Transformations in Exile

Monika Zgustova

Writer and translator, Czech Republic

The 20th century, with its enslaving ideologies, world wars and civil wars, dictatorships and totalitarianisms, has generated waves of exiles which in some cases have modified the ethnic map of the great European and American metropolises. Germans, Russians, Spaniards, Jews and, more recently, Bosnians and Kosovars… all of them in their time fled from some horror. Totalitarianism, war, holocaust, exile: these are four issues that define the 20th century.

However, exile is nothing new in the history of humanity: Moses and Joseph were exiles, as were Lot– that symbol of self-loyalty taken to the limit of stubbornness – and his wife; Ulysses’ exile lasted for twenty years; Oedipus exiled himself and, upon gouging out his eyes, condemned himself to be, at the same time, an exile within; Ovid was the first poet expelled from his country, the first case of violation of the freedom of poetic creation and was followed, among many others, by Dante; something similar happened to Goya because of his painting. 20th century exile has become one of the fundamental manifestations of the crisis of European civilisation.

English-language writers generated an important wave of voluntary exile (James Joyce used to say that exile is one of the writer’s weapons) although for many intellectuals and artists it was not necessary to emigrate because they exiled within themselves (Kafka) or within their work (Proust, Shostakovich, Giacometti). Moreover, the bilingual or multilingual cities (Prague, Trieste, Barcelona) created a feeling of uncertain identity and uprooting in their writers (Juan Goytisolo notes: “Catalans in Madrid and Castilians in Barcelona, our location is ambiguous and contradictory, threatened by ostracism from both sides”). 

Like Ulysses, who preserved his personality resisting the temptations that the gods sent to him throughout his long journey, the 20th century exiles fled from the dictatorships and the totalitarian regimes to maintain their identity and develop it in freedom. And exile is long; exile has no end: those who are in exile continue to be so even though they go back to their homeland, as in the case of many writers, among them Thomas Mann, rejected by his compatriots upon his return. And I wonder if the large group of exiled European writers would have been what they were without the experience of exile, emigration, uprooting. 

For refugees one of the most serious problems is to be faced every day with a language which is not their own; this situation worsens in the case of a man of letters. Is language a sign of identity? Each case is different. Nabokov, like Joseph Conrad, Tahar Ben Jalloun or Cioran are writers who opted for the difficult path of changing the language in which they wrote. Tristan Tzara, Panaït Istrati, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco and, more recently, Jonathan Littell have ennobled French literature, as Libuse Moníková and Emine Sevgi Özdamar have done for German literature and Nabokov and Conrad for English. There are many writers, from the past and the present, who have enriched the literature of their country of exile while making a great contribution to that of their country of origin.

The difficulty for writers in exile is not only linguistic. The problem of the loss of a whole culture which is familiar to them, of the points of reference, is something immensely difficult to overcome. Some writers preferred to endure the persecutions that the dictatorship of their country subjected them to rather than losing their whole universe, without which their work would be meaningless, and rather than losing the inspiration that their familiar universe gave them. However, for another creator that loss of references can become a stimulus for creating new universes, not at all based on the familiar world. In this way, abroad and in a language which was not his own, Beckett invented the aesthetics that characterises his work, those non-places amidst the rubbish or in the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe.

Exile is such a disruptive experience that it can only transform those exiled and, like any unsettling experience, it determines the personality and the path taken after the cataclysm. Dostoevsky, in his exile in Siberia, discovered his most profound philosophy. It was exile itself that provided him with the definitive force in the formation of his personality, his thought and his value system, and what determined the themes and ideas of his later work.

Exiles in the country of adoption have two options: to integrate and break the ties that unite them to their culture of origin or not integrate and favour the preservation of the latter. Those who do not integrate form communities, sometimes large enough to be considered enclaves: this is the case, for instance, of Russians in the United States or Cubans in Miami. Those from these communities, far from learning the language of the country where they live, organise their lives around their mother tongue and their own culture, similarly to how they would if they were living in their country of origin. 

Those who opt for integration choose the difficult path. Yes, difficult, because refugees never completely integrate, and therefore never manage to feel the culture of the country of adoption as their own or to fully understand the character and the customs of the natives of that country. Moreover, misunderstandings – linguistic, cultural and historical – are usually, for many exiles, everyday occurrences. Lack of understanding is so frequent that the foreigner, more sensitive than someone who is not, finally ends up feeling hurt, despised, pathetic and ridiculous.

The most overwhelming experience of my life as an immigrant is lack of understanding. For a long time, in the West, it was hard to understand that a person from the East emigrated in search of freedom, because there was the entrenched idea that those countries enjoyed more social justice than others.

Far from the great ideologies, on a daily basis exiles encounter small almost microscopic misunderstandings which are difficult to detect, identify, describe and call by their name. In his book Traité des courtes merveilles, Vaclav Jamek describes among other things how his irony, his derision and his negativism, so characteristic of Czech intellectuals and which he considered universal, frightened off the Parisian students who had academic and professional plans and did not want to expose them to such a scent of failure.

There is no return from exile.

During the absence of those in exile, life and conditions have changed so much in their country of origin and the mother tongue has suffered such a great metamorphosis that exiles who return to the homeland do not recognise it as their own. Moreover, those exiled have also changed. During their stay in the country of adoption they have acquired new points of reference and a new value system. After having made great efforts to understand and adopt a new culture, a new context and a new orientation, the set of values of their country of origin seem strange and obsolete. And to the eyes of the inhabitants of the country of origin exiles are no longer like them, familiar, with the same code of conduct, but different, distant and strange. In the country of origin, exiles happen to be the other: the unknown, the stranger, the foreigner; as they are in their host country. Exiles no longer belong to any specific place. Their identity lies in uprooting.