Yes, you read that right — I haven’t forgotten what John Donne really wrote (No Man is an Island, in case you need reminding). I’m referring to the EU Referendum vote that will be taking place a couple of days after Midsummer’s Day, when the people currently living in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be asked a simple Yes/No question:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
(or, as Welsh speakers will see it, A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd?)
I won’t go into the convoluted political details of why this question is being asked now. The steam coming out of my ears and the air being turned blue would thoroughly obscure any rational arguments for or against. But my concern is simply that the UK might throw the baby out with the bathwater because of the xenophobia that is being whipped up by some sections of the media.
Xenophobia is a nasty word for a nasty thing. A pity since — as I found out when I was mangling Ancient Greek as a schoolboy — xenos (ξένος) ranges in meaning all the way from ‘enemy’ via ‘stranger’ to ‘guest’, with the latter predominating in ancient classical culture (as it does in many small communities even now). If we substitute the translation of ‘fear of strangers’ with ‘fear of guests’ that sounds even more unfriendly, aggressive even. It clearly runs counter to all the sentiments in John Donne’s poem, every phrase of which deserves meditating on, though I’ll focus on just two now. “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less” has even more bite if we remember that Britain is a part of Europe no less than Sicily or Sardinia, Crete or Corsica or Cyprus, all geographically speaking not insignificant islands. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” is a self-evident statement but apparently irrelevant to believers in waves of economic migrants, floods of refugees and cohorts of terrorists invading Island Britain.
Already I’m gnashing my teeth. Let me be more positive now. “What has Europe done for us?” is the sly question that I sometimes hear. Well, since this is a book review blog I’m going to reference the UK’s indebtedness to European literary figures. Let me start with two of Britain’s immigrants: Joseph Conrad and Eva Ibbotson.
Joseph Conrad was born in the former Kingdom of Poland (a part which is now in Ukraine) and became a naturalised Briton. In great novels like Heart of Darkness he focused on a great many issues (not least man’s inhumanity to man) while showing a mastery of the English language that evokes admiration and praise. World literature would be so much the poorer without the contribution of this economic migrant and son of a political refugee. Eva Ibbotson (née Wiesner) was born in 1925 to Austrian Jewish parents, moving to England in her eighth year to escape the Nazis. Many of her novels deal obliquely with her experiences, and Journey to the River Sea expressly deals with a young girl sent abroad to live with small-minded xenophobic relatives. Imagine what would have happened to her if the UK had closed their borders to political refugees in 1933.
War has been unkind to other anglophiles. Antal Szerb, a Hungarian Catholic born to Jewish parents, was a literary scholar and academic who studied for a year in London before the war. The Pendragon Legend (a hybrid of many genres) ranges from London to a fictional Welsh castle, but Szerb also wrote semi-autobiographical accounts, literary fiction and fictionalised history set in Italy and France, much of it now translated into English. Sadly he was fated to be murdered in a concentration camp early in 1945. We would be denied his fascinating first novel, based in the UK, if he had himself been denied entry to England in the 1930s on the basis of being an undesirable alien.
Anti-European sentiment based on fear of outsiders and out-groups would have us ignore the question asked by that much-admired English poet Rudyard Kipling: “And what should they know of England who only England know?” In other words, how can a people fully understand who they are if they are unaware of how their culture has been shaped by outside influences? So let us remember the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi whose collected short stories The Periodic Table was named by the Royal Institution of Great Britain, no less, as the ‘best science book ever’; and whose writings (including another short story collection A Tranquil Star) run the gamut of human experience and imagination. If British scientists see worth in a European writer’s fiction then who are the rest of us to dismiss him?
Between now and June 23rd I hope to expand my normal reading range of mostly British and American writers to include more Europeans, in translation and possibly in the original language. I’ve already reviewed work here by other European authors — from, for example, Italy (Andrea Camillieri, Italo Calvino), Spain (Carlos Ruiz Zafón) and Norway (Jostein Gaarder) — and have in mind reads or rereads of Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Marie de France and Xenophon. Whether my little gesture will persuade any of those who think the Channel Tunnel was a grave mistake remains to be seen.
No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
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The margin between those who want to remain and those who want to leave is narrow or not depending on how the poll is conducted, as these two graphs show. The Don’t Knows could hold the balance: