Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rose Tremain's The Road Home

Well, I’ve just finished The Road HomeRose Tremain's prize-winning novel about the fortunes of an East European migrant in contemporary Britain. And a seductive little page turner it is.

The book is also a great instruction manual for writers who aspire to become prize-winning authors. Rule number one if you want to win one of the commercial literary awards: make your book like a song by Meatloaf. Put everything in.

The Road Home seems to want to achieve exactly this and, in doing so, is not unlike a certain type of contemporary American novel ranted about in the past at this very blog. Granted, it is exactly because of its behemothian comprehensiveness that Tremain's novel seems to work (even for me): the encounter with this colourful pageant of human suffering and joy makes you feel oddly elated - but this sense of elation is short-lived. What remains is a stale, sugary aftertaste of ... what? I can’t seem to put my finger on it.

I think the one thing that bothers me most about the novel is its staunchly multicultural message, which clearly could do with a dose of Žižek (who, incidentally, has fewer facial ticks than some people claim).

It is multicultural Britain that initially helps Tremain's protagonist, middle-aged widower Lev, to find his bearings in a country so strange it might be on another planet. There's the Indian proprietor of a B&B where he spends his first night, the Arab kebab shop owner for whom he distributes leaflets, the Irish self-employed workman whose digs he shares, various members of the Russian diaspora, all of whom contribute in their own small ways to Lev's survival in London - be it by providing information, material support and/or solace when he is feeling low.

Tremain's benevolent view of this diasporic microcosm is not without its absurdities, however: In what is probably the novel's most puzzling scene, Lev, sozzled beyond sanity, is "comforted" by the gay Chinese couple with whom he shares a caravan at the farm where they all work as vegetable pickers. That this "sexual healing" momentarily seems to do the trick does not make the scene any less silly.

This generous netherworld of exotic others is almost completely separate from the white and wealthy Britain that its representatives wait on - a grotesque caricature that might have been lifted from the pages of papers like The Daily Mail. Britain is a greedy, ruthless and superficial country inhabited by fat people. The police are a Gestapo-type money-spinning programme. English women are tattooed sluts in turquoise thongs who like to do it doggy-style and milk their guys for every penny they own after they have dumped them. The British cultural scene consists of shallow drama queens feeding the punters sensationalist rubbish disguised as radicalism. For instance, in a somewhat stilted episode, Lev disses a pretentious In-Yer-Face play he had seen with his his lover Sophie and is duly excoriated for doubting the cultural superiority of Royal Court cool.

Tremain's assessment that Cool Britannia is merely the sleek flip side of a parochial narrow-mindedness always on the brink of morphing into full-blown racism is astute. However, her insistence that this culture is doomed because of its inability to appreciate the beneficial influence of its migrant population comes across as patronising. Where would Britain be without the honest, hard-working ambition and natural intelligence of the foreigners willing to slave for the minimum wage your average yob would sneer at, Tremain asks. But she is so at pains to assert that migrant workers bring out the best in Britons of all ages and classes that she instrumentalises them. Hence Lev is portrayed as a sounding-board for the English psyche, a lay psychotherapist for a disturbed culture. It is in his presence (calm when he's not gripped by alcohol-induced bouts of violent rage) that Britain is able to live up to its own ingrained goodness and decency.

This seems to be one message to be gleaned from The Road Home. That's what migrant workers are good for. To make us feel better.

At the same time, the novel is an unashamedly blunt rags-to-riches story. If you want to, the novel pontificates without a hint of irony, you can make it in this world. You just need to be canny, keep your eyes open, learn from others, and, most importantly, work double shifts and forget about sleeping. Lev's willingness and ability to do precisely this is part of this character's attractiveness; it also pulls the reader along on his journey. The depiction of his progress is compelling, any set-back painful - we want him to reach the goals set by his new world, we desperately desire him to embody virtues we like to associate with ourselves.

Just where this journey leads him, however, is a more difficult question, to which Tremain offers mainly literary (or metaliterary) answers. For The Road Home, as behooves a prize-winning novel, is full of intertextual allusions that provide a running commentary on the plot. Hamlet is the novel's most concrete literary point of reference, introducing themes such as guilt, obligation and the power of the past over the present. There are also faint echoes of Lem’s Solaris, especially in the vivid memories of his dead wife that haunt Lev. Generically, The Road Home can be seen as a picaresque novel, complete with a clownish Sancho Panza figure: Lev’s friend Rudi, whose comic views, communicated via mobile phone, put some of Lev's hurtful London experiences in perspective.

Above all, however, the novel is a Bildungsroman, endorsing principles like growth, learning and development. Tremain seems to suggest that this learning process is both collective and individual: just like Lev, Britain has a lot to learn. Yet while Lev's development is obvious and tangible, the country's learning process remains somewhat uncertain. For Lev, by contrast, Britain is a catalyst for his own ambition, uncovering secret dreams and desires that eventually drive him back to his homeland.

And it is this aspect of this novel (as well as any other Bildungsroman), the return to the point of departure, that is probably its most bothersome feature. Because The Road Home, as the title states clearly, is about returning to the place where you came from. Lev is, to introduce a German term typically frowned upon by British multiculturalists, a Gastarbeiter - expected from the novel's outset not to settle in the UK for good.

The point of departure to which he returns is a homeland that is in the process of radical, possibly detrimental change (symbolised by the building of a dam that will lead to the flooding of his village and the relocation of his family to another town). Although the return of this prodigal son turns out to be a success story - back home, Lev opens a restaurant with the money earned and the skills developed in London - this achievement is accompanied by this very physical blotting out of a part of his past.

What is most irritating about this idea, however, is not the underlying notion of change, or the weird eastward translatio imperii that Lev's journey home entails, but rather the sense of relief that the reader is invited to feel at the turn the novel takes at the end. Unwittingly, perhaps, but in a way that seems typical of the way migrant workers are depicted in some parts of the public debate in Britain today, Tremain entices her readers to wish her protagonist well - as long as his well-being takes place elsewhere.

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