Placing myself, placing my novels

Sometime in the next few weeks I will take a bus to Málaga and collect my German citizenship papers from the Consulate there. As if having two identities, two countries I can call home is not enough, I am about to acquire a third.

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In 1933, my father, who came from a secular Jewish family in Berlin, left Germany and headed for London. It proved a wise move. He studied and qualified for a new career, changed his name to one that sounded more English and when the Second World War broke out, joined the British army. After the war, he married my mother, also from a European background. Both had by now acquired British nationality. They had three children and lived a more or less conventional life. No German was spoken in our home, we were all baptised and sent to Sunday School; we felt as English as anyone else. In fact I took great pains to conceal my parents’ foreign origins. To be German in the fifties – not so long after the end of the war – was to be associated with the baddies of comics and playground games.

How could I ever have foreseen that in my late sixties, I would be applying to become a German national? For twenty years now I have had a foot in two countries, but neither of them is Germany. The bigger footprint is in Spain, where I’ve lived since 1999; Granada is the place I call home. And yet I still have a stake in the country of my birth. All my family are there; I fly over frequently to see them. I am still more at ease speaking English than Spanish. My sense of humour is more English – and probably a slight eccentricity too. But this split identity does not include Germany. I’ve been there three times, the last in 1974 on my way to Kathmandu. I studied German at school up to A-level but have rarely used it since. However, with a chaotic Brexit looming, I am liable, along with several million others – Britons resident in Europe and Europeans resident in Britain – to have my whole life overturned if the UK ceases to be part of Europe. Spain does not allow dual nationality; Germany does. So when the German government offered citizenship to the descendants of all those forced to flee by the Nazis, it seemed only sensible to apply. Together with other members of my family, we assembled the necessary documents and sent them off. My siblings and their children, my son and even my Scottish grandchildren have duly been granted German nationality. How ironic that the country my father fled has now made me one of its citizens with the right to a passport.

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I don’t expect to become German in any meaningful sense. It will ease my life by helping avoid visa applications, border queues and other bureaucratic obstacles whenever I travel to or from the UK. Perhaps I will visit Berlin and explore the city of my paternal roots. Perhaps I will try to brush up my German. But understanding and feeling at home in two cultures is hard enough; I don’t think I could start from scratch with another. Adapting each time I move between my two countries is a disorienting process. The switch from one language to the other is the least part of it. Much trickier are the cultural and lifestyle disparities – more pronounced than I would ever have imagined before I came to live in Spain. The differences shout out at me every time I go back: attitudes to personal space, to touch, to punctuality, to noise levels, to what is regarded as tolerable and what is beyond the pale. The different timetable for eating and sleeping disrupts my body rhythms; I roam the supermarkets bewildered by the vast range of ready meals, shocked at the prices. I feel like an outsider.

When I lived in Britain, the novels I wrote had British settings. The culture was familiar; I’d been immersed in it all my life, absorbed it from birth. But cultures don’t stand still. After ten years or so in Spain, I found I was out of touch with 21stcentury Britain. I could no longer write convincingly of contemporary life. The cultural references familiar to my family and British friends meant nothing to me. Yet setting my fiction in Spain also posed problems. I could write from the viewpoint of guiris, the foreigners resident in Spain, as I did in Secrets of the Pomegranate. The three main protagonists in that novel were English by birth. To write from the perspective of Spanish characters, whether historical or contemporary, presented a much greater challenge. It felt imperative that what I wrote should be authentic enough to convince Spanish as well as native English readers. But did I have the necessary in-depth understanding of the Spanish mind-set and culture, contemporary and historical? After all, I was an outsider here too.

In writing The Red Gene (to be published April 2019), I took on this challenge. Twenty years of living in Spain have given me some insight, or so I like to think. In addition, for the historical parts in particular, I researched widely, reading extensively in Spanish as well as English, watching Spanish films, talking to Spanish friends. However, what helped most, without a doubt, was interviewing older people, recording the small details of their lives as they remembered and recounted them, as they told me their stories. I am immensely grateful to all of them.

Over the years, I have developed a keen interest in the history of my adopted country, in particular its more recent history: the 2nd Republic, the Civil War, Franco’s dictatorship. Learning more about the part played by the International Brigades who came to support the elected government in their fight against fascism led me to wonder if my father had ever considered joining the Brigades. They had a large contingent of Jews – several thousand – from the East End of London, from the United States, Hungary, Germany and above all Poland. Many of them were communists or socialists alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitism. According to some estimates, 70% of the medical volunteers were Jewish. My father wasn’t the fighting type and he’d studied law, not medicine, so it’s unlikely he would have considered it, but he may well have had friends who did. He would certainly have been aware how important it was to support the Spanish Republicans in their fight against the rebels, who without the help of Hitler and Mussolini would not have succeeded. How I would love to have discussed all this with him but he died in 1972 when I was barely grown up. Neither of us could have anticipated that I would develop such an interest in 20th century European history or that the war in Spain would form the background to a novel I would one day write.

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