Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Tide Turns on Communism: Cruising Down the Volga on the Last Boat to Astrakhan (Russian Southern Federal District)

My journey to the Southern Federal District of Russia really WAS as much about the journey as the destination. For this trip I retraced my steps from Chechnya to Moscow (for reasons outlined in my previous blog) – and then began my river cruise down the Volga (Russia’s main river) to Astrakhan, the primary city in Russia’s Southern Federal District, courtesy of “Last Boat to Astrakhan” by Robert Haupt.

In 1995, his fifth year in Russia as a foreign correspondent, celebrated Australian journalist Robert Haupt decided to take a boat trip down the Volga River to Astrakhan by the Caspian Sea. This journey forms the core of his book, which interweaves strands of art literature, politics, history, economics and geography to capture a country and a people for which the author had an immense passion. I say ‘had’, as sadly Mr Haupt died soon after the publication of this work.

Haupt's time on the Volga cruise ship Fyodor Shalyapin, along with his earlier experiences while living in Moscow, forms a framework around which he intersperses historical episodes, numerous quotes from earlier traveller's accounts, and his own perceptive observations, to give an impression of the character of Russia. The difficult transformation of Russia since the end of communism is a central theme. However periods of difficult transformation are also presented as being characteristic of the wider flow of Russian history, and Haupt makes many telling points about how and why Russian society differs from the West, and why we in 'the West' can often misunderstand Russia by judging it through the perspective of our own past.

Haupt uses the story of his apartment building's plumbing system to illustrate the 'workings' of Russian bureaucracy; and the plight of the Chaika watch factory trying to sell handmade products in competition to machine-produced electronic watches from China as an example of dead-end paths still being followed.

Whilst discussing bribery in the police (after reading the observation of a British MP, writing in the Times, that the Yaroslavl traffic police hadn't been paid for months), Haupt notes that “What he meant was that they had not been paid by the government for months; those who live in Yaroslavl or drive through it feed the police force there everyday.” and goes on to observe that “Jurisprudence is as poorly developed in Russia as particle physics in Rwanda. To a Russian, the law is a source of oppression, not an avenue for the relief of injustice.”

The above examples encapsulate much of how this book is structured. On the surface this is an engaging and insightful account of Haupt’s journey from Moscow down to Astrakhan by river cruise. We are treated to some fascinating observations not just of the stopovers along the way but also his fellow passengers – largely the tracksuited nouveau riche of New Russia - as well as lengthy and involved digressions of Haupt’s observations of Russia’s socio-economic past, present and likely future.

I must admit, the latter often defeated me. Haupt was obviously a highly intelligent individual with an in-depth knowledge of Russia’s workings, and he exposits these eloquently here. However, not having the same knowledge of Russia (nor, I fear, the same level of intellect), these narrative diversions often left me a little bewildered. I occasionally found myself floundering though pages of in-depth socio-political analysis like a poor swimmer in a lake of intellect, looking for an island of straightforward narrative description!

That said, I can only attribute this as a fault on my part not the author’s. After all, I am on a journey of observation, keen to glean facts and impressions about each place that I visit – and the fact that I am on a schedule to visit every country in the world means that I am occasionally impatient when being given essential background information and historical context to places I am visiting.

Furthermore, during the 3000km(!) trip from Moscow to Astrakhan we are introduced to interesting descriptions of a range of cities and towns that have developed, prospered (and in some cases perished) as a result of the rise and fall of the mighty Volga river and its importance to Russia.

Ultimately, we arrive at our destination of the city of Astrakhan in Russia’s Southern Federal District.

“In Astrakhan, the air is heavy, the people sleepy. Nothing seems to get underway before ten-thirty or so. The cars move with astonishing slowness along wide streets lined by motionless trees. Even a road accident – a man who had steered his red motorcycle and sidecar into the path of a police jeep – appeared as a tableau, onlookers frozen in mid-stare as the motorcyclist, his blue helmet neatly placed on the road beside him, solemnly picked pieces of dry grass from his socks. Even when something like this happened, everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen.”

Haupt goes on to describe Navy Day in Astrakhan. This is, apparently “the occasion in a Fleet town for epic displays of drunkenness”. Haupt’s descriptions of how drunken “young men – boys, really – with their caps pushed back to near-vertical, leant on their girlfriends and climbed imaginary stairs on their way home” are telling – they form a notable and telling precursor to the next book on my journey: “Little Tenement on the Volga.” This account is written by Englishwoman C.S. Walton about a year spent in Samara in the Volga Federal District, and one of the overriding themes of her fascinating observations here, is that of stoical females (girlfriends, wives, mothers) coping with their own harsh lives and the pressures of supporting their families. The images of Astrakhan’s Naval Day are telling: often Walton’s depiction of Samaran women’s lives involves them looking after men – sons, lovers, husbands – who are enslaved to alcoholism, with the women themselves enslaved by the Soviet social system of female subjugation.

Samara – one of the largest cities in Russia – lies in the Volga Federal District. Having already passed through here during my river cruise courtesy with Robert Haupt I am tempted to retrace part of my Volga river cruise to return here. However, the current price of 100 EURO for a single berth on one of today’s cruise ships PER NIGHT is off-putting. And even if I had been tempted, it is December and decidedly off-season (cruises only run between May and October).

Therefore, I opt for the train – quicker than the six days a cruise would take between these destinations - but still nearly 28 hours (well, the journey IS 1147km in total)!

I take the easy option for booking and buy my tickets online at realrussia.co.uk – a very user-friendly UK-based website that sends me my tickets via email for collection at Astrakhan station. I buy a one-way 2nd class ticket for £64.97 on the 373 train, which is on the lower-quality and slower end of the Russian train scale (apparently, the higher the classification number, the lower the grade of train).

And so I set off from Astrakhan’s spacious train station at 13.25, taking a train that – after numerous stops - will drop me off at Samara the next day at 16.23 in the afternoon (before it heads on to its final destination of Beijing!).

A word about the train itself: my cabin is second class, sometimes called a ‘Kupe.’ This is a cabin for four people with two lower bunks with storage underneath, two upper bunks, a window table and a lockable door. There is also a shared toilet for the carriage and a restaurant car. Russian restaurant car food is quite edible and not expensive. Allow about US$15-$20 for a 2-course meal with a bottle of beer. During my day-long trip I have ham and fried eggs for breakfast, schnitzel and potatoes for lunch and dinner, with soups and salads for starters. I also have a few shots of vodka in the evening – after all, when in Rome (well, Russia)…

And so I arrive, surprisingly refreshed, in the city of Samara in the Volga Federal District. The modern train station, I have to say, looks amazingly like a huge glass R2-D2 from Star Wars…. My rather-more modest accommodation in Samara is at Number Four, Specialist Alley, a cramped communal apartment which was occupied by Englishwoman C. S. Wilson during 1993, and whose account of her stay there forms the next leg of my journey.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Under Oath: A Surgeon’s Testimony of Hope and Despair in Chechnya (Russian North Caucasian Federal District)

“The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire” tells the story of Khassan Baiev, a cosmetic surgeon working in Moscow but born in the Chechnyan town of Alkhan Kala whose life - along with that of the rest of the population of Chechnya – is turned upside down by several wars with Russia from the 1990s onwards, as a result of Chechnya’s declaration of independence.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chechen-Ingush Soviet Republic was split into two: the Republic of Ingushetia and Republic of Chechnya. The latter proclaimed the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which sought independence. Following the First Chechen War with Russia (1994-96), Chechnya gained de facto independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Russian federal control was restored during the Second Chechen War (1999 – 2007). Since then there has been a systematic reconstruction and rebuilding process, though sporadic fighting continues in the mountains and southern regions of the republic.

The above factual paragraph however, does not go any way towards giving the historical context of the conflict, nor the scarcely believable human tragedies that these conflicts inflicted on all involved – civilian and military. Baiev’s book, however, depicts these elements in graphic detail and to great effect.

Whilst this is very much the story of Baiev’s life it is also the story of the homeland that he loves so much. Indeed the fact that the horrific descriptions of war in this account are sandwiched between a prologue detailing Baiev’s idyllic rural childhood and his later life as a refugee in urban Boston (safe, but cut off from his nation and his extended family), only serves to highlight what has been lost to this nation – and the book’s author – through this conflict.

Even during Baiev’s childhood it is apparent that as a Chechnyan he is an outsider in his “Russian” motherland. His father’s accounts of being denounced as a Nazi collaborator in WW2 because he was a Chechnyan – despite having fought with the Soviet Army at Murmansk - is particularly telling.

Another example of disenfranchisement through his ethnic origin is seen in his being denied at the last minute of attending the World Sombo Martial Arts Championships at the last minute, despite his prowess in the sport as a youth, by the KGB so as not to have Russia represented by a Chechynan.

However, the above slight – though reprehensible – pales next to what Baiev and his countrymen endured after August 1994, when Russia massed thousands of troops along the border of Chechnya and Baiev, then 31, left his promising surgical career in Moscow to aid his Chechen countrymen.

What follows is a harrowing and relentless account of Baiev’s forced move from cosmetic surgeon to wartime field surgeon. Whilst trying to keep a semblance of normality with his family and his staff, Baiev is faced with treating an ever-growing conveyor belt of wounded – many from mine and shrapnel wounds – with ever-diminishing supplies (even resorting to using sewing thread in operations). Baiev’s matter-of-fact narrative jars heavily (to great effect) with descriptions of 48-hour surgical sessions where he could no longer move his arms through the amount of amputational sawing he had to do, through to descriptions of himself and his staff having to work whilst feeling faint due to the amount of blood they had to directly donate to treat the wounded.

His efforts to save lives in the midst of war are played out against a backdrop of constant shelling, threats to his life and – on several occasions (one resulting in him being in a coma for some time) the physical destruction of the hospital premises he is working in.

This brings to mind a phrase that Baiev quotes on several occasions in the book: “The Russians destroy, Chechnyans rebuild.”

And, in the context of this war, the Russian army does destroy: buildings (Baiev’s family home is targeted several times), cities (the capital of Grozny is literally razed to the ground), and indeed people. Time and again we hear of men, women and children – young and old – whose bodies are shattered by this conflict. And just as the populace rebuild the cities, it is surgeons who are left to rebuild the shattered bodies of the wounded.

Sadly, just as some buildings and cities were bombed beyond repair – so some causalities could not be saved. And it is here that the mental toll of war begins to be inflicted upon Baiev – he is haunted by the images of friends, family and strangers who were simply beyond salvation despite his expertise.

But this account is not just a litany of horror. What makes this book relevant and unique is the fact that Baiev – according to the Hippocratic Oath and his Muslim beliefs – treats each patient equally; be they civilian, Chechnyan fighter or Russian soldier.

For this, he becomes vilified as a traitor by both sides – although there are individual flashes of humanity which provide a certain counterpoint of hope in the overall despair of the conflict. Not least among these is a Russian FSB (the former KGB) colonel who risks his own life to help Baiev escape to America at the point where his assassination by one side or the other has become inevitable. The ultimate fate of this brave individual, which we learn later, only adds to the poignancy of this act.

If this account tells us one thing it is this – that war and interracial hatred is more about governments and regimes than individuals: who are capable of great heroism as well as hateful acts.

I should also make it clear here that Baiev – whilst a patriot and a proud Chechnyan – is no apologist for the atrocities that were also carried out by the Chechnyan separatists, such as the taking hostage of a Moscow theatre audience of 850 people in 2002. Most of the Chechnyans and around 130 hostages died as a result – mainly from a gas pumped into the theatre by Russian forces. Baiev is unequivocal in condemning this. The book was published before the further outrage in 2004 where separatist took an entire school hostage. Ultimately, at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children. Hundreds more were injured and many were reported missing. One can only imagine that Baiev would have condemned this act also, had it happened before publication.

In summary then, this book shows two things – the human capacity for evil and the human capacity for good. Reading this book, one can feel uplifted by the capacity for good in the worst of scenarios, but one does not hold out much hope of this struggle between good and evil ever resulting in more than a stalemate.

Still, to end on a positive note: a touching detail of Baiev’s later life (effectively in exile) in the US is that he was finally free to compete in the World Sombo Championships (in Paris) in 2001. These are the championships the KGB denied him way back in 1983. He won – and was able to raise the Chechnyan flag on the winner’s podium.

From Chechnya I make the rather unusual move to take a return flight back from Grozny to Moscow, my previous destination. The reason for retracing my steps is the fast moving changes of national / federal boundaries! Chechnya was chosen as my stopover in Russia’s 'Southern Federal District'. However, earlier this year (2010) the District was split into two: The 'Southern Federal District' and the 'North Caucasian Federal District'. Chechnya now falls into the latter so I needed to quickly find a stopover for the former!!

This I have done with a book by foreign correspondent Robert Haupt called “Last Boat to Astrakhan”. This is an account of his riverboat cruise down the Volga, starting at Moscow and travelling down into the Southern Federal area of Astrakhan, ending at the Caspian Sea.

Thus – rather than describing a book and then my onward journey as usual - this book IS my onward journey, as I will take a leisurely cruise from Moscow’s North River Terminal down the Volga – Russia’s primary river – to Astrakhan on the cruise ship Fyodor Shalyapin. I would love to give you the price of this trip but – as it was taken in 1995, I can only tell you it involved a shopping bag full of inflation-era roubles! This particular route has since been discontinued, but similar cruises are operating today (and they aren’t cheap!)

I shall let you know if it is worth the money in my next post.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Moscow: The Russian Bear plays host to Ancient Chinese Foxes and Modern Werewolves (Russian Central Federal District)

My stopover in Moscow - in Russia's Central Federal District - is represented by the novel "The Sacred Book of the Werewolf" by acclaimed contemporary author Victor Pelevin.

In this satirical, erotic allegory of the post-Soviet and post-9/11 world, Pelevin gives new meaning to the words “unreliable narrator.” The story is told by a shape-shifting nymphet named A Hu-Li, a red-haired Asiatic call girl who is some 2,000 years old but looks 14. Her name, said aloud, sounds like a Russian obscenity, but it derives from the Chinese expression for fox spirit, huli jing — an epithet that doubles in China as a put-down for a lascivious home-wrecker. By day, A Hu-Li lives in a dark warren under the bleachers at an equestrian complex in Bitsevsky Park in Moscow; by night, she works the high-end Hotel National, hunting investment bankers.

While she may look like an ordinary (albeit exceptionally alluring) sex worker, A Hu-Li is a supernatural creature, a “professional impersonator of an adolescent girl with big innocent eyes” who ensorcells her clients by whipping out her luxuriant fox tail before each tryst and setting it a-whir like a pinwheeling ray gun, beaming hypnotic carnal fantasies into her customers’ minds. Although the men feel the telepathic pleasures in the flesh, a hotel spy-cam would reveal that the vixen took no physical part in the gymnastics. The men frolic alone.

However, early in the novel, as A Hu-Li plies her trade, her signals get jammed when she brushes up against a member of the F.S.B. (the new K.G.B.), the “captain of the hit men’s brigade.” Alexander Sery (his surname, which means “grey” in Russian, is also a euphemism for the black market) is “unshaven, sullen and very good-looking,” with a “fierce, wolfish” mien, for which there’s a very good reason. Alexander is a werewolf, and A Hu-Li’s shifty vulpine defenses prove useless against his crude lupine brio. His greyish-yellow eyes burn into her retinas, but the “most significant thing,” she notes, is that his face “was a face from the past. There used to be a lot of faces like that around in the old days, when people believed in love and God.”

Alexander calls his lover Ada — a nod to her Internet name, to Nabokov and to the Russian word for hell. She nicknames him Shurik, deliberately suggesting the name of the dog Sharik from Bulgakov’s story (famous in Russia) “Heart of a Dog,” about a cur who turns into a proletarian and becomes so annoying that he has to be stopped. Their werefox and werewolf games begin with lovestruck “tailechery” (a form of transcendental canine commingling) but detour into more dangerous sport as A Hu-Li and Shurik initiate each other into secret passions. She likes to put on an evening gown, drop by farmhouses and horrify the occupants by nabbing their hens and bolting, transforming into a werefox as she flees. He likes to rally with other F.S.B. werewolves in the frozen north, howling at a cow skull on a stake in hopes of necromantically summoning oil from the substrate into Mother Russia’s waiting pipelines. Watching this scene, seeing the cow’s skull, A Hu-Li is reminded of a grim Russian fairy tale about a slaughtered cow who takes pity on an orphan and sends the girl gold from the grave (a story told to her by Shurik, just prior to this episode). Touched, A Hu-Li adds her own soulful lament to the cacophony: “We were all howling, with our faces turned to the moon, howling and weeping for ourselves and for our impossible country, for our pitiful life, stupid death and sacred $100 a barrel.” In response to her emotion (she thinks), oil comes burbling up the stake. Shurik laughs at her sentimentality. “It’s my job to get the oil flowing,” he scoffs. “And for that, the skull has to cry.”

It’s a joy to read Pelevin’s phantasmagoria so brilliantly translated by Andrew Bromfield, a crowning achievement of the pair’s longtime association. Complex ideas are rendered simply and organically, never disturbing the narrative flow. Brom­field’s English text is fleet and magical.

Animal parables lie at the heart of every culture. Usually such tales are meant to instruct human behavior, but Russian folktales are unusual because they so often lack a moral. Instead, they portray bleak or unjust situations in mesmerizing language, making a fable of resignation itself. Russian children grow up on stories like the adventures of Alyonushka and her thirsty brother, Ivanushka, who turned into a goat after he drank water from a hoof print.

Werewolf literature is an offshoot of the man-and-beast genre and an abiding preoccupation of this author. In his early story “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia,” Pelevin sent an unsuspecting young man to a village near an old collective farm to take part in a gathering of werewolves, creatures whose existence he had not previously suspected. “What are werewolves, really?” he asks the leader of the pack. “What are people, really?” the leader retorts, baring his teeth.

For a man as steeped in Nabokovian wordplay as Pelevin is, it can be no mistake that in the Russian version of “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” he chose the word oboroten, which means shape-shifter or, literally, someone who turns back to what he was before, instead of vervolk, which he used for his earlier werewolf tale. Could this choice be a comment on present-day Russia? Is there a moral to Pelevin’s story? What are changelings, really? Those are questions best answered by A Hu-Li.

The above review was written by Liesl Schillinger for the New York Times Book Review © 2008.

Apologies from myself for my tardiness in posting a review of this fascinating book. Whilst pursuing my ‘virtual’ round the world trip, occasionally I am distracted by real world events in my life and, as I have occasionally before, will need to recourse to existing reviews to keep my travel journal up to date. Where possible I shall return to add my own views: but please be assured that when I add a third party review I will only be if that review fully endorses my own opinions about a book and destination. As does the one above!

As I mentioned earlier I have divided the seven largest countries in the world up into their main regions, so as to be truly representative. Therefore I have split Russia up into its eight Federal Districts, with a book for each. Having starting my journey within Russia in the most internationally well-known Central Federal District courtesy of Moscow, I now make my way to a much more contentious region.

The next stop on my journey is to a small town called Alkhan Kala with occasional forays to Grozny. Both of these locations are based within the republic of Chechnya. Whilst Chechnya is officially located within Russia’s North Caucasian Federal District, it is involved in a long and bloody battle with Russia for independence. It is this struggle and its tragic consequences that form the backdrop to my next book: “The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire” in which the author, Khassan Baiev (a Muslim Chechnyan surgeon) describes his harrowing experiences throughout the Chechnyan-Russian wars of the 1990s and the 21st Century - and the personal implications of following the Hippocratic Oath by treating both Chechnyan and Russian fighters alongside innocent civilians.

And so, warily, I prepare to leave Moscow. Sadly, travel from Moscow to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, is complicated due to the conflict, so I stay on a few days whilst I arrange complicated Visas and a safe route into the country. Fortunately, Chechnya's airport is finally open again for the first time since the start of the war. Planes to Grozny leave 3 times a week from Moscow's Vnukovo airport. Estimated flying time is 2 hours and 30 minutes. Having been lucky enough to secure such a flight I arrive in my destination of Chechnya. I shall post an update on this leg of my journey soon.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Belarus: Dark Times Under the Black Cloud of Chernobyl

Given my parameters of each book on my journey being post 1990 and set in the country of origin, it may seem rather strange that I have selected a book to represent Belarus that is about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – as this happened in 1986 in neighbouring Ukraine.

However, the devastating impact of that event had far-reaching consequences, both geographically and in its long term effects, and “The Trace of the Black Wind”, published in 1996, examines these profound effects from the Belarussian perspective.

The disaster occurred on 26 April 1986, 1:23 A.M., at reactor number four at the Chernobyl plant, near the town of Pripyat, during an unauthorised systems test. A sudden power output surge took place, and when an attempt was made at an emergency shutdown, a more extreme spike in power output occurred which led to the rupture of a reactor vessel as well as a series of explosions. This event exposed the graphite moderator components of the reactor to air and they ignited; the resulting fire sent a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive area, including Pripyat. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union, and much of Europe. As of December 2000, 350,400 people had been evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to official post-Soviet data, up to 70% of the fallout landed in Belarus.

The text of the book is made up of a series of competition-winning essays written by Belarussian schoolchildren about the disaster and its impact upon their short lives. Overall the result is profoundly saddening, and recurrent motifs are of young lives blighted by ill-health and the loss of loved-ones, as well as regret at the loss of their homeland (many areas of Belarus are still contaminated and effectively out of bounds).

What is particularly striking is the ordinariness of many of the recollections of the fateful day, April 26th 1986 – this disaster did, after all, occur many miles away and the deadly radiation that followed was undetectable to most people. Time after time, we hear accounts of children being allowed to play outdoors for weeks after the event itself, due to lack of information from the authorities. And once the scale of the disaster did begin to filter through, then idyllic childhood memories are replaced by panic stricken flight, confusion and fear, and ultimately illness and death.

It must be said that, whilst effective in some ways, the format of this book does inevitably lead to a sense of repetition:- many of the essays follow the same structure: the day of the disaster, subsequent flight from their homes and long term illnesses of themselves or friends and relatives. Whilst always affecting, this does not lend itself easily to a reading in one sitting… Similarly, the quality of the writing varies widely, and the tone can border on the contrived in some instances.

One other minor gripe is that throughout the book we are also provided with photographs and drawings made by schoolchildren; but these to not relate to the stories on the pages they appear next to, and no real context is ever given to them.

However, there are many instances here where the simplistic innocence of the child’s perspective jars with the horrific scenario with extremely moving consequences. Often it is the realistic, matter-of-fact tone of these accounts which highlight their tragedy, for instance, in ‘A Saint Martyr’ by Viktoria Kozlova:

“This is the story of the short life and quick death of a little girl from Polesye. Her father died after an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant operation. He was buried in Mitiniskoe graveyard, and a few days later his nameless daughter was buried with him. The girl did not suffer much really, they did not even have time to give her a proper name. She was christened by radiation in her mother’s womb on April 26. And now this nameless girl, a saint martyr, lies on the Chernobyl altar of innocent victims next to her father. She never knew the happiness of childhood or the joys of womanhood and motherhood.”

Another heartrending example is found in, ‘A Smell of Mint in the Air’ by Olga Detyuk.

“When Mother came home from the doctor’s and told me everything it would have been rather natural of me to cry out “Mummy, why me? What have I done?” But Mother did it for me. She burst out crying like a child, brushing her tears against her cheeks with the palms of her hands, saying over and over again, “Olya, Olya! Why you? Why do you have to die?” There was nothing left for me to do but purse my lips and keep silent. I was at a loss. I did not know what to do, for I had never been dying before.”

“The Trace of the Black Wind”
depicts a country with proud traditions and a proud people, yet this is a country devastated by radiation (many of the essay writers compare it to the after effects of a nuclear war). In many ways, what we get here is a sense of a Belarus which has been lost to the disaster, with huge areas evacuated and never returned to, land unfarmable and generations blighted by illness and death. Yet through all of this relentless tragedy, there runs a sense of hope at the determination of this young generation to address these issues, and in doing so, to begin to build a future for this benighted country.

From Belarus I now make my way to its giant of a neighbour: Russia. I shall be spending some time in Russia, as – due to the size of this country - I have split it up into its eight Federal Districts, with a book for each. I am starting with “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” by renowned Russian author Victor Pelevin, which is set in Moscow in the Central Federal District.

Fortunately whilst the train journey from Minsk to Moscow is a long one – around 11.5 hours(!) it is at least direct, and relatively simple to organise. Although first I have to apply for my tourist visa (which is actually quite simple – you can do it online for a cost of $30 with a 24 hour turnaround). I also apply for my transit visa (allowing me to leave Belarus!) a few days in advance at a cost of $20.

I book my tickets in advance (this route is very busy) and, given the length of the journey, I fork out $150 for a first class ticket with a private sleeper car – which is actually quite luxurious - departing for Moscow from Minsk's "Passazhirskiy" Station in the heart of the city. And so I arrive in Moscow, refreshed and ready for my next port of call (although it is absolutely freezing!!).

Friday, 3 December 2010

Lithuania Past & Present: “The Last Girl” Leaves a Lasting Impression

I have to say I struggled to find a suitable book to represent Lithuania whilst planning my route around the world. Despite the rich history of this country, translated works are still few and far between – and contemporary works in translation are non-existent. I was, therefore, delighted to come across “The Last Girl” by Stephan Collishaw.

Whilst Stephan is not a native author (being born in Nottingham in the UK in 1968), he has an interesting cultural link with Lithuania. On a whim, he relocated to Vilnius in 1995, where he met and married a Lithuanian woman named Marija, who had been teaching him the Lithuanian language. Marija already had two daughters from a prior relationship and later gave birth to Collishaw's son Lukas. The family relocated to Nottinghamshire in 2001. By this time, he had written a total of three unpublished novels, and at his wife's urging, began taking his writing more seriously. “The Last Girl” was his first published novel, which was released in 2003.

This novel garnered universally positive reviews upon its release and it is not hard to see why. For a debut novel, by a relatively young author from another country, Collishaw weaves an insightful, empathetic and thought-provoking novel about both a country and its inhabitants living in the modern-day yet haunted by a tragic past.

In broad terms, the novel is split up into three distinct, yet interrelated, narratives. The first concerns an elderly writer, a borderline alcoholic who no longer writes yet has an obsession with photographing women with their babies on the streets of modern-day Vilnius. The second is an extended account of the modern day tribulations of Svetlana, a washerwoman living on the breadline and dealing with an abusive (and often mercifully absent) husband, who happens to take in laundry for Steponas. In a decaying back street of the city this woman struggles to raise her family. As her son dreams of a better life, she is torn between Vilnius' twilight world of prostitution and her determination to secure hope for her children. The final third takes place in the Lithuania of the second world war, and gives an account of the tragic consequences of independence, Soviet rule and then Nazi occupation, whilst providing the back story to the life of Steponas.

In terms of the narrative, The Last Girl is an engaging and extremely well written novel. The characters are, in the main, portrayed entirely realistically: Collishaw does not hesitate to acknowledge their flaws, whilst allowing enough of their humanity to show through to allow us to empathise with them as readers. Steponas’s refusal to confront his dubious past, and resultant use of alcohol to avoid dealing with his conscience is a case in point. What becomes apparent from the start is that there is a dark element of Steponas’s past which he has yet to deal with, and it is the faces of the women and babies that he photographs that he sees the reflection this secret. A secret he has spent years trying to bury. It is perhaps here that I would tend to find fault in the narrative – as the denouement is sign-posted very early on in the book and, when it comes, seems to lack a degree of emotional punch.

That said, this is astoundingly complex for a first novel. The city - tenderly drawn - feels tense, vivid, effortlessly real. Collishaw’s Vilnius combines past and present, with the rubble of the Jewish ghetto lying side by side with the fallen statues of communist heroes.

Not only does Collishaw take on this huge swath of history - the eradication of the Jewish ghettos, the Soviet occupation of Vilnius - but he also has the nerve to take us into the minds of both Steponas and Svetlana, with their different agendas, different unsettled scores. And no layer is wasted. Each adds meaning, makes the whole more uneasy and disturbing - a feat few first-time novelists could pull off – and results in an excellent stopover on my journey.

And so on to the ex-Soviet Republic of Belarus – a country massively affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, of which I shall be reading more in my next book “Trace of the Black Wind”.

Before setting off I ensure that I obtain the necessary Visa for travel into Belarus. There are three kiosks at Vilnius’ modern train station that sell these, and I order a 10 day tourist Visa – ordering it at 9 in the morning and receiving it at 4 in the afternoon for 78 Euros.

The train from Vilnius to central Minsk costs me just 15 Euros for a second class ticket (in a four-person passenger compartment) and take about four and a half hours, leaving at 17.43. The journey is fine, not the fastest or most modern trains you will ever see but they get you there in reasonable comfort and cheaply!

And so on to Belarus and “The Trace of the Black Wind” - a collection of essays written by Belarussian children about their memories of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the impact that it has had on them and their country in later life.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Growing Pains: Seeking Independence in Post-Soviet Latvia

Well, the differences between my trip to Latvia – courtesy of “The Tale of the White Crow” and my previous stopover in Estonia (“Things in the Night”) could hardly be more stark.

As detailed in my last blog entry, I found the Estonian novel (by acclaimed literary figure Mati Unt, writing in his mid-50s) too self-consciously postmodern, too inaccessibly complex, and lacking in insight for a non-native reader. However, “The Tale of the White Crow”, by contrast, is a straightforward, diary-form narrative written by Iveta Melnika: an adolescent girl growing up in 1990s Latvia. As such, her account honestly details not only key social and political issues unique to the country at this time as it gained fledging independence, but also chronicles her own – more universal – concerns of growing up, parental disputes, peer pressure and relationships; as she seeks to establish her own independence on her journey into adulthood.

I should clarify here that this is not a fictional narrative, rather the edited actual diary of the author, produced in tandem with the American publisher David Pichaske – a Fulbright lecturer in Latvia at the time who met Iveta in a film class. As he states in his brief, yet insightful, preface to the book:

“I went to Latvia thinking “book” right from the start. I gradually discovered, however, that Iveta had a better story to tell than I did. In some ways she was a better story-teller: fresh, enthusiastic, a good eye for detail and a good ear for speech. I had a ton of photos, but Iveta had a life.”

And this is what we get in this book – and why I am so pleased that it fits my criteria so well – we gain a true insight of a life lived in the Latvian capital city Riga at the turn of the millennium, during a time of real flux for this complex nation. Through Iveta’s eyes we gain an unmediated, realist view of everyday Latvian life: the communal apartments (complete with neighbourly wars over the use of shared kitchens and bathrooms), the food shortages and the euphoria – then disillusionment – of independence from the Soviet Union. At one point Iveta’s father astutely observes that before independence there was not enough food in the shops - whereas post-independence the shops are full of food but no-one can afford it…

These insights are all the more interesting in being filtered through, and overlaid with, the everyday and universal concerns of Iveta herself as she makes the transition form child to adult – concerns which would no doubt resonate with young and old readers in the West (they certainly conjured up some of my own teenage memories!). For instance her painful descriptions of sitting out school discos without a dance partner, her self-consciousness that her parents cannot afford to buy her the latest fashions, and the anxiety of not being ‘part of the in-crowd’ at school. Indeed the title of this work comes from her analogy of her, and a select few friends, at her school - whilst the majority of her peers are the norm: i.e. black crows, she and her friends are not - and so stand out like "white crows” in the flock. It is heartening, and a sign of her growing maturity during the course of this book, that she comes to see this as strength rather than a weakness.

The book itself, whilst in diary form, does not follow a rigid day-to-day format, rather it is split up into individually numbered chunks of narrative which often skip days or even weeks. This probably reflects the way in which it was written and also a degree of judicious editing (around 66% of the original diaries according to the publisher). What does – fortunately – remain, are Iveta’s colourful observations and individual interpretation of certain English phrases, which actually work very well and serve to remind one that we are reading this work in translation. Stylistic features such as “a lot of bullshits,” I think add a certain colloquial colour to this book.

I must emphasise here that, whilst this is essentially a diary transcript, Iveta has an effective descriptive ability that raises this above the average journal. Her sense of teenage isolation and awkwardness could easily have become cliched but is actually portrayed in an engaging way - and also her descriptions of the very real sense of uncertainly and potential threat felt by the populace, as independence drew near yet the Soviet forces belligerently remained in situ is palpable and effectively written. Similarly, her description of the disillusionment amongst the older generation post-independence – represented by her parents – is both sensitively and poignantly portrayed. Throughout the early stages of this book, the family is desperate to move out of their communal apartment and hope that the new regime will lead to this. It ultimately does, but their relocation to a flat in a Soviet-era high rise on the outskirts of town (largely populated by Russians equally disillusioned by their reduction of status as a consequence of independence) neatly demonstrates that independence in this region as a whole has not been without its problems and hardships for the people who fought for it.

The tensions between the long-subjugated natives of this country and the Russians who moved here under Soviet rule (and enjoyed a certain privileged status until independence) is a striking one. I have encountered this in a number of previous locations along the borders of the former USSR. One example was my trip back in March 2009 to Moldova (see my blog on “Lost Province” by Stephen Henighan, which also gave a realistic depiction of life in that country – albeit from an outsider’s perspective).

I fear that I am in danger of going into too much detail of the narrative here and spoiling the plot for potential readers, however I have to address the key ‘plot point’ as it where, for this book. Around the midway stage of this book Iveta strikes up a conversation with an attractive American woman named Lisa who, it turns out, is a senior figure in “The Church of Christ”. This US-funded church, it turns out, is an unofficial evangelical mission operating throughout the former Soviet Union and which has recently established a foothold in Latvia post-independence. Iveta is, of course, flattered by Lisa’s attention and is soon ensconced in the Church – despite her own misgivings and those of her parents.

Whilst Iveta’s astute observations on Latvian life and growing up continue throughout the second half of this work, they are largely filtered through the perspective of her involvement with this organisation (and along the way she provides a number of insights into the controlling techniques employed by sects such as this). I found this a bit of a shame as a reader, as this curtailed some of the elements of her narrative that I could empathise with – although I guess this is partly the point: the fact that ‘Churches’ such as this, filling the post-Soviet vacuum, are all too easily in a position to skew the emotional and social development of young people looking for answers in an uncertain environment...

Also, I do feel here that in describing the insidious influence of this US-based sect upon her youth, Iveta is well aware of the obvious analogy to be made in terms of Western influences filling the influential void left by the Soviet society within Latvia – often for self-serving rather than altruistic ends. And this is no bad thing - it demonstrates, as I hope this journey does as a whole, the value of literature in reflecting not only individual countries, but in the growing global nature of our world. The publisher, David Pichaske, sums this point up excellently in his preface to this book:

“You’re holding in your hands a truly remarkable artefact – the story of a girl coming of age in Riga, Latvia, written in English, edited in the United States, printed in Outer Mongolia. Who in the year of my birth, or even the year of Iveta’s birth, could have imagined such a thing?”

Therefore, I leave Latvia with a sense of satisfaction at having gained a unique and personal glimpse into life in this complex country. From here I make my way to the capital city of Vilnius in neighbouring Lithuania. As with Latvia, this country has a chequered history marred by Nazi occupation in the second world war and then a long struggle to free itself of Soviet rule in the latter half of the Twentieth century. The book that I have chosen for this destination is “The Last Girl”, an acclaimed debut novel by British author Stephan Collishaw – and a novel which addresses the harsh realities of both the modern day country and its recent, difficult, past.

I decide to travel from Latvia to Lithuania by bus – both to see the scenery and because they are so close as to make a bus journey bearable!

There are a number of journeys available throughout each day from Riga to Vilnius, via the major coach company: Lux Express. I decide to take their company up on their ‘luxury travel’ claim, and book a ‘Lux Express Lounge’ coach for my journey. My trip leaves Riga at 12.30 arriving Vilnius at 17.00 at a cost of €20.30.

The ‘Lounge’ option costs a couple of extra € but includes a number of benefits such as: a private lounge at the back of the Lux Express bus, leather seating with table, nibbles, Wi-Fi access, hot drinks, newspapers, wider space between seats with more legroom and access to toilets!

I arrive - reasonably refreshed - at Vilnius’ Soviet-looking coach station ready for Lithuania, and next leg of my journey with: “The Last Girl" by Stephan Collishaw.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Estonia: Left in the Dark by "Things in the Night"...

My trip to Estonia, in the capital city of Tallinn, was a step into the unknown on several counts. Certainly I knew little of Estonia as a country – save for the fact that it is a Baltic state in Northern Europe that underwent an unfortunate and debilitating set of occupations in the past century by the Soviets, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again – before gaining independence again in 1991. More recently, massive economic growth post-independence has been matched by a major slump in the recession period of 2009.

The book of my choice “Things in the Night” by Estonian writer Mati Unt, actually takes place both on the limits of my journey’s parameters (i.e. all books must be set after 1990), and also on the cusp of this small country’s transition from Soviet rule to independence.

Another step into the unknown was that I was not at all familiar with Mati Unt (1944 – 2005) as a writer – although he is obviously highly regarded in his native country.

What immediately became clear to me upon reading this novel, was that Unt was a writer very much in the postmodernist vein. The first few chapters concern an unknown activist, with unknown motives, making his way towards a small power generator with a view to blowing it up. The narrative takes place in the form of an interview with an unknown interviewer.

However, it is soon made apparent that this section is actually an unfinished novel by a famous Estonian author who then proceeds to form the main narrative of this novel. Thus Unt makes his intentions clear from the start – this is to be no clear cut, plot-driven linear novel – rather it increasingly becomes a post-modern metafiction. To clarify: metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection.

If this sounds a little overly “art-for-art’s sake” and disengaging; well sadly that’s how the novel is in my opinion. And I am not a Luddite in terms of literary convention; I am a big fan of postmodern writers ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Salman Rushdie to Thomas Pynchon. Indeed, one of my favourite books on my “Reading The World” journey so far has been the highly experimental “Natural Novel” by Georgi Gospodinov of Bulgaria. Despite its unusual structure and non-linear plot; Gospodinov’s novel managed to be both engaging and genuinely interesting in terms of giving an insight into an unfamiliar culture and society (you can read my blog entry on this book below).

Sadly – and again, I stress that this is just my opinion – “Things in the Night” is neither engaging nor enlightening. Although of course, as with other works on my travels – I am no doubt missing a number of allusions within the text that are specific to Estonia at this time…

The fact that this review so far has dealt (necessarily) with form and structure rather than any content is telling. I would have liked to come away from this novel with a greater sense of content, of the experience of Estonian people, and of how the crucial events of Estonian independence in the early 1990s actually played out.

That said, there ARE some worthwhile nuggets to be found in this work, and it would be churlish to suggest that there is no definable plot here at all. So I also include an attempt at a straight plot review here also:

“Things in the Night”
begins with a Prologue, the first sentence reaching out: "My Dear, I feel I owe you an explanation." The explanation is, mainly, for a novel-project the narrator has long planned - "a book on electricity", he explains, one of his long-time ambitions. Appropriately enough, the next chapter is: The First Chapter of the Novel - but that doesn't get too far: first reality intrudes, and then the whole project peters out, the writer hitting a dead-end very early on.

The planned novel was one of protest and about taking action: the central character wants to blow up a power plant. It's less about changing the world - the act is a gesture, and one of futility at that - than a demonstration of the character's dissatisfaction. As is, he can't even go through with it. But “Things in the Night” continues in this vein of protest, a lashing out in all directions, with no specific targets.

As I have mentioned, this book was written in a then still Soviet Estonia, and in the book life there is explored using a variety of approaches. At one point the narrator explains why he doesn't just describe the situation as it is:

“Because at an everyday level, life in this country is simply appalling, and if you start trying to describe the horror of it, you really have to devote yourself to the task, stack up thousands of pages of all kinds of absurdities [...] but I don't want to write about it all, and nobody would want to read it anyway. One should rather push this frustration down into the subconscious and write as Proust suggested: one of the characters doesn't close a window, doesn't wash his hands, doesn't put on a coat, doesn't say a word to introduce himself. That is a more honest and pure feeling.”

Personally, I would have preferred the detail!
Still, some of the horrors are described, culminating in a nightmarish scenario of a power outage in sub-zero weather, a blacked-out city frozen solid. This is the nearest the novel comes to a plot (coming in the second third of the book) and contains some genuinely eerie descriptions of the abandoned winter nightlandscape of the city that the writer ventures out into.

As I say – there is no clear linear narrative, although the story does progress - albeit fitfully and with a variety of digressions. There's a significant woman in his life (never elaborated upon): Susie; and an antagonist of sorts, Tissen. There is also a large collection of Cacti that the narrator keeps in his high rise apartment flat and whom he engages with to a much greater degree than any of his neighbours, and which he describes at great length...

And there I take my leave of Estonia on my literary trip: a complex novel by an obviously gifted writer, but one which – I have to say – I personally did not engage with. But that is no bad thing – this is a round the world trip and not every location will be an ideal one for every individual! I hope that I haven't been too harsh on this novel: I was just expecting more. Of course, the best way to form your own opinion is to read it yourself - which I would encourage you to do for every book on this journey!

From Estonia I move onto the neighbouring state of Latvia (courtesy of “Tale of the White Crow” by Iveta Melnika) which - at the time of writing this book - was undergoing a similar transformation from Soviet rule to independence. In contrast to Unt’s work, this book is in the form of a diary by an adolescent girl growing up during these major changes, so I anticipate a very different - and more realist - perspective on this particular location.

Having already been to Riga in Latvia (where this book is set) as a connection to get to Estonia, I know where to catch a bus to Tallinn - rather than getting a taxi which can be very expensive. To buy the ticket on the bus, trolley or tram costs €25, but if you buy the tickets in a kiosk it is only €15. There are kiosks everywhere and they are easy to recognise with their yellow sign saying R Kiosk. The ticket is then validated on the bus, trolley or tram.

From Tallinn airport it is a quick flight to Riga, the capital city of Latvia. It is back via AirBaltic and – if you are quick enough – you can get a relatively cheap flight. Mine was €52 Economy Class, leaving at 21.35 and arriving in Riga at 22.30 (there were only a couple of seats left when I booked...)

And so, on to: “The Tale of the White Crow” by Iveta Melnika. This is set from the 1990s era of Perestroika (which brought both freedoms and uncertainly to many former Soviet states) through to the new millennium.

I look forward to updating you soon…

Friday, 17 September 2010

An intriguing novel from start to Finnish: the secret life of trolls (and their keepers)

“Troll: A Love Story” by Johanna Sinisalo (or “Not Before Sundown” to give it its original title) is set in Tampere, a major southern city in contemporary Finland. Despite the modern setting, this novel takes place in a world in which the troll (Felipithecus trollius) is a species that really does exist. Even so, they are semi-mythical creatures: sightings are very rare, descriptions of and stories about them often seem like tall tales, and no one knows much about them.

It is interesting that a troll forms a key protagonist here, as I have found that a theme of ‘mythology in a modern context’ runs through a number of works I have planned for the Nordic / Baltic region. For instance the next novel on my journey, set in Estonia, plays on the werewolf legend to a degree, as does the entry for Moscow in Russia. Perhaps this is an indication of native authors attempting to reconcile the tradition of their home countries with their rapidly changing modern contexts? Anyway, on to Finland.

Commercial photographer Mikael Kalervo Hartikainen, commonly known as Angel, stumbles across a young male troll after a drunken night out – it is being taunted and beaten by a group of youths, whom he saves it from - and he takes it home with him to his top floor apartment. The novel as a whole focuses primarily on their relationship – a relationship that undergoes a number of radical phases… First he merely wants to save it, then to release it; but ultimately he finds the beguiling hold of the animal (with features not too different from the human) too great... Secrecy also complicates matters: he knows he can't let anyone know what he's hiding in his apartment (it would contravene Finnish laws on keeping wild animals). He also doesn't really know how to care for the animal, which normally hibernates in the winter and likes to hunt for its food.

The novel is presented in very short chapters, many less than a page long. These alternate between Angel's first-person accounts and those of several other characters – a neighbour, friends, lovers, enemies - as well as newspaper and book excerpts generally dealing with trolls (presumably reflecting the results of Angel’s research into trolls, as well as providing a chorus of sorts on the main narrative). The story of Angel and his troll (whom he names Pessi) is recounted, while the whole mythology of trolls is also nicely built up over the course of the book.

Angel is gay, and his relationships present both problems and opportunities in this narrative as he tries to balance getting what he needs to save and preserve Pessi with his own romantic feelings (and the feelings of others for him). Ex-lovers, those interested in him, and those he's interested in, make for an increasingly complicated tangle of people and events with far-reaching consequences. Especially as one ex-lover is an expert veterinary surgeon with the potential knowledge to save Pessi when he, initially, shows signs of critical illness.

As Pessi grows protective - disliking the scent of another man on Angel - and then when Angel uses Pessi in a photo for a jeans-advert (which the troll doesn't like in the least), it's clear things have to come to a violent head at some point. And they do.

A touchingly painful sub-plot concerns Angel's neighbour, a Filipino mail-order bride named Palomita who is married to an abusive ogre of a man. Angel becomes a small window on the outside world for her, with her situation a distorted mirror of what is happening in the other apartment: she too is a kept pet. She idolises Angel romantically from their few, brief meetings, and hopes that he will provide her with an escape from her caged life. Whilst ultimately he does, in a way: it is through circumstances she could never have anticipated…

The author, Sinisalo, juggles all of this quite well. It's an affecting story, with enough surprises and twists to ultimately be anything but simple. There's a lot here, and it could easily have become a disjointed mish-mash of episodic descriptions - but it is to the author’s credit that the novel works very well as a coherent whole. My main gripe is that some of the lengthier “research texts” break the narrative up more than they add to this, but this is a minor point. And a further area I would question is the rather contrived ending (which I won’t reveal to potential readers!). Overall, however, I looked forward to this novel - and put it down feeling more than satisfied. An imaginative plot, interesting protagonists of an ambivalent nature (in both Angel and Pessi) and some genuinely shocking and surprising moments - both violent and non-violent…. I shall desist from further description in case I spoil key plot points!

And so, having met a troll for the first time, I travel from Finland to Estonia (often called a Baltic state, but one which increasingly – since its independence from the USSR in 1991 – sees itself as Nordic).

Indeed, the book for this destination is called “Things in the Night” by native author Mati Unt, is set in 1990 when Estonia was on the cusp of independence. Mati Unt was born in 1944 and so experienced Estonia under both rule and its belated independence. He was a major literary figure in Estonia – publishing his first novel in 1962, and continuing to write until his death in 2005.

In practical terms, I make my way from Finland to Estonia by air (as one needs to cross the Gulf of Finland to travel between countries – otherwise a lengthy and convoluted land trip through Russia is required). And so I board an AirBaltic flight from Tampere at 8.05am arriving at my connection in Riga in Latvia (my destination after Estonia) at 9.20. From there it is a quick turnaround on the planes to get the 10am from Riga to Tallinn airport arriving at 10.55. Given the connection, this is not a bad journey time of just under 3 hours (although the one-way price is not cheap at EUR 97.75). As far as experience goes – I did not have the check in problems that some describe at Riga, but have the say this was not the most comfortable of flights (tiny leg room) and the air crew seemed non-existent…

Still, I make it to Estonia in one piece and am looking forward to “Things in the Night” – a postmodern reflection of a country on the cusp on independence from communist rule.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Shedding (Northern) Light on the Sámi culture

In plotting my trip around the world thus far, I have relied heavily on the Internet - searching literary reviews, emailing cultural departments and libraries, and checking out online book clubs (not to mention hours spent trawling 'Wikipedia'!)

Yet I came across my next destination, and my next book, by pure chance – in a local ‘PoundStore’! For those of you not acquainted with these outlets, they are cheap and cheerful shops where everything – literally – costs £1 sterling. Stocks change from week to week so it is pot luck as to what you may find… it just happened to be my good luck to come across “Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name” by Vendela Vida, in the book section. And with this new work came a new destination on my journey: Sápmi. Whilst not an official state as such, Sápmi is a cultural region in the Arctic Circle inhabited by the Sámi people. It is located in Northern Europe and stretches over four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

Whilst the book was only £1, this is no bargain basement work – indeed it was previously voted “Radio 4 Book of week”. I must concur, as the book itself was a pleasure to read and also an evocative insight into the Sámi culture (despite the author and protagonist both being North American).

Vida, writing her second novel, uses a prose that is both sparse and detached – a mode which perfectly matches both the isolation of the location and the emotional detachment of the main protagonist, Clarissa Iverton. The main plot is equally economic – Clarissa’s mother, Olivia, disappeared when she was 14 years old, leaving her and her severely disabled brother to be raised by her father. At the age of 28, her father dies and she discovers that he was not actually her biological father. As a result, Clarissa abandons her fiancé and travels from her native New York to the northern Arctic region of Sápmi. She knows from family papers that this is where her absent mother travelled to in her youth (during a time of local protest at the building of a dam in the area by the Norwegian government). Clarissa travels to this remote, snowbound location with the vague notion of finding some answers as to the true nature of her birth and parentage. Despite some red herrings, she finally does find some unexpected truths – with consequences that are both devastating yet redemptive.

However, it is not just the plot that makes this brief novel so engaging: as indeed it is. Vida’s sparing prose eloquently reflects both the isolation not only of the Arctic landscape - which is depicted beautifully – but also the emotional isolation of the main characters. Indeed, all of these characters reflect their surroundings in their detachment… Clarissa, in leaving for Sápmi without telling her fiancé shows the same lack of empathy as did her mother in leaving her and father; her disabled brother, Jeremy, is ultimately detached in being unable to engage with others or respond to any form of stimuli; and most of the well-intentioned Sámi that Clarissa meets on her journey are unable to engage due to language barriers with her. One exception to the latter group is Henrik, a local Sámi – a young reindeer farmer – whom Clarissa befriends and who she briefly harbours feelings for (although the romantic potential of this narrative arc inevitably falls victim to the isolationist mise-en-scène of the novel).

There are resolutions of sorts in this story, though I would not wish to spoil these for potential readers by going into too much detail here... suffice to say that there are certain denouements along the way. These are generally more of a surprise to Clarissa than the reader as they are quite obviously signposted by Vida… and ultimately the plot is counterbalanced by a conclusion which is most likely more satisfactory to Clarissa than the reader!

Aside from the main narrative, what Vida offers in terms of bringing the Sápmi region to life for the reader is a combination of evocative description and cultural context.

In terms of description, Vida uses her sparse prose to effectively depict the landscape of this desolate Arctic region. Often the best descriptions involve metaphors employed by the American narrator in describing this unfamiliar landscape, for instance: “The sun never rose, but at ten thirty, the sky looked like a dark blue parachute concealing a flame”…”The snow beneath my feet sparkled like sunlit cement…”

Vida is equally efficient in her coverage of the political / cultural issues of this region. Notably, she sets a key period of Clarissa’s mother’s life in Sápmi at the time of the Alta Dam protests in the late 1970s / early 1980s. This was a major protest by the Sámi against the proposed construction of a dam and hydroelectric power plant by the Norwegian government, that would create an artificial lake and inundate the Sámi village of Máze. More than one thousand protesters chained themselves to the site when the work started again in January 1981. The police responded with large forces, and at one point 10% of all Norwegian police officers were stationed in Alta. The protesters were forcibly removed by police.

At the time a number of Sámi were arrested and charged with violating laws against rioting. The central organisations for the Sámi people discontinued all co-operation with the Norwegian government. Two Sámi women even travelled to Rome to petition the Pope. However, ultimately the power plant was built.

Aside from this specific example, Vida also refers to a more insidious influence on the region by the established governments to the South. At one point Clarissa hitches a ride with a native called Sara who tells her story: “At a young age, she was sent to a Norwegian school, as were most of the Sámi in Finnmark at that time. ‘The government wanted the children to learn Norwegian, so we were sent to schools where we slept and lived… [as a result] I was so taken from my heritage that I was embarrassed when I saw the [Alta Dam] protesters’ ”.

In conclusion, this was a book that I greatly enjoyed – not only because it was well written and engaging in a narrative sense – but also because I learnt, through a fictional setting, about a land and a culture of which I was previously unaware. If my 'round the world' trip is about anything, then this is it. The fact that I only stumbled across this book also underlines the fact that the world is a vast and incredibly diverse place, and no matter how thorough one tries to be in representing it through travel, one can only ever scratch the surface of this amazing globe.

From the upper latitudes of the Arctic Circle, I now travel south, to the major city of Tampere in Finland. In order to get to my destination I retrace my steps to Finland’s capital city of Helsinki (see my previous blog entry for the gory details of this 21 hour journey by bus and train). From Helsinki, things are much simpler: I take an ‘Express Bus’ departing from platform 13 in front of the international flights terminal. This runs every hour from Helsinki Airport to Tampere bus station (with a total journey time of 2.5 hours for €25). The modern, air-conditioned buses make a number of stops at locations both large and small along the way (Hämeenlinna, at the midway point, seems to be a particulraly picturesque place to visit...)

Thus I arrive in southern Finland courtesy of “Troll: A Love Story” by native author Johanna Sinisalo. I will explore this work in my next blog; but suffice it to say, this intriguing story involves a troll (a traditional Nordic mythological creature) and its impact in upon a modern day Finish city-dweller who takes it into his home…

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Falling for Norway: A Mystery but is it Murder?

A key reason for choosing “Stella Descending” (by Linn Ullmann) for the Norwegian leg of my journey was that I was intrigued by the premise, which centres around the repercussions of a single, tragic event. On 27 August 2000 the Stella of the title plunges nine stories off a rooftop to her death. For reasons never fully explained, she was up there with Martin, her husband. It is unclear whether she jumped, fell, or was pushed – and this forms the dramatic crux of this novel.

Stella and Martin were together for over a decade. They have a daughter, Bee who is ten - a silent, introspective child whom, we learn, Martin was never able to bond with. Stella also has another child, fifteen-year-old Amanda, though her father is long out of the picture. As well as providing emotional support to Bee, Amanda shares with the reader her view of events: which are seen through the prism of her transition from childhood to adolescence; ageing in a confusing environment where reality is cryptic and fantasy the day-to-day norm. For instance Amanda describes to Bee, in vivid detail, her rationalisation of her mother's descent:

"We say that Mama is falling little by little, day by day, kind of in bits: first a finger, then an eye, and then a knee, and then a foot, then a toe, and then another toe." Amanda says. "I tell Bee…that Mama falls and falls and never hits the ground." On her way down, Amanda explains, Stella meets birds flying south, a squirrel fallen from a tree, a cod fished from water. "Maybe Mama will meet Granny, too, I say; God must have kicked Granny out of heaven a long time ago, she was so grumpy and tight-lipped."

“Stella Descending” is actually narrated by several characters, including eyewitness accounts from the three passers-by who witnessed the fatal fall. There is also some commentary from special investigator Corinne Danielsen (an overweight, ageing detective who can sense a murderer through her stomach rumblings, yet - for such a potentially interesting character - she remains strangely in the background of this novel). There are also accounts and reflections by Amanda (but not Bee), Axel (an old man Stella befriended in a hospital she worked at), and even Stella herself. In addition there is a transcript of a video recording Martin and Stella made on the day of her death (ostensibly to record their possessions for insurance purposes, although the transcripts serve more to provide a voyeuristic view of the increasing disconnection in their relationship: a rather sad documentation of inevitable dissolution).

Of all of the above narrators, a major figure is the aged curmudgeon Axel who has lived for thirty years in his "temporary" apartment in a nondescript section of Oslo. "I am not usually in harmony with my surroundings," Axel explains. "In fact, I detest my surroundings, and my surroundings detest me."

Despite an apparent lack of common ground, Axel and Stella become close friends. Axel is in love or what passes for him as such. Stella senses a sympathetic ear. They meet when Axel is hospitalised. Stella is his nurse. Their friendship coincides with the beginning of Stella's relationship with Martin, so Axel provides a unique perspective. "Stella was too good for him," Axel says, describing Martin. "In my view he is a conceited ass… he is a brute, but he did not kill her. Such things do, after all, take a courage of sorts."

All of these accounts focus on the fall and its aftermath (especially the day of Stella's funeral), but include reminiscences going back years. Some are only related second-hand - it is Corinne who recounts much of what Martin has to say, for example - and events and occurrences (including the fall itself) are often seen through different eyes. On a thematic note, Axel is fascinated by Ferris wheels, and it is like one of these that the story keeps returning to the same places.

The novel presents an interesting mix of voices: old Axel, who has also become an important anchor for Amanda, suspicious Corinne, calmly nostalgic Stella. Much doesn't seem particularly significant at first - or even almost too trivial to bother with - but it's a fine web Ullmann spins, and ultimately a coherent picture of the relationships between these characters emerges. However, this is a novel of separation more than connection: of unbridgeable gaps, the inability to truly communicate and to hold fast to each other - making for a novel that is both affecting and yet also profoundly melancholy.

“Stella Descending” doesn't come to a neat, clean murder-mystery conclusion - it's nowhere near that simple: although it does read like a mystery of sorts (and it is interesting to note how many of the books on the Scandinavian leg of my journey owe something to the detective genre). On balance, this has been an ideal, and enjoyable, representation for my journey to Norway.

As an aside, author Linn Ullmann is the daughter of acclaimed Norwegian actress, Liv Ullmann, and the equally esteemed Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. Hard acts to follow, but Ullmann acquits herself well here, in what was her second novel.

From Norway, my next stop is a rather unconventional one - the destination being Sápmi: a cultural region in the Arctic circle traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people. Sápmi is located in Northern Europe and stretches over four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. In researching my journey, I felt that this region had enough autonomy and independent culture to warrant an entry in its own right. Such decisions are always going to be subjective, but this is one I stand by.

And I am pleased that I have, as it has brought me to a sparse, yet affecting, book called “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” by Vendela Vida published in 2007 – of which more later.

I have to say that travel from these two destinations is less of a smooth transition! From Oslo I take a cheap flight into Finland (a snip online via edreams.com for a one-way trip to Helsinki Vantaa airport for €16.80). However, from there travel is less direct to this remote region: there is no direct route to my ultimate destination of Inari; so I then need to embark upon a 12-hour train ride to Rovanemi (which is followed by a bus to Ivalo, and then another bus to Inari:- a total of 21 hours from Helsinki).

At least on the initial train journey I am able to book a comfortable 2nd class sleeper carriage (with three beds – the other two mercifully empty) and nice clean blankets. I shall quote Vendela Vida for a description of this first leg of the journey:

“As the train left the station, I pressed my forehead to the cold window. We started out slow, passing houses the colour of Viking ships in children’s books – utterly confident blues, reds, yellows. Ladders led to the rooftops, to ease the shovelling off of snow…the farther north we travelled, the darker it grew. By three o’clock, it was already night”.

My train arrives at Rovenemi after midnight, and there is a long wait until the double-decker bus arrives at 6am. After one more change of buses I arrive in snowbound Inari at nine in the morning – although it is hard to tell it is morning here as the sun never seems to rise, the only indication of daylight being a dark blue tinge to the sky above…

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fire & Ice: The Past & Present Collide in Sweden

Swedish author Henning Mankell has become well known of late thanks to the BBC's adaptation of his acclaimed Kurt Wallander series (which I must admit to not having seen). "Italian Shoes", however - the book of his that I have chosen to represent Sweden - is a one-off story spanning a year in the life of a 66-year-old former surgeon living in self-imposed exile on a small island in the Swedish archipelago, having botched an operation twelve years earlier and taken early retirement as a consequence.

At the time that we are introduced to our main protagonist, he lives alone on the island save for a cat and a dog. The tale involves the very unexpected return into his life of a woman he once loved and deserted thirty-seven years back who now has a terminal disease, and three other women of widely differing circumstances who have a profound effect on his sense of being: and upon whose lives he has - sometimes unknowingly - made a significant impact.

Mankell is a natural story-teller and his latest novel is rich in all manner of emotions. Loneliness, regret, mortality and failure are just some of the issues covered here, told in the first-person throughout with a wonderful sense of comic timing in spite of the generally depressing themes. The central character Frederik Welin has only one friend - a hypochondriac postman, who makes the most of the fact that one of his customers is an ex-medical professional - and even then he doesn't like him very much, and hasn't invited him into his lonely abode in all of the twelve years that he has been delivering and collecting the post.

That I cannot really reveal more about the intricacies of the plot itself is a testament to Mankell's compelling narrative ability - there is plenty to describe, but I would be spoiling the book for potential readers if I tried to focus on any individual elements...(and perhaps this is a reflection of Mankells' credentials as a detective story writer).

What I can say is that Mankell is adept at describing the environment, in this case the often frozen sea and snow-covered terrain of a desolate region of Sweden, but he is even better at characterisation and dialogue. While the topics central to the main characters' lives are largely sad and downbeat, the overall impression from reading the story is surprisingly uplifting, and full of moments to make you smile if not laugh out loud. It must have been challenging to have chosen to write in the first-person about a man who is basically selfish and inconsiderate, because it then means that any impressions about him have to come in the form of responses to his self-centred behaviour from the characters around him - there is no judgement in the narrative as it is played out in diary-like style with only occasional snippets of inner reflection. The prose is easy and uncomplicated (compliments must go to the outstanding translation by Laurie Thompson) yet moods and events change very abruptly without any forewarning.

I cannot think of a genre into which this book fits, but it is certainly a very intelligent piece of work by Mankell, full of serious and profound issues that will make you pause to reflect and consider, yet relieved on countless occasions by moments of spirit-raising humour. I believe that anyone reading this will take something positive away from it, something to reflect on looking both backwards and forwards in time.

As this novel ends where it begins - on the Swedish archipelago - I retrace my steps from there to Stockholm in order to travel to my next destination of Norway.

I decide to take a train from Stockholm Centralstation: an impressive C19th edifice of a similar design to St Pancras in London. I board the SJ Intercity 625 at Stockholm Central at 8.29 in the morning and just over 6 hours later (at 14.36) I find myself in Oslo's main station for a one-way fare of about 460 Swedish Krona (about £40). The train is efficient and modern: with large seats, air conditioning and great on-board food facilities... I have to say the exterior view is even more impressive - as the train sweeps through a landscape which is both snowbound and desolate, yet majestically beautiful (save for the regular punctuation of industrial centres and commercial parks).

However, I arrive well-refreshed for the Norwegian leg of my journey in the capital of Oslo, which is a challenging psychological drama entitled "Stella Descending" by native author Linn Ullmann.

I look forward to updating you on this leg of my journey soon!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Serious Literature about a Danish Clown

Certain readers may remember Danish author Peter Høeg, in relation to his earlier novel “Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow” (1992) which achieved well-deserved international acclaim in translation – as well as a film adaptation (as "Smilla's Sense of Snow").

Despite this success, Høeg acquired a reputation for being hard to place in terms of literary style, and subsequent works: “Borderliners” (1993), “The Woman and the Ape” (1996) were not so well received by critics.

Always protective of his privacy, Høeg virtually disappeared in 1996 after the luke-warm reception of “The Woman and the Ape”. He re-surfaced in 2006 with “The Quiet Girl”, his first novel in 10 years. At the time of its publication, reception in Denmark was mixed at best, and the novel was generally disregarded as being either too complex or too post-modern.

Personally I think this novel represents a significant return to form for Høeg. Complex and post-modern this novel certainly is; but it is also enjoyable and rewarding. Whilst often baffling in terms of its convoluted plot and bewildering mix of philosophical musings and full-on thriller plot-lines; I can honestly say that this was one of the most enjoyable novels on my journey so far.

So where to start with a description? Well…

Kasper Krone, the unlikely hero of Peter Høeg’s new novel, is a clown. His story is set in a contemporary - yet alternate – reality: a Copenhagen shaken by earthquake and flood. This novel is an equally unlikely page-turner: the thriller as philosophical novel and post-modern comedy.

As per convention: the thriller aspect hurtles along; accelerated with conspiracy, incident and - often unlikely - plot twists. Trying to make sense of these (along with the reader) is the main protagonist Kasper, who is not just any clown, but an international star performing in circuses across Europe and the United States (although this back story is always very much kept out of the main plot).

His act apparently includes the pathos of the violin and the music of Bach. Able to quote from Kierkegaard or St Mark as required, Kasper is erudite and self-confident to an almost hypnotic degree.

His dark side, however, sets the action in motion. Gambling debts, unpaid bills and tax evasion have caught up with him, and bureaucrats from Denmark and Spain threaten to have him thrown in jail. Coming to his rescue is an order of nuns, willing to negotiate a settlement and seek a pardon in exchange for his help with a group of unusual children gathered under their care. He is called in to help because, in the surreal world of this novel, God, whom he refers to as SheAlmighty, "had tuned each person in a musical key, and Kasper could hear it." Not only do people have a kind of aural signature, but also life itself is a great symphony, composed by SheAlmighty, inaudible to all but Kasper.

The children under the nuns' protection are able to manipulate their aural aura in strange and significant ways. When acting in harmony, they can create a power strong enough to move extremely large objects - perhaps linked to Copenhagen's devastating earthquake? Byzantine forces of good and evil, particularly the shadowy Konon Corporation, want to channel that acoustic-kinesthetic energy, but only Kaspar can truly come close to understanding the mysterious power of the children.

When one of these children goes missing and is reported kidnapped, Kasper must find her. As mentioned above, you can skate quickly on the surface of the story of his hunt for this 'quiet girl', and feel that Høeg is deliberately overstating the case. Coincidence abounds. Credulity is stretched and snapped.

Late in the story, for example, Kasper, wheelchair-bound from a gunshot wound and a broken wrist, and his companions - his father dying of cancer, his literally legless sidekick, his long lost but now returned lover and an African nun with a black belt in Aikido - sneak below Copenhagen's main sewage station to slide through pipes 200 feet under the harbour and into the evil Konon Corp's super-secure headquarters. The novel is stocked with nuns and thugs, real estate speculators, monks and tax collectors and dozens more who accelerate and add vivid colour to the deliberately over-the-top plot.

But like the mystical music always there beyond our hearing, the essence of the novel hides within the object of Kasper's quest. The missing 'quiet girl', KlaraMaria, is an old soul in a 12-year-old body, who balances the frenzy and chaos of Kasper's life. The hero is on an existential quest, and through this quest he finds his own answer to the riddle of love and faith.

That Høeg splices together so many conventions should come as no surprise to readers of “Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow”.

Treat “The Quiet Girl” as a thriller, and you'll sprint happily to its unexpected and enigmatic ending. Treat the novel as a something more, and you may find yourself re-reading this book more than once to enjoy its many layers.

Whichever path you take (and it may well be both!) - ignore the critics: this is a wonderful novel.

Anyhow, the path I am now taking is on my global journey, and will take me from Denmark to Sweden, and on to the novel “Italian Shoes” - which despite its name is set in the Swedish Archipelago and is by renowned Swedish author Henning Mankell (best known in the UK for his televised detective series featuring the fictional Kurt Wallander).

As a first stop off, I take a direct flight from Copenhagen into Stockholm Arlanda airport for just €70.20, leaving Denmark 18.05 and arriving in Sweden at 19.15 (whilst less scenic than taking a train or coach; it is certainly quicker and cheaper...).

An onward journey into the remote location of this novel is required, so I charter a boat from Blasieholmskajen in central Stockholm and head out to a remote island in the Archipeligo...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Double Dutch: An Interesting Book of Two Halves from The Netherlands….

I have to say I am in two minds about “The Sundial” – Maarten ‘T Hart’s book which represents The Netherlands on my trip. On the one hand, I enjoyed what is a quirky and unusual novel about the taking on of another’s identity, and its consequences, yet - given that this is widely promoted as a complex crime thriller – I felt a little short-changed in that department…

I think maybe the problem is that this novel is trying to be several things at once: a straightforward crime thriller, a mediation of the notion of ‘self’ and also a depiction of an ensemble of off-the-wall characters living together in the provincial city of Maasslius in southern Holland.

Perhaps before further analysis I should offer an overview of the main plot of this book. The publisher’s description covers this fairly well:

The Sundial opens with Leonie Kuyper attending the funeral of her best friend Roos Berczy, who has seemingly died of sunstroke. Leonie has always felt somewhat overshadowed by Roos, who was striking looking and a brilliant pharmacological research assistant to boot. She turns out to have made Leonie her sole heir, provided that she moves into Roos' apartment and cares for her cats. For Leonie, an impoverished translator, it is an offer she cannot refuse and she becomes the owner of a beautiful apartment, a large portfolio of common stocks, and an expensive wardrobe. Gradually Leonie assumes Roos' identity. By wearing her clothes and make-up, she begins to resemble her deceased friend and, as a result, Roos' past starts to crowd in on her. Was Roos a chemist involved in the manufacture of Ecstasy? But Leonie is also confronted with the possibility that Roos had information about the falsification of research findings and might have been murdered by a colleague. And then there's the riddle of exactly how Roos died...

And, as far as plot goes, that is pretty much what you get – and Hart does a workmanlike job of playing out this story. However, I can’t help feeling that the plot is actually more of a secondary device that Hart employs to explore his main interest of the psychological process of Leonie taking on Roos’ personae (physically and mentally). Indeed, Hart has gained something of a reputation as a cross-dresser in his native Holland, often appearing on chat shows dressed as his alter ego 'Martha', and I can’t help feeling that this novel may have been stronger as a psychological exploration of this process of taking on a new identity, without the crime thriller element tacked on.

Indeed, for me, the main ‘was she or wasn’t she murdered’ element was the least convincing and the least satisfying element of this book. What I did find more interesting were the idiosyncratic characters that we are introduced to along the way (the unreconstructed builder Fred, the stuttering lawyer Graafland, the shameless voyeur Mastenbroek, the mentally-fragile Fiona), and Hart has a good feel for the appropriate dialogues and descriptions of these interesting individuals. Interestingly, the one character that does not come across with any conviction in this book is the deceased Roos. Even in retrospect I would have thought we might have got more of a sense of this complex and convoluted character, but for me she remained an enigma, which is curious given that we are constantly told what a larger-than-life person she was.

And so, as a whole, an interesting book but ultimately not a fully satisfying one in a literary sense. That said, it gave me a good sense of a slice of life in modern Holland (a key criteria for my choices of destinations on my journey!) and contained some nice descriptions of the Dutch landscape - both urban and rural - along the way…

And so I make my way from Maasslius to Copenhagen in Denmark, where I shall be visiting courtesy of native author Peter Høeg’s slightly surrealist novel: “The Quiet Girl”. I retrace my steps back to Amsterdam Central station and catch a direct rail link to Schiphol International Airport for just €3.60. From there - having scoped a cheap flight to Denmark (and beware – there are some carriers who will charge you over €300 for a one way trip!) – I board the 17:30 flight on Scandinavian Airlines direct to Copenhagen in Denmark, arriving just 1 hour 20 minutes later, and a bargain at £84.

I look forward to updating you on my travels in Denmark soon!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Light-Hearted Trips in the Political Heart of Europe: the Banal and the Bizarre Come Together in Belgium

It must be said that Harry Pearson’s book “A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among The Belgians” - whilst a serviceable and amusing account of this small but central European country - holds few surprises. This is very much a ‘bemused-Englishman-abroad’ type book in the mould of Charlie Connelly’s earlier account of Liechtenstein (“Stamping Grounds”). However, whilst Connelly’s book had a connecting theme and a purpose - following Liechtenstein’s football team during their futile attempt to quality for the 2002 World Cup – Pearson’s account seems a little unfocussed in comparison.

This is not helped by the fact that his disparate accounts of Belgium cover a series of trips made to the country, spanning several years and in the company of various companions. The narrative sometimes segues suddenly between these trips, which can be a little disorientating for the less alert of us readers. I was often left confused as to whether he was recalling a trip with Steve, an old friend, or a more recent excursion with Catherine, his girlfriend (both of whom are very much in the background in this book, and are rarely given any sort of voice). Indeed at some point in the book Harry and Catherine suddenly gain a young baby on their travels, which disorientated me even further...

That is not to say that there aren’t some amusing passages in this book – such as his description of the Belgium enthusiasm for (if not proficiency in) ill–advised and potentially-lethal DIY – and his musings on the possible link between the Belgium sense of national individualism and the large quantities of dog mess on the streets of Brussels. However, occasionally one feels that Pearson is trying a little too hard to demonstrate his credentials as both author and comic. For instance his description of a farmers’ wife as having the “slender, pallid beauty of one of the female revellers of Bosch’s ’Garden of Earthly Delights’ (though she was wearing considerably more clothing, obviously)” – seems a little forced.

That said, whilst it took a while for me to engage with this book, I did begin to warm to the accounts after the halfway mark, and Pearson obviously has a certain affection for this idiosyncratic nation. His accounts of the various nationalistic affiliations to Belgium’s official languages - especially between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons (who generally seem to ignore each others’ existence; with the minority German-speakers caught somewhere in the middle) - are informative and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the scene where a train announcer has to change the place-names of destination stops on a single journey, according to where in Belgium the train happens to be...

Another interesting account, which comes late on in the book, is of Belgium's former monarch: King Leopold II’s barbaric yet farcical colonisation of the Congo in the 19th century. Whilst drawing on the full horrors of both this debauched individual and his actions (Pearson makes the astute point that King Leopold made around £3million out of his African land-grab; slightly less than a pound per African life lost as a result) he also finds some telling irony here: "Soon African chiefs all across the Congo basin had signed away their independence to an organisation with a blue and yellow banner and its headquarters in Brussels. Euro-sceptics may wish to pause at this point and have a good old rant”.

All in all then, a bit of a mixed bag; but – as with the previous book – an informative and largely engaging account of a small European country seen through the eyes of both a fellow European and a cultural outsider.

I must say, I felt that the conclusion of this book reflected my point about the lack of narrative structure here. Of course, this is a travelogue and not a novel, but the abrupt Epilogue – a mere two pages which start with a stroll through Namur, take in a paragraph’s worth of Antwerp and end with the ferry back to England via Holland - seemed especially sudden and a little dissatisfying. In articulating this feeling I shall paraphrase my conclusion to Charlie Connelly’s earlier account of Liechtenstein:

“If I have one gripe about this book it is that it all ends rather abruptly. [It] includes an Afterword… but - right at the last page – I was left with a feeling that I had spent an enjoyable few hours in a bar with [Harry] as he recounted his adventures and then, mid-sentence, he just got up and left…”

Maybe it’s just down to my company that these authors need to excuse themselves so abruptly!

Anyhow, next stop is The Netherlands; although first I need to take my leave of Belgium. I must admit to being slightly worried about my decision to go by train, given Harry Pearson’s advice on this local mode of transport:

“The railway stations of Brussels at night are no place for anybody who might be susceptible to depression. The first time I arrived in the Belgian capital it was 10.30 pm on a Friday. I got off the train from the airport at Brussels Nord. As I walked through the cavernous tunnels at the Metro, thoughts of loved ones left behind filled my head, the strip lights buzzing above and my footfalls echoing across the emptiness to be heard, as far as I could tell, by no fellow human speakers, a static crackling emerged from the hidden speakers of the tannoy. It was followed shortly by the melancholy tootling of Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger On The Shore’. Harder men than I would have broken.”

Bearing this in mind, I decide to travel during daylight hours, and arrive at Brussels Nord on a sunny morning. There is a comfortable InterCity train that connects Brussels Nord station and Amsterdam Central Station that runs roughly every hour during the daytime. The single ticket is only €33.40 and the journey takes about 2 and a half hours. The train goes via the river port of Antwerp (whose Central Station looks remarkably like the new St Pancras station in London) and also Den Haag Centraal, the largest train station in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam’s main train station is the real heart of this city – and is indeed centrally located with a buzzing atmosphere mingling travellers and commuters. As it is a nice day, I break my journey here and spend a pleasant afternoon wandering along the main Damrak boulevard and its side streets, pausing for a beer or two (or three) and a salad at a bijou little café by the canal-side.

After an enjoyable afternoon’s excursion in Amsterdam, I board the 14a metro line to Rotterdam Centraal at 22.26, leaving there at 23.13 on a sprinter train that arrives in my destination of Maasslius at 23.32 (it is dark by now so it is hard to describe the scenery on this leg of journey!). The one-way trip sets me back €14.70.

Maasslius is a provincial city in Southern Holland and the setting of my next book: the novel “The Sundial” by native author Maarten ‘T Hart; which sounds like an interesting mystery story of the fatal consequences of mistaken identity…