Seren, £8.99, 292pp. £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Keys of Babylon, By Robert Minhinnick
Friday 16 December 2011
I'll intercede," promises Roly in "A Welcome for the River God" as the Lithuanian narrator is abused by passing yobs in a Mazda. The fifteen linked tales of Robert Minhinnick's collection have an intercessive quality, mediating the voiceless condition of migrants in lands far from home. Minhinnick's powerful work has an epic quality. While each short story is an individual fragment of testimony, in a minor key, the geographical range encompasses every continent - Albania, Mexico, China, Iraq, Israel, the United States, Britain. Perspectives challenge habitual norms: in the eyes of a Polish visitor to Bridgend, Wales, the writer's native land, is "the fag end of Europe". Minhinnick's twelve characters arouse in the reader a rising sense of dismay at the sheer variety and yet the lonely monotony and ubiquity of their plight.
With never-say-die courage and enterprise, these characters eke a living where they are not welcome; toughly adaptable, they put down roots in whatever shallow soil is available. Iraqi Aziz works in a Yorkshire care home; Mic is an Albanian night-worker in Hyde Park. They are shrewd observers from a chaotic margin. Creating this array of voices, the formidably well-travelled, Minhinnick turns their vagrancy and their hiraeth into an index of the human condition itself. The second section, "Fellow Travellers", pictures the disparate characters on a single day.
Minhinnick's exiles are uprooted not only from their homelands but from their languages. The 'keys' of the title belong to the Iraqi, El Aziz. If the collection is a kind of modern Wasteland, Aziz is its Tiresias: "I steal the chocolate, I who was once the night swimmer, I who kept the key to the city of Babylon on a cord round my neck." The God of Genesis visited upon the aspiring Babylonians the confusion of tongues, scattering them to the ends of the earth. Ironically, Iraq, set up in accordance with British interests in 1932, is the site of Ancient Mesopotamia, known as the Cradle of Civilisation. In the story, "In those days there were lions in Iraq", the post-Iraq War expatriate, Mohammed, has looted from the Museum a "tiny god", a stamp or seal, 6,000 years old. Or saved it, perhaps, from current tides of barbarians: "America, the stupid country, the new Mongols".
Politically, The Keys of Babylon constitutes a reproach to Western myopia. Its pieties are those of family, the warm intimacies of a father's hands; memories of the natural world seen in childhood, a thrush's nest of eggs in Drusk, a golden plover on the white moor of Brzezinka. Its art exposes a debased civilisation: "Our tribes study their genealogies as you do your scratch cards"; its hope lies in the tiny gods, the truth of stories and the kindness of strangers.
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