June 28, 2009
The joy of national hybridism
National stereotypes are dead, says the writer. Let’s revel in mongrelism
Remember the finer points of that giant model-kit installation called Entropa, which was unveiled in Brussels in January to celebrate the Czech presidency of the EU? Neither do I. But it made a splash at the time, in a lavatory-humour sort of way, because it managed to simultaneously offend and amuse — though not the same people simultaneously.
It depicted every European country as its most banal cliché: Italy as a football pitch; Romania as a Dracula theme park; Germany as swastika-shaped autobahns; and Bulgaria had a collective heart attack at being depicted as a bunch of Turkish squat toilets.
You may strain to remember what Britain looked like, and with good reason: it didn’t.
It was absent from Europe. The blank compliment was almost amusing — Britain doesn’t have to feature; it has always been special, with its Euro-scepticism. Either that, or the artist ran out of ideas.
Which is precisely the point of national stereotypes. A stereotype is the extent to which the collective imagination has run out of ideas. As someone who emigrated from one country that is a character in a children’s story to another country populated by hobbits and wizards, I’m vividly aware of the fine line between stereotypes and a form of cultural fascism. But more on this later.
First, I want to point out that Europe is becoming mongrelised. This is finally being reflected in our cultural life, and not just in who owns the corner shop or whether there’s a mosque in town. Here is an example.
Then I went to a festival in Zagreb. The Dutch poet in the programme had a Moroccan name. I appear in the programme as being from Britain, and I’m a Bulgarian Kiwi, but I wouldn’t live anywhere other than Britain — isn’t that what you call patriotism?
Yes, and there’s my point. Multiple people like the British-born Pakistani/Dutch writer don’t have to be a freak show any more; they’re normal now. “Migrant” and “multicultural” society are terms worn out by their own stereotypes.