Sunday, September 09, 2007

Stories trapped within the cracks

There is a pivotal dialogue in the 2002 Stephen Frears film, Dirty Pretty Things, about the immigrant’s experience in Britain: “We are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your cocks.” Marina Lewycka’s (pictured) second novel, Strawberry Fields, is an accomplished reconfirmation of the truth of this statement – a hard-hitting reprising of the many horrors that starry-eyed immigrants face in the West.

One Ukrainian, three Poles, a Malawian, a Chinese, a Malaysian and Vitaly from somewhere in east Europe, work on a strawberry farm in Kent, where they pick strawberries for a meager wage, most of which is deducted to meet living expenses. Yet, there is an unhurried amicability to their work environment, with the men and women staying in two different trailers and their leader Yola encouraging the men to work with their shirts off because that ensures a “pleasing sexual harmony” within the group.

To this setting comes Irina, a Ukrainian girl, who is running away from a family she now fears she never had. Her father has deserted her mother for a much younger woman and Irina, buoyed by charming visions of the fictitious Mr. Brown, has come to England to make a life for herself. At the farm, she meets Andriy, a handsome Ukrainian miner who lost his father in a mining accident, and has come to the West because the accident that killed his father (a wall collapsed on the other side, when it could as easily have fallen Andriy’s way) has so haunted him that he cannot imagine returning to work inside a mine.

When an incident involving their proprietor, Farmer Leapish, threatens to get out of hand, the gang is forced to go on the run, launching a cross-country trip that takes them to different places, both geographically and emblematically. Vitaly, their erstwhile colleague, is now a mobilfonman, working as a “dynamic-edge cutting-employment solution recruitment consultant”, a euphemism for an agent who masks low-paying jobs as lucrative career options.

The Poles – Marta, Tomasz and Yola – find themselves working on a chicken farm, but here comes a statutory warning: Don’t read these parts if you are a non-vegetarian. It would take you off chicken forever. From fattening chickens so they’d yield bigger breast portions to scalding and electrocuting them, the barbarous underbelly of the chicken trade is showcased in blinding light. It is unfathomable where that fresh-looking, cellophane-packed chicken leg that you buy from an air-conditioned supermarket is coming from.

Irina, forever looking at Natasha and Pierre from War and Peace as ideals in her quest for romance, begins to see what her parents meant when they warned her about the dangers of a single girl looking for work in England. Her ordeal begins when she is abducted by a slimy agent and separated from the group. The reader can’t wait for her to be reunited with Andriy which, fortunately, happens soon enough.

There are segments in the book where its tenor may betray a fondness for Communism, and it is easy to flow along, given Lewycka’s frank portrait of the dark pedestal on which the capitalist excesses of the West rest. Yet, such an analysis is not strictly correct. If Andriy is wearied by his experiences in Britain, Irina continues to believe that it is much better to be ruled by a local thug than by the Kremlin. Also, Vitaly’s life story, narrated moments before his death, brings out both the ill-effects of Communism in east Europe, and also, Lewycka’s ability to imbue negative characters with grayness.

At a time when volcanic shifts in the global economy are engendering new fissures between peoples and societies, Strawberry Fields should be compulsory reading for anyone who wishes to delve into the human stories trapped within the cracks.

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From St. Petersburg Times

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