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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

An Antique Utopia

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is Jan Morris‘s melancholy love letter to a city that, one hundred years ago, was one of the most bustling ports in Europe but is now largely forgotten. Though Trieste is the capital of the Italian province also named Trieste, 70 percent of Italians polled in 1999 didn’t even know it was in Italy! So what happened? And why write a travel book about a fading outpost of the long dead Austro-Hungarian Empire? For Morris, the transience of Trieste’s glory is a metaphor for the impermanence of life itself.

Morris has a long, complicated relationship with the city. She first landed in Trieste during World War II, as a soldier in the British Army, when she was a man (she had a sex change operation in 1972). She returned periodically throughout the second half of the twentieth century, always finding there a terrestrial limbo, a place of indefinable hiatus between more substantial destinations and activities.

The city is simultaneously cosmopolitan and solitary. Cradled in a crook of land that borders Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, Trieste is an easy drive from Austria and within steamboat distance of Greece, yet Morris finds that the very concept of nationality seems alien to the city. Formed by a dozen different civilizations over the course of four thousand years, Trieste’s character is shaped more by the cultural mementos of those past eras than by any present distinction.

Trieste sits on a plateau of karst (flinty limestone) above the Adriatic Sea, and the plateau is so formidable that, before modern roads and railways, the only people who ventured into the surrounding countryside were bandits and beggars. The land is essentially unarable, so large-scale agriculture is impossible, and hidden caverns and underground streams pock-mark the landscape: Trieste has therefore always been a port city that relies on trade. The Indo-Europeans known as Illyrians founded the city, then the Romans took it, the city-state of Venice colonized it, the Habsburgs occupied it, and finally the modern state of Italy got it after World War I. They gave it up briefly after the Axis defeat in World War II, but it returned to Italian control in 1954 and remains nominally Italian to the present day.

In each incarnation, Trieste’s role as a trading port was most prominent, and the Austro-Hungarians, by connecting railroads across central Europe to the terminus of Trieste, built the city into a commercial powerhouse. However, the ease of transport that made goods from Trieste so valuable continued only as long as the Austro-Hungarians controlled their vast territory, connecting Russia to France and Italy to Poland. When the Empire broke up after the First World War and dozens of international borders cut Trieste off from Central Europe, the city reverted to its older and more natural status as an out-of-the-way port disconnected from its neighbors by geological barriers, with no characteristic products of its own.

Jan Morris in 2008 and in the 1960s, when she was James Morris.

Today, with a population of just over 200,000, Trieste retains some commercial importance. It’s the headquarters of Italian coffee giant Illy, and its shipbuilding industry is still strong. And it still has a whiff of romance about it, at least for Morris: James Joyce wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there, and its architecture reflects its cosmopolitan past. But Morris is interested in Trieste mainly as a utopia: she conceives of it as the capital city of a people who form a secret worldwide diaspora, a people who don’t feel at home in the countries of their birth and are always longing for something at the edge of definition.

“They share with each other, across all nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them, you will not be mocked or resented. . . They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.”

The desire for a place to call home remains after imperial glories fade. For Morris, Trieste is the eternal center of that nation of people whose unfulfilled longings are as important to them as their grandest accomplishments.

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Journey to the Alcarria

Saturday, March 13, 2010 @ 08:03 PM  posted by Mark

Camilo Jose Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria captured a glimpse backward into Old World Spain just before it vanished and provided a peek forward at the coming struggles of everyday people under Franco‘s fascist regime. The record of a walking tour through the central Spanish countryside in 1948, Journey to the Alcarria is a sharply observed picaresque, a portrait of a moment in time between Spain’s agrarian antiquity and its slowly emerging—and troubling—modernity.

Cela undertakes the journey (one in a series of vagabundajes that he would write about) in order to escape the stifling despair of city life under Franco’s new regime. His goal was to observe the changes wrought by long years of armed conflict in the Spanish countryside and find out how people were living in the freshly forged peace. The Spanish Civil War, and then the economic privations of the Second World War, had wreaked havoc on everyday life throughout the country, and no one was sure whom to trust or what exactly to believe in now that the wars were over—republicans distrusted fascists, fascists distrusted royalists, royalists dreamed of a new aristocracy—and everyone was still nursing the literal wounds of war and the figurative injuries of betrayal. As Cela walks from one village to another toward the Alcarria, he finds that the psychological tensions of conflict remain, but so do the age-old virtues of community, family and civility.

The rural villagers Cela encounters— farmers, beggars, shopkeepers, and shepherds—have no model of behavior to rely on in Franco’s new order. Cela himself was of mixed allegiances—in the civil war, he fought for Franco, and, after he was wounded, he worked as a government censor, yet his sympathies lie with average people who are simply trying to make a living, without regard to politics. His idiosyncrasies make him both querulous and generous: he shares his scant resources with vagabonds he meets along the way, and he often relies on the kindness of strangers for food, lodging, information and companionship. Poverty creates its own community along the road and in the rural towns through which Cela passes, and the picture that emerges is almost medieval in its lack of wealth and prospects.

Cela’s journey becomes comic and tragic by turns. His battles with a stubborn mule, his conflicts with thieves and naifs, and his warmth toward fellow travelers are all colored by extremely romantic sensibilities. Cela seems completely at home with his own mixed emotions, and he assumes that everyone else has internal lives as complex as his own, which makes his narrative rich in detail and emotion. Though the people Cela meets are poor in worldy goods, they’re rich in spirit and have complicated lives that come through the page with humor and vitality.

In Cela’s post-war Spain, alliances and politics still matter, and everyone is still quick to judge everyone else; but the people Cela encounters also sense intuitively that they cannot maintain their old ways of life and that they must rely on each other to create something new, beyond the politics that are now out of their control. The fact that a whole generation would be born and live half their lives under Franco’s repressive dictatorship was not yet clear, but in Cela’s walk to the Alcarria, it is clear that the Old Spain has passed from the face of the earth, and it won’t be coming back.

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Around the World & Into the Past

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

For the last couple of centuries, our changing attitudes about travel have mirrored the effects of globalization: starting with the Industrial Revolution, as cultures worldwide became more technological, travel for average Western Europeans and Americans came to mean enrichment rather than danger. Travel once meant only hardship and adventure, the prospect of unpredictable and possibly life-threatening difficulties from which you might never return—normal people did not travel long distances in the seventeenth century, for example, and explorers and other world travelers were likely to be mad as hatters. As more of the globe became known and modern conveniences (like disposable income, internal combustion and industrial agriculture) spread, the idea of travel became associated with pleasure rather than risk, and it became a mark of cultivation to travel great distances to other cultures and return to tell the tale.

With the framework of the increasing ease of travel in mind, I’ve selected a series of six travel books and one film that will take us both around the world and into the past—a past recent enough to contain most of the elements of daily life that we all recognize, yet just distant enough to involve real dangers that the modern traveler can generally avoid these days (or at least avoid personal contact with): dangers of disease, life-threatening poverty and incomprehensible local political squabbles into which the traveler may stumble accidentally. Encounters in these narratives are just as commonly friendly and curious as they are suspicious, mistrustful or terrifying.

We’ll begin tomorrow with Graham Greene‘s The Lawless Roads, the narrative of a 1938 journey to the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, where the Calles government was systematically killing Catholic priests, destroying churches and suppressing religion. Then we’ll take a walking tour through central Spain just after World War II with Nobel Prize winner Camilo Jose Cela, in his Journey to the Alcarria. Next, we’ll jump to Italy as Jan Morris takes us on a kaleidoscopic tour of the long past and strange present of a cultural crossroads in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Making a hard right turn at the Balkans, we’ll head down to the Democratic Republic of Congo to explore a pure and horrifying example of modern colonialism in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, after which we’ll journey by train through China with Paul Theroux in Riding the Iron Rooster, the tale of a trip Theroux took in 1989 but which feels a hundred years older because of the vast economic changes that have happened recently in China. Our one film in the series is next, with the John Boorman true-life adventure Beyond Rangoon, starring Patricia Arquette as an American Doctor in Myanmar whose life changes radically when she encounters the democratic political movement of Aung San Suu Kyi. Finally, we’ll jump and skip through the islands of Polynesia, as James C. Simmons tells us about early European and American explorers who lost their way in the South Pacific, finding sometimes heaven and sometimes hell, in Castaways in Paradise.

If you know the books and movie already, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them; if you don’t, I hope you’ll be inspired to take some of these journeys with me from the comfort of your favorite easy chair. The train leaves from this platform tomorrow, for Mexico.

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