IN RECENT MONTHS the world's attention has frequently been focused on refugees; Jews from Soviet Russia, boat people from Vietnam, hordes of starving Cambodians encamped along the Thai border and, more recently, dissatisfied Cubans. Newspaper articles, news photos and television film clips have sought -- often successfully -- to bring home to us the immediate drama and tragedy of these displaced persons. But the impact of these migrations on us has been limited by the agonymous nature of these mass phenomena and the refugees social and cultural distance from us.
Two new books, Ann Cornelisen's Strangers and Pilgrims: The Last Ilalian Migration and Jane Kramer's Unsettling Europe survey the less dramatic postwar movements of peoples both to and within Western Europe by zeroing in on actual individuals.
In both books we discover the existence of groups that resist incorporation into our conventional image of a modern, prosperous and tolerant Western Europe. Both tell us of people forced by politics or economics to uproot themselves from their native cultures and to try and set down new roots elsewhere. All these groups -- southern Italian emigrants, Pieds noirs expelled from Algeria, Asian Ugandans forced to move to London -- share in common many difficulties that prevent their own total accommodation in their new lands of adoption.
Ann Cornelisen is an American who came to Italy in 1954 and stayed. Through her work for the Save the Children Fund and later on her own, Cornelisen acquired a deep and intimate knowledge of the Italian south that provided the material for her other books, Torregreca: Life, Death, Miracles and Women of The Shadows.
In this volume Cornelisen examines one of the principal phenomena of recent Italian life, the mass migration northward -- to the Italian north and to northern Europe -- of millions of poor southern Italians. Emigration, says Cornelisen, generally represents the last resort available to the weakest members of a society, an act of desperation which has given the Torresi -- the inhabitants of the southern town she calls "Torregreca" -- the first and only chance they'll ever have to realize the vision, left unfulfilled by their own government, of seeing their children "metamorphosed into government clerks or highly skilled, highly paid workers."
Cornelisen takes us into the newly established homes in West Germany and northern Italy of many of her former Torresi neighbors. Although the reader often finds himself wishing for a less intrusive author, Cornelisen's portraits of these transplanted southerners -- Michele and Edda, who think of Torregreca as a place to die rather than to live, Franco and yanna, who prefer spending their money in Germany rather than racing home each summer with a fleet to show off; Gaetano, who is troubled because his youngest children refuse to speak Italian and who wants to go home eventually because "no man wants to die a stranger among strangers" -- bring home her conviction that even if individual fates are determined by an inbed x-quality for success for failure in Germany or northern Italy her transplanted southerns "can now act those success is possible and failure not inevitable."
Naturally, the story of the Italian emigration -- like the paralled movement northward of yugoslavs, Greeks, Turks, Spaniards and North Africans that has given northern European countries their 10 million foreign workers -- has not been a painless process. The contact with the industrialized north has given these migrants their first real sense of isolation, unknown at home where poverty bound them to their neighbors.
The problems caused by rising expectations, by adaptation to new cultures, emerge clearly from Jane Kramer's portrait of Predrag Ilic, a Yugoslav immigrant in the Ballic Swedish factory town of Sodertalje, in "The Invandrare," the second of four essays originally written for The New Yorker and make up Unsettling Europe.
Predrag's principal motive in coming from his small village in Yugoslavia to Sweden ostensibly is to build a proper house back home. Predrag is a vain, unpleasant, dissatisfied man who treats his cheerful, practical wife Darinka badly, but through Ilie's portrait, Kramer, who writes brilliantly, brings home to us the problems involved in what she terms "a polyglot diaspora, a vast migrant proletariat, with no precedent in Western history since the days of the Roman Empire." How do southerners fare in a northern country like Sweden that tends to impose "a bland but effective camouflage on lives and customs that most Swedes find at best grotesque and at worst savage"? The same story is no doubt repeated throughout much of Europe. In Stockholm there are no "ethnic" neighborhoods, so foreign workers converge on the haymarket or Hotorgshallen because it is "a bustling, ordoriferous place with the sort of cheerful chaos that reminds them of the weekly markets at home."
Kramer's Predrag or Cornelisen's southern Italian are not the only example of what the French call an komme deracine who is driven by proverty to strange northerrn cities where he counts the years until he can go home to the glory of the completed house, the fully paid shop or cafe, and his neighbor's respect. Not all adapt as well as Predrag who grudgingly admits that Sweden is "a kind of habit" one gets used to. Akbar Hassan, for example, an Asian forced by Idi Amin's expulsion order to move to London in the fall of 1972 is not happy. Akbar at home was "a big capitalist man" with a prosperous village shop, two houses, five Mercedes-Benz trucks and over 30,000 in savings. Forced to move to Southall, a village on the outskirts of London that has been colonized by Asians, he works for 27 a week at a service station.
The same can be said for Mme. Martin and her pied-noir family who moved to the Provence after leaving Algeria in 1962. Even after years of residence the family is shunned by its neighbors in a village of 700 persons. But Mme. Martin, now 50, is not resigned. She says her children can adapt because young saplings can be replanted. But she believes she -- an old tree with roots out of its soil -- will die of sadness.
The fourth of Kramer's essays is "The San Vincenzo Cell" which tells the story of a family in a small Umbrian town. The father, Mario Cecchi, is a peasant turned Communist; the mother, Anna, a skeptic and non-believer; and son Alberto, the family's first university graduate and an upcoming local politician.
"The San Vincenzo Cell" iscertainly as well-written as its three companion pieces, and its portrait of communist peasant family is not without interest, but one questions the decision to include it in this volumbe. Umbria is one of Italy's three historically "red regions," a place where first socialism and later communism became so deeply rooted in local tradition that a communist peasant today can in no way be compared to an homme deracine, forced to live in a hostile, unfamiliar environment. In order words, Italy's communsts can hardly be included among "the Europeans whom Europe never expected to accommodate" of whom Kramer speaks in her introduction.
In addition, when Kramer stops talking about Mario and Anna Cecchi and focuses her attention on their son, she seems to lose some of her usual objectivity. In this essay she no longer seems the dispassionate observer but becomes regretfully judgmental.