Tag Archives: expatriates

Americans in post-communist Prague

In addition to reading positive notices of Hamburger’s collection of stories set in late-1990s Prague (mostly involving American expatriates or tourists interacting with the natives), and being curious about how post-communist Prague strikes younger (than me) Americans, I was intrigued by the title The View from Stalin’s Head. The title story is the third in the volume, but unsure how independent of each other the stories were, I read the ten of them in order. (I don’t think anything was gained thereby, though a character in the last story (“Exile”) has some background from an earlier one (the second, “Jerusalem,” which is not set in the city of Jerusalem).)


There are two gargantuan-sized Stalin heads in “The View from Stalin’s Head,” so I didn’t feel cheated by the title. It would be unfair to potential readers to explain how the head(s) are invoked/involved in the stories. I was not disappointed by the teaser title, nor, indeed, by any of the stories. This is not to say that I liked them all. I rather disliked “Control,” though the characterization in it of a transit policeman is convincingly done.

I’m not completely convinced by the Czech giant in the first story, “A Man of the Country,” but the voice and the happenings in it are entertaining and fairly poignant. The first story features a male Jewish-American expat somewhat perplexed by a Czech man. The second features a female Jewish-American expat at least as puzzled by a Judaeophile Czech man.

“The View from Stalin’s Head” has an all-Czech cast (Stalin’s head not being part of the dictator who was dead before either one was made). “The Ground You Are Standing On” does not involve any young people (well, there is a youngish taxi tout). It involves a pair of Jewish American tourists who rent a room in an elderly Czech widow’s house. The confrontation is elegantly developed and brilliantly conceived. There are no villains and a lot of self-righteousness on display.


(Hamburger in 2019; he was already bald in 1994 btw)

“Sympathetic Conversationalist” has an ensemble of Czech students of (you guessed it) a Jewish-American expat in Prague “You Say You Want a Revolution” has a self-righteous Jewish-American woman who identifies with resistance of Coca-Cola colonialism. She connects with a group opposed to globalization, but rather than being socialist, it is royalist (wanting to restore the Hapsburg Empire). This is the story with the broadest humor and the only one that derides any of the characters (though those in the other stories do not lack for foibles). “Garage Sale” charts an offbeat relationship between a young Czech woman, Katka, and a Jewish-Canadian expat teacher of English who changes his stripes (or thinks he has).

I’ve already mentioned not liking what happens in “Control,” though respecting its artistry. It is the second story in the collection with no North American expat characters.

The most romantic story in the collection is the one set in Israel (though two of the characters are Americans working in Prague who go to visit the relatives in Israel of one of them). I’m not sure that I believe it, but I enjoy the characters and the departures from their expectations. Departures from expectations are rife throughout the volume, especially in the inter-ethnic relationships. “Law of Return” is more like the movie “Cabaret” than the Christopher Isherwood novella “Sally Bowles” that was its original source. “The Ground You Are Standing On” is the closest to some of Isherwood’s other Berlin Stories in which a character named Christopher Isherwood lived in a Weimar Berlin boarding house and observed bittersweetly comic relationships, including his own, with Berliners, as he made some money giving English lessons.

The final story, “Exile,” brings back the Judaeophile Czech, Lubos, a synagogue with a closeted lesbian rabbi, a kitsched-over concentration camp. It has rich detail and characterization, but seems more a sketch for a multi-character novel than a story that stands on its own.

Insofar as I can tell from the advance descriptions of Hamburger’s forthcoming (in October) first novel, Faith for Beginners, will be closest to “Law of Return,” involving a young midwestern Jewish-American in Israel. I have no idea whether it has the same characters or expands on that story.

Hamburger is a very good story-teller. Most of his stories even have endings, although I tended to launch right into the next story as soon as I finished one. At the end, I felt that I knew more than when I started about postcommunist Prague and about some of the Americans who have gone there for the X-generation’s European seasoning (Paris, London, and Rome having become too expensive, along with Manhattan and San Francisco for would-be writers and other kinds of artists to hang out while finding themselves and amassing Experience.

(On Hamburger, ca. 2019, and his second novel, Nirvana Is Here, see here.)

©2005, 2019 Stephen O. Murray


Ben Lerner’s much heralded first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station

“Nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is.”

Just graduated from a MFA program, Adam Gordon, the narrator of poet-turned-novelist Ben Lerner (1979-) has a year-long fellowship in Madrid to write a “long, research-driven poem exploring the…literary legacy” of the Spanish civil war. I don’t know what his grant application outlined as “research,” but his account of his year in Spain (mostly in Madrid, with side-trips to Barcelona and Granada—where he did not go to the Ahlambra) does not include anything I would consider “research.” Adam inhales a lot of hashish mixed with tobacco, pops a lot of tranquilizers, and imbibes a lot of alcohol. He has a sexual relationship with one Spanish woman (Isabel) and spends a lot of time in the apartment and bed (without coitus) of another (Teresa) and is sponsored by her brother, Arturo, a chic Madrid (Salamanca district) gallery owner, not only in two readings in the gallery but in an elegant bilingual edition of some of his poems.


Adam feels himself a fraud as a poet and a failure at learning Spanish, though his chic associates reassure him on both counts, and for the reading from his book he reads the Spanish translations and his translator (Teresa) reads the English originals.

Adam goes to the Atocha Station not only to take trains to Granada and Barcelona (with Isabel and Teresa, respectively) but after the 3/11/04 terrorist bombing there (the Youtube video he watches is still online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50CKRJUXjzc). That “historical” event has no impact on him, but early on he went to the Prado every day to contemplate Roger van der Weyden’s (1438) painting “The Descent from the Cross,” in which a collapsed Mary parallels the crumpled corpse being take down from the cross. Not that he considers the Crucifixion the hinge of human history or is a believer…

The painting calmed him until, one day, someone else was planted in his usual plot and broke down into tears (a display of emotions of which Adam himself is incapable, but he had pre-empted that invidious contrast in advance by having “long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art,” including poetry. (My favorite line from the book is: “I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. “) With difficulty, he reads Lorca and Cervantes in Spanish, and makes frequent reference to the poetry of John Ashbery (creepily, Ashbery supplied a blurb for the novel) but is more comfortable reading Tolstoy in the musty English translations of Constance Garnett.

I don’t know how autobiographical a memoir the “novel” is, though Adam and his (definitely small-c) creator both poets grew up in Topeka, where their mothers were prominent psychologists, went to Brown University (Lerner has not only a BA in political theory from Brown, but also an MFA), and went to Spain on fellowships (first a Fulbright, then a Guggenheim). (I’d bet that Adam’s favorite movie from his childhood is also the same as Lerner’s the slacker comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” though it is unmentioned in the book. Lerner expands upon this in an interview by Tao Lin at http://www.believermag.com/exclusives/?read=interview_lerner. In it, Lerner also suggests that the novel is “a kind of virtual poem,” and eagerly asserts that “some of Adam’s more contemptible aspects and his tendency toward a kind of self-contempt and anxiety shade into my own.”)

The literature of American expatriates in Spain is small (Richard Wright, bits of Chester Himes’s memoirs, and Whit Stillman’s movie “Barcelona” and what else?), especially in comparison to that of expatriates in Paris. Lerner sometimes strings together Hemingway-short sentences, though also including more lyrical flights of descriptions. The self-centeredness of Adam reminded me of the books of Geoff Dyer (which I like better). The difficulties of understanding and being understood in another language more directly recalls Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never an End to Paris, particularly Matas’s encounter with his landlady, Marguerite Duras (who also provided advice as a writer to Matas, who really was her tenant in Paris). (In the Lin interview, Lerner said that “line of antiheroes cataloged in Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. is probably my most immediate company in some sense.”)

Although I think Leaving Atocha Station overpraised (the paperback opens with four pages of blurbs and extracts from laudatory reviews, enough to have put me off in advance, even though I did not read them until I’d read the book). I can see bases for considering Lerner “the American Roberto Bolaño,” though Lerner had only written one poet-centered novel) and I prefer Leaving Atocha Station to Tao Lin’s even more overpraised similarly disaffected, drug-addled-portagonisted “novel,”


©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles

The jacket flap of the Library of America’s edition of the first three novels by Paul Bowles (1910-99) characterizes the second, Let It Come Down (1952), as “a horrific account of a descent into nihilism.” Much of Bowles’s fiction seems nihilistic to me, and Nelson Dyar, who has gone through WWII as a teller in a New York City bank, strikes me as a nihilist — if a nebbish can be a nihilist — from the beginning, when he arrives in Tangier to work for Wilcox, the son of his family doctor, who has a travel agency there. That is a cover for smuggling business, and Wilcox intends to have Dyar take the risk of transporting currency, not drugs. Halfway through the novel, Dyar has his first experience of hashish, and consumes a lot of it while he is in hiding in a remote mountain house owned by Thani, who has just bought a boat and transported Dyar there.


The scale is much smaller (20,00 pounds rather than forty million dollars) than the smuggling of The Godfather of Kathmandu. Until the altered consciousness induced by majoun (the Moroccan hashish concoction), Dyar seems like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley (who did not appear in print until 1955), resentful and then seizing an opportunity (not involving murder), though the affectless nihilistic Mersault of Camus’s Letranger seems something of a model. (Bowles taught a course on existentialism and the novel at San Fernando State in 1958. (I’d like to see the syllabus for that!).

The novel sags in the middle third, or at least my attention flagged. I guess I was more interested in the competition between Dyar and the obese American, Eunice Goode, for the uneducated Moroccan prostitute, Hadija. 1952 readers, even any of whom had read Jane Bowles’s one novel, Two Serious Ladies (published in 1943) would have recognized the frustrated hankering for control of Hadija as based on (the not-obese) Jane Bowles’s fixation on Cherifa, which began in 1948. Insofar as Thani also wants to bed Hadija, I guess it is more than a triangle.


There is a lot of rain, with the book’s title comes from what Macbeth says just before he slays Banquo.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A Beautifully Wrought Memoir of Traumatizing Losses and Dislocations

The Betrayal: Nerakhoon” (2008) began with Laotian refugee Thavisouk (“Thavi”) Phrasavath tutoring anthropologist Ellen Kuras in Lao during the mid-1980s. She videotaped him and his family some then and later shot some more interviews with him. He got involved in editing footage of an interview of his mother.

Kuras felt that the movie needed footage of Laos. Since the US government is still attempting to deny it fought a war in Laos (dropping more bombs there than the total tonnage the US dropped during two world wars), film shot from the Nixon era, when Thavi’s father worked with the US military remains classified.

In the 21st century Thavi was able to revisit his birthplace and track down the two sisters who were left behind. (They were at her mother’s when the human-smugglers came and said “We’re leaving now.” Thavi had swum across the Mekong earlier. His father was taken away for “re-education.) There is some poetic footage of rural Laos both in the movie and in a DVD bonus short, and footage of very emotional reunions of Thavi and his sisters (one was 18, one three when he left, and the younger one was adopted and take far north within Laos).

Thavi recalls someone in his hometown asking where he’s from and not believing “I was born and grew up here,” though, unfortunately, that was not filmed.

Most of the documentary (which was nominated for an Oscar) was shot in the US. The denial of the war in Laos continues to justify any benefits for the Laotians who were left behind when the US pulled out (any similarity to Hmong who fought with the Americans is completely not coincidental).

The wife of the Royal Laotian colonel/liaison to the USAF and the eight children who made it to Thailand were eventually granted asylum in the US, taken from the refugee camp in Thailand, and dumped in a crack house in Brooklyn. Not an easy adjustment in their second relocation, with physical safety much less than in the refugee camp.

As the eldest, Thavi had to try to father his younger siblings in an unfamiliar and dangerous environment. And Thavi resented having to father a brood he did not create, etc. There’s a very major surprise that I don’t want to reveal. It is perhaps surprising that there is only one funeral in the movie’s story, but it was filmed very revealingly, both for showing the cultural tradition and the family dynamics.
Though not obtrusive, I realize that the editing by Thavi is really, really good. He may not have known what a jump-cut is, but without any technical training, he brought out dramas in what Kuras shot. Howard Shore provided music with some gentle chanting and poignant string-playing that enhanced the images and very candid interview footage.

The betrayal of the title is the US government’s betrayal of the Laotian officers who worked with(/for) it, but there is at least one other major, heartbreaking one shown. (And, perhaps, Col. Phrasavath’s targeting US bombs onto the part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos [there is no question that Laos’s neutrality was massively violated by North Vietnam troops and supplies moving along it]).

The disappointment in the liberators (American, then Pathet Lao), the anguish of trying to get by in Thailand and less-than-welcoming America is somewhat familiar to me from the poignant autobiographical novels by T. C. Huo, Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles; and the difficulty of holding a large Southeast Asian family together in an American slum from Andrew X. Pham’s luminous memoirs Catfish and Mandela and The Eaves of Heaven; Uyen Nicole Huong’s trilogy Daughters of the River Huong, Mimi and Her Mirror, and Postcards from Nam; GB Tran’s graphic novel Vietnamerica; and Andrew Lam’s memoir Perfume Dreams and  collection of stories Birds of Paradise Lost. Perhaps such background, and other refugee stories such as “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” made it easier for me to understand “Betrayal,” though what Thavi and his mother felt at various times over the 23 years of the movie’s gestation is probably clear enough. The DVD includes some newsreel footage on the US air war, a trailer, a stills gallery, and a commentary track.

©2010,2017 Stephen O. Murray