Monthly Archives: June 2014

The dark epiphanies of Odessa (thoughts from Liguria)


I wrote some reflections in early May as a response to the tragic events in Odessa. I did not know the facts surrounding the event and my inability to access the internet meant that the context of everything which had happened in Odessa that awful day were not well known to me. But the sense of my ignorance only deepened my sense of distraction and loss that death should come on such a scale to the city of Odessa.

Very little internet access in recent weeks meant a kind of abstraction from the present as well as a loss of concentrated view of present events. After over a year in Russia my trip to Italy (and more recently to the UK) meant that I have found it was also hard to adjust to the European distance and indifference to what was happening in Ukraine. Each country, each reality is prey to its own obsessions and its own realities but the situation over the Ukraine had occupied my thoughts so intensely in Moscow. In Italy these thoughts were somehow distracted. Tragic forebodings about Odessa in a Ligurian resort.

Genova – Odessa’s twin city – yet living such different realities. Forebodings of a civil war while relaxing at the fountain in Piazza de Ferrari – thinking of the day when Arkady Babchenko came to the elegant surroundings of the Palazzo Ducale (four years ago) and told his Genoese audience: ‘There is no way I can get across to you the reality that in five maybe ten years civil war will come to Russia and you will be walking down the streets with an ice cream in your hands’. Babchenko’s words came back to me. The civil war was emerging in neighbouring Ukraine but the indifference of Europe was just as grossly sad as Babchenko had foreseen.

I am writing this from a small Italian village. A village, almost isolated for centuries, but which two generations back, would ‘generate’ a large amount of merchant sailors. Many of these merchant sailors would sail to the port city of Odessa. My grandfather was one of these (and my great grandfather had sailed there too) : I remember an advertisement placed on the panel board of the local Communist Party in his village in the early eighties about a cruise to Odessa and the Crimea. My grandfather then about eighty was so excited about the idea of returning to Odessa and wanted to take me along. Our trip never materialised. But I remember his love for the city of Odessa which he once visited as a merchant sailor (I’ve never been able to ascertain exactly when- maybe in the 1930s or maybe after the Second World War, my great grandfather may have travelled there in the first decade of the 20th century, or the last decade of the 19th). The links between Genoa (the city from which the merchant sailors of my village sailed from) and Odessa have always been strong. If my memory serves me there is, I believe, still a Genoa street in Odessa. Genoa and Odessa are twinned cities.

Predrag Matvejevic

For me the most moving thing I have read is Predrag Matvejevic’s description of how he went to meet his relatives in the city of Odessa in July 1972. In Italian it’s available in a volume of his scattered writings entitled “An accursed Europe” . It takes up five pages in his account of a trip to the Soviet Union. From his relatives he learned of how the tragic twentieth century had taken its toll on their lives. Relatives who had been to the gulags- one who had returned and others who hadn’t. Another relative living in dire poverty when Predrag Matvejevic visits – who Predrag’s father had always referred to as the beautiful Tusja. Family memories are confronted with the traces of the terror and poverty that people lived through. Wars took their toll too. An unbearably tragic family history which goes on for four pages and which Predrag learns about in one visit. At the end of Predrag’s visits he walks through the streets of Odessa and then sits down by a railing and starts to cry. He then talks about his walk through the city of Odessa and his return to the Writers’ Union hoping that noone has seen what had happened on his face-he remarks that they didn’t even look at him. He concludes that nothing was important about the rest of of his trip to Moscow and return to Yugoslavia. “I no longer saw anything and I have remembered nothing. I stopped writing.”

The arson at the Trades Union Building causing the loss of over 40 lives.

I read Predrag’s piece some years ago – and I read it again after I heard about the fire that claimed the lives of over forty people in the trade union building in Odessa. My two readings were so different. After my first reading although I had visited Odessa I had not lived there for any period of time. My second reading was suffused with many new memories of my own. While I live in the suburbs of Moscow, Odessa was always the city where I most wanted to be. In 2001 when I first came to Moscow to study Russian I told myself four months in Moscow and then off to Odessa. Things kept separating me from a life in Odessa. All I could do was to travel to the summer film festival and then stay there six weeks one recent summer. The links have been mainly nostalgic and immaginary or let’s say symbolic rather than real links. But real enough, perhaps, to have walked the streets, made friendships there and have done something which approaches grasping the everydayness of the place such as searching for an apartment (even though an attempt to work in Odessa didn’t bear any fruit).

An art work by Stefania Galegati in the city of Genoa which says ‘To tell this story one must start from Odessa’

Scores of people lost their lives in Odessa (in early May) and I trudge through the streets of another city in another country. I am separated from this reality- firstly from the physical streets of Odessa and secondly even from the comments of people in Odessa whom I know. I have only the books of my small library here in Italy – and I have only found the words of Predrag Matvejevic any consolation (Matvejevic is one of the greatest moral voices in Europe today partly because of the personal sincerity of his voice and his persona). His words have an extraordinary quality and his books on the Mediterranean and Bread are works which have few equals. Matvejevic escapes all the traps of writing falsehoods because his gaze is fixed otherwise and it feels as though his archaeology of knowledge is different from others. Moreover, not only has he seen his own former country (Yugoslavia) being torn apart by wars of secession but his fathers birthplace (Odessa) now too is threatened by massive strife (I don’t know if the term civil war is the one to use here- this idea is too terrible to contemplate).

Yesterday (May 3rd) I was in Genoa – another city which I dearly love and it almost mirrors my love for Odessa. Or maybe Genoa was my first experience of this southern Europe- it has childhood memories of a particular intensity. And yet these days I remember something that Arkady Babchenko said when he came to present the Italian edition of his book on his experiences in Chechnya at a kind of week long public university which takes place in Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale each year. There was a kind of unease in Babchenko about talking about Chechnya in the luxurious setting of Genoa’s most central Palace. How could he speak of Russia and Chechnya here? After many questions he stated how in these surroundings it wasn’t really possible to grasp realities. While the Genoese would be walking down eating their ice creams through the beautiful, elegant streets of the centre one day in the future, Russia would be in themidst of a civil war. How could one explain the death and destruction of Chechnya in a spring evening to a middle class Genoese audience who would then after the talk strut off to have a nice meal in a restaurant down the road. I thought of Babchenko’s words that day in Genoa yesterday when, as I walked with my partner and my child through the streets of the city, Odessa seemed to be contemplating the prospect of civil war. Near Palazzo Ducale a group of riot police were blocking the entrances and preparing to clash with a small group of protestors denouncing the racism of Lega Nord who had come to hold a meeting there. Genoa wasn’t exactly calm and the massive police violence, the assassination of Carlo Giuliani and their use of torture in July 2001 means that this is a city with its own wounds. Some Genoese even in recent history have experienced the reality of violence and repression but it seems that cognitive and other dissonances don’t always join up the experiences of violence and repression and the continuing need for a kind of ignorance. Genoa and Odessa march to different rhythms and their wounds seem to have different narratives. The fountain at Piazza de Ferrari spurts out a green dyed water while Odessa is bracing itself for a possible descent into strife that it hasn’t known for decades.

Genoa’s Piazza de Ferrari

Literary traces of the Cinque Terre


(Continuing from the previous article on the artistic legacy of the Cinque Terre, here is a short piece on literary traces of the area. Just as the earlier misses out many voices so does this one. I’m hoping to write a more complete article on this elsewhere)

In this book, the boats sail; the waves repeat their song; the winemakers come down from the hills of the Cinque Terre on the Genoese riviera; in Provence and in Greece the olives are beaten down from the trees; the fishermen bring in their nets from the laguna of Venice; the carpenters build their boats- the same as those from yesterday…And once more, watching them, we find ourselves outside of time.

Braudel’s mention of the Cinque Terre as one of the symbolic landscapes of the Mediterranean is one that I value due to a certain undeniable campanalismo. Amongst those winemakers he mentions were my grandparents and great grandparents. I still remember the texture of some of the grapes and their different forms and tastes: uva del bosco, trebbiana, regina, moscato. Many of the terrains now lay fallow and the dry-stone walls slowly crumble replaced by the macchia mediterranea. There is enough left of the old terraced lands to charm the tourists (and even to claim proudly that if put side by side they would rival the Great Wall of China in length) but not enough to sustain the villages economically. The villages are slowly filling up with overpriced fast food places, sushi bars and souvenir shops while the price of essentials are so wildly exaggerated that few inhabitants (those at least not making their money from tourists) can ever afford to shop locally. Tourists directed here by mass market American tour guides and a surge in tourism also from middle aged and middle class Europeans, Americans and now also Indians, Russians, Koreans and Japanese have meant a generational shift of massive proportions. A few decades ago in my relatives village a single hotel would cater to those visitors having a rather more organic and rather faithful relationship to the location (spending most or all of their summers here). This reality has been lost but in many ways the Cinque Terre has often been conceived as a kind of ‘lost realm’ in descriptions of the place.

In fact this is the title of one of collections by the forgotten author, Ettore Cozzani, who could be said to be one of the twentieth centuries most important authors from these parts. A native of La Spezia, Cozzani spent many summers in the Cinque Terre and wrote extensively about them whether in his work Il Regno Perduto (The Lost Realm) or in his Racconti delle Cinque Terre (Tales of the Cinque Terre). Much of his ambitious epic poem Poema del Mare (Poem of the Sea) was said to have been worked on during the twenty summers that he passed in the Cinque Terre. Cozzani has not had the fortune of having been reprinted in recent years and so his books lie in old local and regional libraries.

If Cozzani has become a forgotten voice there is one twentieth century figure who has immortalized the landscape of the Cinque Terre in his poetry and whose voice is unlikely to be forgotten. According to the Russian poet Jospeh Brodsky Montale is a poet of such order that he replaced the Dantesque dolce stil nuovo in Italian poetry with his own amaro stil nuovo and is indebted to nobody. Brodsky is full of emphatic praise in his essay on Montale including this one where he places Montale in extremely impressive company:

A contemporary of Apollinaire, T.S. Eliot, Mandelstam, he belongs more than chronologically to that generation. Each of these writers wrought a qualitative change in his respective literature, as did Montale, whose task was much the hardest.

Montale who would spend his summers at his family-owned villa in Monterosso went beyond merely describing the landscape in his poetry. The Cinque Terre expresses something more universal as the landscape is presented in action as a dramatic force. For the author of a book on the three most important Italian poets, Joseph Cary, the Cinque Terre expresses a massive, dumb resistance, a “long patience” ‘laconic always, refractory”. The dryness or aridity and roughness and stoniness of the landscape becomes transfixed in Montale’s language. A number of the poems in his first (and, in many ways, major) collection Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish bones) are intimately linked to the paesaggio of the Cinque Terre (as are some poems of his subsequent works like Le Occasioni.

A number of Montale’s poems explicitly refer to places in and near the Cinque Terre such as the poem La Punta del Mesco and Portovenere (outside of the Cinque Terre but in many ways more intimately related to it than the nearby Lerici in the equally significant Golfo dei Poeti). There are then those remnants of the landscape : the agave on the rock, the lemons – relics thrugh which the landscape speaks and the epiphanies of vision and existence reveal themselves. The landscape is at once both physical and metaphysical in which fluidity and possibility vie with a sense of what Cary calls “blockade”. As well as the many features of the landscape – the trees burnt by the scirocco and the aforementioned lemons and agaves- in the section Mediterraneo it is the sea which takes centrestage. The sea’s vastness, its multitudinarian and fixed nature as well as its implacability addresses itself as a father to the poet
Piccino fermento/ del mio cuore non era che un momento/ del tuo
(the tiny ferment/ of my heart was only a moment/ of yours)

The poet struggles with his sense of unworthiness and his sense of helplessness before the ever present chaos. The struggle, though, brings little regret as those small moments of abandonment of consciousness bring their own ecstasy, even if they are only moments. In Montale the richness of his dual physical and metaphysical vision of the landscape and seascape of the Cinque Terre is almost impossible to condense. It seems doubtful whether the Cinque Terre will ever have a more powerful voice in literature. However, it is worth noting that many before Montale evoked these parts. Dante, himself, compared evoked the landscape in order to describe Purgatory and those who have described or referred to its wine include Boccaccio, Petrarcha, d’Annunzio and Cervantes himself in one of his Novelas Ejemplares. Montale, himself, was to write that the sciacchetra’ consumed in locus was far better than the ‘pharmaceutic wine’ of Porto.

And yet surely there is a need for a retreat into the everyday reality of the location. Far from the metaphyisical and elegaic tones there is a need to people this area as one has so far spoken of abstractions and not the concrete. In this sense the small manuscript which the macchiaiolo Telemaco Signorini wrote entitled Riomaggiore is a fine start. For an artist whose landscapes of Riomaggiore like the one from Montenero are amongst the most immortal portraits of this village, his account of his travels to and time spent in Riomaggiore in the second part of the Nineteenth Century is remarkably peopled. He offers at his first glance a rather Orientalist perspective emphasizing a portrait of ‘enchanting primitiveness’ of the inhabitants. But then the account begins to inhabit itself with real characters and their stories. Reflections on both painting along with an observation of the villagers with whom he has come into contact with serve as a fine portrait of late nineteenth century life in one of the Cinque Terre.

In more recent times the portraits have come from the inhabitants themselves. It would be hard to say that there is any kind of school or pool of writers but there are precious testimonies of the Cinque Terre in the Twentieth Century. This is often captured through a collection of portraits of people in interaction with their environment and which illuminate aspects of national and global history reflected in local histories. One of the best volumes is Dario Capellini’s Per Quell’Amor di Cose… (For that love of things…) Subitled Characters, Customs and Life in the Cinque Terre, Capellini’s book is a tour de force of that minor genre of a collection of sketches on disparate facts which made up the genuine history of a locality. The arrival of modernity refracted through wars and fascism is not highlighted rather than silenced but told through the destinies of individuals. Capellini who was from Manarola played his part in the resistance in both the Apuan alps and in the Cuneo region and represented an ideal interlocutor between the blockaded world of the Cinque Terre and the outside. Bringing to his native Manarola a whole group of painters – and above all Renato Birolli- for an annual Festa dei Pittori in the 1950s and 1960s he did more than others to join worlds in an authentic and integral way. His book, too, is a paean to that idea of Pasolinian progress rather than capitalist development which could have marked the Cinque Terre. Capellini as well as authoring this splendid collection of sketches also transcribed the memoirs of Pietro Riccobaldi whose account of his global odyssey as an anti-fascist political emigrant is one of those essential accounts of that all too rarely remembered history.

A memorial plaque to the author Dario Capellini in his native Manarola.

An account in the dialect of Riomaggiore of the life of a returnee who escaped to America to avoid the reprisals of the local fascists is given in Siro Vivaldi’s Ginti e fatti de Rimasuu (People and Events of Riomaggiore). Vivaldi has carried out an indefatigable struggle to preserve the history and traditions of his village through a collection of studies, dictionaries as well as a literary output in both prose and poetry. Ginti e fatti… in fact is a bi-lingual book (dialect and Italian) which starting from an individual explores the small and large events around which life was lived out in Riomaggiore in the past. The characters and the events are real whereas the dialogues are imagined. Writing in dialect may indeed be a losing struggle as present and future generations are surely losing the will to preserve this tongue and yet as a document this is and will remain invaluable for a future philologist of the Mediterranean. Other books of his include a collection of fairytales of the Cinque Terre.

The cover of Siro Vivaldi’s book of Fairy tales of the Cinque Terre