Whilst on holiday in Croatia this year (my new favourite European destination), I finished Kate Atkinson’s “Life after Life”. I have read a number of Atkinson’s novels and her style can be haunting with a strange mixture of direct realism and dream-like fantasy. This is a great, sweeping novel about the first half of the last century and is concerned with the “what ifs” of personal and political history. There are a number of issues which could be explored for the purposes of this blog. However, because it takes in its sweep the horrors of two world wars, it is hard to ignore the role of travel, how choices are constrained or enforced in relation to travel not only because of conflict but also because of gender, class, occupation, personal drive, social and political circumstances, ethnicity and religion. Whilst travel might bring with it a repertoire for some of freedom, vacation and the care-free, it is apparent in reading this novel, that for others it is closely linked to surveillance, coercion and control.
Travel in the Novel
Within this novel, there is a range of travel “options”. Perhaps most striking in terms of the drama of the novel is Ursula and Frieda’s trip to the Berg in the presence of Eva Braun and the Fuhrer. This is followed by the declaration of war with Britain and their inability to leave Germany. But the novel also documents and refers to: the movement into a concentration camp of a German, Jewish professor; the internment of foreign nationals in the UK; the displacement of British and German civilians through bombing campaigns; evacuees and the move from city to country; the movements of soldiers across both wars; migration to the US after the war and Ursula’s curtailed “grand tour of Europe”. But it is a statement by Ursula (page 346 – 7) about refugees that struck a particular chord:
Ursula wanted her refugees to be soulful and romantic – fleeing for their cultural lives – rather than the abused wives of insurance clerks, which was ridiculously unfair of her.
Portrayals of the Migrant
And it is unfair isn’t it? There is of course courage inherent in the act of uprooting and moving country. As Debra Hayes (2004: 12) says:
All migration is courageous. Whether through coercion, persecution, war or indeed poverty, the past and present movement of people around the globe is littered with scores of painful stories, many too awful to recount.
So, it could be argued that Ursula’s disappointment is simply a reflection of the high-standing in which she holds refugees – a world away from the usual portrayal of the refugee in the current climate. This is backed up with research from Miranda Lewis (2005) which found that the language used about asylum seekers has become increasingly harsh. Although other forms of racism are becoming socially as well as legally unacceptable, there is “no social sanction against expressing extremely prejudiced and racist views about asylum seekers” (Lewis, 2005: 44 – 5). Lewis found that many people use the term “asylum seeker” to describe groups of black British citizens who have behaved in ways they have found unacceptable. Hostility towards asylum seekers thus has had a wider impact in legitimising the expression of racist attitudes. Just as immigration is now more diversified, racist responses and practices have become more diversified and codified. This reached a new low when even governments feel it is o.k. to use far-right, anti-immigration slogans as in the now notorious “racist van campaign”.
However, a stereotype, even a positive one like Ursula’s, is a part of a categorisation process which it could be argued produces an accentuation effect, highlighting the differences between those in need and the general population (Tajfel and Turner, 1986). This is a stereotype that leaves the poor, abused Mrs Appleyard out in the cold.
The quote is also suggestive that the romantic fleeing for the preservation of a cultural life threatened by a heartless state is somehow more important or significant than the need or ability to flee the abuse of a spouse. It marks the boundary between the personal and the political in the role of the refugee still being debated today (For example in this New York Times Article http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/30/us/victim-of-domestic-violence-in-guatemala-is-ruled-eligible-for-asylum-in-us.html?_r=0 ).
But Ursula knows her opinion is unfair and simplifies the complex reality of another person’s life. This self-awareness demonstrates that sometimes despite our knowledge and experience of the world we don’t always apply our learning to others. Social justice is not just about collective action but is also hard, personal work.
Finally, the irony that I read the novel in Croatia does not pass me by. I am aware that it is a country forged out of civil war, post-communism, occupation and particular notions of nationhood and belonging. Croatia’s history means that despite its beautiful rocky coastline, it has not always been a suitable destination for the traveller. Atkinson’s novel reminds us that travel is about a set of strict but changing conditions. This is not the only social lesson it covers. I could have used the novel to explore family, gender, class, food or even the role of a family dog in well-being. But for now, I will just say this is a good read and would love to know what other readers have made of it.
Atkinson, K. (2013) Life after Life London: Transworld Publishers
Hayes, D. (2004) “History and Context: The Impact of Immigration Control” in Hayes, D. and Humphries, B. (eds.) Social Work, Immigration and Asylum London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Lewis, M. (2005) Asylum: Understanding Public Attitudes London: IPPR
Tajfel, H and Turner, J. C. (1986) “The social identity theory of inter-group behaviour” in Worchel, S. and Austin, W. G. (eds.) The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations Chicago: Nelson Hall