Book Review: You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me, by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is the latest release in Peirene Press’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Based on the author’s childhood, it is told from the point of view of a young girl whose parents have fled East Germany for the West with their daughter just before the building of the Berlin Wall. The adults embrace the materialism of imported American culture, buying goods on credit in an attempt to emulate remembered wealth from their pre-war years. The child considers her parents’ conversations proof that their lives were so much better before she was born, and perceives a correlation.

The story opens on the girl’s seventh birthday. She understands that, once again, she will not be receiving the kitten she has longed for since they left the refugee camp for the assigned two bedroom flat where they now live. Her parents do not listen, believing they know best what is good for her. In her view, since moving to the West, they have done what they can to remove every source of her happiness.

Back in the East her grandmother would care for her while her mother was at work. She remembers: the large house and garden, the fun of visiting uncles, delicious food. Now she subsists on the bland offerings her mother cooks, denied even water when thirsty as her mother believes it will give her worms. Any friends the child makes are derided as beneath her family’s social standing. She is banned from visiting adults whose company she enjoyed at the camp after her mother questions their morals.

The mother is determined that her family will climb the ladder of social success. Her much younger husband struggles to contain his anger at the hand life has dealt him. The girl is frightened of her father and with good cause. She longs for someone wise to talk to, someone such as the fun and friendly doctor who arranges treatment for her injuries.

Children have no choice but to accept the decisions made for them by their parents. Remembering her earlier life, the child does not understand why they became refugees and why adults lie about so much when questions are asked. In viewing life through her eyes the reader is shown how ridiculous many aspects of adult behaviours can be and how futile their often hollow aspirations. Children see through the social blather and observe more than they are given credit for.

The ridiculousness of the mother’s desires add much humour. She hankers after possessions and experiences that, when grasped, will always fall short. Likewise she longs for an ideal daughter, one who is quiet and pretty and does not scuff her shoes or cause damage in the home. The child knows that she is a constant source of disappointment and must find a way to live with the hurt this causes.

“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart.”

Instead of a kitten the child is given a globe along with presents from people who have shown her kindness in the past. From these gifts she concocts a means to get through the moments of strife she faces at school and at home. Despite her parents’ inability to listen, she finds her voice. It gives her hope that she can navigate her way to a better future.

The nuance and wit in the writing raises this astute tale of childhood hurt to a level both haunting and sanguine. The treatment of children, seen through the eyes of a child, is a reminder that parents are fallible and, too often, selfish in their motives. The refugee element adds a layer of poignancy. Subtle and compact, this is a deftly affecting yet entertaining tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Shatila Stories

“Spare us your good intentions,
your quiet pity,
Instead, look up and raise your
fist at the sky.”

Shatila Stories is a  work of collaborative fiction commissioned by Peirene Press. In 2017 nine Syrian and Palestinian refugees took part in a 3 day creative writing workshop held inside the Shatila camp in Beirut. Run by Meike Ziervogel from Peirene and London based Syrian editor Suhir Helal, quite a few of the writers pre-selected for the workshop had never before read a novel.

Shatila camp was founded in 1949 for 3,000 Palestinians. It now houses up to 40,000 refugees. It is chaotic and dangerous with inadequate infrastructure and overcrowding. It is governed by various opposing Palestinian groups.

Following the workshop participants were asked to deliver a 4000-word typed draft within six weeks, works of fiction that could be brought together into one cohesive story to bring Shatila alive on the page. A few months later Meike and Suhir returned to the camp to work with each writer to draw out their strengths.

Afterwards Naswa Gowanlock translated everything into English. Meike and Suhir worked alongside to combine the material into a coherant narrative. The result, this book, is a novel written in an authentic refugee voice.

“Don’t talk about the camp unless you know it.”

The story opens with an arrival. A family has been promised accommodation at Shatila Camp by a family member. They pass through a border where thousands are waiting ‘with desperate eyes’, travelling from Damascus to Beirut.

The reader is introduced to key characters, individual tales told from each of their points of view.

Reham is a new bride eager to make a good life with the husband her parents have chosen for her. The couple hope for a child but find a wedge driven between them when their attitudes differ following the birth.

Youssef is the drug lord of the camp, powerful and feared.

Jafra plays with her doll while longing for a new dress, unaware of the steps her parents will be forced to take in an attempt to keep her safe.

Adam stays in his room to avoid the camp bullies until he meets a fellow musician and finds an escape in music. His new friend will rekindle his ambition until tragedy strikes.

Shatha dreams of escape through her studies but is torn between this and her love for her ill father. He believes those who leave the camp are cowards, traitors to the Palestinian cause.

Within these narratives are the limits of culture, particularly affecting the women, and the effects of camp dangers, including a dearth of hope.

Despite the wider reasons for the refugee situation these stories mostly avoid politics. The tales are of family and everyday life. The occasional lack of fluidity in the writing is more than made up for in the power of the voices. What the reader comes away with is better understanding.

An ambitious project that provides a raw and uncompromising portrayal of a radically displaced and closed community. This is a captivating and timely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), is a somewhat fragmented story involving metaphors that often slip into the surreal. It tells of a family of Albanians living in Kosovo who move to Finland when the increasing conflict threatens their safety. As refugees they are caught between their old culture and that of the country that has taken them in. What is regarded as respect by the older generation is clearly abuse by the Western European standards in which the children are now raised.

The story opens with an on line hookup between two men, both described as superficially handsome. One wishes to see the other again but is rejected. Thus we discover the problem Bekim has with trust, his fear of settling into a loving relationship and then being hurt. Instead of men he decides to share his life with a snake, the boa constrictor he purchases allowed to roam free in his apartment rather than being confined to its terrarium. His next relationship, which starts in a gay bar, is with a talking cat that wears clothes and has hateful views on homosexuals and immigrants. The snake and cat metaphors are used in subsequent encounters with Bekim’s wider family.

Born in Kosovo, Bekim moved to Finland with his parents and siblings when just a few years old. He was viciously bullied at school for being poor and a refugee. He learned to dread the question, “Where do you come from?” and the judgement that followed. As soon as he was old enough he cut off contact with his parents, ostensibly to further his education. He hated how they treated him, their desire that he behave as would have been expected in their homeland.

Although Bekim’s personal demons are represented by creatures, the second plot line unfolds more clearly. This takes the reader back to 1980 when Bekim’s mother, Emine, first meets the young man she is to marry. Although still at school she has been raised to be a good, Kosovan wife and is happy with the prospect of living with the handsome Bajram. Unlike her parents, he is from a wealthy family. He promises to treat her well.

Preparations for the wedding are described in detail, involving days of prescribed, public ritual where true feelings must be hidden. When Bajram and Emine are finally allowed to be alone together she discovers that he is brutal and demanding. Kosovan men are raised to believe that within their homes they are as gods. The women must acquiesce and serve them quietly, never complaining however disdainfully they are treated.

When the family flee to Finland they live first in a refugee centre and then in a cramped apartment. Although Bajram eventually finds work this does not last as he refuses to accept the concepts of equality and multiculturalism. He mixes with other immigrants and refugees, expecting his family to continue to treat him as the most important member of their household.

“He blindly believed in his own world.”

“People’s attitudes and values seemed to have remained unchanged from the time when they left the country, and they were preserved in tight-knit communities in overcrowded European apartment buildings in disreputable parts of town”

When Kosovo enters a fragile peace, the family become immigrants rather than refugees. The Finnish people’s resentments at their continued presence perpetuates divisions. Bajram feels no gratitude for the home he has been given. He feels justified in taking what he can by whatever means.

Emine does her best to put up with Bajram’s behaviour but understands better than he how their children are torn between the culture of Kosovo and that of Finland.

“How could he possibly have thought that his children would work, pay taxes, then return to him and help make his dreams come true instead of their own?”

Emine, Bajram and Bekim each struggle to find ways to exist having been displaced from everything they were raised to be. They are not the people they once were, but neither do they fit easily into the expectations of their adopted country.

It is always interesting to learn of different cultures, however shocking their accepted behaviours appear to a Western European reader. I was surprised by the attitudes of the refugees and immigrants portrayed as, like the Finnish people, I expected more gratitude. Perhaps I would understand better had I experienced the openly hostile reception they suffered. From that point of view this was a thought-provoking read. As a story though I found the more surreal scenes unclear.

This tale evokes less rapport than I am comfortable with for the characters portrayed due to their reluctant assimilation and demands made of their children. An unusual but not entirely satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.