Bury Me Standing, by Isabel Fonseca
"It is better to die standing up than to live on your knees" - Emiliano Zapata
Isabel Fonseca's book on the Gypsies takes its title from the parting remark of a Gypsy activist. Whether he knew of Zapata's great epigram or not, I suspect that Fonseca might have, the weave of her book is so subtle.
It begins with the book itself. The breathtaking young woman on the cover, obviously Rom (the Gypsy name for themselves): I assumed she was Fonseca and the book would be autobiographical. I wanted to know this fierce, beautiful, self-assured woman; learning about the Gypsies would be a good excuse.
Well, no. Fonseca is an exotic name; it has Spanish associations for me, and there are Gypsies in Spain (there will, someday, be Gypsies on the moon). But no, no way that woman, once you understand who she must be, is Isabel Fonseca. She is Kalderash clan from her dress, less than twenty, perhaps only a worldly thirteen, married, as the necklace of coins confirms, and almost certainly illiterate.
So we begin with a deception, one a Gypsy would chuckle over: A gadje man lured to spend money by his susceptibility to a pretty face. To actually believe that for a little money we might spend the evening with the gorgeous creature. Stupid gadje. And we learn that Fonseca herself is American, one grandmother a Hungarian immigrant, a Spanish relative somewhere, most likely, who knows what else. But, incidentally, Jewish. And then, much later in Poland, not so incidentally.
The book is structured around similar misdirections. The Gypsies, it seems, are not what they seem. Everybody knows about the Gypsies. My mother pointed them out to me once, camped on a fifties back road, perhaps in Colorado, as we drove by. They were dirty and dangerous; the movies told us that, and here they were, right in our backyards. Gypsies. I wonder now if they were Indians, migrant laborers. My mother was from Maine, where they think they don't have Indians. How fitting, if my only experience of Gypsies wasn't one at all.
And the Gypsies are invisible in Eastern Europe, as much by choice as by discrimination. What we can't see, we can't hurt. (Or something like that.) But Fonseca makes us look. She begins by dropping us into a Gypsy family in Albania. We live with them for weeks, learning their lives from this close, learning them as whole people with admirable traits and some not so admirable. The men are vain and pampered children (one thinks of lion prides), the family matriarch a benevolent tyrant. The boria (her daughters-in-law) are her lieutenants in the endless business of cleaning, cooking, and ministering.
Cleaning. It is pages later, without any obvious prompting from Fonseca, that we listen, fortified with that irony, to the gadje (non-Gypsy) complaints about how dirty and lazy they are. The Romanian officials who complain that when they house the Gypsies in Romanian 'projects' they don't keep clean (Fonseca points out that the 'projects' lack running water). The neighbors who complain that they don't take care of the houses they were forcibly relocated to. The German doctors disgusted by the idea that the Gypsies actually seemed not to 'mind' the degrading lifestyle of the concentration camps two generations earlier: the irony of the Gypsies forced into degrading circumstances, and then despised for making the best of it.
Dirty Gypsies. Dirty Indians. The Indians of the Great Plains bathed every day, unlike the stinking, foul-mouthed, lice and diseased infested soldiers who slaughtered them. Dirt is a metaphor for a more complete alienation. As the 'Indians' of Europe (Fonseca herself makes the comparison, less categorically), the Gypsies too do not value the things with which we define civilization: permanent homes, farming, 8-to-5 jobs, literacy, religious institutions.
Values, not dirt, create alienation. The Indians smelled different from us: fed on bison instead of sheep, done up in bear grease and aged leather instead of whale vomit, turtle oil, and vaseline; they were 'dirty.' Even the Indians who farmed, we preferred to see as worthless, indigent nomads. William Bartram, travelling the wilds of the Ohio valley before the American Revolution, admires the rolling fields of corn and imagines (with absolutely no conscious irony) what great farm land this will be once the savage, nomadic hunters are displaced. No accident that a famous Indian leader of the Colonial period was named 'Cornplanter,' Bill. Indian farming; only the Pueblos did it right, building permanent houses of rock and brick. Frightfully dirty folk, of course....
Indian cultures distributed work differently than Europeans did (Pueblo men weave); more than anything they did not comprehend the pathological obsessiveness of working for wages (as the English laborer had not, a hundred years before when the Industrial Revolution created wage slavery). And Indian religion was too simple and institutionless for us; it is no accident that the Pueblos, with their ceremonial life so obvious it could not be ignored and their workday so easily identified as a 'primitive' twin of our own, fared better with the white man.
And finally, illiteracy, which gave us a powerful weapon to use against tribe after tribe, the 'treaty' they couldn't read. Not only did they not read, they were unfamiliar with the essential concepts of literacy, chief among them the idea that a piece of paper can become extraordinarily powerful if the ink on it is distributed so and so. In one of the most touching moments of Bury Me Standing, a Gypsy woman shows Fonseca a scrap of paper with a crucial phone number on it. The "phone number" is a decades-old smudge of lead pencil that once, perhaps, identified the location of the family who adopted the Gypsy woman's daughter. The woman cannot believe that Fonseca can't read it. The woman herself can't, and her notion of reading is such that she doesn't even understand that the signs and icons of meaning are gone.
Like the Indians, the Gypsies eat differently, worship differently, think of work differently, do not bind up the world in books and contracts. The Indians of Europe. They too live behind a layer of almost opaque misconception; and like the Indians, their desire for privacy gives them no way to undo those misconceptions.
It seemed strange to me, at first, that the Holocaust is treated at the end of the book. Misdirection again, or rather, a subtle necessity. In fact, that is the only logical place to treat it. It is only after getting know the Gypsies, their lives and history, their treatment today, that we can comprehend their role in The Devouring (their name for the Nazi atrocities). We have been numbed to the horrors of the camps. We have distanced ourselves from the national insanity that allowed it to happen. We can recite the atrocities committed against the Jews. What Fonseca documents is that even in that context, the prejudice against the Gypsy prevails. They are, after all, liars and thieves. They are, after all, filthy and degenerate. She cites, with quiet irony, the Jewish historians who chose to actively ignore and denigrate the suffering of the Gypsies. Those historians, we might surmise, are offended that we might see the two groups, civilized Jew and dirty Gypsy, as somehow similar.
The Jews, by the time of the Holocaust, were 'like us, only more so.' They shared many of our essential values. They knew it, whether we did or not. One could be a Jew and 'pass for Gentile' without great effort. How else explain the accidental admission of wealthy Jews into American country clubs (from which, the truth disclosed, they were subsequently barred)? It was that, their sense of themselves as part of civilization rather than part of its opposite, that as much as anything, that caused their disbelief and mounting horror as the Germans united to rid themselves of their 'subhuman' neighbors.The Jews participated in the highest culture of Europe, even shaping it in the arts and humanities and industry; they were civilized people. Was Thomas Mann a Jew? Marcel Proust? Wittgenstein? Mahler, Holst, Copland? And yet what the Nazis saw, and seeing communicated to their neighbors, was subhuman people only marginally better than Gypsies, and in some ways worse.
And in America, it was nearly fifty years after we gasped with horror at the atrocities of Nazi Germany, that we finally began to acknowledge the identical events in our huge backyard. As Leslie Silko points out, the Europeans in the Southwest were making Indianskin lamps before the Nazis were even Bismarck's bad dream. How many squawhide tobacco pouches, fashioned from breast skin and as precious to the nineteenth-century U. S. Cavalry tourist as Vietnamese ears and fingers became in the sixties and seventies, never made it to museum displays? Some people are not human. We have our Indians. The Germans had their Jews. All of us have the Gypsies.
Like the Jews of Nazi Germany and the Indians of the Americas, today the real Gypsies are invisible behind the illusory stereotype known to all and therefore 'true.' Fonseca's grim tour of Eastern Europe documents country after country where the Gypsies are hated by the majority and unprotected by the authorities not for who they are but for who they are held to be. She doesn't say so outright, but one leaves the book wondering if the sick orgy of 'ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans was aimed not at religious differences but at the Gypsies. What proportion of the slaughtered were they?
The Gypsies. Illiterate and present-oriented, more interested in the family than the 'nation,' they do not value history. They don't think of the Holocaust as a special time of persecution. Partially because they have always been pariahs and persecuted; partially because like the Indians, they are not the identifiable 'nation' the European eye invented. They are falsely perceived as a group rather than many little groups. Like the Bannock and Utes of the eighteenth century, nearly oblivious to ominous events on the eastern seaboard, the Rom of Bulgaria knew little of the suffering of 'their people' in Poland.
Bury Me Standing is a fascinating book. It documents the universal plight of the landless, illiterate, and non-technological in a world that defines civilization as real estate and possessions and documents that define them. Like the Indians, the Gypsies must compromise their most inhering values in order to survive. People who cannot read are helpless before governments. People without governments are unable to muster the strength of numbers. People without a country have no recourse when they are evicted from their home.
Wisely structured, thoroughly researched, fleshing history with yesterday's news, Bury Me Standing is much more than a book about the quaint and fascinating Gypsies. It is brilliant, moving, and literate, persuasive without preaching, subtle in its rhetoric, a mirror of its subject. Only one last, unlikely misdirection I might wish for: That the woman on the cover is Isabel Fonseca....
To order Bury Me Standing [ISBN: 067973743X]
Vintage Books: 1996 [Paperback]
Explore an excellent site devoted to the 'Rom' or Gypsies: The Patrin.
Read an interview with Fonseca from Prague, where 'ethnic cleansing' is driving the Rom out.
Read my response to the Leslie Gross' review of Bury Me Standing in Gryphon.