Friday, September 03, 2004
Exiles at home and abroad
A pair of remarkable and remarkably somber novels, W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz and Age of Iron, by J. M. Coetzee, speak with very different languages on the same idea: the Exile, dislocated within and without, at once struggling furiously against the fractured history that uproots him (her), and drowning by it.

Whereas an Expatriate is at home where-ever he happens to be, his present locale woven into his past narrative, a history which is seamless despite the removal of time and distance, the Exile is nowhere at home. He does not have a homeland. He is stranger even to the place of his birth, even if he should be able to return to it, even if he has never left. What the Exile has is an idea of home, in his head, much like Paradise of religion, an idealised place of pure and complete belonging rather than a place to live the less-than-pure, less-than-complete life full of compromise. And he does not have a history. Or rather, his history is broken into a Before, which in time slowly withers away, becoming transparent from recall; and an After, which since it is disconnected, weightless, is easily swept away in the daily flood of minutiae — detritus, as it were.

Sebald, who died in a car crash in 2001, was a German exile, albeit voluntary, teaching German language and literature in England. Born during WWII, in 1944, he grew up in the western part of the divided country trying at once to come to terms with its Nazi past and to leave it behind. Coetzee, born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa, coming to age just as the Apartheid regime came into full force. He emigrated to Australia in 2002. It may seem strange that both chose to be exile, when Germany reunited has repudiated its Nazi past and Apartheid is dead; but an Exile can never go home again.