|Art nouveau tiles from Poznan, Poland|
Rory McLean is a travel writer whose books include historical research, personal memoir and fine imaginative language. I first read Stalin’s Nose, a mixture of memoir and travel in Eastern Europe, several years ago. After that it was Magic Bus, a book about the people who travelled overland to India in the sixties and seventies, their motives and experiences, the landscape and history of the places they travelled through. This was followed by Falling for Icarus, in some ways a tribute to the island of Crete and it’s a glorious mixture of personal challenges and people he met and got to know when he lived there, with an exploration, as you’d imagine from the title, of the mythology of the island.
At the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2017, he talked about his latest book, Pictures of You. As he walked towards the stage with Gerard de Groot who introduced him, the first thing you notice is his beaming smile. He looks towards the audience as he might towards a group of close friends, genuinely pleased that you are here. He began by introducing the Archive of Modern Conflict which he said, you probably have not heard of. This is because the archive is still in the process of being sorted and catalogued and is not yet open to the public although you can apply for access if you have a particular project in mind. The archive was created by someone with an interest in collecting photographs of the last century. Initially coming across a few old photographs which piqued his interest, he took to buying up whole collections from auctions and the huge archive which he has amassed contains photographs from all parts of the world. Rory was given free rein of the archive, with the one condition being that he preserved the anonymity of the owner. There are plans, once the archive has been fully catalogued, to open it to the public as the anonymous owner wants these photographic memories ‘to reverberate in the modern age’.
Rory’s project was to select a few photographs, one from each decade of the last century. Taking the few facts available for each one he used these photographs as a starting point, tried to put himself into the shoes of these people, and imagined stories from their lives. He wanted ‘to try to feel what it is like to be another person’. His fascination he said is with how a past place felt like. Gerard talked of his ‘depth of feeling’ regarding his project and his ‘emotional investment’. Rory said that for him, such investment is an essential part of the process. It is through people he said, that we can really understand a place and a time, through imagining what it was like to be that particular individual in a particular time.
I’ve been to several talks in the Book Festival now but Rory’s was particularly warm, as was his quality of engagement when he responded to questions and comments by the audience.
Elena Lappin’s memoir What Language do I Dream In charts a journey through different countries and languages. Beginning with her birth in Russia, she moved with her parents to Prague in Czechoslovakia then to Hamburg, Germany. As an adult, she has lived in Israel, Canada and now resides in London. Not surprisingly given her varied experience of languages she studied linguistics. In her talk at Edinburgh Book Festival she began by saying that it’s through language that we feel and perceive reality, for when we speak different languages we experience everything differently – as the way we think, express ourselves, the way we relate to people and even the humour, is framed and shaped according to the structures of the language we are speaking. Language teaching is so important she says as it’s a gateway to another culture. I feel this is particularly relevant to the UK, as we do not focus on learning other languages in schools as they do in mainland Europe and however good our education may be in other fields, we miss out both on the skills and the understanding and so, tolerance, of other cultures.
The main impetus for her to write this memoir was the discovery when she was in her 40s, that the person who brought her up as a child, her mother’s husband, was not her biological father. This revelation led her to research what had been kept hidden from her in her own background as she was growing up and the consequences it had for herself and for her family.
Despite the many displacements in her early years, she says her childhood and family life was very happy. There was no judgement by her Russian Jewish maternal grandparents, of her mother having an illegitimate child, she was welcomed into the family and spent a lot of time with her grandparents, until she and her mother moved to Prague, to join the man she would know as her father. She saw little of her grandparents after that, for even though Czechoslovakia was behind the iron curtain, there were restrictions on travel and visas were difficult to obtain. In the Prague Spring of ‘68, for a brief period, borders opened up, there was a free press and her history teacher said that if they wanted to know about history they should read novels. But the period of open-ness was short-lived as Russian tanks moved into Prague, and she moved with her family to Hamburg in 1970. She said her parents had a talent for creating fun and joy around them, there were always lots of people and parties in their home and lots of good food. In Hamburg, after a short time when things were difficult, they recreated this atmosphere. While it was easier for her as a young person in her teens, to learn this new language, she said it would not have occurred to her parents not to learn German, the language of the new country they lived in. And she stressed the importance for all immigrants to learn the language of the country they lived in, for otherwise they would be cut off from the society around them.
I first read the opening chapter of this memoir here which draws you into the story of a warm, resilient and supportive family, tracing an astonishing trajectory through wars and conflicts and across continents and languages.
Daša Drndić is a Croatian writer who has written several novels and her latest, Belladonna, has just been translated into English. When asked about the ‘story’ of her book, she says passionately ‘My book doesn’t have a story – I’m against this infatuation with a storyline!’ Her writing she says is fragmented, to reflect the reality of our lives. While her book doesn’t have ‘a story’ it is full of stories – ‘little stories about little people, who really make history’. She has deliberately chosen a disruptive form – she is against linear construction. For it is not the form of a work, she says, but how something is written, that makes literature.
Passionate and refreshingly outspoken she says that literature should be offensive, should upset and provoke, should make people react. And while you cannot be a writer without empathy, she is not interested in reading love stories, for she is too troubled by what is happening in the world. She feels these ‘ugly times’ we are living in are reminiscent of the 1930s.
And while, she says, there has always been immigration, what we have now, the immigration from Africa and the Middle East, that’s a boomerang, what we did in the past is coming back to us. The ‘army of impoverished people’ must not and cannot be ignored. People should react – within the law – she says, but she fears a new and bloody revolution is coming.
The extract she reads from Belladonna describes the shifting populations and territories in Europe – from Poland to Germany, from Germany to Netherlands, from Somalia to Netherlands, and shifting political ideologies too. Threaded into these movements and migrations is the question of complicity with regimes that oppress other people and the Nazi regime in particular. And she says it is so relevant right now, to remember what happened in Europe in the 30s and 40s, for if we really remember – not the ‘ossified structure’ of history but the real history through the painful, upsetting and desperate stories of actual people, we can hopefully stop it from happening again.
When someone in the audience asks her what she does read, since she doesn’t read fiction she replies immediately, I didn’t say I don’t read fiction. (She had said that she didn’t read love stories.) What do you think fiction is? she asks, and then answers her own question. ‘What we call fiction is something that the writer has experienced or heard or has empathized with – it’s not an invention. And’ she says ‘I don’t believe in inspiration. Writing is solitary, it’s tough, and you work at it.’
She also mentions that she has been to Albania and talked to writers who were imprisoned as political prisoners. When I ask her if she met Fatos Lubonja she responds immediately, yes, I did meet him, he wrote the book Second Sentence about his experiences in the Albanian gulag. And she says that she is going to write about that in her next book. Now that is something to look forward to!