Wednesday, April 28, 2010

No Place to Be

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey
by Isabel Fonseca

Duke of Egypt
by Margriet de Moor

My sister-in-law introduced me to Margriet de Moor, and the jury is still out for me. I'm going to read at least one more of her books to see if she is someone whose work I want to follow closely. de Moor is Swedish, but of course I read an English translation of her book. There is a certain cryptic-ness about her writing style that bugged me a bit - there is a simmering anger between one of the main characters and his father-in-law, but the reader has to put clues together to figure out the source of the animosity. That cryptic feel is sort of like William Faulkner, with the added awkwardness of this being a translation, so you wonder if there is just something you are missing because of cultural idioms or subtle nuances that do not come across the language barrier.

Nevertheless, the story itself is good. For many years I have had a certain fascination with the Romany people of Eastern Europe, better known as "Gypsies." Many people have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that the Roma were also a group targeted by Hitler for extermination. The main story of Duke of Egypt is about a Roma man who marries a non-Gypsy, a woman horse breeder and trainer. There is an interesting storyline about how they raise a family and navigate their different social mores and world views. Joseph, the Gypsy, leads a pretty conventional life, but cannot always tame his wanderlust. Lucie, his wife, is more or less resigned to his hitting the road each summer and traveling with his family of origin. Joseph does not do anything really bad on these extended road trips, but he misses the life of storytelling, singing, extended family, and horse trading in which he grew up. He has to get his annual "fix" if he is to tolerate life on a farm the rest of the year.

Joseph and Lucie are an interesting pair, but I was really more moved by what I would call the back story of Joseph and his people. Through flashback, Joseph recalls the centuries of displacement and mistreatment of his people, as well as his own family's wanderings. There is a certain amount of wandering that is part of the Roma culture, but de Moor depicts very poignantly how a lot of their movement is forced. They might temporarily settle in a place and even set up a camp, intending to stay a few weeks or months, only to be visited by local police and told that they have 24 hours to move on. Apparently, the Roma are not really accepted anywhere, even the ones who engage in respectable work like shoe making, or the ones who travel with appropriate permits and other paperwork. That constant rejection was what haunted me about this book, as well as the evidence of ongoing contempt for the Roma people that goes back generations and continues to be a factor in their wandering even today. It is one thing to move around a lot by choice, and another to live on the move because there is no place for you to be.

Years ago I read a non-fiction history of the Romany people by Isabel Fonseca called Bury Me Standing. I'm going to have to pull that out again, I think. If you have no prior knowledge of Gypsy life, I would recommend reading Bury Me Standing before Duke of Egypt. Both give us insight into this little understood and much maligned group of people who are God's children as much as any of the rest of us.

Reverent Reader


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