The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 29, 2008


Before I read Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs, I had encountered feuds in few places. Shakespeare and Mark Twain, obviously. In real life, though, a friend once refused to partake of a particular brand of ice-cream. He would not, he said, because it was owned by his uncle.

The story of why his family was so unremittingly hostile to his uncle is irrelevant here, but there are similarities to the case of the Kovaks brothers of Grant's book. Both sets of brothers were immigrants to a 'promised' land. In each set, there was one brother who was a go-getter, and the other was unwordly and embittered. In each case, the elder brother thought he was helping out the younger, who, seething with moral superiority and acute inferiority, resented his sibling's career, life, and success. But a difference stands out between my friend and the Jewish protagonists of Grant's book: my friend continued the feud of the previous generation into his own, whereas Vivien, the narrator of the book, sought out her uncle, befriended him, learned of her own roots in old Hungary, and recognised a basic affinity between her uncle and herself.

The story is fairly linear. Vivien's parents escape Budapest before the arrival of the Nazis and make a new life for themselves in Britain. They consider their move prescient, but Vivien's uncle reveals that far pettier considerations led his brother to leave his home. Years later, the uncle turns up in London, and realises that there's much money to be made from renting tenements to immigrant West Indians, who nobody else would have for tenants. Vivien's parents lead closed, scared lives, trying hard to assimilate; their pride is Vivien herself. They have no intention at all to embrace her uncle, who arrives one day, all flash and bearing chocolates, leaving an impression of vivid brightness in Vivien's imagination, which is otherwise stifled by the drabness of her life. The uncle, Sandor, you see, is considered a criminal by Vivien's father. Worse, Sandor is a humiliating reminder of his own weaknesses in Budapest, and he wants nothing to do with him.

Vivien herself sleepwalks through her university, where she is so passive that her gay friends sleep with her to test themselves before coming out. Her marriage to a true-blood Englander ends in a tragicomic accident. Riven by guilt, she retreats to her parents, remembers the brightness of her uncle, and decides to track him down. When she finally meets him, they recognise each other at once, but pretend not to, and maintain a polite fiction that she is there just to take down his reminiscences, while he defends his life and career to her.

There's nothing particularly Jewish about the people in the book. The Jewishness is so transparent an artifice that it smacks of a lack of imagination. And, of course, it is de rigueur to mention the Holocaust often these days. The protagonists could have been Irish. Or Pakistani. It would have made no difference at all to the story. They are all stereotypes of immigrants, first and second generation. There's the industrious scared-as-a-mouse immigrant, and there's a carpe-diem immigrant. One immigrant thinks he should efface himself completely; the other looks down upon Britain as a land of fools and criminal enterprise. The assimilatory immigrant is a racist, while the other embraces diversity as a business opportunity. Vivien - herself of the second generation - is rootless and confused, and contrary to the claim on the dust jacket that she is bookish and sensitive, is actually sluggish and passive.

There's little motivation for the acts of the various people in the book. Temperamentally, each is an archetype, and this alone accounts for their development. There's no subtlety in the book, no insight, and nothing new. Linda Grant set out to fictionalise the life of an East End tenement king, and ended up adding palpable dross. I'm surprised this book made the long list for the Booker Prize this year. It has little to recommend it.

[Booker Mela 2008]


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