Dramas and discontents in the real life of a dramatist
From a Faraway Country
Anton Josef Publishers, £8.99 Reviewed by Stoddard Martin
PETER TEGEL is of a generation of refugees from Central Europe that enriched cultural life in the UK through postwar decades. He has written plays for the BBC and translated extensively from Russian and German. His parents were Sudeten Germans; his father died when he was a small boy, and his mother remarried to a Jew. She and Peter were thus forced to flee their native district when the Nazis annexed it, and Czechoslovakia as a whole when the rest of the country was occupied.
The family escaped to London to live in a minuscule flat. She took up making hats in the boy’s bedroom and, through skill and contacts, made good. All the while, she remained plagued by the frustrations of émigrés — resentment and nostalgia for the old land, a sense of alienation towards the new. Tegel writes insightfully about these in a memoir which reads like a novella. It unfolds through the eyes of the boy and carries on through those of a middle-aged man who visits Czech lands during the era of Marxism’s collapse.
The boy suffers the discontent of his mother and psychological paralysis of his stepfather, a kind of distant man for whom he has fond feelings.
Another Jewish refugee, the aesthete Herz, becomes a revered mentor. Herz holds his homosexual tendencies in check, but teenaged Peter’s instincts temporarily lead him otherwise. This provokes furious rows with his mother, and the anguish of their relationship becomes a leitmotif of the book and an eventual crescendo into a moving account of her death: “She could not give me what I wanted and I could not give her what she wanted.”
At every stage, we’re aware of the existential cost of deracination, and Tegel’s return to the Moravian haunts of his youth are motivated by an urge not only to discover who he truly is but to recollect, if he can, some moment when his mother was actually happy. The most evocative parts of this fine little book involve those returns to the hills and forests, town squares and disused churches of a nearly forgotten past.
Whether or not Tegel is able to find what he is searching for, he is able to retrieve sensations — the heat, the look of pathways, the songs of birds — that are partly healing.
Hope born out of the vanishing of a second oppressive regime in the 1990s also passes, but a modicum of peace is achieved in the imagination.
His memoir is full of insights and reads like a novella
Stoddard Martin is a writer and critic