The Queen’s Gambit – Playing The Perfect Game

Netflix drama, The Queen’s Gambit, tells the fictional tale of orphan Beth Harmon, who after a difficult start, goes on to become world chess champion. I loved it. As a bit of geeky fun, here is the story of The Queen’s Gambit told as though it were a chess game. Start the clock.

Beth begins as a pawn, the smallest and weakest piece in the game. She has lost her parents and lives in a 1950s Kentucky orphanage. Her fortunes begin to change when the janitor teaches her chess. After showing great promise, Beth plays boys at a local high school chess club. In chess, a king has a similar range of movement to a pawn, which means the most symbolically important piece is essentially a dressed up version of the least powerful. Beth, as yet only a pawn, soon reveals the high school boys as emperors with no clothes.

Now it’s time to move our knights, pieces which are often involved early in a game. Knights are men who owe their important social position to an accident of birth rather than merit. Is there a subtle nod towards the unfairness of life in the way these aristocratic knights come at their enemies in a sneaky L shaped movement, jumping over other pieces. Beth is not a knight. She was born with no advantages beyond her talent. You could say in playing the boys, many of whom have a sense of entitlement, she is playing against the knights.

So we’ve opened with our pawns and knights. Next, let’s get our castles involved. These pieces move in straight lines, vertically and horizontally. If chess is a model of life, then you could say that castles are all about the straight line virtues – rationality, common sense, technical expertise, and discipline. Beth is a castle in many ways. She is supremely competent, does her homework, and as potential boyfriends find to their cost, can be cold and unemotional. However, Beth is not all castle. Playing the Russian master, Vasily Borgov in Paris, she objects to his “bureaucratic” style. The dour Russian is very much a straight up and down castle. Beth is different, often plays intuitively, sometimes even chaotically, especially when she over indulges in alcohol and tranquillisers, which she feels enhance her instinctive play.

And that brings us to the next piece, the bishop. The enigmatic bishop moves not on the castle’s straight lines, but on diagonals. Beth has an intuitive, almost spiritual aspect to her play. She can enter a trance-like state and see chess pieces moving in beautiful patterns on the ceilings of dark rooms. If any of the pieces symbolise this aspect of Beth’s play, it must be the bishops with their oblique direction of travel. However, nothing is simple in chess, and as with castles, there is a downside with bishops. You could see a tendency to self interest in the fact that the two bishops cannot support each other as the two castles do, because they can never back each other up on the same diagonal. When Beth becomes co-American champion with former child prodigy Benny Watts, it is Benny who points out that the dour Russian champions are strong because they support each other. American players tend to be in it for themselves. Americans are bishops in that sense, isolated on their diagonals. They inhabit the same board, but live in different versions of it, closed off in their dark or light squares. This all seems reminiscent of the closed-minded religious group which tries to offer Beth money to attend a tournament in Moscow, on the understanding that she will present her victories as the triumph of Christian America over atheist Russia. Beth tells Christian Crusade to take their money and get out of her house.

As our game gathers pace, we now have to try and use all these pieces together, balancing their strengths and weaknesses. Beth has to do the same thing with her various personal attributes. She needs to bring castle discipline to the intuitive bishop aspect of herself. In this spirit of compromise, Beth eventually stops drinking, throws her pills away, and finds a way to use her instinctive powers without these props. She works with the castle and bishop sides of her, each one enhancing the qualities and minimising the downsides of the other. In bringing disparate elements together, she also finds a way to work with the knights, her former opponents, who show their best, gallant side in giving supportive advice during a recess in a climactic match against Borgov in Moscow. The turning point against Borgov is the moment when one of Beth’s pawns reaches her opponent’s back row, and is turned into the most powerful piece in chess, not the all-show-and-no-substance king, but the queen – the only piece which combines the straight and diagonal abilities of both castle and bishop. The game has come full circle, the most humble piece transformed into the most powerful. And Beth’s subsequent victory turns out to be everyone’s victory, because this is a triumph where different sides combine to win. Her final success against Borgov pleases no one more than the Russians themselves, who as chess enthusiasts can truly appreciate a game played out between two great competitors. Borgov and Beth join hands, both of them triumphantly holding aloft the defeated black king.

The Queen’s Gambit ends with all the diverse aspects of Beth’s life, her qualities and weaknesses, her friends and opponents all coming together in one beautiful game. That I suppose is what chess can be, and what it suggests life should be. A winner does not have to diminish a loser.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead, An Accidental Classic

The Naked And The Dead is Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel, based on his experiences with the United States Army in the Philippines during World War Two.

Mailer was only 25 when he published this book. In the Introduction to Penguin’s Modern Classics edition, he describes his young self as an enthusiastic amateur writer, who uses too many obvious adjectives with his nouns. But that’s really only the start of it. There are other “school boy errors”. A typical piece of advice given to beginner writers is to be consistent with point of view. I’ve been pulled up on that one myself. The thing is, point of view is all over the place in this book. It can change from one line to another. Beginners will also tend to use all their material, including back-story, while more experienced writers will explore these notes privately to give themselves a hold on a character. Back-story in The Naked And The Dead is shoe-horned into sections awkwardly entitled “Time Machine”. Finally, there’s the fact that young Mailer is trying to emulate a successful writer, a typical stage a novice goes through whilst looking for their own voice. Most days, before setting to work on The Naked And The Dead, our starry-eyed author would read a few pages of his hero, Tolstoy, who clearly influences the book in the way events dominate people rather than the other way round. So you can imagine a keen, promising youngster, thinking he is the new Tolstoy, deciding to write his own War and Peace without too much experience to back up his grandiose ambitions.

But darn it, the 25 year old Norman Mailer largely gets away with it. Maybe he succeeded in writing a bestselling classic through a happy combination of circumstance. The Naked And The Dead was published a few years after the end of World War Two, and during those war years, soldiers were generally portrayed as national supermen. Afterwards, however, Tolstoy would be a useful influence in reassessing the war in a more realistic and human light. As in War and Peace, Mailer’s generals are as powerless as privates when it comes to shaping events. There are no heroes, just a group of people with sore feet, tummy problems, dodgy kidneys, and personality defects, tossed around on the tides of history.

As for Mailer’s point-of-view-hopping style, the army is a many headed monster with one body – so the variable view point just happens to be an effective way to explore the beast

There is a very telling episode towards the end of the book, when a less than competent officer, Major Dalleson, finds himself thrown into command while his general is away. Most men in The Naked And The Dead go through agonies of endurance for no reward, just as most writers toil on their manuscripts for years and never find a publisher. In contrast, Dalleson finds his cack-handed decisions just happen to work out successfully. In effect he finds himself defeating the Japanese by mistake over the course of an afternoon. In a similar way, you might say that the young Mailer, dashing through this 700 odd page book in just 15 months, wrote a classic by accident. It shouldn’t work but it does.

Despite reservations, I did end up admiring The Naked And The Dead. This was because I came to feel that the many soldiers, or writers, who don’t find success in an afternoon can find succour in its pages. The most powerful sections involve men making supreme efforts to achieve a goal, which turns out to be irrelevant. But hope appears unexpectedly, in the way a soldier will characteristically feel the full bitterness of wasted effort just as the sun is coming up. The lack of satisfactory destinations suggests continuity, the reassurance that things will go on no matter what happens. Kipling said we should treat triumph and disaster just the same, and if ever there was a disastrous book which somehow works as a variety of triumph, it’s The Naked And The Dead..

Circe By Madeline Miller – An Alternative View Of Heroes

Circe by Madeline Miller is a modern reworking of The Odyssey, by Homer. This Ancient Greek classic tells the story of Greek warrior Odysseus, who after fighting in the Trojan wars, makes a long and eventful journey home. Circe is one of the characters he meets on the way, a witch living on a deserted island, who uses her magic to turn his men into pigs.

Madeline Miller tells this story from Circe’s perspective. We learn about her childhood as the daughter of Helios the sun god, her aptitude for “phamakos” – the use of plants to make healing and transforming potions – and her banishment to a remote island, for apparently misusing magical powers. In exile, Circe makes a life for herself, developing magical skills, and defending herself from passing sailors who occasionally come ashore looking for food and drink. This is how she eventually meets Odysseus.

There’s much you could say about the unusual woman’s point of view. Circe is traditionally portrayed in the various myths about her, as a predatory woman. She turns trusting men into pigs and seduces travellers. But hang on a moment. What is the likely scenario when a boat load of soldiers, brutalised after a long war, arrive at an island where the only inhabitant is an attractive and lone woman? What might actually happen in this situation? Let’s think. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that from a woman’s point of view, a boat load of heroes looks more like a boat load of vile animals. Now we see that turning those men into pigs is a sensible measure of self preservation, with a metaphorical helping of just desserts.

So the viewpoint is very interesting, and says a lot about the historical portrayal and situation of women.

But I wouldn’t say this book was just about a woman’s perspective on personal power. It’s also about the way people in general try to influence their world and protect themselves. Circe, as daughter of a god, is immortal, which means that all the scars of her trials and tribulations fade away as if they never existed. She realises that in such a situation, it is very difficult to grow, to amount to anything. We also see Circe’s efforts at securing protection rebound on herself. Early in the book, she falls in love with a fisherman, and wanting to protect him from the dangers of his life, transforms him into a god, only to lose him in the arrogant deity she creates. Later, in an effort to protect her son, she gives him a spear tipped with the venomous tail of an ancient sea creature. Inevitably such a dangerous weapon causes an unintended friendly fire incident. These contradictions fill the book, and demonstrate that power itself makes certain things impossible, and security creates its own dangers. By the same token, vulnerable mortals have power and protection that even gods lack.

I recommend Circe. It gives a humane, feminine view of stories which have traditionally been told from a “heroic” male viewpoint. Its nuanced view of power offers a refreshing view of the strength of women. But whether the reader is a man or a women, they can enjoy a fascinating exploration of power and security in general. Circe is like Stonehenge – it has the spirit of something that looks like an ancient fort with mighty walls, but has plenty of space between the stones to allow in the light.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Giving My Opinion Even Though I Wasn’t Asked For It

Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, is the story of Jewish American bachelor Alex Portnoy, as told in a long, intense monologue, apparently to a therapist. The therapist is effectively invisible, saying nothing, serving as a device to let Portnoy talk. Sometimes a book allows you to identify with a central character. Since, in this case, the reader is identified with a silent therapist, there’s a feeling of being separate from the narrative, listening to this intense individual talking in ruthless detail about his Jewish childhood and subsequent relationship history.

So what did I learn through my patient listening? There was some interesting stuff. Identity was a big thing. Much of the book is informed by what is to be Jewish, even though it’s also about trying to escape such labels. If I could get a word in edgeways I would have said that was interesting.

Even more interesting was the idea of guilt. Alex lives in a society which trains you to be obedient through arbitrary rules, often dietary. The idea is that when the time comes to follow rules that are really important, you’ll be ready. But by then you’ve been so confused by arbitrary regulations, and so bruised by capricious punishment, that it’s hard to tell the difference between valid and ridiculous restrictions.

So, that was thought-provoking. But why am I saying these things? This narrator wasn’t waiting for me to say anything. I was there to listen, not offer an opinion. That summed up a feeling around the book that I didn’t enjoy. Portnoy was so self involved. On one occasion he is amazed that a young woman is upset when he breaks up with her, because it’s really only his feelings that count. You can enjoy the quick-fire anecdotes, and laugh at the scandalous humour, but after a while you want to put the book down and talk to someone less self centred – someone who might actually ask your opinion:

“How’s that Philip Roth book you’re reading?”

“Well, thanks for asking. In my view, it’s funny, unsettling, sometimes nauseating, often interesting, and highly self regarding.”

V2 By Robert Harris – Novelists And Rocket Scientists

This book is an account of the development and use of Germany’s V2 missiles during World War Two. The story is told through the eyes of a pair of fictional characters; Rudi Graf, a senior German engineer supervising V2 launches against London from forests in the Netherlands; and Kay Caton-Walsh, a young WAAF officer, involved in an effort to trace V2 launch sites by calculating the missiles’ trajectory. The book’s action only coincides with a few months towards the end of the war, but through Graf’s memories we witness the whole of V2’s history. His recollections begin poignantly with a group of 1930s, sci-fi loving students flying rockets from waste ground near Berlin. The fun ends when the military come calling. Money and facilities are on offer, because rockets could make missiles. The group’s leader Wernher Von Braun, judges that working with the military is a price worth paying as a stepping stone to eventually building a rocket that can reach the moon. The V2 is his reward. But the price is appalling, in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of lives lost – thousands of people died building the thing, twice as many in fact, as died because of the weapon’s use. The book continues to the war’s end, when the German V2 engineers give themselves up to the Allies, and negotiate their subsequent lives building rockets for the American military and NASA’s space program.

So this is a book about lost innocence and awful compromise, where decent people end up doing bad things. There are a lot of contradictions like that. We get the situation of Kay, for example, who as a woman can only observe the big world of major decisions and seemingly significant acts. Even though she is in the RAF, a bone shaking flight to Belgium where the Air Force has its V2 tracking operation, is her first time in an aircraft. And yet her quiet calculations are as vital as the firing of any gun.

A similar ambivalence surrounds the V2 itself, which cost so much in terms of money, lives and energy, and yet in some ways was not significant historically. At vast expense, it could only carry one ton of explosives, whereas a much cheaper British bomber could carry six tons – and thousands of those bombers flew over German cities every night in the latter part of the war. But just to add another layer of contradiction, the V2 did influence developments in weapons and space travel in a hugely significant way after the war.

This brings me to the most striking contrast in the book, the one between exact mathematics, which go into building or tracking V2s, and all the chaos surrounding them. Both Graf and Kay find relief from their wartime lives in the reassuringly exact numbers of their work. And yet in other circumstances numbers are not so comforting. There’s a mathematical-like ruthlessness to Von Braun’s calculations about what compromises he has to make to get his rocket built, for example.

Now I’m going to make a claim for this book, which I don’t make lightly, because fancy claims can easily crash to Earth in an embarrassing manner. But in my opinion this book is a fascinating argument for what novels have to contribute. A novelist cannot make a rocket fly, or track one in flight, but a novel is much better at accommodating contradiction than maths. Novels are good at ambivalence – a novel can even portray maths as ambivalent. In life things are rarely one thing or another, as we see at the end of the book when former combatants from different sides meet to talk. There’s even a hint of romance between Kay and Graf! A novel won’t offer the analytic geometry necessary to get to the moon, but it will offer a little moonlight, softening hard lines – and maybe we need more of that.

Pale Fire – An Internet Rabbit Hole From 1962

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, is also the name of an autobiographical poem the book contains, by fictional academic and poet John Shade – a moving and humorous piece, which sets reflections on mortality alongside riffs about such topics as Gillette razor advertising. Following John Shade’s death, Pale Fire, the poem, falls into the hands of Charles Kimbote, the unfortunate poet’s neighbour, who has arrived from an imaginary east European country, called Zembla, to teach at the local university. Kimbote holes up in a motel where he works on an annotated version of Pale Fire. Through a series of bizarre and misguided factual associations, he attempts to show how the poem reflects much of his own life.

I read Pale Fire as a Kindle edition, and I’m not the first to see that the book is similar to a web document. Taking the form of a commentary, there are naturally many links jumping between poem and explanatory notes. Kimbote careers around his own self-centred web of crazy connections. His thought process is reminiscent of one of those internet algorithmic cul-de-sacs that can take personal quirks and prejudices and turn them into a firm belief in a flat Earth or the evils of 5G.

Using an older analogy you could say that Pale Fire is like a hall of mirrors. But we shouldn’t forget that both internet and hall of mirrors can be a source of fun. So it is fitting that Pale Fire has some very funny sections – such as the account of an assassination attempt where an incompetent hit-man has to keep interrupting the business of assassination to deal with severe diarrhoea.

If you want to have fun, and learn a few things about truth and delusion, I highly recommend Pale Fire. It’s beautifully written, whether dealing with the common place or the elevated. It’s also strangely modern, seemingly waiting for the internet to really show its potential.

The Porpoise By Mark Haddon- Go Forth Young Woman

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon is a reworking of an ancient myth, which involves a king, who after his wife dies, starts an incestuous relationship with his daughter. To keep up appearances the king offers his daughter to suitors who are challenged with a riddle, the answer to which reveals the king’s crime. If a suitor can’t work out the riddle, he dies: if he does work it out, he will also die, at the hands of the king’s henchmen. After many suitors fail and pay the price, a young man – variously known in different versions of the story as Appolinus, Appolonius or Pericles – comes along to try his luck. At the same time as working out the correct answer, he also realises the consequences of revealing it. Asking for time to think, our hero makes his escape. This kick-starts a series of adventures around the Mediterranean, during which, in most versions of the tale, the unfortunate daughter who started it all, is forgotten.

In The Porpoise, this tale is reworked in the modern setting of super wealth. Taking its cue from an unusual variant of the traditional tale where the daughter becomes the central character, Angelica, daughter of a billionaire, survives the death of her mother, but is then preyed upon by her father. Angelica reacts to her awful situation by retreating into the Pericles myth in her head. Within this dream it is women who take control, often in a supernatural way.

So what to make of it?

This book has ambitions to explore the nature of storytelling itself, with all its back and forth between modern story and ancient myth. I was reminded of Joseph Campbell and his famous book The Hero of a Thousand Faces, beloved of Hollywood screen writers. The myths explored by Campbell involve people going out into the world. They prepare, prevaricate, set out on their journey, are helped by mentors, opposed by enemies, end up in a tight spot and make their escape. It all seems to go back to prehistoric fireside training of people getting ready for dangerous trips outside the safety of camp. In The Porpoise, our hero does not go anywhere. In a hopeless situation, she retreats into serious self harm, and escapes in her imagination. The story seems to be a hallucination brought on by stress, loneliness and self starvation.

The heroes in the Campbell mode tend to be young men, rather than young women. So perhaps The Porpoise is a commentary on the way women are more trapped than men, and historically do not typically have that freedom to leave the camp fire and go off on adventures. They have to stay where they are and escape in other ways. This is what Angelica, the rich man’s daughter, does. And then in her dream state she appears to find consolation in discovering that women have supernatural powers that will take their revenge on men in the afterlife, or the mythic realm…. I wasn’t convinced by that. Maybe I’m just a simple fellow, but I have my doubts about the consolations of the supernatural. I would rather Angelica went on an actual journey, and made an actual escape. It is true that the hero of a thousand faces is typically a young man, but I don’t know if it’s satisfying to portray the only option for Angelica as retreat into half starved fever dreams where women take supernatural revenge on bad men.

The Porpoise is cruel and extremely violent, sometimes coming over like a posh horror movie. The detached author voice adds to a feeling of heartlessness. We don’t tend to stick with anyone’s point of view for long, and will often take omniscient authorial detours, into storm clouds for example, or the blood vessels of a man having a heart attack. It was like reading a book written by a pitiless deity rather than a person. This pitiless deity was a very accomplished writer, with a remarkable ability to create a scene in a reader’s mind. But it’s hard to warm to a ruthless writer-god. I can appreciate that the book has qualities, but I was still glad to escape it, as in physically escape it, shut the thing on my iPad and resolve never to open it again.

Light In August – Background Reading For Anyone Tempted To Hide In Books

The political and social state of the world in 2020 is such that it is tempting to retreat into books. That would be the approach of Gail Hightower, a character in William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light In August. He is a former Church minister, forced to resign after the upstanding people of Jefferson Mississippi found out that his wife was an adulterer and had committed suicide. He retreats from the 1930s American South into monastic seclusion, where he tries to find consolation in books.

From the stand-point of wishing to find consolation, reading Light In August can be a demoralising experience. Unpleasant as the world might be, retreat is not presented as an attractive option – Hightower’s house is oppressive, seedy and lonely. But if you do venture outside the four walls, then you face, on the one hand, criminals who care for nothing but themselves, or upstanding folks who are just as bad, since they have gained their position on the basis of a skewed set of values. The police, for example… If you ever wanted a sense of the historical background behind the Black Lives Matter movement, then this book is required reading.

Neither cutting yourself off, nor getting involved, are presented as the answer – which seems to leave a reader without much scope for finding something hopeful. However, by the end I did feel that there was some comfort to be had in this harsh book. It lies with a character called Lena, a sweet, trusting young woman who, whilst in a state of advanced pregnancy, travels on foot across the South in search of her child’s father. The father promised that he was only leaving to find work and would send for Lena once he had set up a nice home for her. Lena is ridiculously naive in believing that her boyfriend’s letter must have got lost in the post, and he is out there somewhere choosing soft furnishings and curtains. She goes looking for him, putting herself in an extremely hazardous position. But even though she has no idea where she might eat or sleep next, help materialises from people wherever she goes, even from people who despise her. Lena gets by, her faith in people seemingly abused, while it is also repaid.

Light in August is not the easiest of reads. There is a lot of chopping and changing of viewpoint, with some characters only introduced to tell a part of the story, which can feel forced. I also found sections of various interior monologues hard work. But I admired Light In August for its modern-feeling exploration of race, religion and morality; and for its own clear eyed, unsentimental sense that things will work out.

Schitt’s Creek – Bringing Liberals And Conservatives Together

In the TV show Schitt’s Creek – now showing on Netflix after a six year run on Canadian and U.S. television – the wealthy Rose family are left destitute when their business manager is charged with embezzlement. They end up moving to a small American town, called Schitt’s Creek, where they live in the local motel. Despite a rocky start to their new life, the Roses soon find the town’s folk accept them for who they are, rather than for how much money they might, or might not, have. This acceptance extends to the Rose’s bisexual son David, who finds love in Schitt’s Creek, when he couldn’t find it in New York.

I loved the show, but there was something about it that puzzled me. Why was this small American town so liberal and tolerant? In reality, rural America was a generous source of votes for Donald Trump. Election maps show a stark divide between liberal, densely populated cities and conservative, sparsely populated countryside. Social scientist, Jonathan Rodden of Stanford University has recently published a book, called Why Cities Lose, trying to explain this split. There are various theories – some going back into history: one idea suggests that people with personalities more open to new experience headed for the nineteenth century’s emerging industrial towns, while those of a more cautious, conservative bent tended to stay on the farm.

This urban rural divide has become increasingly deep in recent times, exacerbated by voting systems which give too much weight to physical size of voting area. The fact that liberal-voting city dwellers are packed into small areas, can give them less electoral clout compared to fewer rural voters spread out in larger spaces. This is a particular problem in the United States, where Democrat candidates can win with massive majorities in urban areas, but lose by slim margins in many rural locations. With a first past the post system, the result is fewer seats for Democrats than their individual votes would actually represent, which is how Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, even though more people voted for her. So you end up with a gulf between conservative people using electoral advantages to hold onto their world view, resentful of city dwellers becoming wealthy due to urban economic advantages, who in turn feel they are unfairly represented politically.

How to overcome this divide? Schitt’s Creek has a go by disguising a racially diverse, culturally tolerant city, as a small town. Despite frequent linking shots of out-of-the-way grain silos and quiet railway crossings, there is much of the nature of a densely packed city existence in Schitt’s Creek. The Rose family are thrown together physically, in two neighbouring motel rooms, when up until now they have led isolated lives in luxury apartments. They are also obliged to live and work closely with various different sorts of people around them.

So, is this city-like town just a delightful fantasy? Is it a way of escaping the painful realities that are dividing many countries, America especially? Partly I think the answer is yes, but it’s not quite as simple as that. After all, urban life has pitfalls. The economic advantages of a city can create great wealth, and there is nothing like money for cutting people off in an entitled bubble. The Roses are not bad people, but they did fall into the isolating money trap during their glory days. A small town is a good place to strip away the wall of wealthy sophistication, and get back to relating to people in a more real, down-to-earth way. Johnny Rose, former head of the massive Rose Video chain, takes an interest in the dilapidated motel that has become his home, and starts working with its manager to try to make improvements. This means cleaning rooms, and workin g on the reception desk. Johnny’s son, David, opens a shop where he learns that you have to welcome customers, rather than keeping them away in the interests of exclusivity. Johnny’s daughter, Alexis, finds herself in a real relationship with the local vet, in contrast to her wealthy life, which had her moving through a series of high-profile but empty liaisons. Johnny’s wife, Moira, once a TV soap star, finds herself working with locals in singing groups and amateur drama productions.

In the end, understanding and acceptance of others is the key, and Schitt’s Creek suggests that aspects of both city and rural life can help us with that. The trick is to combine the best, and limit the downsides, of both.

If you haven’t seen the show I won’t give away the outcome, other than to say that if the Roses learnt a few things living in Schitt’s Creek, I learnt a few things watching them. Bravo, Dan and Eugene Levy, and their great cast. You made a show for our times.

Two Caravans

Two Caravans by Maria Lewycka is about the experience of immigrant workers in the UK. It starts out as a kind of people-trafficking gangster story, before evolving into a romance about two young people from different sides of the Ukrainian train tracks. Overall though, Two Caravans is what you might call a political novel, in the sense that it describes social injustices.

This being a novel, rather than a political tract, we see issues from many angles. As the story unfolds, we learn that people from overseas coming to find work in the UK are much safer and less vulnerable to exploitation if they are in the country legally. Then we learn that if people are working legally they are more expensive to employ. Legislation regarding minimum wage, or health and welfare, will apply to them. By contrast, illegal workers have no such costly protections. This leaves them defenceless and expendable, which in turn makes them attractive to some employers – because they are cheap and easy to get rid of if necessary. The employers of the cockle pickers who died at Morecombe Bay in 2004 are an example. So you end up in a situation where making people illegal, produces a job market for them, which might come as a shock for those of a nationalist bent. The desire to “keep immigrants out” in a twisted sort of way, makes a country more likely to attract desperate migrants seeking work. There are some unfortunate people who actually want to be illegal, dangerous as that might be, because it gives them a better chance of finding a job.

Two Caravans does not provide an easy answer to such conundrums. Novels are not usually a good place to find straightforward solutions to social problems. They are, however, very good at allowing us to experience the world as someone else might see it. There is something about the way a character voice sounds in our head that makes it very immediate. To some degree, we become, for example, a Ukrainian strawberry picker toiling in a Kent field. In the end, a capacity for empathy is the best way to encourage people to act compassionately. You can have rules and regulations, but the union reps and social warriors depicted in Two Caravans do not have all the answers. On top of legislation, or idealistic, progressive efforts, you must have fellow feeling, a sense that I could be in that person’s shoes. This understanding will make us treat each other better. The way in which a novel can cultivate this empathy is an important part of what makes it valuable as an art form.

So, I admired Two Caravans. Point of view does jump around a lot, which can occasionally be confusing. I have to admit to not being convinced by the dog’s point of view. So the dog doesn’t know punctuation, or lower case letters, but does know capitals? Even as a kind of shorthand for a non-human viewpoint, this was a bit odd for me. But that detail aside, by the end of the book I was glad to have seen things from so many angles; yes, even the dog’s. The book is funny, shocking, depressing, intelligent, and is a contribution to people’s understanding of each other in our divided times.