This book was recommended to me by http://www.TheFussyLibrarian.com, a website that pairs readers with their favorite genres, and promotes e-books of authors with at least 10 reviews.
London for Immigrant Suckers tells the story of Peter Kovach, a Bosnian who immigrated to the UK prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Peter’s reflections on life in Bosnia, as well as his experiences as an immigrant living in London, are illuminating as well as humorous.
The book reads like a person for whom English is a second language would speak, with errors in verb agreement and usage of idioms. At times this becomes distracting and it’s hard to tell if it is intentional or is due to a lack of copy editing. Whatever the case, the style of writing offers the reader a unique inside-the-head perspective of the immigrant experience and of the tensions involved in acclimating to a new culture while resolving issues relating to the indigenous culture left behind.
Peter had served his time in the army and was attending university in Banja Luka in 1990, as nationalist factions threatened to undermine Yugoslavian unity under Ante Markovik. He reflects on the source of the division:
Bosnia is a pretty little place which is inhabited by good people. All the major battles in WWII that included Yugoslavs were fought in Bosnia. Yugoslavia was born in Bosnia and she lived there. Serbia is inhabited by the Serbs and the rest, Croatia with the Croats and the rest, Slovenia with the Slovenians and the rest, and Bosnia is inhabited only with the rest.
Although it makes sense to Peter’s best friends why the voters choose their own respective national ethnic parties over Markovik’s unified party, Peter, who has just lost a bet that things would stay the same, is at a loss to understand it:
‘But it doesn’t make sense’ Peter noted, ‘if three of us build a house to protect ourselves from winter and then when spring comes, one takes the windows, another the doors, and the third takes the roof and we all go our own way, what was the point of building the house in the first place?’
‘You said it yourself, the point was to protect yourself from winter,’ answered Mladen.
‘Yes, but winter will come again, and the house is now unliveable, without windows and doors and a roof, you see that doesn’t make sense.’
‘Yes, but maybe you don’t want to go back to that house again, the thing has changed, Europe has changed, no more Cold War; Polish, Romanian, Czech, everything has changed now, do you really think that we can stay untouched?’
‘They had to change it, they had it bad, we have no reason to change anything, it all works well here.’
Maybe, but the Wall has fallen, now when the Germans are together do you think that they will leave us alone? I don’t think so.’
‘Listen Prince of Passion, don’t worry about changes, we’ll deal with them when they come, why don’t you just take us for a beer now before anything is changed here?’ Dean concluded the conversation.
Peter had finished his second year at university and was in dead-end relationships with two women, when he moved to London after his friend Aida introduced him to Alisa, who’d come home from London for a visit, and who’d invited him to stay at her flat if he ever decided to relocate to the UK.
For the next twenty years, Peter negotiates through the British system to find housing, employment washing dishes and eventually working as a bar manager and bar tender. He wanders in and out of relationships with women, first marrying Ann, who doesn’t want to be his girlfriend but is willing to help him sort out his visa problem. When Ann moves to Canada and asks for a divorce, he settles for Freya, who agrees to write his papers for him while he’s studying at university to qualify for educational aid offered to immigrants in the UK. Freya becomes pregnant and bears him two sons, who he shows little interest in due to a depression which has overtaken him and will persist throughout the boys’ childhoods.
Peter becomes a recluse, watching television and reading his Yugoslav books and newspapers while Freya goes to work and the boys are at school. He blames the conflict in Bosnia on the international community, including Germany and Britain, for recognizing and supporting the breakaway republics, which he is convinced made war inevitable and brought the downfall of Yugoslav identity, which was the only thing binding the disparate groups together. He is bitter about the outcome of the war and feels that his parents and friends who remained there could have averted the dissolution of Yugoslavia if they had not supported their own nationalistic groups within Bosnia.
Freya eventually demands a divorce and moves out, leaving Peter to assess his life. He makes a trip back to Bosnia, where he visits his parents, who have become impoverished from the war, though his mother has stashed away most of the cash he has sent them over the years. Peter meets up with his old friends–one a Croat, one a Muslim, and one a Serb. Each fought for his own faction, adapting to the realities that war had thrust upon them. For a brief time, they all come together as friends to reminisce and relive the old days, and Peter discovers in his brief visit home how profoundly his country has changed.
He leaves his parents with the assurance that one of his friends will oversee the renovation of their dilapidated home. He’d stay longer and do it himself if he had not bought a ticket to the US, where he intends to go after settling his affairs in the UK.
The book is an honest account of a man displaced from his native country where Muslims, Croats, and Serbs find it impossible to live together. Ironically, as Peter makes a new home in the UK among the exiles from Yugoslavia, he finds a place where these same ethnicities coexist peacefully. London for Immigrant Suckers is a compelling story as well as an extensive history lesson on the war in Bosnia.