Totalitarianism, war, the Holocaust, exile: here are four phenomena that define the twentieth century. And all of them generated the greatest migrations that humanity has experienced. Migrations that continue into the 21st century, either because of the war, as in Iraq and Syria; by authoritarian regimes, cases of Russia and Turkey, or for economic reasons, in many countries of the African continent.
For an exile one of the most serious problems is to be confronted daily with a language that is not his. If not being able to express oneself properly or make oneself understood is one of the most anguishing things that can happen to a human being, in the case of writers this anguish can occupy the center of their existence. Is the language a sign of identity or not? Faced with this dilemma, the writers reacted in different ways, starting with the essential issue: continue writing in the mother tongue or change to the host language. Many have been and are those who chose the difficult path of changing the language of expression, starting with the classic case of Joseph Conrad. Among others, Irène Némirovsky, Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jorge Semprún, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Cioran and Jonathan Littell ennobled the French letters; Emine Sevgi Özdamar, the Germans; Nabokov and Aleksandar Hemon, the Americans.
However, in writers, not all exiles or language changes are due to external reasons. There are also those who respond to free decisions. The writers of English expression generated an important wave of voluntary exile (James Joyce said that exile is one of the writer's weapons). Also the bilingual or multilingual cities (Prague, Trieste, Barcelona) created in their writers a sense of uncertain identity and uprooting (Franz Kafka felt guilty for writing in German instead of in Czech, smaller language, and Juan Goytisolo pointed: "Catalans in Madrid and Castilians in Barcelona, our location is ambiguous and contradictory, threatened by ostracism on both sides").
To the classic example of Joseph Conrad are added Nabokov, Beckett, Kundera or Ionesco
These days two books have been translated into Spanish that analyze what it means to change language for those who have writing as their reason for being. It's about two women, Eva Hoffman and Jhumpa Lahiri, the first one exiled for political reasons, the second one faces the change of language as an existential debate.
Change by obligation
The autobiographical book by Eva Hoffman, Strange for me, It starts like this: "April 1959. I'm next to the railing on the upper deck of the Batory and I feel that my life is over. I watch the crowd gathered on the shore to bid farewell to the ship sailing from Gdynia - a crowd that is suddenly irrevocably on the other side - and I want to run away, to return, to rush towards family excitement. We can not abandon all this, but we do it. I am thirteen years old and we emigrated. It's such a devastating notion, so definitive that it could very well mean the end of the world. " Thus, with this "expulsion", begins the first part, 'Paradise', of the book originally published in 1989. A text that has become over the years a classic essay on exile and life in a new language, as is also 'Reflections on exile', by Edward Said, published in 1984 in the magazine Granta.
Eva Hoffman was born in Krakow in 1945, just after the war, the eldest daughter of Polish Jewish survivors. In Krakow, Eva learned to play the piano with virtuosity and experienced her first childhood love. However, more than communist totalitarianism was because of Polish anti-Semitism that the author describes with great detail that the family was forced to leave their country. Of two options, the parents preferred the wooded Canada to desert Israel, not in vain during the war the forest had become their refuge and salvation.
In the second chapter, 'Exile', Eva and her family arrive in Vancouver, where they begin a life in a new language and in an unknown environment. The author describes the perceptions evoked in her by the Canadian society of the late fifties. If it were not for lack of a home to return to, the family could experience the transfer as an adventure; but the irrevocable loss of the native country makes his experience tragic. Parents are too old to change their scale of values, Eva and her sister have lost their points of reference and feel lost in the new society, so competitive and demanding.
However, there is no choice but to adapt: Eva devours burgers in convertible cars full of troubled teenagers, goes out with kids who find her incomprehensibly sophisticated and tells jokes that are not funny to anyone: young Canadians do not understand the mood of the Europe of East. In addition, Eva notes that her apathetic companions dismiss her virtuoso piano career, but still retain her as part of her identity.
Hoffman ends up being a stranger to both his own parents and the Poles of his generation
Only after years of exposure to English, and in New York after her studies in Vancouver, Dallas and Boston, Eva decided to renounce the piano and with him to her old identity. He tells it in the third and last chapter, 'The New World'. He feels then that he has become a hybrid creature whose two thirds "come from American materials"; It is "a kind of resident alien." Sometimes he thinks of the words of Theodor Adorno, exiled from Germany during the Second World War, who warned immigrants that if they lose their status as foreigners they will lose their soul. Eva proposes the opposite: to be part of the intellectual environment of New York as an essayist in English and to stop being a foreigner without losing herself. When finally manages to become a New York intellectual, ends up being a stranger to both their own parents, clinging to the values of yesteryear, and the Poles of their own generation.
This witty and insightful book, written with vivacity and irony, captures in deeply human terms what is the essence of the experience of exile. Millions of people felt like the author throughout the last century and in the two decades of this. Eva Hoffman finishes her essay concluding that, once everything is lost, the emigrant finds it difficult to fall into the arms of any faith, be it religious or political. So he becomes one who is not from anyone or anywhere, in the only being "really irreligious."
Change by choice
Jhumpa Lahiri also writes about the change of language in his essay In other words, a text so sincere that it reads almost like a confession. The American writer of Bengali origin has always treated in her novels and short stories the issues of nationality and the absence of identity, the sense of belonging, assimilation and the voluntary loss of tradition. In this her first essay book, the writer shares with the reader the reasons that have led her to change the language of literary expression, from English to Italian. And that's what it's about: Jhumpa confesses that his move to Italian is irreversible.
If for many writers the language change is painful, why did Lahiri, author who writes in the most spoken language in the world, decide to take this step? In his book he confesses that, unlike his mother, who for 50 years abroad cultivated her Indian roots, the rebellion of the daughter consisted in assimilating herself in America. Lahiri considers the United States his country, his English is perfect, and his effort to achieve his purpose of complete assimilation was enormous. Why then have you decided to abandon it?
Jhumpa Lahiri flees from English even though he entered it through the big door winning the Pulitzer
Lahiri flees from English. He flees from him despite the fact that his Italian is not so bright today. And not only flee the language, but everything that this language and culture have symbolized for her. During most of his life the English and what he embodied was a strenuous struggle, "a passional conflict, a continuous feeling of failure from which almost all my anguish derives. English represents a culture that had to overcome, interpret. I was afraid it would represent a rupture between my parents and me. "
However, it was in English that Lahiri entered the international literature through the big door: the Pulitzer Prize for his debut film, The pain interpreter. However, his success seems unearned, achieved too soon and too easily. Therefore, with the change of language, the writer wants to recover the opportunity to feel an apprentice.
Like all authors who have changed their country and language, Jhumpa Lahiri could sign what Eva Hoffman proclaims: "Because I have learned the relativity of cultural meanings in my own skin, I can not consider definitive a single set of meanings. In my public, social life, I will always place myself in the interstices between cultures and subcultures. I find in this position a point of support worthy of Archimedes to contemplate the world. "
'Strange for me'. Eva Hoffman. Translation by Sergio Sánchez. Baltic, 2018. 338 pages. 20.95 euros.
'In other words'. Jumpa Lahiri Translation of Marilena De Chiara Salamandra, 2019. 160 pages. 15 euros.