The Millions

Their Lives Go On Until They Don’t: The Trouble with Refugee Novels

“Writing poetry after Auschwitz,” the sociologist Theodor Adorno proclaimed in 1951, “is barbaric.” This particular phrase has become so famous because it is both transparently false—ask Levi about that one—and, on a gut level, powerfully true. There is no real connection between aesthetics and reality, and artists are basically foolish if they believe they can alter the course of history. But, if art is in one sense the processing of reality, how can an artist truly hope to process that which, in all its horror and incoherence, resists interpretation?

According to the UNHCR, some 68.5 million people are currently displaced around the world, more than at any time since the end of World War II. Refugees, by definition, are people we become concerned with only when they have been driven from their lives and into our own. As depicted in media, they tend to be denationalized, an essentially undifferentiated mass lacking a past or a future, with only an eternally tragic present. They are defined, wholly, by their displacement. But life is not only catastrophe; it begins before the disruption and, hopefully, continues afterward. Tragedies can define lives when nothing is done to ameliorate them. This, in a sense, is the dilemma that refugees pose for the countries they flee to: Can their new countries do what needs to be done to facilitate a life deserving of a person’s dignity?

Can a novel measure up to the life, it seems unlikely. The structure of the novel, which demands drama and plot—action, in other words—is ill-suited to the stuff of life, which is alternately chaotic, incomprehensible, and boring. Even the most straightforward and realistic novel is a combination of the internal and the external, the literal and the metaphorical. And “the trouble,” as wrote for the in 2016, “is that the migrant is not a metaphor.” A number of prize-winning books, as well as some recent translations, have attempted to make sense of the above dicta, and to find some way to make their mark on this reality. Where they succeed depends as much on which side of the above dichotomy—the life or the disruption—as on how they go about it.

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