In the Critics this week

Ed Smith on Shane Warne, Orhan Pamuk interviewed and Helen Lewis on video games.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, former Test cricketer and now NS columnist Ed Smith reviews Gideon Haigh’s biography of Shane Warne. “Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket,” Smith writes. “Sport was the medium but the substance was drama.” Warne’s cultivation of a distinctive and compelling on-field persona, Smith suggests, was not without its costs. “In seeking mastery of an authentic personality on the stage, authenticity in ‘civilian’ life becomes ever more elusive… All great actors sacrifice something of themselves in the pursuit of a truthful performance. So do sportsmen. Warne, the great method actor of modern sport, has perhaps paid a higher price than most.”

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, about his latest novel to be translated into English, Silent House. The book was originally published in Turkey nearly 30 years ago. “There was some nostalgia in revisiting it,” Pamuk says. “I remembered the struggles of the 1970s, the political fights and killings in the streets of Istanbul.” The novel is written in the first person. “I always enjoy impersonating my characters in the first-person singular,” Pamuk tells Derbyshire. “The joy I take in doing that should be evident in this book.”

Also in Books: leading American critic Adam Kirsch writes about a new edition of Paul Goodman’s Sixties countercultural classic Growing Up Absurd (“This long essay or tract,” Kirsch writes, “was one of the early tremors of what would become the 1960s earthquake”); Stephen Smith, culture correspondent of the BBC's Newsnight, reviews Danny Baker’s biography, Going to Sea in a Sieve (“In one studio after another, Baker has been dauntlessly improvising a kind of epic poem in vernacular blank verse …”); Olivia Laing reviews Fire in the Belly, Cynthia Carr’s biography of the American artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz; Simon Heffer reviews Jonathan Dimbleby’s book about the North African campaign in the Second World War (“Was the North African campaign worth the terrible loss of life that resulted from it? It was.”); the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson examines Dear Life, the latest collection from the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro; and Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future, reviews Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, Anthony Clavane’s history of Jewish involvement in English football.

This week’s Critic at large is NS deputy editor Helen Lewis, who surveys the state of video games journalism. “There’s so little criticism out there that writes about games belonging to the same genre,” Lewis writes. “Perhaps [the] revolution in games criticism will never happen.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Thomas Calvocoressi visits three photography exhibitions in London – Seduced by Art at the National Gallery, and Tate Modern’s parallel retrospectives of William Klein and Daido Moriyama; Ryan Gilbey reviews Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour; Yo Zushi writes about Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young’s new album with Crazy Horse; Rachel Cooke watches the BBC interrogate itself over the Newsnight imbroglio; and Antonia Quirke finds consolation in the ghost stories of E Nesbit on Radio 4 Extra.

PLUS: “Pavlopetri”, a poem by Olivia Byard and Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in September 2009 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis