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Languages and Worlds Apart

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The book started life as a memoir over 10 years ago, before I came to the Institute, and was transformed into a novel when people to whom I related various episodes pointed out that it had novelistic elements. The novel is, I hope, as much about the present as it is about the past. Its focus – what happens to minorities who find themselves, forcibly or voluntarily, within a larger and different community – is one that reverberates in modern Britain, Europe, and indeed many parts of the world. There are the familiar issues of language differences, personal appearance, ghettoes, and of course world outlook or cultural outlook (the German Weltanschaung conveys it better). Those who have heard me talk about these matters will not be surprised to learn that the novel is based on the remarkable experiences of my parents.

I learned English as a second language when I grew up in a refugee camp that housed displaced people from many parts of post-war Europe. My first language was my parents’ borderland mixture of Polish and Russian from Eastern Europe, neither of which were pure (as I found out at university). The novel covers the 20th century and tells the story of people who variously survive war, labour camps and the refugee camp in England, but also they survive (like an illness) the implications of their own identity and their own memories by the choices they make or avoid, or the ones forced upon them.

The novel begins and ends with a macabre fairy story from Eastern Europe. This is told to the young David by his mother Jadwiga in a refugee camp in England. The adult David looks back at life in that camp and realises that its unspoken taboos hide a bigger story and pose a question mark over identities and past actions. The main protagonists of the tale are his two parents: Jadwiga, who is transported to the Soviet Gulag [1] under Stalin, and Wladek, who is taken as a slave labourer into Hitler’s Reich. Both manage to escape.

By dint of perseverance and dogged by guilt, through archives and personal accounts prised from his reluctant parents, David gradually reassembles the shattered smithereens of their lives. The cover of the book is a collage of personal photographs and documents scattered over a background of watchtowers, barbed wire and portraits of Stalin and Hitler. The text depicts ordinary people as they struggle through revolution, war and camps, through love and growing up. One, Wladek, lives in a city nowadays called Vilnius (Lithuania) – but variously known as Vilna or Wilno in the past and dubbed the “Jerusalem of the North” – a city riven by fiercely antagonistic communities, each with its own language and customs. The other, Jadwiga, lives on what is painted as an idyllic rural stage that turns out to be a Polish military colony in conquered territory (Bolshevik Ukraine). These are the borderlands of 20th century Eastern Europe as viewed from a refugee camp in the borderlands of England and Wales. All that is left are the fractured memories and photographs of several worlds that are very far apart, and the complicated identities that David has managed to map from the meandering recollections of his own and their past.

My first problem was starting with the fairy story that I wanted to envelope the whole narrative. Here the story is invented but it is more or less typical of the genre (the moral being not straying from the correct path). It features the wicked witch Baba Yaga, of course, famous in Slavonic tales. Linguistically I found it quite difficult to convey the rhythm of the languages used. The English opener “Once upon a time…” immediately connotes a fairy story – there is no other possible context (you would be stared at if you were to pronounce these words in a shop or a court, say) and the metre is familiarly childlike (tum-ti-tum-ti-tum). But in Slavonic tales, there are further layers, ones which rhyme (za gorami, za lesami – beyond the hills, beyond the woods) and indeed, since these stories are part of an oral tradition, the words flow easily, smoothly, up and down in intonation, except where they are meant to startle with jarring interruptions, just like poetry in fact. One publishing agent, a poet, who read sections was kind enough to say that it did read like an oral tale.

The second problem I grappled with was the necessary fact that in the original, as it were, the characters would have spoken different languages. The ideal reader, therefore, would be at least tri-lingual and the book would have been written in those languages. Conveying this notion in English alone would have been impossible without the occasional deliberate use of foreign words (with explanations) or descriptions of foreign customs. For example, the Slavonic word drebezgi/drobiazgi (Russian/Polish) has to be conveyed by a word like smithereens in English even though it literally translates as fragments, bits, or pieces. The onomatopoeia has to be preserved. Conveying the mother character’s memory, shudders and all, of the night she was hauled off in minus thirty degrees of frost to be transported in a cattle wagon to the Arctic wastes of the Soviet Union, requires all a writer’s efforts to preserve the force of her original language. Her term treskayushchiy moroz to describe the frost has connotations of splintering or pulverising. Words like snapping or breaking just do not convey the actual sound of the frost. In fact the word frost itself is rather weak in English (with its associations of the friendly Jack Frost viewed from cosy fire-lit sitting rooms) compared with moroz/mroz (Russian/Polish) with its associations of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), lifelessness and the pain of sub-zero temperatures where skin sticks to metal.

Another problem I faced, one that challenges any writer, I believe, is how to deal with different world views and customs (from another age as much as from another community) without appearing to pass judgement on them. Simply describing them, and in particular their historical or cultural context, is all important, of course, but eschewing the patronising viewpoint afforded by hindsight or a different dominant culture is difficult to achieve. Even Fraser cannot help letting slip the odd chuckle or smirk by means of an exclamation mark in his Golden Bough compendium of world myths and customs, so what chance is there for lesser mortals. Just to take one example in my novel, inter-war Vilna/Wilno/Vilnius was a huge city that the Poles captured off the Bolsheviks in 1920 while the League of Nations was deciding to whom it belonged, the Poles refusing to hand it over to the Lithuanians. The city also contained virulent proponents of right-wing policies (many lifted directly from Hitler in neighbouring Germany) and left-wing ideas (inspired by Marx), and their activists were not averse to smashing up shops, homes and each other. The majority of the inhabitants were Poles. Nearly half, about 60,000 people, were Jews (a community that itself was riven by those who were assimilated and wore western-style clothes, those who were orthodox and did not, those who were leftists, rightists, and so on) whose language was Yiddish and many of whom could not speak Polish… Many people who would have considered themselves educated and tolerant did not want this “nation within a nation” in their own country. The Holocaust in Vilnius is well documented. “Out, out, out!” was a cry that was heard then (and is still heard in many parts of the world) directed at those who speak a different language, dress differently, or keep themselves to themselves, and even at those who have integrated but for some reason are still considered not to belong.

Writing the book was a cathartic experience for me. Initially it was meant as a family memoir rather than a public document, but I was persuaded that it might merit a wider audience. I hope it does.

[Henry Pavlovich was Director and Chief Executive of the Institute of Linguists from 1998 to 2005, when he retired shortly after it celebrated gaining a Royal Charter.]


1. GULAG: Glavnoye Upravleniye ispravitel’no-trudovykh lagerey, Main Administration for Corrective Labour Camps, the network of labour camps throughout Arctic and non-Arctic Soviet Union territories.

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