Significant Cigarettes | Summary and Analysis

Summary of Significant Cigarettes by Dame Rose Tremain

English author Dame Rose Tremain is an award-winning fiction writer whose novel The Road Home, published in 2008, received the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. “Significant Cigarettes is the first chapter of the novel, tracing the journey of immigration of the protagonist, Lev, from his home in Eastern Europe to England. The chapter is narrated by the third-person limited narrator.

Significant Cigarettes | Summary

The chapter begins with Lev travelling on a bus to England, staring out the window at the home he is leaving behind in an unnamed East European countryside. He is almost forty-three years old, with a handsome face. As the sun rises after a few miles, he has the urge to smoke, and he puts a cigarette in his mouth. His co-passenger, a plump, middle-aged woman, reminds him that smoking is prohibited inside the bus. Lev knows this but has difficulty refraining from smoking for so long, and keeps holding the unlit cigarette in his mouth. The journey was fifty-hour long, and in the course of it, Lev and the woman would be like a married couple, “side by side with their separate aches and dreams.” They would be in close physical proximity, will make the occasional small talk, and finally separate in London, “beginning a new life.”

Lev is apprehensive of the new world that he is migrating to –

“a world in which he would break his back working – if only that work could be found.”

Lev is also homesick and knows that he will remain emotionally distant from life in London as his heart would always be in his homeland.

The bus has two drivers who take turns driving and sleeping. There is a built-in restroom, and the bus does not have to stop for breaks other than to refill gas. At the gas stations, passengers go out for an occasional respite from the journey, stretching their limbs, smoking, and staring at passing vehicles. They board the bus again, and sometimes the journey appears never-ending. Lev has difficulty sleeping upright, which most old people do not have a problem with, like his father. He remembers sleeping next to him on hay or moss back home, or on a rug beside his daughter’s bed when she was afraid or sick. He also remembers sleeping on the hard linoleum floor next to his wife Marina’s hospital bed, when she was dying. In those days, the strange dreams that he had in his sleep have not disappeared completely.

As the woman next to Lev peels a hard-boiled egg, its smell reminds him of the sulphur springs of Jor, where he had taken his wife in the hope that it will cure her. There, with her body immersed in the pool, Marina looks up at a stork and desires to be one of them, as they never seem to die. As his attention wanders back to his co-passenger again, Lev introduces himself. The woman is named Lydia, and she is going to appear for interviews in England for the job of translator. She taught English in School 237 in Yarbl. Lev asks why she is leaving her home if she already has a good job, but Lydia answers that it was the view outside the classroom window, with the high fence and the apartment beyond the fence, that got to her. She was afraid that this might be the only view she sees every day till her death, and she decides to quit her job and leave. Looking into her eyes, Lev says that he understands. After a while, he tells her that while his English isn’t bad, his pronunciation is not good, and asks her if she can help him with the right pronunciation. She agrees, and Lev says some common words and phrases in English, Lydia correcting him whenever he goes wrong.

As Lev sees the darkness follow the sunset, he remembers how in his village, Auror, “darkness had always arrived in precisely the same way, from the same direction…”. He tells Lydia about his village and the job that he had at the local sawmill until it closed down two years ago as they run out of trees to cut. His mother, his five-year-old daughter Maya, and he lived on his mother’s sole income from selling tin jewellery. While Lydia thinks that it is very resourceful, Lev tells her that it isn’t enough to sustain all of them.

As he catches his own reflection in the window, Lev thinks about how he had avoided seeing his reflection since Marina’s death, not wanting to face himself for the guilt of having stayed alive despite the death of his beloved wife. Lydia asks him what kinds of work he can do, and he answers that he will do any work available, as he has a family waiting at home who needs the money to survive. England is his hope.

As people get ready for bedtime, Lev’s longing for a cigarette grows, and he starts experiencing mild withdrawal symptoms. The next stop is not for several hours and he and the driver would be the only people awake, with neither sleep nor nicotine available to him. He envies Lydia’s immersion in a book and knows that he needs a distraction too. Although he has a book of fables with him, it is not enough to distract him now. Desperately, he takes out an English twenty-pound note and examines the picture of the Queen on one side and a man with a dark, drooping moustache on the other, probably a historical figure. He remembers his English class where he was told that the British venerate their history because they have never experienced “occupation” or colonization, being the biggest modern colonising force in history themselves. Only rarely do they examine their past wrongdoings and recognise the evil deeds that they have committed in colonies and wars across the globe.

Significant Cigarettes | Analysis

The excerpt from the chapter primarily deals with the experience of a migrant while leaving his homeland, profoundly feeling the loss of a home and the simultaneous apprehension of the new country he is travelling to. The metaphor of co-travellers being like a married couple reflects the character’s attempt to find some comfort in companionship during the difficult journey of migration, the imagined intimacy, albeit temporary, providing momentary warmth and comfort as they embark upon the journey to a new but shared destination.

As is the experience of the majority of the immigrant population, Lev is sceptical of his destination and is emotionally attached to his own country, which he thinks will continue to be the place where his heart is. The constant need for a cigarette, while obviously a result of his addiction, is also reflective of his underlying anxiety as people who are dependent on a substance usually feel the need to consume them during stressful situations. The momentary comfort of the cigarette is not only the sole source of comfort that he can hope for in this daunting journey, but it also provides him with a sense of familiarity, being one of the few remaining physical connections to his life in Auror.

Throughout the journey, Lev experiences nostalgia, constantly remembering the days that he spent with his family or his dying wife. From the brief excerpt, it appears that Lev and his wife shared a loving relationship, and her death has traumatized him, filling him with guilt for not having died with her, and making him avoid his own reflection. His move to England is forced by the rising financial difficulties of his family after he loses his job at the sawmill. Thus, fundamentally unwilling to leave his beloved homeland and daughter behind, his experience of migration is a particularly difficult one.
Lydia’s experience, although not explored in detail in this excerpt, appears to contrast with Lev’s. Having willingly migrated from the fear of having to see the same, distasteful view outside her school in Yarbl for the rest of her life, she does not appear to be particularly disturbed by the journey, although the narrative is exclusively from Lev’s point of view, and hence caution needs to be exercised before drawing conclusions about her experience. The appearance of her experience, however, is different from what Lev feels, her added advantage is that she is comfortable in English and is applying for the job of a translator. As language plays a major role in the immigrant experience, Lydia is less likely to feel alienated in England as compared to Lev who is not completely confident in English.

The final two paragraphs portray his heightened agitation as he gets closer to his destination, symbolised by his increasing need for cigarettes. The last few lines remind the reader of the colonial history of the country Lev is heading to, and their unwillingness to acknowledge their own wrongdoings.

Significant Cigarettes | Themes

Migration – The chapter revolves around the experience of migration, with the protagonist, Lev, migrating to England in search of employment and better economic prospects. He is, however, grieving the loss of his home and family, constantly plagued by the memories of what he has left behind. Simultaneously, he is also anxious about being alienated from his destination, England.

Death of a Partner – The other theme that the chapter focuses on is the experience of losing one’s partner, through Lev’s memories of his dead wife, Marina. Theirs was a loving marriage, and consequently, Lev is traumatised by her death, feeling guilty about being alive despite her death and not being able to face his own reflection.

Significant Cigarettes | Characters

Lev – The protagonist of the novel, Lev is forty-two, and is migrating to England from his Eastern European village, Auror in hope of employment, as he has lost his job back home. However, he is very attached to his homeland and experiences extreme anxiety about alienation in a foreign country, coupled with his nostalgic remembrances of a lost home.

Lydia – Lev’s co-passenger, Lydia is a middle-aged woman who has left her job as an English teacher in a school in her village, Yarbl, as she literally wants a change of scenery. As her migration is more out of choice than compulsion, unlike Lev’s, she appears to be more at ease with the prospect of migration, her fluency in English also aiding her confidence.

Significant Cigarettes | Significance of the Title

The title of the chapter, “Significant Cigarettes”, symbolises the need for the familiarity and comfort of an addiction that Lev has to cope with the anxiety of migration, cigarettes becoming an embodiment of familiarity as well as a physical connection to the life that he has left behind.




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