It is this text that has now been published in English as The Promised Land , in a new translation by Michael Hofmann. The characters mostly have different names — the narrator, Ross, is now named Ludwig Sommer — and the episodes are in a somewhat different order, but for the most part everything that happens in the earlier book can be found in the later one, sometimes in nearly identical form. And yet, The Promised Land manages to be unmistakably a better book than its predecessor. The effect was to foreground the weaknesses of the novel, which in fact is very light on plot, and much more interested in atmosphere.
ONCE IN A PROMISED LAND by Laila Halaby | Kirkus Reviews
It is still far from a masterpiece, but it now serves as a potent evocation of a fascinating historical moment. The details remain sketchy, but he has served time on what Remarque calls the Via Dolorosa: the odyssey through hideouts, jails and concentration camps that Germans fleeing from Hitler were forced to undergo.
He is even familiar with the scent of crematoriums — an odd detail, as he is supposed to have been on the run in Belgium and France, whereas the killing centres of the Holocaust were in Poland. Ironically, both the need to escape Germany and the resources that allowed him to do so in comfort came from the same source: All Quiet on the Western Front , which became a worldwide bestseller after it appeared in January Remarque had spent only six weeks on the German front lines during the First World War before he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele and sent to hospital for the remainder of the war.
In its matter-of-fact, reportorial approach to the war and its resentment on behalf of the generation that fought it, All Quiet captured the imagination of millions of readers, not just in defeated Germany but in victorious France and England as well. When the film adaptation premiered in Berlin in , Joseph Goebbels arranged for it to be disrupted by Brownshirts; the book was among the first titles that Nazi students consigned to the flames. On the night of 30 January , the day Hitler took power, Remarque was warned by a friend to leave the country immediately and he slipped over the border into Switzerland.
He did not return to Germany for another 20 years. He never again had a success on the scale of All Quiet but his subsequent novels sold well in many countries. Books such as Three Comrades , set in strife-torn Weimar Berlin, and Arch of Triumph , which follows a German doctor in exile in Paris, served as chronicles of the age while also telling appealing romantic stories, and were often purchased for princely sums by movie producers.
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Yet Remarque shows in The Promised Land that he knows something of the despair and aimlessness of the refugee. In the opening pages, Sommer manages to get off Ellis Island with the help of an old acquaintance from the Via Dolorosa, Robert Hirsch, who spent years conducting a one-man campaign against the Gestapo, freeing prisoners and forging papers. Now, however, Hirsch is leading the quiet life of a Manhattan shopkeeper, selling vacuum cleaners to housewives; and this incongruity points to the thematic heart of the novel.
It all starts out so innocently as Jassim begins his days swimming laps at the local Fitness Bar.
This is his time for meditation and being in touch with the elements of the world before he heads off to work for a company that helps manage the city's water supply. While Jassim's life is closely regimented, as though he lives a type of "rich man's escape from the real world," Salwa succumbs to a frantic desire struggling within her. At the same time as their respective families back in Jordan fear the repercussions against Arabs in America, a tragic encounter with a boy on a skateboard triggers an FBI investigation and a release of secret facets within Jassim's self, sides that have up until now been buried deeply in the way he views his life in this country.
Salwa gravitates between wanting to escape America forever, reeling from the sorrow of a miscarriage, forced to confront office paranoia: "each time she walked out to get papers from the printer or to get something to drink, her ears stretched to other people's conversation and a thought. As both lie staring into the guilty darkness, Salwa gradually comes undone by the affair.
Beautifully observed and startlingly real, Halaby manages to say much about the immigrant experience while in the process exposing the darker side of American society, where prejudice and discrimination can often appear where you least expect it, even in the highest echelons of government.