“When you’re rooted in yourself, you feel settled wherever you go. I guess to feel good we need to find places to adapt to. Except once we’ve adapted we need to move on, to find a new place to adapt to. But once you’ve adapted to several different places, you no longer have one place where you belong. That’s when the place where you belong becomes the space between those two different places. Moving around and seeing new places — that’s my natural habitat. The truth is I’m a nomad.” So speaks Roberto, train steward on the high-speed Talgo.
Modern society is becoming increasingly rootless and uniformist, as the forces of globalLaia Fàbregas capitalism, increased migration and social pluralism influence work, lifestyle and beliefs. Economic migration is spurring rapid social change, leading to ambiguity about identity, sense of place in the world and a cultural dissonance. As governments lose touch with their citizens, they ignore to their peril how groups that are ignored, or ostracised, become desperate, rebellious and take direct action. Humans need to belong to a social group, to be heard, make sense of their identity, and develop a sense of belonging — a sense of purpose. In a shifting world, no wonder social networking on the internet is so huge.
Landing is a thought-provoking, cleverly-constructed, philosophical novel by Laia Fàbregas; a Catalan writing in Dutch.
A young woman chats to the elderly man sitting next to her on a flight from Barcelona to Amsterdam. She falls asleep. He dies during landing. She disembarks and takes with her the wooden box on the seat next to him. So begins a double narrative, the central characters’ parallel lives weaving together like a figure of eight. Both experience in common isolation, and a reservoir of sadness from past trauma.
Those who leave their native homeland to make a fresh start in a new country are risk-takers, survivors and entrepreneurs. Señor Salgado is one of ninety farm hands who migrates north, in 1963, to work in the Philips factory near Eindhoven. “We needed work as badly as we needed our daily bread, and in our unheated homes in Extremadura we were unfazed by the idea of meters of snow and frozen lakes. We weren’t fazed at all, mostly because we had never seen such things, and we couldn’t even imagine such cold. We would get to Holland, sooner or later.”
He learns Dutch with painstaking difficulty, and it pays off. When he meets Willemien, his teacher’s girlfriend, the attraction is instantaneous. “I wanted to get the girl for once, despite the fact that someone else had found her first.”
Emigrants leave home to live in a host country, and exist in an in-between space.They are generally considered as second-rate citizens. Someren had been “invaded” by Spanish guest-workers. Willemien’s parents are not happy about her choice of fiancé. “All the families with young ladies had been on tenterhooks. Mothers rushed to find eligible Dutch candidates before their daughters showed up at home with Spaniards, and parents made disapproving faces when stories of the first romances reached their ears.”
Salgado and Willemien marry nevertheless, and have three children. The first, Arjen, “grew up in a street along with boys from Extremadura and Andalucia, and attended school with pale, blond boys. Soon he was speaking perfect Dutch and Spanish.” Ten years of family happiness, and for her, success as an artist, are marred by sudden and inexplicable aches and pains. Willemien loses her zest for life as exhaustion sets in. The family moves to Dali’s home town, Figueres, where the climate is gentler. But husband and wife are not destined to live together right through old age.
The young woman on the aeroplane had been orphaned at the age of eight, when her parents veered off the road and crashed into a tree. For years, she searched for “the angel” who saved her life, pulling her out of the burning car before it exploded. Brought up by Anneke, her mother’s sister, she has no sense of family and feels alien — “Other”.
She and her aunt had returned to the town where the accident happened four years later, and the police gave her a list of 100 names one of which, she hoped, would be that of her saviour. “I was almost halfway through my list, and after investigating forty-six names, calling and visiting over eighty people, I couldn’t imagine discarding one of these names without at least speaking to them. I thought about the conversations I’d had that morning. I noticed a kind of leitmotiv of dismay. I realized how thin the line between a normal conversation and the memory of a disaster was.” When she visits journalist and blogger Lianne Pérez-Horst, an offer to go public via an interview is made. The end result is like “a movie, not my own life.” Of course, the young woman is really in search of herself.
Her friend, Ana Mei Balau, invents words for several European linguistic organizations. “When I come across an untranslatable word, like gezellig, I study its symbolism and etymology. That helps me to determine the essence of the word. And that knowledge helps me invent an equivalent in the languages that don’t have it . . . I receive a royalty every time that word is used in print for the first few years it’s in circulation.”
This linguistic work will help solve the riddle of the wooden box which Salgado wanted to give to his sons. It had belonged to Willemien. “I believe works of art aren’t meant to be understood, they’re meant to be felt. And since our minds are always trying to understand things, we need a work of art that can’t be understood at all. Something you can only feel.”
Ultimately, Salgado is a 21st century everyman: “I’m a nomad, too . . . I don’t have roots anywhere in the world, but at the same time I have roots everywhere. Part of me is in Extremadura, part of me is in Holland, and part of me is in Cataluña.”
Emigrant literature is an increasingly important offshoot of contemporary literature. There are plenty of voices from America, and many in the UK, enriching our culture. But what of the European mainland? The voices of emigrants are heard more now, thanks to a new generation of independent publishers, and gifted translators like Samantha Schnee, whose fresh and nuanced translation of Landing is a joy to read.
The translator, like the travel writer, shapes the perspective one culture has of another, as a nomad brings us news from faraway places. S/he opens a window onto different worlds.
The publication and promotion of translated fiction in post-Brexit Britain is ever more crucial. Writers like Juan Goytisolo, Tahar ben Jelloun, Tonino Benacquista, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, Mauro Covacich, Kader Abdolah, Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov . . . are already available to English readers. But we want more!
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