Amy Foster

Amy Foster

They sit together in a row, some with bandages on their heads and hands, their bare chests have red writing scrawled across them – “just freedom”. They have taken a spool of nylon and a needle and slowly, carefully, sewn each others’ mouths shut. This was the news on Monday from the borders in Greece, where seven asylum seekers are protesting at the Macedonian government’s decision to refuse entry to refugees not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan in the wake of the Paris attacks. And, being mostly Iranian, their route northwards along the Balkan migration trail is now blocked. This defiantly symbolic gesture is one intended to attack the lack of communication and dialogue among European countries, which is fanning the flames of an already critical, desperate situation. Like the devastating photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, these are the images that make us sit up.

“We read about these things,” wrote Joseph Conrad in Amy Foster, a short story published in 1901, “and they are very pitiful. It is indeed hard upon a man to find himself a lost stranger, helpless, incomprehensible, and of a mysterious origin, in some obscure corner of the earth.” I read Amy Foster completely coincidentally this week, and have been thinking about its mere 28 pages ever since. It captures so well the flailing, ignorant assumptions made when faced with difference, in whatever form that difference takes, and how we respond to it. As with all the best fiction the story has a timeless nature, and is just as relevant now, if not more so, than when it was first published. Were Conrad alive to see these latest, terrible pictures – of children carried from the ocean, of people’s mouths crisscrossed shut – I wonder how he would feel to find his own reality, 100 years ago, still so depressingly accurate. Amy Foster deviates slightly from the things I’ve reviewed before. It tells the story of a Polish man shipwrecked on the English coast, and the reactions he encounters from the villagers there. It is different because I can’t pop it neatly into one of England’s 46 counties – it’s set in the fictional village of Colebrook, on the similarly fictional shores of Eastbay. However, wiser people than I have placed it in Kent – either way, Conrad makes the community and its surroundings immediately familiar. It’s the sort of sleepy seaside place where buses come once a day, where people have grown up together through generations, where little seems to change.

Conrad’s narrator passes by a shady old house with his companion, Dr Kennedy; they notice a woman hanging out her washing. This is Amy, who has grown up in the village, “and had never been further away from it than Colebrook, or perhaps Darnford”. Kennedy remarks that Amy’s mind is “inert… an inertness that one would think made it everlastingly safe from all the surprises of imagination”. Despite this blithe judgement, she seems to have had the wherewithal to fall in love with the shipwrecked man, despite the eyerollings and mutterings of her local community. “He was a castaway,” says Kennedy. “A poor emigrant from Central Europe bound to America and washed ashore here in a storm. And for him, who knew nothing of the earth, England was an undiscovered country.”

There is a sole survivor of the collision off the coast of Eastbay. The exhausted man is found on the roadside by an “intimidated” local, chased off by an angry schoolmistress and ignored when he tries to stop a milkman’s cart and ask for help. When Amy’s employers shut him up in a wood-lodge on their property for “frightening women”, it is she alone who takes pity on the stranger and brings him half a loaf of bread. He appears as a “miry creature, swinging itself to and fro like a bear in a cage.” He is “a castaway, that, like a man transplanted into another planet, was separated by an immense space from his past and by an immense ignorance from his future.”

Eventually, he’s taken on and given employment by the eccentric Mr Swaffer: he tends the land and, at one point, saves Swaffer’s granddaughter from drowning in a pond. He never loses his admiration for Amy – whose name alone casts her as a protector of the weak – and when they decide to marry Swaffer grants them a small cottage to live in. On paper at least, Yanko – whose name, he explains, means “little John” – appears to have overcome the prejudices against him. He has a house and a job and has married a woman who loves him. But he is always treated with a mixture of fear, contempt and disdain by most of the villagers. When he sings one of his native love songs in the pub, the others grumble and he’s thrown out. “He remembered the pain of his wretchedness and misery, his heartbroken astonishment that it was neither seen nor understood, his dismay at finding all the men angry and all the women fierce. He had approached them as a beggar, it is true, he said; but in his country, even if they gave nothing, they spoke gently to beggars.” Shortly after Amy gives birth to their son, Yanko becomes ill and in his fever cannot remember how to speak English, “babbling aloud in a voice that was enough to make one die of fright.” Despite having known the man long before he spoke anything but his own language, Amy gathers up the child and flees to her parents’ house. When Dr Kennedy passes later that night, he finds Yanko lying in the garden, having attempted to follow her. He tells the doctor that, in his fever, he could not remember any English – but had only been asking for a glass of water. He dies that same night of heart failure.

Conrad himself was a sailor, and learnt English in his twenties. This is one of only two works which features a Polish character, something that’s led many to see Amy Foster as an autobiographical story. In 1896, while on honeymoon in France with his wife Jessie, he suffered a similar fever and frightened her by addressing her in Polish. The heartbreaking thing about the story is that it is Amy, Yanko’s saviour, who ultimately deserts him, as though the long-held hatred of the village people has finally rubbed off. Yanko is originally from the Carpathian Mountains, a wild stretch of green forest full of bears and wolves, and Yanko seems the embodiment – at least in the minds of others – of this stark, disturbing difference. The most moving moment comes as Conrad describes the aftermath of the wrecked ship:

“After the tide turned, the wreck must have shifted a little and released some of the bodies, because a child – a little fair-haired child in a red frock – came ashore abreast of the Martello tower. By the afternoon you could see along three miles of beach dark figures with bare legs dashing in and out of the tumbling foam, and rough-looking men, women with hard faces, children, mostly fair-haired, were being carried, stiff and dripping, on stretchers, on wattles, on ladders, in a long procession past the door of the Ship Inn, to be laid out in a row under the north wall of the Brenzett Church.”

The characters in this story are seen primarily through Yanko’s eyes – men and women who, despite having many more material possessions and money than he’s ever encountered, lack compassion and kindness. They embody the “little Britain” stereotype, wishing they could live in peace among their own, even if this comes at the expense of another. They forget that he’s human, like them, and see him only as a immigrant, an outcast, someone to be feared. They do their best to isolate him, always willing him away. In their poor minds, “the object of these scoundrels was to get hold of the poor ignorant people’s homesteads, and they were in league with the local usurers.” Sound familiar? This is a sad and brutally honest account of life in a strange place – a strange place that could be anywhere in England right now, or in any European country. It presses on us the need for communication and compassion, the need to address the issues of people who so desperately need our help. The need to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and not wait for a piece of photojournalism to sway us into action.

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