God's Zoo; Artists, Exiles, Londoners
by Marius Kociejowski, published by Arcadia; ISBN 978-1847772664
Published in TLS, November 28 2014
Godís Zoo is a study in the forces that motivate creativity, focused on fourteen exiles at work in contemporary London. It is a dazzling rich cake, a polymathís hoard in which each of the fourteen chapters is scented and baked to its own stridently different recipe.
Marius Kociejowski is himself an immigrant (the son of a Pole exiled from his homeland to Canada) but cuts straight to the quick of London as a creative free-for-all, by hand picking a group of highly expressive intellectuals drawn from his own chance acquaintance. This selection is enforced, not only by his own experiences of beneficent exile, but from his day job as a book dealer and as a highly regarded poet, with a whole lifetime of real immersion in the lived literary life of London. He also gave himself some tough highly focused guidelines, and initially intended only to interview artistic exiles who were continuing to use their own language, or artistic idiom, whilst living out their exile in London.
Godís Zoo is a thick book of some 437 pages, but there was not a page I wanted cut. This is no migrant-tuned version of Iain Sinclairís psycho-geographical quests over London. No time is invested in trying to discover the geography of the old and new immigrant quarters of London: the old Jewish quarter of Whitechapel, the Hugenout weavers of Spitalfields, the little Italy of Clerkenwell, French Soho or todayís Bengali Tower Hamlets, Moroccan Golborne Road or Arab Edgeware Road. Instead we head straight out into the featureless suburbs of outer London, to booklined bedsits, studios and well-loved apartments, lined with CDs and framed posters. Not a hint of Orientalist exotica is squeezed from these drab tarmac streets and their rain-wet pavements, nor can one imagine colourful magazine articles being shot amongst their featureless brick terraces serviced by far distant tube stops, towards the end of the line. But what treasures can be unearthed by a man with the patience to talk and the ability to listen! Itís a far cry from brittle everyday London standards of face-fame and financial success married to media access. When you enter the pages you enter a London free of entrepreneurs, financiers, celebrity cooks, cooked-up politicians, estate-agents, diplomats and other state-agents. Instead itís a city represented by fifteen free spirits: theatre directors, journalists, actors, weavers, musicians, artists, activists and poets, many of whom have hawked other wares to survive, be it furniture, antiquities or second hand books. Each is an exile or a migrant in their own way - driven from their first home by chance, by will, or to escape a police state. London was seldom aspired to, unlike the dream destinations of Paris, Rome and Beirut, and the various exiles were eventually drawn to live in London, not so much for its own charm but as a place that is tolerant, comparatively free from fear and where being an outsider is a state of normality.
Each of the fifteen chapters has been condensed into one elegant, superbly long, eccentrically diverse and learned conversation that may have taken Marius ten years of visits, re-writes and drafts to compose or was perhaps the fruit of a single encounter. It is good to see the wider world of what can be described as the Middle East well represented, with chapters on the Syrian sculptor Zahed Tajeddin, the Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim, the Turkish writer Moris Farhi, the Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov and the Iranian poet Mimi Khlavati.
At the launch party I was surprised that Hamid Ismailov was not asked to read from his legendary work, The Railway, which is still banned in his Central Asian homeland. I was concerned that the long arm of state censorship might have influenced an independent bookshop in the heart of Holland Park, but there was a much better reason, for his wife was going to sing instead.
In Iraq the presence of Fawzi Karim in a cafť or a theatre would almost certainly cause a riot by his fans, or fill a football stadium, but here in London he remains on the very outer fringes of fame. Though fluent in many languages, he decided to recite to us in Arabic, followed by a translation, so that we could concentrate on the beauty of its true sound. In the British way of things we will probably only cherish him after his death, a sort of Mesopotamian Tolstoy in our midst, writing with love for the full force of Koranic-derived Arabic but with an internal, highly individual, romantic voice. Mariusís portrait captures this sympathetic and enlightened figure, uniquely disengaged from politics or the habitual strident patriotisms of the nationalist, communist or Bathist poets. His words bring back the innocence of a childhood where a holy ram could walk unharmed through the Baghdad streets, where a poet could be poisoned by the amount of arak bought for him by his devoted followers and where the memory of the semen-like smell of date sap is all that remains of palm orchards that would be flattened by the megalomania of Saddam Hussein in a way that almost tangibly connects us with the fateful warnings of Gilgamesh. Truly in this case, the Tigris has poured its treasures into the Thames.
Those who have fallen under the spell of Moris Farhiís Young Turk (which is either a novel in 13 positions or a coming of age memoir of exuberant beauty) will be enchanted by Mariusís long intimate conversation with its ancient and handsome woman-loving creator. Moris Farhi is undeniably Jewish by blood but heroically Turkish (if not downright Ottoman) by culture, and is another fascinating example of Londonís casual enrichment by chance. Moris was sent to England by his working-class Turkish father to learn the workings of the textile trade in Bradford, before he defected south towards theatre studies in London. Like so many exiles there is no regret about youthful hardships and the alienation endured. Instead the real emotional turning point seems to be the middle-aged decision to stay away from home, and not to return back to help old parents, school-friends and homeland. And this decision also feeds and strengthens their creativity, and indeed enriches both London and in Morisís case, the honour of his many motherlands. He is a Turk who can speak about the Anatolian minorities with the freedom of true experience, a Jew who can mourn the loss of his Motherís cultured Sephardic family (shipped off to Auschwitz from Salonika) and who decided to use this grief to better chronicle the Porajamos Ďthe Gypsy Holocaustí. Heís a Londoner proud to have been of that first generation of secularly-educated ĎAtaturkís childrení and an erotic poet who has been given a MBE for his work as an activist for PEN and an inhabitant of Godís Zoo who is free to openly offer up the humanist prayer, ďGod save us from religion.Ē
Back to Reviews page
by Barnaby Rogerson