At the height of the refugee crisis in Germany, the following slogans made their appearance on the Hamburg streets: Wir sind alle illegal (We are all illegal) paired with Kein mensch ist illegal (No human being is illegal). Folk sources attribute the second statement to the Jewish writer Elie Wiesel, who is reputed to have said in an interview, “Human beings can be just or unjust, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal? That is a contradiction in terms.” Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel, The Year of the Runaways, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, examines just this contradiction: the strictly political categories of visas, work permits and illegal immigrants, and the uncategorisable human beings who fall through them. Sahota’s first book, Ours are the Streets (2011), told the story of a British-Asian suicide bomber, radicalized during a visit to Pakistan; his second looks at the lives of young men (and one woman) living in Sheffield, attempting in their different ways to escape from their own pasts while they evade Britain’s strict immigration laws. Both novels thus deal with existence on the brink of disaster: the lives of migrants, legal and illegal, who are self-propelled into situations of extreme risk and unpredictability. Sahota’s interest, like Greene’s before him, is in “the dangerous edge of things,” exposing the abyss of poverty, need, and suffering that lies just a hand’s breadth away from the façade of a “civil society” in the modern West.
The Year of the Runaways is a deliberate departure from the confessional, monologic structure of Sahota’s first novel. Instead, it interweaves four life histories: those of Randeep, Avtar, and Tarlochan, young men who share a house with ten others in Sheffield, working on building sites and chip shops to support themselves or send money home, and Narinder Kaur, a devout British Sikh woman who is Randeep’s “visa-wife.” Randeep and Avtar do have visas, obtained under false pretences: Randeep’s through his “marriage” with Narinder and Avtar through his enrollment as a student in a London college. Both, however, are in Britain to work (illegally) and earn enough money to bring over their families and repay family debts. Indeed, Avtar has already sold a kidney in India to fund his passage. Neighbours in India, where Avtar had a relationship with Randeep’s sister Lakhpreet, the two young men rarely mention their families or visa arrangements; not precisely friends, but enforced mates in the sordid underworld of immigrant laborers without papers or identities.
Tarlochan, or Tochi, is the true illegal, a Bihari Dalit youth whose family was brutally killed by upper-caste rioters and who has made his way to Britain from France through well-established human trafficking routes. Difficult, taciturn, conscious of the burden of oppression, resentment, and anger he carries, Tochi is by far the most intensely imagined of Sahota’s characters. Initially he passes himself off as a Jat from the Punjab, but his identity as a “chamaar” is discovered early enough, and he finds that the caste system has followed him to Britain. The only person unaffected by this prejudice is Narinder, a gentle, good, and deeply religious individual who lives on her own in Sheffield, with Randeep’s clothes in her wardrobe in order to deceive the immigration officers, and who befriends Tochi when he moves into the downstairs flat.
Sahota balances these four strands of his narrative by alternating longish sections on each character’s past with much shorter, faster-paced sections set in the present, as the young men make dal and rotis in their shared squat, walk the streets in the cold and rain looking for work, and fight when one “steals” another’s job. These sections, full of the expressive patois of the Sheffield streets, inflected by British Punjabi accents, are often brilliant and compelling. Unfortunately, a more substantial part of the narrative focuses on the past histories of the characters, whether in India or, as in Narinder’s case, in England. These remain, I would suggest, imperfectly assimilated within a story of migrant, homeless, high-risk existence in the poorer neighbourhoods of Sheffield, vividly rendered in gripping prose. Sahota’s technique is dictated by one part of his premise, that this is a story about runaways. In order to make that premise credible he needs to establish what these young people are running away from. And, for the greater part he pulls it off, though there is something wearying and repetitive about the individual narratives of suffering, and some reliance upon the most obvious tropes of subaltern existence (as in Tochi’s case). Given the desperation that drives the choices made by illegal migrants, and Sahota’s effort to complicate his narrative by introducing Narinder’s selfless and idealistic sacrifice, we are nevertheless—as in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, a work to which this novel bears comparison—uncomfortable with a relentless procession of misfortunes and disasters. Sahota’s characters, especially Narinder, by far the most complex individual in the group, seem to be struggling to escape from the shells of their own stereotypes.
The Year of the Runaways is a deliberate departure from the confessional, monologic structure of Sahota’s first novel.
The current refugee crisis in Europe, which has seen thousands arriving each day at the borders of Hungary, Austria, and Germany, and which has put unimaginable pressure on the hitherto “open” borders of European countries, has forced us to rethink, urgently, the category of the immigrant. The bombed and ruined cities, the shattered houses, the scenes of death and devastation that these refugees are fleeing, and the unimaginable risks they must take in order to get to Europe, where they are still not secure, somehow puts the stories of these young men into a different perspective. In one respect, it draws us to sympathize with them because we have already abandoned the ideas of the border, the state, and the passport. In another, it reduces, if not the nature, at least the circumstances of their misfortune. Appropriately, perhaps, at least one of Sahota’s characters returns to the land from which he had set out, and we feel nothing but relief that such return is still possible, even if it is accomplished by stretching the imagination. We remember then that Sahota’s characters are not refugees but runaways, not exiles but immigrants. The only figure whom we might think of as a refugee is the woman, Narinder, self-exiled from her family and seeking asylum for her principles and her sense of justice.
In his 1939 poem “Refugee Blues,” Auden imagined the plight of German Jews abandoned in Europe without a country or a passport, stranded in cities which have no room for them:
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.
Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.
Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
As Europe faces perhaps its most significant refugee crisis after the mid-century upheaval in Hungary and the war in Bosnia around the century’s close, it may become necessary for Europeans to reconsider what a visa is and what a passport does. Britain, of course, has steadfastly refused to become part of the Schengen community of states, and it has also turned its face away from the Syrian refugee crisis, accepting only a few hundreds of asylum-seekers to the thousands who are being accepted everyday by Germany. In August 2013, the Home Office undertook a new campaign, with slogans that asked “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.” Additionally, a plan was floated to compel some categories of Asian visitors (including Indians) to take out a 3000 GBP bond in order to obtain even a short-stay visa.
Perhaps Sahota’s novel was written in response to the virulence of this campaign. Certainly it helps to humanize the illegal immigrant, just as his first novel humanized the suicide bomber. In this respect he is very much a political writer, not simply writing about a social problem or about sympathetic individuals, but about the modern state and its responsibility towards human beings who are not necessarily its “subjects.” And the careful structure of his work, balanced as it is between past and present (and future), between individual destinies and community history, between separate threads of narrative and shared predicaments, does help us to think again about questions of citizenship, freedom and happiness. Where it fails is in its willingness to embrace the stereotype, its reluctance to enter more fully into the characters’ psychology and their thoughts. Even Sahota’s most vivid figures, Narinder and Tochi, remain inaccessible in a damaging way. Up to a point their inaccessibility is part of what is most powerful and intractable in the novel, but beyond that point, they become wooden and unfriendly, never quite part of a landscape we might ourselves inhabit. At the end they escape us, at the precise moment that the author gives them into the reader’s charge.
This review was originally published on Biblio.