No Direction Home // Nostalgia in Exile

The consul banged on the table and said;
‘If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’.
— - W H. Auden, “Refugee Blues”


The 20th century was the age of signs and yearning. The culmination of political coercion and ignorance saw millions become immigrants. Among them were some of the greatest European writers. Yet it was also a century of constant change, emancipation, division and... reunion.

My peers (mid-20s) might no longer be able to experience the kind of nostalgia for a home they can’t return to, the way people in the past did. The most remarkable individuals of the 20th century portrayed a romanticised image of longing for the past, even if in full awareness of the century’s lost utopia. Today, what my generation is longing for most may be longing itself.

Nostalgia changes along with the cultural and political context. It travels light, it travels dark; in Eastern Europe it takes a different shape than in the West. It evolves through history, adopting additional meanings.

Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Source image: still from  Le Ballon Rouge , 1956. Directed by Albert Lamorisse.

Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Source image: still from Le Ballon Rouge, 1956. Directed by Albert Lamorisse.

Stefan Zweig: Remembering the world of yesterday

Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer who settled in exile in the subtropical city of Petropolis, in Brazil, bade farewell to Europe in a way no one before him had done. In his memoir "The world of yesterday. Memories of a European" he deals honestly and intelligently with Europe under the nazi regime. His writing is not a cynical act of revenge by a stateless man - it is an account of the persecution he and other intellectuals faced as they tried to preserve and record the collective memory of a people.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Zweig was forced to leave occupied Austria during the rise of Hitler’s anti-semitism. He was passing through England on his way to the US when he lost his passport and found himself stranded at the British Foreign office:

“On the day I lost my passport I discovered, at the age of fifty-eight, that losing one’s native land implies more than parting with a circumscribed area of soil,”

Zweig writes in the conclusion to his book. Instead of a passport, he received an emergency piece of white paper. The paper, initially intended as a temporary solution for him to leave the continent, would become an inherent feature of his life abroad. In the following year, he crossed the Atlantic, and lived for less than an year in US, until at last settling in Pétropolis, a mountainous region north of Rio de Janeiro, which provided shelter to many Germans and Austrians at the time.

Zweig didn’t outlive totalitarian nationalism in Austria, nor did he witness even the earliest attempts towards the Pan-European society that he battled for during his lifetime. He committed suicide at the age of 60, in a silent pact with his second wife, Lotte Zweig. In “Beware of pity”, written in London, the author mourns the cultural demise under Hitler’s occupation. His belief in an ideology based on what connects us, rather than what tears us apart, crystallizes all the more. He left behind an intimate depiction of the old continent at the summit of political greed and ignorance. His painful longing for a wiser and more logical Europe wells up from the pages.

There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind (...) that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one at counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.
— Stefan Zweig, “Beware of pity”, 1939
Stefan Zweig on a bus in New York City, 1941 Photo: by Kurt Severin, courtesy of David H Lowenherz, provided to Frances Wilson,  The Telegraph

Stefan Zweig on a bus in New York City, 1941 Photo: by Kurt Severin, courtesy of David H Lowenherz, provided to Frances Wilson, The Telegraph

On nostalgia and writing in exile

Nostalgia is a warming sentiment for troubled minds. It builds imaginary homelands for anyone taken away from the familiar. It may comfort you when you’re swept off your feet by loneliness in a foreign country or situation. As Svetlana Boym puts it in her book: “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one's own fantasy.” On an individual level, even though it can be destructive, nostalgia’s melancholic storm sometimes turns into beauty, into a powerful humanistic message, and eventually, into something that lasts. Beyond the reach of record, for many gifted adults, nostalgia has been a source of unquestionable inspiration.

But nostalgia can be dangerous, too. On a collective level, nostalgia can be politically manipulated when rooted in nationalistic convictions or other such biased ideals, that fuel it until it gains momentum. Nostalgia is like a child, torn between naivety and fear of the unknown,  dancing on the razor blade of your mind. It could take you on its wings into a magical journey of self-encounter and reconstruction, or it can leave you in the mud of oblivion - with no direction home.

Exile can be caused by personal choices, or a lack of options. Sometimes the situation in the country of origin requires a compromise beyond one's strength: a sacrifice of talent and principles. The impossibility of compromise usually leads to persecution, censorship or punishment, and a total ban from executing one’s vocation. During the Cold War, in Europe and beyond, freedom of expression was unapologetically violated for more than two generations, poisoned with a proletarian cultural ideology just to find its antidote in a countercultural one - which skilfully gamed the system to reach its public.

Nevertheless, settling abroad doesn’t automatically solve the inconvenience of being born on the wrong side of history. Many talented people could have chosen to stay, if they wouldn't have been political targets. Others found a way to camouflage their rebellious attitudes towards the absolutist regime which was built on sand and served the interests of a few. However, only a tiny minority possessed such diplomatic skill. For those who stayed, the act of preserving the forbidden memory of those who left was also punishable. For dissidents, living under these circumstances meant unimaginable emotional turmoil and, in some cases, the destruction of life itself: families were, literally, divided with little chance of reunion.

Kapuscinski: nostalgia crossing borders

Ryszard Kapuściński on the right, a photo from the exhibition Ryszard Kapuscinski: ”The poet of Reportage”

Ryszard Kapuściński on the right, a photo from the exhibition Ryszard Kapuscinski: ”The poet of Reportage”

In “Imperium”, Polish journalist and master storyteller Ryszard Kapuscinski compares the Western person with the Soviet man. He was one of the few journalists to succeed at accurately reporting about the life of the Soviet person. He wasn’t forced to exile, as many of his generation who sought truth and justice. With irony and sincerity, but without falling into pettiness, he showed the Western world the Homos Sovieticus - the Soviet Man, in all his minimalist reality. The main difference described in the book was quite simple - in the West, one travels, in the East, one leaves. Kapuscinski travelled, and was forgiven for this, which was truly exceptional.

Georgi Markov: To wriggle under the rainbow
(title of one of his most performed plays)

In 1960, the Bulgarian poet Lyubomir Levchev said about Georgi Markov, Bulgaria’s most prolific writer in absentia, that “he has danced on the edge of the permissible, but he was never falling into abyss. Overall, his books were exceedingly life-affirming, that is, politically sanctioned.”

Georgi Markov, archive

Georgi Markov, archive

Georgi Markov - declared a persona non grata in his native Bulgaria - gained recognition due to his courage to seek and face the truth. Despite controversy and conspiracy surrounding his legacy in the following transitional discourse, he is still respected for resisting the temptation of  materialistic privilege and embracing a heavily politicized intellectual servitude. The latter is,  a rule, not an exception, in most forms of oppressive regimes and political absolutism.

Markov involuntarily became a dissident. He won the Bulgarian Writers’ Union award for his novel “Men” and was expelled from the Union a decade later.  He was censored during the time of tightened ideological control and the return of correct thinking, when Brezhnev took office. As a result, Markov wriggled under the rainbow, leaving a settled life in Sofia behind to become one of the finest critics of the Bulgarian Soviet regime and its puppet intelligentsia - despite being a central figure of that same circle just a few years prior to exile. In his remarkable essay “A captivating mind”, Dimiter Kenarov writes that at the time of Markov's departure from the country he was one of Bulgaria’s most lionised writers.

In London, where Markov finally settled with the help of Pierre Rouve, he started working for BBC. Radio Free Europe then headquartered in Munich, West Germany broadcasted his In Absentia reports weekly. In Absentia was about Bulgaria, the way Markov knew it. It was also the only pinhole in the Wall. RFE, although regularly jammed by the KGB, played a vital role for the period. It was one of the few sources of information reaching the ears of the unfortunate Easteners. Stefan Tsanev, a close friend of Markov, and also a prominent writer, joked that during the hours of broadcast, most Bulgarians were also in absentia, listening in secret to Markov’s restless voice. These radio essays are still one of the most honest, yet objective account of the Bulgarian society for the period.

On September 7, 1978 waiting for the bus on his way to work, Markov was assassinated with a 1.52-millimeter platinum-iridium pellet by a contract killer on request from the State Security Service of People’s Republic of Bulgaria. He died on September 11 in a London hospital, aged 49. On August 23, Europe paid tribute to the victims of the totalitarian ideologies, and their false moralists. The Soviet union alone took 60 million.  

This week marks the 39th year since his last radio session at BBC. Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, there is still an ongoing debate about whether these reports (all in all, 137 short essays) should be part of the national school curriculum.

Georgi Markov paid with his life for daring to remember. Yet if he had chosen to remain a central figure of the Bulgarian intelligentsia at the time, he would have destroyed something far more important than his sharp memory; staying would have erased his human intuition of what is naturally wrong. Such sensibility must atrophy in order to succeed in a conformist alliance. As he later confesses, he was close to crossing the line - close to assimilating and vanishing. But, clearly, he didn’t. 

On the final page of In Absentia Reports he wrote:

“If you ever had an idea about the person you were, if you inexorably were turning into something quite different, there probably comes a time, when you wish to break either the mirror or your own head. (...) I cannot claim that mine was a case of political courage or integrity; it was merely a matter of my own sense of the unbearable.”

Milan Kundera: swinging between laughter and forgetting

The unbearable is a central topic of yet another celebrated European dissident. Milan Kundera. Like Markov’s, Kundera’s novels were banned from public libraries and publishing. Kundera left Czechoslovakia in 1975, after he was dismissed from his teaching position - a fate he also inflicted on one of his main characters in The unbearable lightness of being,  The writer found a second home in Paris, a hub for wandering souls since time immemorial.  The plot of the book, which was later turned into a successful film, depicts the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, and the occupation of the country by the Warsaw Pact troops. The book follows three Czech émigrés, condemned to exile in Switzerland.  Switzerland’s monochromatic life of idleness and ease does not relieve the burden of the turmoils experienced at home; in fact, it only deepens the sensation of “the unbearable”.  At the expense of freedom and social status, two of the characters return to Prague.   

Milan Kundera, 1980. Photo:  The Paris Review

Milan Kundera, 1980. Photo: The Paris Review

Kundera continued to write in his mother tongue during the early years of his exile, while his later works were written in French. For most writers, their native language is their strongest connection to the home country, but language is often the biggest challenge for the uprooted. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which Kundera started writing while he was still in Czechoslovakia, is more a story about memory than one about laughter. In his imaginary land, words have more complex and vast meanings. Lightness stands for “kitsch”, a complete cultural assimilation which crushes everything in its path, while nostalgia in Kundera’s novels is an extreme feeling. It opposes memory which is in constant competition with time - the cruelest enemy of each of his characters.

Maybe time is the cruelest enemy of any adult who is expected to start life over again, from scratch.

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by NIYA Shekerova

Current location:  Paris, France

Current location: Paris, France