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Ordens asyl Anders Olsson, Ordens asyl (The Asylum of Words)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2011. ISBN: 9789100125875

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2012:1

As Anders Olsson shows in his scholarly analysis of writers in exile, it is a concept that has evolved markedly since Ovid first portrayed the exile as a backwardlooking,nostalgic figure, who wishes for nothing but to return to the centre of the world. In Ovid’s struggle one notes a classical certainty which, as Olsson argues, no longer existed in the 20th century, a time of estrangement and persecution. Admittedly, the leitmotif of nostalgia, or its rejection, has featured in the work of many exiled authors. Yet language, more than geography, became the exile’s home and point of return. As Carlos Fuentes put it: ‘World literature is an archive of migratory experiences and may function as a kind of verbal refuge from the sense of exile.’

Olsson struggles at times to unify the broad spectrum of his arguments. Fundamentally, he relies on Paul Tabori’s definition from The Anatomy of Exile: an exile is a person forced to leave his homeland, whether motivated by political, economic or purely psychological factors. Hence there is no essential difference between someone compelled to leave and someone else, who has chosen to do so.

One does not exactly disagree with Olsson’s perspective – yet there is a slight edge of uncertainty about his purpose when he cites Baudelaire as someone who, because of his metaphysical displacement, was a forerunner of 20th century literary exiles. A similar vagueness creeps in when Olsson devotes a good deal of attention to Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood, which describes a world where people are exiled from themselves – people whose ‘desire has become a form of exile, and exile a form of desire.’ Possibly, the author allows himself too much leeway here.

Yet one cannot help but ask how, then, in our current civilisation almost defined by personal mobility, one should define a writer in exile? Admittedly, this is one of the central questions of the book, but Olsson does not seem unduly troubled by it – he might feel quite justified in taking what he calls a ‘phenomenological’ approach to exile, citing authors as diverse as Nelly Sachs, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Herta Müller, Paul Celan and W.G Sebald.

Joseph Brodsky, once the very embodiment of the exiled author, took a much more robust – and political – position on exile as a state of physical relocation: ‘What an writer in exile has in common with a guest worker or a political refugee is that, in both cases, we refer to a human being who has fled from something bad to something better…’ (The Condition We Call Exile, 1987). Of course Brodsky also devoted much of his time to linguistics and to the problems and promises of meaning transferred from one language to another. He echoes the concerns of Vladimir Nabokov, whose cross-fertilisation from Russian to French to English was the source of much incredulity then, and no less today.

Much of Olsson’s purpose with this book is to examine the development of new forms of expression in exile writers, what Edward Said called the ‘contrapuntal’ perspective of the exiled writer, which is a matter of interest to any working translator. James Joyce is a fabulous example of this – Olsson devotes a whole chapter to his ‘happy Babel’. But exile must be a flight from, as well as perhaps towards ,spiritual belonging.

As Marina Svetajeva wrote to Rilke, ‘… a poet can write in French; he can’t be a French poet.’ Olsson shows that writing in exile is, broadly, an engagement with language and that through the inevitable friction, new expressions emerge, haunted by memory and ghosts.

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