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Thursday, 3 July 2008

Jane Kramer's Unsettling Europe (1980) has, mercifully, no subtitle. It has no subtitle because it was published, by Random House, at a time when subtitles were not de rigeur.

Kramer told Robert Boynton that she likes "looking at a story through a particular personal lens so that I'm not simply analyzing or asking 'Whither the world?'"

"I try to find the people within the larger story," she says (The New New Journalism, 2005).

In Kramer's case, the 'larger story' had not yet even become a story. In those days the big news was Ronald Reagan bombing Lybia and Margaret Thatcher invading the Faulkland Islands.

Kramer writes about things that would become the main story later particularly, in this book, the stories 'The Invandrare' (p 77, written in 1979), 'The Uganda Asians' (p 121, written circa 1974), and 'Les Pieds Noirs' (p 169, written in 1971).

The story that opens the book, 'The San Vincenzo Cell' (p 1, written in 1979) was the last one written. It is the longest and, despite demonstrating a sound knowledge of rural Communist Italians, is the least interesting.

This is probably because, as an east coast urbanite, Kramer had less in common with this family than she did with Predrag and Darinka Ilic (ex-Yugoslav workers in Sweden), Akbar and Rabia Hassan (Muslim traders from Uganda of Indian extraction) and Mme and M Martin (ex-colonials from Algeria).

In the last two stories arises the - now pressing - issue of religious extremism within close-knit Muslim communities in northern Europe. In the case of the pieds noirs (ex-colonials from north Africa), we get an insight into colonial society that is entirely missing from normative debate.

None of these people are particularly likeable.

Akbar Hassan terrorises his wife Rabia, who wants to participate more fully in Western lifestyles and community ways. His daughter Zhora is the precursor of young Muslim women in England who end up burned or scarred by acid. Or dead.

Akbar's son Abdullah is "rigidly, pitilessly pious" - the template for young Muslim men in England who carry bombs onto subway cars and blow themselves up.

These are generalisations but I make them simply to demonstrate that people like Kramer were aware - long before the politicians and the pundits - of forces at work that would change the world forever.

I find the Ilic story most interesting because it is so commonplace. Again, Predrag is a bit of a loser. It's Darinka who keeps the boat afloat but the tight family group seems somehow sacred, muscular.

Like a late Romantic Nonconformist missionary in the far east. As here, in Sweden the 'invandrare' are tolerated as long as they remain invisible. There is, says Kramer, something embarrassing about the whole thing, something unseemly in the fact of speaking (or not, most commonly) Swedish badly.

And getting drunk and having fights in public places.

In fact, it was "disgust" with western Europe "pretend[ing] that the west of the continent is just one happy extended family sharing a broad political view" (Neal Acherson in The New York Review of Books) that led to its writing.

Kramer says she is "interested in cultural clashes and implosions" and she is "attracted to puzzling characters". In Unsettling Europe she gives us detailed, intimate encounters with such people and a sketch of social networks not exactly imploding but - set to explode twenty years down the track.

The result of her diligence, sfortunatamente, is that the world ignored her viewpoint, and suffers still.

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