Austrian author Michael Köhlmeier looks at the refugee crisis from a child’s perspective.
Michael Köhlmeier’s startling new novella Yiza is written so bewitchingly unadorned that one can lose sight of the trauma and brutality contained within. “The man was her uncle,” Köhlmeier begins. “She didn’t know what the word meant. She was six years old.” Here, Köhlmeier introduces us to his titular character – a refugee girl from an unknown country abandoned in an unnamed land (but likely Germany), forced to make her way on the margins of society after her abandonment.
Yiza falls into the company of two refugee boys, Arian and Shamhan; together, they do whatever it takes to survive. Yiza finds a banana skin and chews on it for sustenance. Arian picks up snow and puts it in his mouth as a source of water. They beg, grift and steal, panhandling for loose change and medication on the metro, sleeping in the back of trucks and under tarpaulins in a greenhouse. Such was their hunger that “their bodies were thin and white. As if they were glowing from inside.”
Bound by exile, the three become a kind a family, Köhlmeier writes, and his spare prose also captures beauty and tenderness. “The girl had crumbs in her hood, and her lips were sticky from the lemonade. The big boy had brought a packet of tissues. He tore a tissue in half, put one half back in the packet and spat on the other and rubbed the girl’s mouth and chin with it. The girl tilted her face up to him and squeezed her eyes shut. He brushed the crumbs out of her hood with his hand.”
Strangers in Paradise
Cultural alienation is present in Yiza – the chiming of a church clock, a sound Yiza has never heard before,“made her want to hide” – but central to the novella is how linguistic differences separate refugees not only from the countries they settle in but each other. Initially, Shamhan serves as a conduit between and guide for Yiza and Arian, but when he disappears, the two have to find other means of communication. “Yiza, he said. Arian, she said. And he said: Nothing. Those were all the words they had in common.”
Over time, Yiza and Arian learn and understand more about each other and grow closer, as a common understanding of their languages develops. “With one hand, Arian unzipped Yiza’s coat, touched her stomach gently with his forefinger. Good? he asked. Good? He undid his coat, touched his forefinger to his stomach and said firmly, in a deep voice: Good! Good! Then hers again: Good? … Good, said Yiza in Arian’s language. She rubbed her belly. Good.”
One day, Arian tells Yiza in hope, “you’re going to understand what I’m saying. I won’t have to teach you. That’s how it works. Suddenly you’ll be able to talk like me. And I’ll talk like you.” Köhlmeier – a writer and musician born in Vorarlberg whose novel Two Gentleman on the Beach has also been translated into English by Ruth Martin – uses clear yet rich language above all to stress the essential nature of words.
That bluntness can also act as a hammer and it is in these moments that the central predicament of a refugee’s life comes back into focus. “Yiza has no one. They can’t deport her. Where would they deport her to?” Shamhan asks Arian, when they are picked up by the police. “They’ll deport you. And me. I’m not a favorite. You’re not a favorite either.” They have to run, Shamhan says. “Don’t look at Yiza, Arian. If you look at her, it will make you weak. Then you won’t run fast enough, and they’ll catch you and deport you.” And off they go.