“like the figures of a magic lantern”
Who can say how you find a book or it finds you? I was in the Sechelt Library the other day, idly looking through the non-fiction shelves for something, anything, to read. I’ve been going to this library for a long time and I’m familiar with the holdings. It’s not a large library but the staff are unfailingly helpful and I’ve more than used my allotted share of interlibrary loans, though no one points that out; they keep getting me whatever books I request.
So there was a book I hadn’t seen, by an author I’d never heard of. The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe From Finland to Ukraine, by Paolo Rumiz, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti. Rumiz and his traveling companion, a photographer called Monika, make their way from Finland, near Lake Inari, along the path once described by the Iron Curtain and now (more or less) the scaffolding of the European Union, through countryside, industrial towns, abandoned synagogues, Orthodox communities, using buses and rattling trains for the most part, though also hitchhiking and at one point renting a car in order to visit places they couldn’t reach otherwise. It’s a book I read with my atlas nearby. I’d read and then find the relevant page in my Oxford Concise World Atlas (third edition), the one John gave me to replace the atlases of our children’s childhoods, the ones with both the British Empire (in pink) and the USSR taking up more than their share of the maps.
There are no maps that contain all of Europe from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Sirte. From a longitudinal perspective, they are all partial maps, which seldom go further north than Saint Petersburg. This made it difficult for me not only to plan, but even to imagine my journey. Before my departure, a sense of the distances escaped me. The immense boreal lands were too shrunken, those closer to the Mediterranean too enlarged. So I had to make my own map, on a scale of one to one million, transferring pieces of various atlases onto a single strip of paper, long and narrow, folded like an accordion. I marked out my possible itinerary in red, thousands of versts long, and next to it in blue the European Community frontier, and between the two lines there was a kind of courtship, with each endlessly pursuing the other. At the margins of the strip, as in a dazibao, a slew of annotations drawn from books, Russian maps, notes gathered catch-as-catch-can from other travelers. (From the endnotes: A verst is an ancient Russian measure of length, equivalent to 0.66 miles. A dazibao is a large-character, handwritten Chinese wall poster, frequently associated with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.)
This book took me to places I’d never heard of — the Kola peninsula, Kaliningrad, Lake Onega — and places I had heard of, in poetry, legend, song: Karelia, Aluksne in Latvia, the wooden churches of Bukovyna, where my grandfather came from. We travel by the Murmansk-Novorossiysk train, through mountains and past swollen rivers. We visit the Old Believers on Lake Peipsi, “their vegetable gardens, loomed over by spectacular gray-blue clouds, are the most beautiful in Europe. Little gardens of Eden.” It’s a book to savour. I read a little each night and then found myself picking it up for ten minutes here and there during the day because I wanted its prose, its locations, the experience of entering a new country where people resisted Russification with song: “We resisted the Communist Big Brother by singing. Our identity found shelter in music, in the art of allusion, in the slanted reading of the lyrics.” This book is a song, too, written in a dense and lyrical style; its observations are at once erudite and mythical. There are ghosts that haunt the author as he explores the ruined buildings of frontier towns that had seen and heard more than their share of war, the forests with their mass graves and the silence of streets after dark when one might have expected to hear music, liturgy, the lively sound of human social activity. (Instead, a car door slams and there’s sound of a fist hitting a face.) Security forces enter train compartments with wolf-dogs and search bags for smuggled cigarettes or Ipods taped to women’s thighs like garters. Old women cook blini and offer moonshine and stories.
In the Carpathians, nearing the end of the journey, more magic:
…In the immense silence of the evening, I drink a beer with my feet soaking in the river and a dog by the name of Uaciata sitting next to me, come down to greet me from the house next door. Her name, so tender, means “sketch.”
Stars. Dinner of cured ham and cheese by the hearth in the inn. Above it, the room looks out on the river; that’s the only sound I can hear. The ideal place for a good rest, but I can’t get to sleep. Monika is sleeping so deeply, it seems she’s on another planet. I, on the other hand, suddenly feel crushed under the weight of all the things we’ve seen. Too many. I have no idea why this is happening to me here and now, at the centre of the continent. It’s as though all the notes I’ve taken in the last month have fallen on me at once. A month as long as a year. Six full notebooks. How I manage to decipher them after all this time? I’ve never made a journey so dense with encounters, and all that lived experience turns into weight, ballast. I’ve been working meticulously, maybe too much, like a botanist or entomologist, gathering, recording, reproducing, investigating with a magnifying glass.
Just before six, just to pass the time, I start rummaging through my pack and discover that my rigid blue notebook that I’ve been filling with drawings isn’t there. I look again: nothing. Nothing, nothing. A month’s work up in smoke. I’d drawn the little Belarusian houses, Lithuanian beer labels, Norwegian road signs, the Cyrillic menus from the inns in Murmansk. I curse, dripping with sweat. The idea of going back up into the mountains above Lviv without a car is simply crazy; plus, I don’t have enough time for such a long detour. I’m desperate. But just as I’m getting ready to resign myself, out comes the damn thing from a side pocket as dark as night, and for a second, its seventy drawings seem to shine in the semidarkness like the figures of a magic lantern.
The book was like a magic lantern for me. I read, I followed, tracing the route in my big cloth-bound atlas, Followed the faint but seductive light, and I thought of all the places I would never see — because, realistically, Rumiz’s trip was not the sort I’m about to embark on now, a grandmother of three, with time constraints and perhaps not the stamina I had as a younger woman, roaming through Europe with a backpack stuffed with maps and a notebook of my own (though not perhaps the drawing skills of this author). But a magic lantern, because it shone light on a particular small riddle I’m trying to solve. Not a full and revealing light but a light of innuendo (which sounds like something Wallace Stevens might have written). For the past five or six years, I’ve been trying to figure out the geographies, physical and otherwise, of my father’s parents. They emigrated to North America in the early years of the 20th century and their Europe was not the Europe of today. The borders have shifted. They were citizens of places that no longer exist as political entities. But I know a few things and occasionally I learn a little more. In the town of Kamianets-Podilskyi, not too far from where my grandfather was born in what is now Ukraine, though he would have called himself Bukovynian, Paolo Rumiz meets an elderly couple, Viktor and Lyuba. They sit on the banks of the Smotrych River, a tributary of the Dniester, and remember the Jews who were herded out of town by the Germans (“They killed them in a village not far from here, called Mikraion. The ground was red with blood.”), the old days when the black earth of this granary of Europe could have fed half the world, the skilled workmanship of the those who built the wooden church of Karavasari: “Take a good look at it. It doesn’t have even a single nail. Iron was not to be used, as on the old boats. Iron pierced the flesh of our Lord. It was built with joints.” And if not my grandfather’s family, these could have been cousins, Lyuba perhaps a daughter of the woman on the left in this photograph from my grandfather’s small hoard of personal belongings, a woman who resembles him so closely that I suspect she must have been his sister, left behind when he came first to Franklin Furnace and then to Alberta where my Canadian story begins.
So a book I picked up with some curiosity but not much expectation takes me to a place I am somehow a part of:
The first stars come out. Viktor has gone to close his dovecote. Lyuba invites us to come back tomorrow morning to drink some fresh goat’s milk, We climb slowly back up to the castle on a labyrinth of stairs. From the top, we look back down on the lights of Karavarai with all the characters of the story — the Turks, the Jews, the Poles, the merchants, the boatmen, and the horses drinking at the river. There’s also Lyuba, going back inside the house with her goats, and nearby a group of young people pitching their tent for the night on an emerald-green meadow next to the river. Still father, a horse grazing. They’re all moving inside the same story, written long ago.