Poles in London

This book review was published by Tribune 29 November 2013

Where the Devil Can’t Go by Anya Lipska. Harper Collins £7.99
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid Hamish Hamilton £14.99

It is through novels that we get to know the country we live in. One of the biggest changes in today’s Britain has been the arrival of so many non-British workers. Many of them were Poles coming to join the 250,000 Poles who settled after 1945 and who after the end of communism created a dynamic new community in Britain.
The biggest group of EU citizens working on the Olympic stadium were Irish and it is curious that xenophobic populists in UKIP, or Immigrant Watch are hostile to Poles who are hard-working, hard-drinking Catholics but welcome hard-working, hard-drinking Catholics from Ireland.
Now we have a terrific, page-turning thriller that takes us into the heart of the new Brit-Pole community. Anya Lipska has chosen the classic Anglo-Saxon police and politics format to convey a great deal of information about what the life of the new London Poles is truly like.
Her hero, is a burly 40 something Pole with a physics degree from the Jagellonian University in Krakow who threw himself as a student activist into the Solidarity movement that begun the process of ending communism 30 years ago.
He comes to London to work as builder and stays as a fixer and adviser to all the young Poles whom Easyjet and Ryanair bring to Britain every day. He a bad Catholic and unconfident lover who knows the cash-in-hand economy which makes Britain function more than the formal stats announced by the ONS.
He is asked to help find a Polish girl who has disappeared and interfaces with a pugnacious women detective, with nails bitten to the quick, who is determined to find out who killed another young Polish woman fished out of the Thames. Ms Lipska, gets the east London police culture right and the parallel, sometimes overlapping actions of the Pole and the Policewoman make for an excellent page-turner.
There is high politics involved and a wonderful invocation of Polish life in today’s London though I wish Ms Lipska would list the restaurants where you can get a good bigos. Difficult to know if this is a one-off or the start of a new major series about today’s London and its new Polish community. But this is a strong talent which deserves to be transferred to television.
Mohsin Hamid is trying for much higher art than Anya Lipska. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a subtle set of insights into the ideological formation of a smart US educated Islamist. It was turned into a spectacularly bad film which was unfair on a very good book. But Hamid does not seem able to move on. His new novel is a set of reflections on life in the modern sub-continent torn between its rural impoverished masses and its rising business bourgeoisie. It is a much thinner and slower-moving version of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. The book rattles through 80 years in the life of a man from poor childhood, to first sex, to working his way up the corrupt greasy pole of business, including bribing politicians who make their Chinese and Russian counterparts look like puritans, until finally his brother-in-law steals the firm’s money and the narrator dies.
We are asked to believe each chapter covers a decade but the action is all about India and Pakistan of the last 20 years. This plus a great deal of over-writing shapes a book where character and plot fail to hold. There is an important talent here but this book strives for literary effect and doesn’t quite make it. But both novels tell you more about modern Britain and modern India-Pakistan than any number of non-fiction books.

Denis MacShane

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