not bad hosts, by European standards. This is a cool, remote, but generous society that pays well and looks after bodily needs. But, as Kramer puts it, the Swedes cannot conceal a “quiet horror” about alien little people who make a noise, chase girls, hang around shopping malls late at night and generally offend the Swedish “etiquette of absolute discretion.” And the foreign workers sense that they offend.

Kramer is much more censorious about the British attitude to the Asian immigrants and refugees from East Africa. Governments admitted them only grudgingly, terrified that the latent racism in the white working class would hold the politicians to blame. And to make disappointment more bitter, the East African Asians arrived under the impression that they were rather superior persons, loyal overseas British citizens who could expect to take up the same professions and lines of business which they had enjoyed in Africa. Disillusion came hard and fast to Akbar Hassan. Once he was “a big capitalist man,” with what he called “English confidence” in his dealings with Africans. Now, after English employers showed how little they valued his experience and qualifications, he works miserably in a service station. Outside the little house where Akbar lives with his wife and six children stands a battered Mercedes which he cannot afford to run.

Akbar, a man defeated in a foreign land, has reacted like Predrag Ilić. His wife Rabia takes the brunt; Akbar ignores her and now sleeps in another room on a couch. Rabia, who had a happy middle-class childhood in Rhodesia, now spends her time wiping damp off the grim London wallpaper, trying to keep the family fed and warm on less than $70 a week, and wondering how to become an efficient English housewife like the women she sees on television.

If the British are unwelcoming to colored immigrants with British passports, they still have lessons to take from the French in selfish nastiness to their own race. In the Fifties, a man in a French café would bawl on about “Algérie française” and the brave “colons” defending Gallic culture. In 1962, when the game was up, the same man was cursing the pieds noirs for fascist bandits and declaring that la patrie didn’t owe them a brass centime. Even if French opinion hadn’t spun about in that way, the pieds noirs would still have been unpopular: they were—are—raucous, pushing, extravagantly pious, and full of a colonial pep which horrifies the somnolent French peasantry. The Martins, typically, took on an abandoned house which nobody in the village wanted, put in heating and electricity, drove out scorpions and asked all the neighbors in for a housewarming. Nobody came.

Like the family Ilić and the family Hassan, the Martins see their old homeland in ever richer glows of fantasy. “The Arabs were our friends—we understood each other,” says Mme. Martin now, ignoring a war which cost a million dead, including some of her own relations. Despising the squalor and resignation of the villagers, she makes grand scenes which the doctor, the curé, and the shopkeepers have come to dread. In return, they try to shortchange her or sell the family gas cylinders which leak.

The Italian family in Unsettling Europe are neither immigrants nor refugees. They are very much natives, a family who came from medieval poverty and exploitation on the land and who have struggled through to a security, a standard of living, and a sense of their own dignity which old Mario Cecchi and his son ascribe entirely to the Communist Party. San Vincenzo is a small town where the Party now rules but where the old Catholic oligarchs still, in reality, hold a great deal of the economic power as merchants, clerks, and professionals. But the Party has built a new, raw suburb of its own outside the walls, put up a movie-house and a Casa del Popolo, organized a peasants’ cooperative with breeding stock from Eastern Europe, and transformed the lives of the poor sharecroppers through cheap credit and social security.

The portrait of the Cecchis fits uneasily with the others in this book. Jane Kramer argues that the millions in Western Europe who vote Communist and, in France and Italy, live in a Communist environment are also among the “forgotten” and the ignored. She could have added that these strange little Communist worlds, scattered from Dunkirk to Syracuse, form a sort of internal emigration, social groups who—like religious separatists—have withdrawn from the sinful world to create a part of the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth. But however tenuous the connection between the Cecchis and the other three families of Unsettling Europe may be, it would have been a cruel loss to have left them out. This is clever, empathic, watchful reporting at its very best.

Old Mario began as a shepherd boy. Now he lives in a new house, and his son is a dottore with a degree from the university. As the elderly Party cell gathers in his kitchen to play cards and argue about politics, he reflects that “the Party has transformed his world—it has taken the fatal span of a poor Italian life and added the sweetness and the edge of possibility, and for this Mario will be loyal until he dies.” His wife Anna remains a skeptic about such claims. It was she, not the Party, who made sacrifices to buy an electric refrigerator. It is her own common sense and the misery of her youth which tell her that in a country where there can never be enough for everybody, politics must always have aspects of a protection racket.

Jane Kramer’s view of the Party in Italy takes something from both Mario and Anna. But it takes most from their son Alfredo, the dottore, who went to the university and returned—his head full of the visions of 1968—to become the Party’s young hope in San Vincenzo. Soon he will be mayor. But he has already lost some illusions. Although he still roars in his little Fiat over the hills, trying to organize popular democracy at the grassroots, “looking for Communism,” as he puts it, he has learned how conservative the Party is, how suspicious of new ideas, how much concerned simply to hold and defend what it has gained through the decades of suffering and struggle which have brought Communists to power in so many of the regions and cities and communes of Italy. He has become a little wry. He would understand Jane Kramer when, interpreting his own mother’s feelings, she writes: “The Party is doing well because Palmiro Togliatti was smart enough to present it as a kind of gran padrone to a whole class of people—shepherds, like Mario, and peasants and factory workers—whom no padrone had ever bothered to solicit.”

In this, the longest of the four pieces in the book, there is space for political reflection and analysis. Jane Kramer recognizes the immense achievements of the Party: the salvaging of national self-respect through the wartime partisan struggle; the demonstration that local government can be both democratic and clean; the rescue of at least sections of the Italian people from the worst exploitation. But she points shrewdly to the problems of Berlinguer’s leadership; he must reconcile the interests of the four million factory workers with his pact with the bourgeoisie, and he must hold the ring between the twelve million voters who look to the Party for reform and clean government and the two million paid-up militants who still live with dreams of revolution. She observes that the Communists have little to offer the southern poor and the unemployed and nothing useful to say about terrorism. Only the Radicals (for whom Kramer has a weakness) see the Red Brigades and their allies as “a sign of Italy’s immense distress” in these years of European recession. She may exaggerate, though, when she asserts that Berlinguer no longer even wants to win because he knows that a Communist victory would end foreign credits and wreck the standard of living. But her portrait of San Vincenzo and the Cecchis remains an invaluable, honest statement about Italian reality. It is also a reminder that the history of poverty in Europe is not only a history of defeat and scattering.

  1. *

    A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe (Viking, 1975).

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