In 2016 Australia, fear is not an emotion, but rather an idea. As my father taught me, Europe looks to the next war, as the past frequently shadows the present.
Two years after I migrated to Australia my father died, and my mother told me I had killed him. Personally, I don’t believe that people can be that powerful, but I understood what she meant. I had been my father’s anchor, and without me there he had felt too light to stay. My father had been “through the war”, as we euphemistically called it. That meant that nobody was allowed to lock the toilet door and that we took turns in playing cards with him at night. Although he was our hero during the day, the dark undermined his resolve. It always brought back the same question: what if today is 1939? He was afraid that he would miss the telltale signs. Again. You read a book, by an artist, or a Jew, or a communist, in Berlin, those last few months before the war, and you want to yell at them to get out, now, while they still can. But history isn’t history until it has happened, and nobody knows they are in it while they are. What if we don’t know either? What if my father is right and this is 1939?
We’ve got Trump getting his line-up together and annoying the Chinese through a phone call with Taiwan. That is bad enough. But on the periphery of international politics, the US is bombing Yemen. Cruise missiles on radar sites, for the moment, in an unholy alliance with Saudi Arabia, the country that even executes members of its own royal family. Seven thousand dead so far, 2.8 million displaced, 14.4 million with not enough to eat: anything to block Iran from expanding its influence in the region. A little further north is the rubble of Aleppo, where the fighting, ABC News tells me, is probably a “precursor of something far worse ahead”. It takes Philip Williams perhaps a minute to present his case for a “hot war” between Russia and the Coalition: Crimea and Ukraine, aerial incursions by Russian planes into Europe, the Russian/Turkish pipeline deal, warships deployed to the Black Sea, missiles in Kaliningrad that can reach Poland and Germany, and the suspension of three nuclear agreements. Not that much later, The Guardian takes Cold War 2.0 for granted. Apparently, while we weren’t watching, the paradigm has shifted and now the shit is going to hit the fan. By that time I have already heard Turnbull call Syria a proxy war and watched Gorbachev say that “the world has reached a dangerous point” and that “renewed dialogue” would be a good idea. According to the old man, trust between the big powers has collapsed and that increases the risk that one-day nuclear weapons will be used “as a result of either accident or technical failure or of the evil intent of man.”
Over the last ten years, I have been trying to understand my new country. To my mind, that means reading books. One of them starts with the famous T.S. Eliot lines, by way of epigraph: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”. In Neville Shute’s On the Beach, the world has already disappeared, by accident, as Gorbachev now warns. Egyptian-manned Russian planes, then an Albanian bomb on Naples and suddenly the fate of the planet is in the hands of a junior officer in China. WWIII has been and gone in the Northern Hemisphere, killing everybody. Australia and New Zealand have been spared so far, but the nuclear fallout is coming and people know they’ve only got roughly six months to live. Their job is to quickly develop “the imagination” to deal with that. Shute was a Brit, and I suspect that On the Beach was partly his way to come to terms with the fact that most Australians lack that imagination. In Europe, the next war is easy to visualise, because the previous ones are woven into the fabric of daily experience. Years ago, my upstairs neighbour in Utrecht was doing some renovations when guns started falling out of his newly opened ceiling. There were boxes of bullets too, and detailed maps of the area. I interviewed a Jewish couple once, who had survived Sobibor. When I left, they gave me a package, “just in case”. It contained soap, food and a roll of waterproof surgical tape. No imagination needed.
She had been made to march, Kalashnikov by her side, in parades celebrating the “fatherland” only 25 years ago. That is not history, but somebody’s teenage experience.
In Australia, it is almost impossible to have a real conversation about a fearful future. Although there was the “yellow peril”, the bombing of Darwin and the submarines in Sydney harbour, fear here is not an emotion, but an idea. It is not genetically implanted, there are no inherited dreams of death and torture, or the instinct to always look for the exit. Australians are used to choosing their fate, not being swept up in some collective craziness. No boots on the ground and only limited conscription. Trump and Putin scare us, but danger is always “over there” somewhere, never really in our own front yard. We listen to James Brown say that the probability of a war in the South China Sea is “small”, but “real and increasing”, but only hear the word “small”.
I say “us” and “we” now, because after a decade I have become at least partly Australian. A mongrel, an in-betweener, somebody with a two-tone identity. I have become emotionally and mentally lazy, too. It is difficult not to be happy when the sun is shining, but I see that as a trap and a failure of nerve. This lightness is not the absence of a burden, but the guilty release of it. I feel I have to keep looking fear and terror in the eye instead of letting myself be distracted by the smell of the frangipani and the celebratory yellow of the wattle. It is too easy to forget that Australia, although it seems real, is a mirage, an escape. Like watching reruns of Home and Away when you should be reading Voltaire in French.
Two-time Miles Franklin winner Alex Miller once wrote that more than a delineated reality, Australia is “Fairy-land, an other-world. A land imagined and dreamed, not an actual place” (The Ancestor Game – Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1992). It is the place of “extraterritoriality”, “both an enviable liberation and a fate more terrifying than anything imagined”. Especially for a migrant like me, that rings true, and more so in times of global threats. The freedom this country gives me, of squinting in the sun instead of keeping an eye on the door, comes at a price. Miller calls us “wanderers in search of ourselves”, people who have even forgotten their own names (The Sitters – Allen and Unwin, St. Leonards, 1995). Although we would like to be shape-shifters, we have lost all form and outline; we have emptied, rather than doubled ourselves. By getting out, I feel I have also forfeited having a voice in deciding what will become history one day. Just as the Flying Dutchman can’t have an opinion in a discussion about belonging, place and roots, the migrant to the lightest country on the planet needs to be silent on the weight of past and future.
I find it a difficult choice. Do I want to be safe and guilty, or risk my life and be a Mensch?
When journalists asked the Dutch Minister for Defence a few weeks ago what was going on with the EU, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said that as far as she could see, the Cold War is back. She had just returned from a visit to Albania, where her colleague, Mimi Kodheli, had told her that she had been made to march, Kalashnikov by her side, in parades celebrating the “fatherland” only 25 years ago. That is not history, Hennis explained, but somebody’s teenage experience. It reminded me of another interview, this time in The New York Times, with a blogger in Northern Ireland. During the Brexit referendum, most Catholics there voted to remain, while most Protestants opted to leave. Now Brexit is a fact, there will again be an EU border between the Republic of Ireland and the North. There is a good chance, the man said, that this would stir up “deep ancestral passions”. He called it the “vanity of small differences”, but they can be, as we know in Europe, deadly.
During the war, my grandfather was a GP in a small rural community on the Dutch-German border. It was heavily fought-over territory and often allied planes were shot out of the air, landing their pilots in the marshes and creeks close by his practice. Farmers would go out to find them, after which he would pick them up, tied to the back of his motorbike. My mother remembers holding the torch while her father operated on the men, without anaesthetic, but with the promise of a glass of jenever, Dutch gin, afterwards. The flyers’ dog tags were kept in the wardrobe, behind the baby’s cot, so they could be sent to the Red Cross later. In 1943 my grandfather was ratted out by two of his patients and sent to jail. After three months, my grandmother was called up to sign the execution order. She was a beautiful, almost regal woman who spoke German better than the officer in charge. She threw a tantrum, fainting over the ink-filled pen and breaking it on top of the paper that had her husband’s name on it. The German was a fool, or impressed, or half in love with her. In any case, a few weeks later my grandfather was released in return for the GP practice, full of antique furniture and art. After the war, they got a letter from General Eisenhower, thanking them, “on behalf of the President of the United States” and the American people, for their “gallant service”. But it cost my grandparents, like my dad, many nights’ sleep.
Could I? Would I dare? Would I be the snitch or the resistance worker? Or somebody eager to turn a blind eye and look away? Can I pass my own test, or am I here so I don’t have to be confronted with that choice? The Americans are now openly talking about a civil war, and after Brexit and two years of desperate refugees, Europe seems ready to turn on itself as well. “They” are now a group that is larger than ever, while “us” is shrinking by the day. In that regard, Australia functions differently too. Of course, this is one of the most racist countries in the world. But it is a childish, slightly silly kind of racism, where we hate all Asians, but not Bao, because she is our friend and therefore somehow not Asian.
Hidden by the Germans, fed by the French, clothed by the Belgians… he was convinced that people were instinctively good. I dream his dreams.
One of my best friends, who lives in London, told me that “go back to where you came from” is now an accepted utterance in the city that took in the Huguenots; that verbal incontinence is gripping the nation and everybody, from the Turkish hairdresser to the Greek neurosurgeon, is fair game. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world”, Theresa May said in early October, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t know what the very word ‘citizen’ means.” My friend, who is Dutch, and her Iraqi husband, whose passport is in a drawer at the Home Office somewhere, are worried and getting ready to sell their house. Would I shelter them? Here, in Australia? Absolutely. Because our hatred of difference is amorphous, abstract and still immature, it has gaps that can be filled with individuals, people we like. Besides, we are not even really capable of something as passionate as hatred. That requires a national character that doesn’t subscribe to “she’ll be right” and “no worries”.
But what about helping them out in Europe? Could I do it there, and risk the lives of my daughter and her family? My new granddaughter? My mother and siblings, my other friends? Europe is schooled in hatred, in paranoia, fear and division. The last war is only one generation ago and Aleppo, Mosul and Sana’a are dangerously close. I find it a difficult choice: either the loneliness of the long-distance worrier or back to the place that is weighed down by too much history, as Alex Miller once rightfully claimed. But I would be responsible there, and with people who understand the fear. Do I want to be safe and guilty, or risk my life and be a Mensch?
Despite his nightmares, my father was a big believer in people. A practical humanist, held together by the kindness of Russian and Polish fellow-prisoners and the knowledge that most Germans were appalled by the ugliness perpetrated in their name. In the last year of the war, his right thumb was caught in one of the machines and his wardens sent him on his way, digit in a calico bag. He walked for two months, mostly at night, to get back home. He was hidden by the Germans, fed by the French, clothed by the Belgians. After the war, even before the EU was a fact, he set up an artists’ collective, with fellow sculptors and painters from every country around. Although he was convinced that people were instinctively good, his biggest fear was that they were also lazy and not that smart. He never read Neville Shute, but the accidental bombing by the Americans of his hometown of Nijmegen reinforced that belief. I am his daughter. I dream his dreams. I don’t begrudge Australia, my heartland, its lighthearted naivety. But naivety isn’t innocence, and sleepwalking is only acceptable if it is an illness. Maybe instead of being my father’s anchor, I can do the same for my new country. And earn myself a raison d’être. And a place.