Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Shadows in Paradise - Erich Maria Remarque

Remarque is comparable to no one when it comes to the immigrant's soul. Being himself an immigrant from Germany and having been persecuted numerous times for his writings, he understands the immigrant's dilemma - a longing towards your country, whose people have turned into murderers, and a clear understanding that in order to live you have to flee this country.

Shadows in Paradise follows the life of several German immigrants in the US, who are trying to balance between the American dream and the German nightmare. They are Jews and Germans; they have been persecuted or they voluntarily left Germany; they love and hate their own country; they dream of coming back and they use every resource to blend in the US. They are Americans (or trying to become) and yet they are still Germans. They are in the US and in the same time their past haunts them and obstructs any chance of starting a normal life.

Among these shadows arrives Ros, a German who escaped the persecutions and travelled all around Europe to find a shelter in the US. His real name is unknown or long forgotten. In fact, names are among the few things that escape time, war, and the Nazis. They are like a legacy, a saving will making death look like a rescue - for the dead and for the living.

Upon arrival Ros attempts to blend into the American life. He finds a job as a consultant to a seller of paintings, he finds a home in a shady hotel, he meets old friends from Europe, and of course, he tragically falls in love. It seems that everything is in place to live like in a paradise in the US - a country that participates in the war but doesn't feel it in any way. Trading is flourishing and morals are inexistent, making it a perfect atmosphere to exploit, lie, deceit, and make money. Somewhere far away people are dying but in Hollywood the Americans are making a movie about Nazi Germany. Ros, being among the few who has been in a concentration camp, becomes a consultant. He is shocked by the difference between image and reality. American movies back then were not very much different than what they are now. They portrayed the bad guys as ultimately bad with no soul or compassion and the good guys as beautiful and perfect saints.

A traitor, a spy, and a victim, Ros tries to live normally but is constantly haunted by memories from the past. The persecutions, the hidings, the fear, and the deaths have left an eternal mark on his personality, one that cannot be erased by the normality the US offers. As the war approaches its end, similar feelings evoke in the other immigrants. The immigrant dilemma becomes unbearable. On one side lies the perfect American life with its security and endless possibilites. On the other hand, many of them feel like shadows of living beings - their history and life has been and will be Germany. Even the Jews feel nostalgic. Yet, going back to the old Germany is impossible. It is still a country dominated by Nazism, it is largely destroyed, and the immigrants are mostly seen as traitors. More importantly, however, these pour souls feel that they will come back but to nothing. And yet staying is impossible because the feeling they have something missing will stay forever.

Love. Despite the difficult to bear topic of war, Remarque always finds a place and a time for love. In the face of Natasha, a Russian immigrant from France, Ros finds the shelter his soul needs. Yet, when you are incomplete and when you are a shadow of a human being, even love is not able to complete you. In Remarque's style, it is philosophical, passionate, and controversial. Natasha and Ros attempt to build something on top of ruins that haven't been completely destroyed yet. The result (as many of us have felt it I am sure) is a fleeting feeling that both sides understand needs to end.

Overall, no surprises from Remarque, which, however, doesn't mean that the author doesn't live up to his standards. The more I read, the more I understand and love Remarque's world of war and destruction. I will not exaggerate if I say, one of the greatest authors to ever live and write.

Further by Remarque: Three Comrades, The Night in Lisbon, The Black Obelisk, A Time to Love and a Time to Die

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