It’s a rare skill to make someone laugh so hard that your beer goes up and down your nostrils at the same time.
Flemish Belgium – the Dutch-speaking part of a country that until recently has no working government and something of an insoluble identity crisis – is where this story about refugees and national identity is set. Identity and humour are the key to understanding where this novel is coming from such as when the novel’s anti-hero escorts a fellow asylum seeker on a night on the town:
‘Look, there, friendly people!’
That’s not something you see every day, so I ask where.
‘There, at the door of that pub, they’re waving to us.’
‘Keep walking, Maqsood, that’s the Hitler salute.’
And since there are thousands of different salutes, and people in the asocial Western world usually just ignore each other, Maqsood returns their attentions with a friendly Hitler salute of his own. And a smile. I also Hitler salute your mother and all your sisters. And then we get to test our aerobic fitness, pursued by fourteen single-minded skinheads. The pub in question was called the Welkom.
The novel begins with a pivotal moment in the life of anti-hero Bipul Masli, a photographer who has had to flee state retribution, describing how he took the picture that made his fame. The photograph was of a starving child not hours from death, using the last of it’s strength to crawl to a rubbish dump where there was nothing edible. Masli tells the boy: ‘Pretend I’m not even here.’
It is a disturbing image that establishes a motif that runs through the book: pretend the asylum seekers are not here. Pretend. Other images come back to food and sex; fulfillment and loneliness. Human nature and desire vs. simple needs. In sparse prose, Verhulst throws punches of tragedy and leavens them with beatings of humour.
In December 2001, Dimitri Verhulst spent several days in a reception centre in Arendonk for asylum seekers, having been asked by the Flemish magazine Deus Ex Machina to write an article. This was at a time when the Muslims in the centre – everywhere, in fact – were in fear of being held to blame for the attacks on the WTC towers in New York.
This is not an easy book to read. The translation – from Dutch – by David Colmer is excellent. The words parse well, the tragedy and drama conveyed as easily as the humour but the story… well, it’s more than just a story of migrants. As with all great novels, this story is about people. If you vote BNP, UKIP or for any of the oiks who know nothing of their own history (that’s history with a capital ‘H’ not a ‘P’ for propaganda), the chances are you can’t read, therefore don’t read and you won’t be aware of the issues covered in this book.
Seeking a better place to live is as natural as wanting to eat (at all, if not well), breath easy and not be in fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night. So it is that you learn on reading ‘Problemski Hotel‘ that there is a heirarchy among asylum seekers: ‘economic migrant’ is, for instance, the greatest insult. The character Maqsood – in the above quote – is described as a Pakistani who voted for the JKLP: this would mean he was from the contested border region of the Jammu and Kashmir provinces between India and Pakistan (his passport, if he had one, would say India). Maqsood can’t claim to be a political exile because he’s from a ‘democracy’. It doesn’t matter that his wife was gang-raped and his children killed and that he bears the scars of being shot in the gut simply because India is allied with Europe and it is ostensibly a democratic country. Maqsood knows he will be sent back and almost certainly killed. It is a shadow that hangs over many of his conversations with Bipul.
The issue of immigration is hard to discuss dispassionately as voters – like asylum seekers – are keenly aware that governments only let the most skilled stay (legally and permanently), those who will in time challenge ourselves and our children for work. There is also increasing awareness among those (in the UK) that will feel the bite of the loss of the 10% income-tax threshold most, that companies use immigrant workers to artificially deflate the true cost of labour: while there is someone desperate enough to work cash-in-hand for less than the minimum wage, indigenous workers can be paid less or go without.
Immigration goes hand-in-hand with matters of economy and ecology. Simply put: the better paid a nation’s workers, the more they can put back into the economy. However, the more they buy, the more goods are manufactured and transported to fill the demand and this places additional stress on the planet’s resources which usually come from the same places the migrants are fleeing from. As the creation of wealth demands that more resources are used up, further damaging those nations less capable of defending themselves from the ravages of a warming planet, so there is greater incentive for the tin-pot dictators to seize and hold on to power by whatever means possible (as demonstrated by abuses of human rights in Kenya whose President was recently voted out but who has banked billions with the Julius Baer Bank in Switzerland which last week persuaded a US judge to close down the Wikileaks website which carried the proof of this to the world… to give just one example. For some of the this story – on the BBC website – see here).
It is refreshing to find a book that dispenses with the grand debates, the arguments and bric-bats that are thrown between well-meaning academics and politicians and instead find stories told intimately and with sensitivity. The author claims in his postscript that though he made up about half the stories relayed in this novel, none of them contained a lie.
Maqsood was deported.