Dra­mas and dis­con­tents in the real life of a drama­tist

From a Far­away Coun­try

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Peter Tegel

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

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