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Ruins, Mourning, and Cigarettes

By (April 1, 2015) No Comment

By Nicolas Rothwell
Text Publishing, January 2013

I had a picture of life, what it really is; just the images that we receive: a cavalcade of images, blurs of light, patterns rushing by—from the future, from our past, from the people round us, from the landscape… The way you saw the world lying in fragments—everything lost, and wrecked, and scattered; and the task of life was in collecting up those fragments, looking, seeking for the resonances and the echoes—the shards…

Australian writer and journalist Nicolas Rothwell’s most recent book, Belomor, is utterly beyond classification. On the surface, it seems to follow his previous books — such as Another Country (2007) and Journeys to the Interior (2010) — in that the terrain Rothwell covers is based in journalistic and travelogue traditions. In Belomor, though, a nameless narrator relates the stories of those he encounters on his travels to more universal themes such as the alienation and dislocation one faces, particularly when crossing at or living in border territories: “All the stories were detailed, and all were drenched in blood.” Rothwell’s narrator — about whom we learn very little, and who may or may not be Rothwell himself — positions himself within the historical, aesthetic, and philosophical strains of thought with which his reportage engages, creating a dissonant sense of history as personal, as ever-changing. All of his books exist, like this, in the precarious space between fiction and history.

Although Rothwell’s style and voice are all his own, his work is often reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s in its crossing of temporal and historical boundaries. His compatriot Gerald Murnane’s haunting reflections on the landscape “dream countries” of Australia also serve as ambient contexts with which Rothwell engages, in “a meditative cycle[,] … a conversation with the landscape.” Indeed, one of the most profound passages in Belomor places Rothwell’s concerns neatly within these shared interests:

Why is it we can’t stay in ourselves, and in the motion of our lives: why are we nothing but hope, and fear? Is that being human? What does it help us, then, to know who we are? [S]uddenly I had a picture of life, what it really is; just the images that we receive: a cavalcade of images, blurs of light, patterns rushing by—from the future, from our past, from the people round us, from the landscape—and we’re trapped by the world’s glare, and struggling constantly to make sense of what comes in.

Central to Belomor’s philosophical considerations is the following set of questions: “Do we know, in our lives, what we go through? Do lives really form themselves into stories?” In Rothwell’s hands, the myriad ways in which storytelling serves as an impetus for self-discovery form the axis around which Belomor’s unnamed narrator navigates — in the external and in the internal worlds.

emigrantsOffered in four sections that might well be read on their own, Belomor requires the aesthetic, social, cultural, and political grounding of the first section, “Belomorkanal”— referring to “the canal the convicts built” in 1933 and known chiefly as the White Sea-Baltic Canal — in order for the reader to fully comprehend Rothwell’s overlapping themes. Indeed, Belomor is a book without a plot, per se, as the reader follows the narrator on his journey through Eastern Europe, both before and after the fall of Communism, and the many people he encounters along the way, most of whose narratives make up the bulk of the text. It’s a cast of people as disparate as snake hunters in Kimberley, the northern part of Western Australia; painters and filmmakers; political dissidents and exiles; and a host of writers, artists, and composers from Albrecht Dürer to Johann Joachim Winckelmann, from John Cage to Aby Warburg. “Belomorkanal” sets up a framework of aesthetic influence in a pattern that the reader encounters again in Belomor’s subsequent sections as Rothwell traces his narrator’s movement — as well as our own — across space and time, anchored by specific paintings as points of commonality, of timeless beauty. In addition, the logic of Belomor is a highly internal one on which it is nearly impossible to write without somehow trying — and failing — to duplicate its inimitable rhythms, nuances, and numerous intertextual allusions. So a close look at the “Belomorkanal” section prepares the curious reader for what Rothwell achieves in the remaining sections of this fine, intelligent work.

“Belomorkanal” opens with an analysis of the history of Bernardo Bellotto’s 1765 painting The Ruins of the old Kreuzkirche, Dresden. The title is curious: “ruins” usually indicates a site of ancient battle and historical plunder, but Bellotto is painting his own city just after a recent Prussian invasion. His painting thus situates a contemporary site of battle within the context of a larger history of invasions and demolitions. Rothwell’s narrator, recalling this painting, concludes: “whether it is a story of rebuilding or clearing remains, at first glance, quite uncertain: either task amounts, in the fullness of time, to the same thing.”

ruinHis insight is reminiscent of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s formulation of what he calls “the metonymic ruins of the repressed” in his 1956 “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter.’” In his reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic detective story, Lacan finds that ruins or sites of absence are ripe with meaning as they constitute an endless chain of signifiers: names yielding other names, cities yielding other cities, each effacing the previous set of ruins with every future act of substitution. As one of his many interlocutors says succinctly to Belomor’s narrator: “Isn’t life always chains of causes, binding us…?” Art’s meaning changes with time, as an individual’s life narrative does with each iteration. Yet even as the original meaning is subsumed beneath that supplied by the present-day, an artwork’s universal themes speak to all experiences — resonating across, and despite, social, cultural, or political barriers.

The ruins of Bellotto’s Dresden, then, are the metonymic ruins the narrator encounters in 1987 on his own visit to the city: “that ridiculous ruin, that church of nothing” comes to signify not just the demolitions of Dresden past and present, but also the impermanence of the world we inhabit today. “Dresden had become a victim city,” the narrator remarks, recalling the city after the fall of Communism — victim being the locus of Lacan’s “metonymic ruins,” causing Bellotto’s image to take on a highly specific meaning in a new time and place. Such, however, is the power of art in Rothwell’s text:

Some days after this encounter, its after-echoes still at the forefront of my mind, I was driving south on the autobahn from Berlin, headed for Ostrava, when a turn-off sign for Dresden loomed ahead: Dresden, which I had not set eyes on since the Wall came down; Dresden, which had been rebuilt and refashioned in its old image during the intervening years. … Should I turn the wheel, and change my route? Would that be free will; or just another sign that all my actions were conditioned by past events; or would any attempt at free choice prove more deeply the extent of my subjection to circumstance — and what was free thoughts; what could it ever be, in the mind’s crystalline, interconnected realm? … [A]t the last second, I veered right…

Rothwell’s narrator ponders: “You can’t enter Dresden without being thrown back constantly into the past, as though time was a trap with no escape. When a city has lived through such things do they linger? Does their memory stay, somehow, in the air, imprinted?” While taking in the view of Dresden and seeing “Bellotto’s view,” the narrator remarks, “inside myself I felt time’s different levels clash.” These meditations on temporality, history, and loss (both personal and historical) are critical to Belomor’s obsession with the haunting reach of the past into the present. They demonstrate that — for the narrator as well as for Rothwell, if the two can be separated — Dresden might be replaced with any city, Bellotto’s painting with any painting, and the overall themes would remain the same: art imitates life just as loudly as life imitates art.

journeystotheinteriorEach section of Belomor takes a painting as its starting point, allowing Rothwell to trace aesthetic influences at personal and increasingly more complex political levels as the reader encounters a variety of marginal figures on the narrator’s traipses around the world. In “Belomorkanal,” the narrator’s meditations on Bellotto lead him to reimagine an encounter with one Stefan Haffner, professor and dissident, “an eccentric man” whose life narrative is offered in this first section. With Haffner, the narrator begins to enact an almost oedipal drive to follow the professor’s footsteps in the larger world, to rally against it, and yet, inevitably, to become the father figure, a journey Belomor’s narrator is himself destined to take — and whose moments of enlightenment are confusingly taken as “truth” by the then-young narrator, keen on getting at the essence of things. And yet, since “[w]e are vain interpreters” of others’ “truths” that we have appropriated into our own storylines, so “[t]he thing remains” as a constant struggle, not fated to be part of our life’s narrative and therefore never wholly absorbed: “You have to be what you must be, not what you want to be.”

When the narrator first meets Haffner, the following exchange occurs:


With this Haffner reached towards me: he held out a pack, blue, with a bright curve of gold Cyrillic letters on the front. I looked at it.

“Belomor. Belomorkanal.”

“The strongest in the world,” said Haffner, rather proudly. … “You’re not a smoker? Want to try? The taste of servitude?”…

“And why do you smoke them?” I asked: “It surely can’t be the aroma.”

“There is a reason,” he said. “A deep reason. Would you like to hear the story? It has its detours—but maybe you’ll think it worth the ride.”

“Let’s see,” I answered.

Haffner’s reminiscence, recalled by the narrator, provides the reader with an account of his youth in Leningrad, the aesthetic allure of Dostoevsky and Raphael, and his own obsessive detour into the narrative of “his master” — scholar Dmitry Sergeyevich Likhachev — who once handed the young Haffner “a torn, shabby notebook” with the words: “I would like you to take this, and read it, overnight. This is a story few know. There is little I can teach you beyond what lies here. By giving it to you, I am, in more than one sense, placing my life in your hands.”

Haffner ends his tale with “an epiphany” he had in Belomorkanal, a moment when “I could picture myself with complete clarity: what I was, the accents of my being, what would become of me. Of all our kind.” He continues:

As I was looking, what was before me had vanished. It melted away. It became whiteness—not waves, and beams of light, and sky. It was the whiteness behind the world. I understood that I was staring into the void at the core of things; that what we see is not the final verdict on what exists. Since that day it has been clear to me there are moments in our lives when the world becomes unstable, when our visual field gives way: things break before us; they burst into fragments, disappear.

anothercountryHere, then, is Belomor’s structural mise-en-abyme: our narrator is recalling Haffner’s account, who is in turn recalling Likhachev’s account, ending with this epiphany after which the narrator begins to lust. But is the truth less striking, less resonant, less harrowing at such a remove? Rothwell’s narrator continues on his journey — and the reader along with him — as he remembers moments from his past and his present, fusing the two sets of temporalities as memory often does: “I can hardly breathe when I give in to memory for any length of time.”

Rothwell situates his narrator’s always ongoing process of self-discovery within the realms of art, of history, of borders, of stories, of truths, and the blurred lines between all of these phenomena. In doing so, he makes it clear that our lives exist at the crossroads, not just of our own experiences, but of the experiences of others whose worlds are the total inverse of ours: our common struggles and sufferings uniting us across all margins. Learning from others’ life stories and the countless ways in which they map on to our own, we can begin to arrive at the truth of our existence, yet one must be cautious not to adopt another’s story as one’s own. “And you’ve been looking for that light?” demands Haffner of the narrator: “Seeing it? Borrowing someone else’s emotions. What a path in life!” Belomor itself skirts this danger haphazardly, just as we live our our own lives irrevocably at the juncture between our memories and those we have chosen to appropriate — either knowingly or unknowingly — as our own: a series of Lacanian ruins on a map whose topography is forever changing.

Photo: Andy Barclay

Photo: Andy Barclay

But how do we know whether our journey is authentically our own, or one modeled on the journeys of those who came before, those whose footsteps we longed — for whatever reason — to follow? As Haffner remarks: “There’s a whisper of unreality about all our lives.” And yet, despite this “whisper of unreality,” the concrete realities of life abound: in art, in geographical locales, in books, even in the silences between words spoken across the chasm of years. Framing all this is the Belomor cigarette, “the cigarette of ideology — and of mourning,” the cigarette the narrator always encounters and yet refuses, thus driving home Rothwell’s extended consideration of narratives not being solely owned by those who have lived them. “Our lives are shaped,” as the narrator observes, “by influences we barely sense” but whose meanings we will travel to the ends of the earth to find, to learn from, and then to leave behind for others to take from our ruins and our discards what they will — in their own futuristic act of displacement and appropriation: “It was the past, and it was the future, and the way the two time phases fit together in the present.”

Rothwell’s Belomor always returns to its central image of ruins: “the task of life was in collecting up those fragments, looking, seeking for the resonances and the echoes — the shards.” And it is with these resonances, echoes, and shards — “like hidden, fragmentary texts of revelation” — that Rothwell presents his melancholy vision of our shared struggle to process the truths of what we see and what we learn throughout the journey of life—and it is with such fragmented but palpably beautiful fragments that his reader is somehow revealed: human, conscious, ruined.

K. Thomas Kahn‘s criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, Numéro Cinq, Bookslut, Berfrois, and other venues. He is Reviews Editor for Words Without Borders and 3:AM Magazine.