The Fault Line: Traveling The Other Europe From Finland To Ukraine, by Paolo Rumiz
Reading this book as part of my contextual reading for my upcoming trip to Estonia , I was struck by the elegance of this author’s prose as well as the general sense of melancholy the author demonstrated in his desire to go to fault lines and to explore the unfinished business of the 20th century in Eastern Europe, which is peripheral in terms of knowledge and familiarity but central in terms of sheer geography. For those who enjoy sad tales of forgotten lands inhabited by people whose lives and whose struggles form the fuel for the fires of revolution and warfare, and who are the inheritors of a difficult destiny of oppression and the horrors of nationalism and fanatical political movements like fascism and communism. The role of psychology and personal background in influencing a writer’s path is also notable, given the fact that as an Italian of Trieste, with personal experience in living on the fault lines of complicated geography it is not surprising that the author would be drawn to other such places in his own backyard. What is surprising is the degree of poignancy about his writing, and the pervasive sense of sadness about the trip, despite the fun it must have been for the author and his companion.
The book consists of a series of thoughtful travel essays that begin at the end of the journey and that take the reader on a fascinating and elegantly told trip from the frozen reaches of the Arctic Ocean to the sunny shores of the Black Sea, and through many contested and forgotten borderlands and small regions in between. A great deal of time is spent in the Barents Sea, in Kola, around the White Sea, and in Karelia, that Finnish territory stolen by the wicked Soviets in the Winter War , before the author examines the silence of the Estonians, the friendliness of most Russians, the tension between Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and Pagan in the pale of former imperial Russia, the way to tell beautiful Austro-Hungarian cities in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, and continual discussions with commonfolk on the rapacity of corrupt elites and the dangers of nationalism as well as criminal organizations, which at times includes the government, as in Belarus and its overly paranoid police state. The author shows himself to be full of startling insights and a strong willingness to share his stories and belongings with those he meets, with a generosity of spirit as well of possessions, and possessing a good way with words and even a willingness to help provide cover for some smugglers along the way.
The author is not necessarily the most appealing person in terms of his leftist and somewhat anarchic political worldview, but it cannot be overestimated just how gorgeous the prose of this book happens to be . It takes a special kind of person, someone not entirely sane, to go to the frozen north and to willingly trek along an epic vertical cultural boundary within Europe that is only imperfectly represented on maps while recovering from a broken foot. This author may not be perfectly sane, but in many ways I found myself rooting for the old man, appreciating his sensitivity and generosity of spirit to the people around him, enjoying his love for Old Believers and his respect and regard for the importance of Jewish culture and the immense violence done against them by Hitler and Stalin and others of their ilk. This book in many ways is haunted by the ghosts of the past, like any good book about the area, and the author appears like the best sort of remnant of a more tolerant and ecumenical Austro-Hungarian mindset, like the explorers of Franz Josef Land who he praises so heartily in these pages. Anyone writing a travelogue would do as well to be as quirky and as pleasant to read as this man, who appears like the sort of writer one would like to get to know personally, and spend a few hours eating and chatting with along one’s mutual journeys.
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“We cross the tracks of platform one, our legs turned to mush from sadness, our black rosary in hand. Alexander. We’ll carry in our hearts forever the gaze of this orphan with the tender heart, stranded on a troubled road (84).”
“We stop at a bar. It’s full of well-mannered, round-faced Estonians, and the place is, obviously, silent as a tomb. A family is sitting at a table eating a quick lunch in perfect silence. I begin to understand Adamov. It’s impossible to learn a language from people who never talk (136).”
“My journey along the new Iron Curtain is over. I went looking for a real frontier, and I found it. At times it coincided with national borders; at other times, not. In Ukraine I had the impression that it was dangerously threatening to split the country in two, and now in Istanbul I have the impression that this white line runs right through me and is cutting through my soul like barbed wire. I wonder what will become of the old Europe, of its martyred peasant and Jewish heart swept away by too many wars. The train for Belgrade is waiting for me at the Sirkeci Station. I’ve got very little time to close the circle (253).”