New Novels of Migration

Kamran Nazeer in Prospect:

Eva Hoffman’s memoir of migration, Lost in Translation, first published in 1989, begins aboard a ship leaving Poland 30 years earlier. “We can’t be leaving all this behind,” writes Hoffman in her dismay, “but we are.” Looking ahead, she describes “an erasure, of the imagination, as if a camera eye has snapped shut.” Her family is moving to Canada, a place of which Hoffman knows nothing more than “vague outlines, a sense of vast spaces and little habitation.”

By contrast, Isabel, the protagonist of Hoffman’s new novel, Illuminations, is heavily laden with the culture of other places. On arriving in Budapest, Isabel, a concert pianist and an Argentinian by birth, “walks along the grand avenues and the ordinary streets.” It is her first visit, “yet the city corresponds to something she recognises.” In many of the cities that she visits, Isabel has friends, access to cliques and exclusive knowledge. She is an excellent nomad, unlike the young Eva, who is baffled by the place where she arrives. On seeing her first suburban house, Eva observes: “This one-storey structure surrounded by a large garden… doesn’t belong in a city—but neither can it be imagined in the country.”

Between these two books lies almost 50 years of migration and technological change.