A week in books: The British road to hell and hatred

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The Independent Culture

Today marks the start of Refugee Week. To coincide, Anita Roddick's Body Shop has launched an admirable leaflet that answers tabloid lies about asylum with solid facts. Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins has chosen this month to promote Richard Littlejohn's foam-flecked rant of a novel about criminal gypsies and asylum-seekers, and the brave Brits who kill them: To Hell in a Handcart.

There's little more to say about this rancid tract, praised to the skies in many newspapers. I would only mention that Littlejohn's toxic eruption will make a bigger noise than any other début novel of the year. So much for that liberal media "consensus" he detests. But since the book depicts border-crossing gypsies as depraved crooks worthy of summary execution by patriots, and scoffs at the notion that "Romaphobia" exists, let's see where such attitudes once led.

Princeton University Press has a revealing new collection of essays edited by Robert Gellately and Nathan Stoltzfus, Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany (£12.95). Sybil H Milton's chapter on the fate of the Roma and Sinti people in the Third Reich sets out their grim story, from local expulsions and piecemeal persecution to the creation of a national Office to Combat the Gypsy Menace. And so we move on to the round-ups, the transportations, and, finally, to the reserved Roma corner of the vast death-factory sited at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As a prelude to Roma genocide, Nazi ideologists sought to stress historical affinities between gypsies and Jews. It's a curious, involuntary kinship also evoked in a fine new novel about European gypsy life by the Dutch author Margriet de Moor, Duke of Egypt (Picador, £15.99): "The Wandering Jew does not journey alone, but is accompanied by a tramp in bare feet, gifted, exceptionally musical though, alas, totally illiterate." Her novel offers a rich and warm panorama of the gypsy world of Sixties Holland, with excursions back to wartime Croatia and Germany. These flashbacks to an age of terror shock and move, but never overwhelm the robust rhythm of seasonal trips, deals and – above all – storytelling. I plunged with relish into Duke of Egypt after enduring Littlejohn's book and (much worse) all his gutless, sniggering, lickspittle reviewers and interviewers across the British press. It felt like re-joining the human race.

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