Archive for category Refugees
Europe is facing a wave of migration unmatched since the end of World War II – and no one has reported on this crisis in more depth or breadth than the Guardian’s migration correspondent, Patrick Kingsley. In today’s Guardian, Kingsley offers an impassioned overview of Europe’s collective response to the refugee crisis. This is how he begins:
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Once again I’m naming the dead. Listing the names of the latest victims of murderous fanaticism. But whilst the names of the dead in Brussels are emerging, gradually, and will be published in our news media as they do, I have trawled the internet in vain for the names of those who died at Grand Bassam, as I did for those who died in Ouagadougou and Bamako, in Ankara and elsewhere. I’ve found a few – usually those of foreign nationals – but only a few. I want to honour them too, they merit that as much as those who died in Brussels or Paris. But I don’t know who they are.
So if I list the names of those who died this week in Brussels, as I listed those who died in Paris, it is not because I think European lives are more important or that terrorist attacks on European soil matter more than atrocities in Africa, Asia, the Middle East.
What listing the names of those murdered in European cities does is to show the cosmopolitanism of those targets. The names tell their own stories of migration and mobility – those who travel freely for pleasure or work or family, as well as those who have travelled to escape desperate poverty, persecution or war. That’s exactly what Daesh hate, of course. That on those city streets those of every faith and none mix freely, travel together, work together, eat together, enjoy music together.
But whilst the attacks on Paris and Brussels are explicitly aimed at the western cosmopolitanism that epitomises the grey zone, ‘that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both’, the majority of their victims are Muslim. After all, most of their murderous attacks take place in predominantly Muslim countries – Daesh hate those who espouse what they regard as the wrong type of Islam as much if not more than they hate those who espouse a different faith or none at all.
How we respond on social media to these atrocities does matter. It may be easy to retweet, like, share, sign and so forth but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It’s not enough, of course, but for many of us it’s all we can immediately do.
So what do we say? Do we change our profile pictures to the flag of the country where the latest murders have taken place? Do we assert that ‘je suis/nous sommes/we are all…’? Again, it’s important if we do those things that we do them for Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Pakistan as readily as we do for France or Belgium.
Whatever we say, we need to say and keep saying that refugees are welcome. Because even before the names of the dead or the backgrounds of the killers are known, the usual suspects here and in the US are telling us that we’re to blame for letting ‘them’ in. Even before we know who died, and who killed them, we’re told that it’s the refugees fleeing war and terrorist brutality who are the cause of ‘our’ losses. We have to reject that othering which is, after all, exactly what Daesh want. In their world everything is polarised, and most of humanity is that Other that can be slaughtered without compunction. As terrorists they want us to fear and to hate, and governments to react with repressive and prejudicial legislation, to drive people out of the grey zone and into crusadership or caliphate.
Of course we may well be afraid, however much we assert otherwise to show our solidarity with each other against the murderers. We will be angry, we should be angry, that so many lives are being taken, that such brutality is being unleashed on so many. But alongside those emotions, we need to inform ourselves, to try to comprehend. As Jason Burke says, in his important and fascinating book, The New Threat from Islamic Militancy,
Trying to understand does not imply any sympathy. It simply means we need to set aside our very natural anger, disgust and fear in order, as dispassionately as possible, to learn. We need, above all, to avoid the trap that the extremists have fallen into: that of shutting ourselves off, of closing our minds, of succumbing to the temptation of wilful ignorance. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, victims, the maimed and the bereaved, always ask a very fundamental, very human question, ‘Why did this happen?’ We owe it to them to make the effort it takes to find the answer.
We honour the dead by naming them, when we can. By refusing to shut our minds and our hearts – or indeed our borders. By asserting our shared humanity, that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. By trying to understand.
The grey zone. It’s an endangered space, according to the murderous zealots of ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State/ISIL (I’m going to stick with Daesh, since I believe they really, really don’t like it). It’s the space where people meet, talk, think, and maybe change their minds.
President Bush said after the 9/11 attacks that there were only two options, to be with ‘us’ (the US and its allies) or with the terrorists. Daesh essentially agree – you are either with the crusade or with the caliphate. There is no middle ground.
And of course in some senses there isn’t, not when it comes to the massacring of innocents, wherever that takes place. No ‘of course I condemn the killings, but…’, or ‘of course it’s terrible but the French (or anyone else) had it coming’. No way. I am passionately, profoundly, unequivocally, unambiguously against everything that Daesh stand for and everything that they do. I despise their murderous arrogance, their callous indifference to human life.
But the danger of Daesh and their ilk is their absolute certainty. They define everyone who is not unequivocally, unambiguously with them not as mistaken or misguided but as the enemy. The Quran condemns those who take innocent lives, but Daesh see all who are not with them as guilty – corrupt and degenerate westerners in the ‘capital of prostitution and obscenity’, ‘deviant’ Muslims in Beirut, on and on and on. This year alone, they have murdered ‘crusaders’ in Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Chad, Nigeria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria…
Are they evil? Individually, I doubt it. We have to distinguish the organisation from the individuals who, as Umair Haque says, have themselves been conquered and brutalised by it. But they’ve been carefully taught, taught to hate, taught to kill without mercy or remorse, and by the time they’ve strapped on the explosive belt and picked up the Kalashnikov it is probably too late for them to be persuaded or deterred from doing evil in the name of an evil ideology. It’s not too late, though, for those who are attracted by the certainties of that ideology, or flirting with fundamentalism, if we can reach them, if we could sit down with them in the grey zone and talk, and listen. Lydia Wilson did that, talking to Daesh prisoners on death row in Kirkuk:
They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too. (Lydia Wilson, The Nation, 21 October 2015)
In the grey zone we can try to understand, and we can look into the eyes of another human being and draw on what we share whilst we explore what we don’t. The grey zone is full of the things that Daesh hate – music, art, football, laughter, friendship, conversation, love. The grey zone is where we live.
Justin Smith said of the targeting of the Eagles of Death Metal gig that ‘what the attackers hated in January [the Charlie Hebdo attacks], and what they continue to hate, is a sort of offense that we could not possibly promise to disown. It is the offense of happiness, of getting jokes, and loving oxymorons.’
‘life itself, the joy of living, was the target. … They did not attack infrastructure, politicians, military personnel, or sites of historical or cultural significance. They targeted innocent people, going about their lives, trying to make it through this difficult and complicated world with a modicum of fun and lightness. … It was, in every sense, an attack on multiculturalism; an attack on how we find happiness, outside the confines of a strict religious code of submission; an attack on the secular, enlightened spirit embodied by Paris’s vibrant, varied culture.’
Daesh tell us that the grey zone is on the brink of extinction, that it’s withering away. That’s what they want, of course, and that’s why we must protect it. Their intention in Paris was to provoke just that polarisation of views, to turn people against each other, to engender and encourage suspicion and prejudice, to make us afraid of each other. In Umair Haque’s words, ‘let’s be more courageous and wise than that’.
Billy Bragg said on Facebook:
We have to be careful not to mirror [Daesh’s] warped logic by declaring that all Muslims are enemies of the state. To do so would be to play into the hands of those who sent the murderers onto the streets of Paris. Jason Burke, writing in today’s Observer, points out that one of the main aims of ISIS is to polarise society. He quotes writings in which they state their wish to “eliminate the ‘grey zone’ between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned.” … As the National Front begins to exploit the Paris attacks to gain votes in France, we must all be very careful not to divide our communities into those who are with us and those who are against us. ISIS wants to poison our society. If we hope to defeat the terrorists, we must also be vigilant against those who would help them achieve their aim.
So we have to continue helping the refugees, because they are human beings who are desperate and afraid and who are fleeing the same terror that struck at Paris, and we have to stand up against those who would turn them away on all sorts of spurious grounds but particularly now because they might be terrorists.
Kate Norlock wrote on the feministphilosophers blog:
Note the immediate interest on the part of some powerful actors to close borders and prevent refugees from moving, and consider helping those refugees. France’s leaders are already stating their intention to respond to these attacks. I’m no politician and I don’t know what nations should do, but I know that some refugees are in Europe now because they were trying to flee deadly attacks like those in Paris. Don’t let tonight be a night that hardens hearts against refugees. Let tonight be a reason to reach out.
We have to refuse to be bystanders when anyone – on social media, on the street, in the workplace – demonises or harasses Muslims or those who look as if they might be Muslims. We have to have conversations across the various divides of age, ethnic background, religion, politics – find out what other people think, share what we think, find the common ground. We have to counter and debunk the lies that are routinely told about refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and the propaganda that xenophobic political movements such as the Front National, EDL/Britain First etc. and their equivalents across Europe will make of the Paris atrocities.
None of this will stop Daesh. I’m not sure what will. How do you stop someone with an explosive belt and a Kalashnikov, who cares nothing for the lives of the people they will mow down, and nothing for their own life, indeed who is ‘seeking to be killed’ in order to gain martyrdom? Perhaps we cannot afford to be pacifists in any absolute sense. These are the moral quandaries that face us and perplex us, and we cannot take refuge in absolutes, because absolutes are a huge part of the problem.
We’re all looking for a ‘magic bullet’ to use against this big bad. There may be political and/or military solutions (just as likely, I’m afraid, there will be political and/or military reactions that will hurt Daesh’s victims more than they hurt Daesh itself).
For myself, what I want to do most of all is to fight – not with Kalashnikovs but with words and the way I live my life – for the grey zone.
Because the last thing the grey zone is, is grey. It’s every colour under the sun. And it’s beautiful.
Enjoy your life.
Make it count.
And don’t let the murderers win.
PS I am aware that the term ‘grey zone’ was used by Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved to describe a territory of moral ambiguity, or the suspension of morality, specific to the world of the concentration camps. My use of the term in this piece is based solely on its appropriation by Isis as described above.
When I did my annual Refugee Week blog blitz back in June, I could not have imagined that by September every day’s news, my Facebook and Twitter feeds and email inbox would be about the ‘crisis’ of refugees in Europe. That every day there would be images that would sear their way into my soul – a mother trying to hold her baby’s head above water, a father weeping as he holds his children, and above all, a child lying in the surf, almost as if he’s just sleeping. That every day there would be headlines that both evoke and challenge the dark history of Europe – trains packed with desperate refugees arriving in Germany and Austria, to be met with welcome signs and stacks of donated supplies, football fans proclaiming that refugees are welcome, Czech police inking numbers on children’s arms, Hungarian police pushing a desperate woman with a child on the railway tracks in Budapest.
We keep hearing that there’s a crisis. Sure. But the crisis is what these people encountered in Syria, Eritrea or any of the other hellholes they are trying to escape. The crisis is what drove them to risk everything to get away, to try to find somewhere safe where they could establish some kind of life. The crisis is what led them to pack their few belongings and hand over their cash to the crooks who loaded them onto unsafe boats and into the seas to perish.
They are the ones who are in crisis. Not us.
We’re in disarray, which is somewhat different. A coordinated, compassionate European approach could get the immediate needs met – a combination of government action and grassroots support – and start to plan for the longer term.
And what’s kicking off now, all across Europe, is at least in part, because of Aylan Kurdi. Because even for those of us who already cared and campaigned and donated, that photo was the moment when we moved up a gear, or several. I wrote this, for Refugee Week 2012:
‘It would be terribly easy to despair. But the other side of the picture is, as it always has been, the story of generosity and hospitality, of people giving a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, of the marginalised and spectralised finding a place in a community and people to listen to their stories.’
OK, if you read below the line on any newspaper report (and I wouldn’t recommend that you do), there’s the usual outpouring of bile and misinformation. But meanwhile, many many people are getting involved, because they see not threatening feral hordes but distraught parents, frightened kids, human beings. The Daily Mail’s attempt earlier this summer to generate outrage about Brits having their summer hols spoiled by proximity to the feral hordes backfired rather when some of those Brits spent their summer hols helping rather than cowering in their apartments or threatening to sue the travel agents. As a manager at Munich station said, “It seems the more they [other rail travellers and employees] have contact with them, the more empathy they have’. And just as public opinion shifted against the Vietnam war when we saw Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked, her clothes having been burned with napalm, from her village, the picture of Aylan Kurdi lying on the beach has shifted the public mood.
Back in 1939 Norman Angell and Dorothy Frances Buxton published a Penguin Special on that era’s refugee crisis.
‘There are some of the saddest scenes in the world from which we British people are forever spared, and of which the keenest imagination among us could hardly form an adequate picture. … In the darkness of night, or in the grey of dawn, desperate men and women, sometimes even dragging along a pitiful child, make a dash to get through that double line [of armed police] and risk the rifle shot. Some of them, like human tennis balls, are driven backwards and forwards, time after time, across the frontier.’
‘’There is a case, probably typical of many others, of a devoted father who succeeded in raking together 1500 francs and the price demanded by an English captain for the service of landing this refugee’s son (illegally) in England. The father saw his son embark; but he never heard of him again. Many and awful risks attend such illicit methods. The reader will hardly need to ask why human beings are driven to such desperate adventures.
The main difference today is that we can see these scenes unfolding, in real time, and we can look into the eyes of these desperate men and women hundreds of miles away, and recognise ourselves. And we can look at the small boy on the beach and, even as our hearts break, resolve to make things change.
A powerful and moving piece about the refugee crisis from That’s How the Light Gets In.
This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings.
The initial response to the Nazi takeover in 1933 was a substantial wave of Jewish emigration, much of it to neighbouring European countries. But in 1938, after an increase in personal assaults on Jews during the spring and summer, the nationwide Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’) pogrom in…
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I hadn’t heard of Anja Reschke until a few days ago. She’s a German newsreader who, in the midst of the “migrant crisis” in Calais, used her slot on prime time evening television recently to brilliantly express her anger at the “little racist nobodies” who continue to attack refugees and asylum seekers, adding that “there is a mind boggling number of people that are doing lots for refugees, who are not racist, and I think it’s their voice that should be dominant rather than a handful of simpletons who think they should stir up hatred”. If only we could look forward to a similar tirade from the likes of Sophie Raworth or Huw Edwards. I’m not holding my breath though.
Sadly, the British television coverage of Calais has been altogether more mundane and predictable. The other night I watched James Brokenshire, the Minister of State for Security and Immigration, being…
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(adapted from a paper given at ‘There & Back Again’, a postgraduate conference at the University of Nottingham, organised by the Landscape, Space, Place Research Group. The title is taken from Iain Hacking’s fascinating study of the fugueur phenomenon)
The idea of wandering, of travelling without constraints, without a humdrum practical purpose, is perennially appealing to most of us, even if, for most of us, the drawbacks come to mind pretty speedily if we start to entertain the notion. Some do it anyway – seize the moment when the obstacles are not insuperable – but generally it’s something to enjoy vicariously, or to indulge in short bursts, taking time out of a holiday schedule to just have a stroll around foreign streets.
Throughout myth and literature there are many wanderers who cross seas, continents and centuries. For some it’s a pastime, a means of avoiding commitments or encumbrance:
I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around
I’m never in one place, I roam from town to town
And when I find myself fallin’ for some girl
I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world (Dion, The Wanderer, 1961)
Everyday in the week I’m in a different city
If I stay too long people try to pull me down
Hendrix suggests that the prejudices of the cities in which he finds himself push him to leave, as well as, like Dion, that if he does sometimes feel his heart ‘kinda gettin’ hot’ for some woman, he moves on before he gets caught. For some, wandering is a subversive practice (not using the city streets in the prescribed way), for others it’s a compulsion, even a curse.
The flâneur is one of those archetypal wanderers. This classic definition is by Baudelaire, writing in 1863 in his ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’.
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.
He is a perfect stroller, a passionate spectator, an erudite wanderer. He walks the streets, probably alone, with no map or itinerary, with the confidence that comes from being male, well-educated and wealthy. His milieu is the city, and quintessentially Paris. One might think that the boulevards and arcades of Haussmann’s Paris lent themselves to strolling so much better than the labyrinthine streets of the old city, but it was that old city that defined the flâneur, allowing (in Edmund White’s words) ‘a passive surrender to the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets’.
The flâneur is a prototype detective, his apparent indolence masking intense watchfulness. This recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (which was translated by Baudelaire), in which a man recovering from illness sits in a London coffee shop, watching the passers-by, and engaging in Holmesian deductions about their occupation and character. His attention is drawn by an old man who he is unable to read, and he feels compelled by insatiable curiosity to follow him, for a night and a day, as the man moves unceasingly through the city: he is the man of the crowd – not only hiding within it, but unable to exist outside it.
Walter Benjamin in his 1935 study of Baudelaire suggests that Baudelaire identifies the old man as a flâneur. This must be a misreading on Benjamin’s part, since the old man is as manic as the flâneur is composed. The flâneur may ‘set up house’ in the heart of the crowd, becoming part of ‘the ebb and flow of movement’, but he remains separate, above the mass. He is, like Baudelaire and Benjamin, at the same time engaged with and alienated by the city.
Poe’s story does give us a flâneur, however, in the person of the narrator, who can and does choose to abandon his pursuit, stepping aside to resume his life, and a different kind of wanderer, in the person of the man of the crowd. Steven Fink argues persuasively that the man of the crowd is the mythological figure of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander endlessly as punishment for a terrible crime. (He has a number of counterparts, including, amongst others, Cain, the Flying Dutchman, and the Ancient Mariner.) Certainly this description by Benjamin’s contemporary, Siegfried Krakauer, is remarkably close to Poe’s description of the old man:
‘there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of bloodthirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense – of supreme despair … How wild a history … is written within that bosom!’. (Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’)
Imagine [his face] to be many faces, each reflecting one of the periods which he traversed and all of them combining into ever new patterns as he restlessly and vainly tries on his wanderings to reconstruct out of the times that shaped him the one time he is doomed to incarnate. It is a terrible face, ‘assembled from the many faces of the dead’. (Siegfried Krakauer – History, the Last Things Before the Last (OUP, 1969))
If the man of the crowd is no flâneur, he does bear a stronger resemblance to the fugueur, a lesser-known (and shorter-lived) phenomenon which emerged in the 1880s. Bordeaux medical student Philippe Tissié and neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris documented a number of cases of men undertaking strange and unexpected trips, in states of obscured consciousness. They were subject to hallucinations, and often dominated by ideas of persecution. Their conduct during the episode appeared normal, but they were unconscious of what they were doing, and had no memory of it afterwards – in a state of dissociative fugue. A fugue state is defined as involving selective memory loss, the inability to recall specific – perhaps traumatic – events. This may be accompanied by wandering and travelling, in an attempt to recover memory/identity, or perhaps in a flight from it – the etymological paradox of flight/pursuit.
The fugueur is quite distinct from the flâneur whose journeying is deliberately aimless and random, an end in itself. His itinerary may defy linear logic but nonetheless is purposeful, even if that purpose can be discovered only retrospectively. The flâneur, in his fine clothes, walked the streets as if he owned them because, wealthy and well-educated, he could. The fugueur, in his state of obscured consciousness, was likely to be mistaken, instead, for a vagrant. Albert Dadas, ‘patient zero’ in the mini-epidemic of ‘mad travelling’, was repeatedly arrested for vagabondage. The fugueurs were generally of more modest means than the flâneurs – tradesmen, craftsmen or clerks – and their travels took them much further afield. If someone spoke of a city or a country Albert was seized by the need to go there, and did so, often then finding himself in difficulties due to lack of funds.
One of Charcot’s patients was a young Hungarian Jew named Klein, who was ‘constantly driven by an irresistible need to change his surroundings, to travel, without being able to settle down anywhere’. This particular patient prompted a link with the then prevailing view that Jews were more prone than other races to various forms of neurasthenia and that this particular manifestation was ‘in the character of their race’. Thus the Wandering Jew was, according to Henri Meige’s thesis, ‘only a sort of prototype of neurotic Israelites journeying throughout the world’. Even at the time it was pointed out, fairly acerbically, that if the Jews had a tendency to move from place to place, this was in generally externally rather than internally driven, as persecution and prejudice made it necessary to leave one home in search of another.
Charcot’s diagnosis, and his use of the term ‘hystero-epilepsy’ in particular, fell out of favour, largely due to the failure to identify a common cause that would account for a collection of rather disparate individual cases. In the twentieth century the two types of wanderer seem often to merge, as trauma and exile create a more melancholy and more driven wanderer. One can trace a line from Baudelaire’s flâneur to the Surrealists, via Walter Benjamin’s description of flânerie as a dream state in which ‘The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker [: it] conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history’, to Guy Debord’s dérive as subversive practice, and on to today’s psychogeographers. Rather than being a disaffected and detached observer, the flâneur in the late 20th and 21st century may be in flight from memory, from identity, at home nowhere, an exile who feels no connection, or only a highly problematic one, to homeland or origins.
Michel Butor’s 1956 novel, L’Emploi du temps is set in a northern English industrial city, called Bleston but clearly inspired by Manchester, where Butor had worked a few years earlier. It takes the form of a diary kept by his protagonist, Jacques Revel, in the city for a one-year placement. We know nothing of Revel’s life before his arrival in Bleston, or of what he will do after he leaves. He speaks of his year there as a prison sentence – he is unable to leave the city during that period, and compelled to leave it on a specific date. He is certainly not at home in Bleston, but he seems entirely rootless, without any connection elsewhere. In his restless wanderings through the streets, he seems to be searching – mostly fruitlessly – for lodgings, for someone whose name he does not know who he met on an earlier walk, for the elusive countryside. But ultimately his quest is to master the city by walking its streets, grasping the reality which seems to be changing around him as he walks – it is a phantasmagorical city, whose heavily polluted atmosphere creates a narcotic dream-like state, distorting his perceptions and leaving him disorientated.
Butor’s novel had a significant influence on W G Sebald, who came to Manchester about 15 years later. Sebald read L’Emploi du temps when he first arrived, and it inspired a poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, as well as having a wider impact on his work.
In Sebald’s novels, the narrator (who may or may not be, to some extent, Sebald) invariably begins by describing a journey. He is precise about when, and where, although the layering of timeframes and locations means that we can lose these certainties as the narrative progresses, but frequently the ‘why’ is obscure, not just to the reader but to the narrator himself. The narrator and the various protagonists are rarely, if ever, ‘at home’. They are often in transit or in provisional, interim spaces such as waiting rooms, railway stations, and transport cafes. Their journeys often induce episodes of near paralysis, physical or mental, and they end inconclusively, often with a sense that the quest will continue after the final page.
But if the Sebaldian narrator is a contemporary example of the melancholy flâneur, Jacques Austerlitz connects us directly with the fugueur, and with wandering as a response to trauma and loss. As a child, Austerlitz arrived in England on the Kindertransport, where his foster parents gave him a new life, and a new name, telling him nothing of his past, or the fate of his parents, until, as a sixth former, he learns that he is not Dafydd Elias.
For many years he avoids any topic or image which might shed light on or raise questions about his origins. But, increasingly isolated, and with his life ‘clouded by unrelieved despair’, tormented by insomnia, he undertakes nocturnal wanderings through London, alone, outwards into the suburbs, and then back at dawn with the commuters into the city. These excursions begin to trigger hallucinations, visions from the past, for example, the impression that ‘the noises of the city were dying down around me and the traffic was flowing silently down the street, or as if someone had plucked me by the sleeve. And I would hear people behind my back speaking in a foreign tongue …’. He is irresistibly drawn to Liverpool Street Station, a place full of ghosts, built as it is on the remains of Bedlam hospital, and, in the disused Ladies’ Waiting Room, encounters the ghosts of his foster parents and the small boy he once was.
Thus his obsessive wanderings appear to have had a sub-conscious purpose, taking him back to the point of rupture between one life and another. He embarks upon a new phase of wandering, driven by the need to find his home and his parents. Overhearing a radio documentary about the Kindertransport, and the reference to a ship named The Prague, like Albert Dadas, the original fugueur: ‘the mere mention of the city’s name in the present context was enough to convince me that I would have to go there’.
Austerlitz’s quest remains incomplete at the end of the novel. In the course of his wanderings he has, he believes, discovered his former home in Prague and traced his mother to Teresienstadt and his father to the Gurs concentration camp in France in 1942. Beyond that he knows only that his mother ‘was sent east’ in 1944. He does not know where, when, or even whether they died.
His quest, and his confrontation with the losses that defined his life, leads to ‘several fainting fits … temporary but complete loss of memory, a condition described in psychiatric textbooks … as hysterical epilepsy’. He is taken, significantly, to the Salpêtrière, where Charcot established this diagnosis almost a century earlier. This diagnosis would only be included in psychiatric textbooks as a historical footnote – an example of Sebald’s dense or layered time – we know precisely where we are, but the ‘when’ is not so straightforward.
Thus we’ve come full circle. And I want to make another tentative, perhaps fanciful connection. Sebald invites us to make all sorts of links with the name Austerlitz – the battle, the Parisian railway station, even Fred Astaire. And there’s always the echo of another name, the likely final destination of both of his parents, unspoken here except in a reference to the Auschowitz Springs near Marienbad. One more then – Ahasuerus, the name often given to the mythological Wandering Jew.
Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur – ‘être hors de chez soi, et pourtant se sentir partout chez soi (away from home and yet at home everywhere)’ has echoed through the twentieth century and into our own, accumulating more and more melancholy baggage. That this phrase has darker undertones than Baudelaire will have intended is brought home by a speech made by Hitler in 1933, in which he described the Jewish people, the ‘small, rootless international clique’, as ‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere’.
In our time then, rather than someone at ease wherever he finds himself, we are likely to think of the refugee and the exile, adapting without putting down roots, unable to return but unable fully to belong, always sub-consciously ready to move on or even keeping a bag permanently packed, just in case. For the original flâneur this characteristic was an affectation, a chosen detachment and rootlessness. For the fugueur, driven by trauma or crisis of identity, it is a curse, to have to wander, and never to find answers, or find home.
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