Book Review: Strangers Arrive, by Leonard Bell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

This book is longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Illustrated Non-fiction Prize

Strangers Arrive, a lavishly illustrated production written by Leonard Bell, reads like two books between one set of covers: on one hand, a series of often fascinating portraits of some of the European artists, writers, and intellectuals who fled Fascism and found themselves in the comparatively provincial mid-century New Zealand; on the other, book-ending polemics about our enduring close-mindedness about welcoming to New Zealand people displaced by conflicts neither of their nor of our making.

cv_strangers_arriveBell recounts the stories and presents the work of oddly-named people with strong accents ‘from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin…who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius’ who were welcomed as cultural saviours by a small clique of arty locals. The balance of opinion, however, spanned from ambivalence to outright hostility towards our quota of escapees from Nazism. Bell amply conveys the blinkered churlishness of the naysayers, whose chauvinism predated but was piqued by the bohemian newcomers. Although notice is given of the destruction and prejudice that set the refugees to flight and which they sometimes encountered again on arrival in New Zealand, generous space and strong emphasis are placed on the mutual creativity, restoration, and beneficence that sparked between the strangers and those who welcomed them.

Any reader with an interest in the arts in New Zealand, especially that of the mid-twentieth century, will surely be delighted by to encounter the extraordinarily rich and strange work produced by men and women such as Frank Hoffmann, Irene Koppel, Kees Hos, Jan Michels, Henry Kulka, and Tibor Donner, along with many others, even as they struggled with the inevitable difficulties refugees encounter in navigating everyday life in an alien environment. Modernism’s fundamental cosmopolitanism was given expression in their lives and labours alike, both of which played a crucial part in moving local artists and writers beyond the cultural nationalism that had begun to be more of a hindrance than a help for them by the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties.

It becomes clear that visual artists, architects, musicians, and taste-makers, who traded in an international lingua franca, had a better time translating their work into a New Zealand context than did refugee writers who came up hard against the language barrier. Amongst them was Karl Wolfskel, a Jewish-German poet whose work in his native tongue stands with the finest of the 20th century, whose poems and letters have been blessedly made available in two books published by Cold Hub Press. Even though his international reputation is probably greater than most of the men and women whom Bell treats at length, he only makes fleeting appearances in Strangers Arrive. Men and women of words, greeted with an incomprehensibility beyond which visual artists could move, faced difficulties much more in common with a cobbler from Munich or a seamstress from Prague. Nevertheless, my pleasure in encountering a number of artists hitherto unknown to me far outweighs what one might take as Bell’s omissions, most of which can be readily justified by the wealth of talent that landed on our shores.

And yet although all refugees share in the trauma of displacement and alienation, no matter how generous their welcome, Strangers Arrive reminds us that it is impossible to generalise about them, and not because of the exceptional cast of players presented by Bell. Although they share the brute fact of their dislocation, beyond their common bereavement of citizenship and human security, they are as diverse as any group is likely to be: war is indifferent to personality, vocation, talent, and goodness and badness alike. The humility required to place oneself at the good offices of an – at best – disinterested state is difficult to imagine from our privileged position, the very position, of course, that makes it possible for us to help.  Incomprehension matched with fair-mindedness can easily blind even the charitable to the myriad differences contained within a superficially homogenous mass. Individuals must be allowed to define themselves. So, too, despite the parade of brilliant people readers encounter in Strangers Arrive, most of whom hailed from the well-educated European bourgeoisie, it is worth remembering that welcoming refugees to New Zealand is not something we do for our benefit – it is an act of beneficence. As much as I admire many of the cultured and creative people who inestimably enriched New Zealand, potential benefits shouldn’t be our motivation to do, quite simply, the right thing.

And in such a light Strangers Arrive is a book that ought to give readers pause for thought, even as they revel in its moveable feast. A celebration of creativity and terrific object in its own right, it offers a vision of humanity at its finest and most terrible.

Reviewed by Robert McLean

Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1950 – 1980
by Leonard Bell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408732