mobile-menu mobile-menu-arrow Menu
 

2017
2016
2015
2014

- The Angels of Russia -

the-angels-of-russia

Originally published on the internet, back in olden times when e-books were new and shocking, The Angels of Russia was the first e-book to be submitted for the prestigious Booker Prize. It’s the story of Sergei, a Soviet dissident, who meets Stéphanie, a French student, in Leningrad, and persuades her to marry him so he can leave the country. But Sergei is not all he seems, and his real target is a woman who defected to France twenty years earlier. A review in the Times Literary Supplement described the book as a “sweeping contemporary historical romance, set against the great drama of perestroika.”

Here’s a short excerpt:

My cousin Stéphanie arrived in Leningrad in February 1986. It was her first trip to the Soviet Union. Russia had possessed her since she was a child, not the grey utilitarian empire of Lenin and Stalin, but a romantic fairytale Russia of izbas and palaces, haunted aristocrats and mad gamblers, golden domes and white nights. For nearly all her life, Russia had been the meeting point of her mind and her emotions, as she waited steadfastly to make the journey in the flesh. But during that brief six-month stay in the USSR, the poetic soul of Russia eluded her: what she encountered instead was Lenin’s ghost.

In February 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just under twelve months. Gorbachev was the first General Secretary for years who could walk unsupported and talk in coherent sentences: the knight on the white charger come to save the system. Fortress USSR, though still outwardly imposing, was mined on the inside by mould and dry rot, over-centralization and inertia. Gorbachev’s first twelve months in office had been spent cleaning house: clearing the old, dead-wood Brezhnevite officials out of the Party lumber room, urging the population at large to drink less, work more, and to speak out openly about any societal shortcomings that had caught their attention.

Stéphanie had not paid attention to any of this.   She was not in the habit of taking notice of trivial things like the deficiencies of the Soviet economy, nor was she going to get excited over a bout of hiring and firing in the Central Committee. Stéphanie had come to Leningrad to research her master’s thesis on Pushkin, and she spent most of her time in the nineteenth century. Gorbachev’s attempts to mobilize the masses passed her by completely. Glasnost and perestroika left her unmoved. Even the explosion of Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant failed to make much impact on her — a triumph, of course, for Soviet media coverage of the event, which had been designed with precisely that in mind. It was three days before the television news got around to mentioning that a reactor had been “damaged” and that measures were being taken to “eliminate” the consequences of the accident. Why alarm people by telling them that fifty tons of radioactive fallout have been released into the atmosphere and that the fire is still burning?

The wind blows north from Chernobyl towards Sweden, passing not far from Leningrad on its way, but it was several months before Stéphanie discovered that the reactor had burned for five days and that thousands of people had been irradiated.   Foreign newspapers were hard to come by in 1986 in Leningrad, and she had no radio set on which to tune in non-Soviet radio stations. In any case, she lived in a pre-nuclear age. Nothing that happened after World War I held any importance for her. This was a recurring source of aggravation at family dinners, and my father, Stéphanie’s uncle, sometimes got quite annoyed about it. But Stéphanie was nothing if not obstinate. The books she read were by nineteenth-century authors, the concerts she attended were by nineteenth-century composers — in both cases, preferably Russian.   When Sergei saw her for the first time, standing alone in front of the Philharmonia Theatre in Leningrad,   she was waiting to hear the Symphonie Pathétique.  

It was a Sunday evening in May. On Arts Square, next to the Philharmonia, the tulips were in bloom. Sergei could tell she was a foreigner just by looking at her. The clothes, of course, were an immediate giveaway. The pullover was cashmere, not acrylic, and the trousers were of a cut and shape never beheld in local emporia. But more than that, there was something about the way she held herself, and her skin too had some kind of inner glow that Soviet faces didn’t have.

He went on watching her. The pavement around her was emptying, the concert was about to start. She was looking around, biting her lip, craning her neck for a glimpse of the friends who had failed to show up, casting occasional irritated glances at her watch.   The latter looked expensive, even from a distance. Probably Swiss, thought Sergei, glancing at his own battered Soviet model.   Five minutes to eight. The concert was about to start.   Time to make his move.   He left his observation post by the statue of Pushkin in the middle of the square, and sauntered towards her. She was searching for something in a capacious leather bag. By now the pavement was deserted. She caught sight of him and, to his astonishment, marched decisively towards him.

“Excuse me, do you have a dvushka?”

In 1986, dvushki were like gold dust in Leningrad.   They were the two-kopek coins that you needed to operate public phone boxes, and people hoarded them jealously. In spite of himself, Sergei hesitated before digging in his pocket and reluctantly handing one over.

“Here you are.” He managed a smile, and she smiled back. Her long dark hair fell like a curtain round her face, her features were perfect, her cheeks were smooth. There was something luminous about her. None of this had been evident on the photo they had shown him. Sergei watched her walk over to the phone box with a distinct feeling of dismay.

 

 

 

 

Share this story:
This story hasn't been shared yet.
 

- Death in Stasiland -

This review of The Judas Tree was written by the British author Paul Samael and published on his blog in October 2012 at  http://paulsamael.com/blog/the-judas-tree    Since 2012, I’ve made some minor changes to the book and it’s now also available in paperback form, but nothing major has changed and Paul’s comments are still highly pertinent.  The review has been edited slightly in the interests of clarity.
judas2
Patricia le Roy is an established novelist – she has at least 8 books to her name and I gather that one of them (“Angels of Russia”) was the first ebook ever to be put forward for the Booker Prize. “The Judas Tree”  is the only one that I have read so far – but on the strength of that, I will definitely be reading some of the others.
Its starting point is the death of a French woman, Anne, who was (seemingly) happily married to Matthias, an East German – a marriage that took place some years before the collapse of the DDR.  But Anne appears to have taken a number of secrets to her grave.  Several years later, Matthias finally decides to visit her family in Provence, looking for answers.  Neither he nor Anne’s family fully understand why she made the choices that she did – and it is only when they put the different pieces of the jigsaw together that the truth emerges.
I’ve long had an interest in East Germany, partly for personal reasons  – and part of the book is also set in Leipzig, which I visited in 2000.  As it happens, that trip included a tour of the old Stasi headquarters (apologies – this site is in German only). I particularly remember a map of the city festooned with coloured pins, each one corresponding to the location of a safe house used for meeting IMs (“Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter” or Unofficial Co-Worker – Stasi jargon for informant). IMs feature prominently in “The Judas Tree”, as they have done in the non-fiction book “Stasiland” and the film “The Lives of Others” (both of which I would also recommend).  And judging by the success of the last two works, I’m certainly not the only person who’s fascinated by that period – particularly the horrifying extent of efforts by the Stasi to know everything about everyone in the DDR (or at least anyone they considered to be a threat – which was pretty much everyone).
In the first part of the book, there is a strong sense of the characters skirting round the central question of what happened to Anne.  It is several years since her death and her family seem to want to put it behind them, whereas Matthias wants answers, but is afraid of upsetting Anne’s family.  This creates a strong atmosphere of suppressed emotion, which helps to build up the tension for the relevations that come later.
Having a Westerner marry an East German also works very well, allowing us to see the DDR through the eyes of someone who did not grow up in that society.  It also allows for a strong contrast between the sunny, colourful landscape of Provence where Anne comes from and the dour, decaying surroundings of Leipzig in the DDR.
The psychology of the various characters is also impressively drawn – particularly Anne’s rather dysfunctional family (as a child, she had a somewhat antagonistic relationship with her sister Sophie, who was jealous of Anne’s close relationship with her manipulative and slightly histrionic German mother).  Characters speak in the first person, with the author switching at regular intervals from one to another, yet managing to give each of them a distinctive voice.  In that respect, the novel reminded me somewhat of a number of recent stage plays based on factual events where characters come to the front of the stage and attempt to explain themselves (e.g. much of David Hare’s recent work and Michael Frayn’s “Democracy” – also partly about the DDR).  This helps to give the novel something of a documentary feel – which is entirely appropriate, since much of what is depicted is based on fact (even if the characters are fictional).
If you’ve read Anna Funder’s excellent “Stasiland”, you might say “why read this book ? I know all about that stuff already.”  But I would urge you to read it all the same, because it brilliantly conveys the emotional/psychological impact of Stasi’s grip on East German society, reminding us just how insidious and corrosive a force it was.
As someone who grew up during the later stages of the Cold War, I sometimes worry that my children will grow up simply taking for granted the individual freedoms that we have always enjoyed in the West – because from today’s vantage point, it can seem almost unbelievable that a system of government which showed little or no respect for those freedoms was able to survive for over 40 years in Eastern Europe.  But so long as novels like this one continue to be read, I remain hopeful that we will not forget that lesson in a hurry.
Finally, it is a real indictment of the publishing industry that no commercial publisher appears to have seen fit to take this book on. I understand from the author that publishers did not feel it was commercial enough.  But as noted above, Patricia le Roy is an author with an established track record and there is a really, really easy and (to me) obvious marketing pitch for this book:  ‘if you liked “Stasiland” or “The Lives of Others”, you’ll like this’.  What more do they want?

 

Share this story:
Shared 2 times.
 

- The Ministry for State Unhappiness -

 

Unknown

The Judas Tree reviewed for The Paris Readers’ Circle by Dick Aherne

Patricia le Roy’s The Judas Tree is a fascinating, tortuous tale of the atrocious behaviour of the then-East Germany’s internal security agency, the STASI.  The French writer Henri de Montherlant observed, “one writes of happiness in white.”  The Judas Tree by contrast is black, unrelievedly black.

But lack of sprightliness in the face of horror is no sin.  Above all le Roy’s is a story of normal people trapped in what seems a no-win situation.  And she has the courage to end it that way: no one wins.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall we learned that the STASI had, among many many other things:

– surreptitiously organized and financed Adolf Eichmann’s legal defence team for his trial in Israel

– financed and trained members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, at its time the most notorious of terrorists and assassins in West European democracies

– encouraged and financed neo-Nazis in West Germany, promoting their all-too-often-successful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in West Germany

– made it seem to many that the US was responsible for HIV/AIDS.  The early years of AIDS were frightening times, and the many STASI deceptions – forged documents, phony endorsements, and so on – often convinced people, especially in the Third World.

For the last 32 years of East Germany’s existence STASI’s director was a German sent by Stalin to Spain during the 1936-39 civil war.  His mission was to locate and assassinate any among Russia’s “allies” who seemed insufficiently supine before Stalin’s wishes.  Socialists and other leftists were murdered by the hundreds, while Russia’s contribution to the actual war – with Franco’s armies – was minimal.

Le Roy dramatically makes clear though that to write off STASI – and thus East Germany – as a sort of dry, adjectival, and ultimately tragic history misses the point.  The real story is what was done to individuals: how hopes were killed, emotions seemed dangerous, friendships were risky, one’s own family owed a higher loyalty to the state than to its members.  And internal debates and uncertainties could easily become, literally, matters of life and death.

It is an unusual book stylistically.  Each key character expresses, seriatim, in his or her own words, their emotions, hopes and wishes, and eventual disillusionment.  They come together at the end but not – as one might’ve expected in opera, for example! – in a grand rhapsodic resolution.  Instead we simply learn the by-then-expected reason for the principal character’s death, and must think our way through the rest.

The unusual structure takes a little getting used to.  Think for example of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  At first it seems an odd collection of disparate images, united only by their media – paint and canvas.  But keep looking, and your eye gradually tells you there’s more than paint and canvas, there’s a person.  Moving.  And you are privileged to realize you’re actually seeing three dimensions, though only two appear.

The Judas Tree gives the reader two gifts.  First, most of us need its kind of encouragement to think seriously about the way we human beings behave in everyday life.  Second, by encouraging careful contemplation of each element it allows us to see images and colors in ways not at first evident.

Share this story:
Shared 3 times.
 

- The Judas Tree: Excerpt -

house

SOPHIE

My sister died on a steep stretch of road on the edge of the Cévennes. She was twenty-eight years old. What she was doing on that isolated road between St Jean du Gard and Mialet we never discovered.   She had borrowed my car at ten o’clock on a clear summer morning, ostensibly to run an errand in Avignon. When she failed to appear for lunch, we started to wonder where she was, but by the time the gendarmes appeared in the middle of the afternoon, we had scarcely begun to worry. Anne had always been unpredictable. Her car had gone off the road at high speed and plunged into the ravine. It had careened down the slope, overturned, and finally come to a halt at the bottom of the gully. Anne had not been wearing her seatbelt. She had died instantly of a blow to the head. She had also sustained a broken neck and several other injuries.

At the time of the accident, there were no other cars in the vicinity, and no pedestrians.   Two cyclists who had been standing on the Pont des Abarines at the bottom of the valley, admiring the view, heard the roar of the car engine hurtling round the bend, followed by a series of thuds and crashes and the noise of rending undergrowth. What they did not hear was the screech of brakes, and there were no signs of brake marks on the road. When my sister realized she had lost control of the car, she had been too scared to react. She had been literally paralyzed with fright. By the time the cyclists toiled up the road on their bikes, the woods were quiet again and the hum of insects had resumed. All they could see from the road was a wide trail of broken ferns and uprooted trees, and a thin wisp of smoke rising from the bottom of the ravine.

Preparing the funeral was a nightmare. My mother was hysterical, and I had never seen my father so shaken. Olivier and I had to do everything. He dealt with the funeral arrangements, and I dealt with the family. Since he was a psychiatrist, it would probably have been better the other way around, but we didn’t have the choice.   I was the one who had met Matthias, and I was the one who spoke German. It was me who had to call him in Leipzig to tell him what had happened. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. For several minutes, neither of us could speak.

“The funeral,” I managed in the end. “We thought next Tuesday. Will that give you time?”

“I won’t come to the funeral,” he said.

“You won’t come?”

“I can’t, I… Sophie, I…”

“All right. All right. I understand.”

“Forgive me, I …. We were supposed to go to Uzès together. All that way without her, knowing she…   I just…. ”

“It’s all right. Don’t worry.”

“Thank you.”

“You must come when you can. When you feel like it. Later. When ….”

“Yes, I will.”

I made no attempt to try and change his mind. It seemed like a reasonable decision. He was in shock. His aunt was ill. He had never travelled to the West before. If the truth be told, I was relieved. We had enough to do without coping with him too.

I expected him to appear a few months later, when the rawness of the emotion had worn off. But he didn’t come. I wrote several times, inviting him to stay with us, but there was never any answer. We heard nothing from him, except for a printed card to say his aunt had died. After a while, I stopped writing. I began to accept that he would never come.

But in the spring of 1993, he finally called.

When the phone rang, I was in the studio. The weather was warm, and the window was wide open. It had rained earlier in the day, and the scent of thyme came sharp into my nostrils.

“Sophie?” a voice said hesitantly. “Hier ist Matthias.”

“Matthias?” I said incredulously.

“Yes, I… I did not know…. I did not want…”

I let him stutter. I had been annoyed by his failure to answer my letters, and saddened too. My eyes met those of the Ambassador across the room. He stared out of the canvas, watching me, waiting to see what I was going to do.

After a moment, Matthias pulled himself together, switched into French, asked how I was, and apologized for his failure to keep in touch. I waited for him to explain why he hadn’t answered my letters. Instead, he inquired, in his formal German way, if it would be possible for him to travel to Uzès and pay us a visit.

“Now?” I said.

“Next week.”

My first impulse was to tell him he couldn’t come.   Not any more. Now now. I would have welcomed the chance to see him and talk to him three years ago, but I no longer wanted to do so. Now he belonged to the past.   It had taken me a long time to put Anne’s death behind me. I did not want to have to deal with this husband of hers, appearing years after the event, opening old wounds, asking unanswerable questions.

But of course I said none of this. The Ambassador gazed at me with his mute ironic smile. With a mixture of foreboding and annoyance, I heard myself inquiring after train times and arranging to pick him up the following Tuesday. Yes, Avignon, the TGV from Paris, and we all looked forward to seeing him.

When I hung up, I remained quite still, with my hand on the receiver, looking out of the window. The hill behind the house was bright with flowers. Matthias was coming. After all this time, he had decided to come to France.

So what had happened to change his mind?

Share this story:
Shared 3 times.
 

- IM Judas -

The Judas Tree is the story of a betrayal.  How it began, and what caused it. Who was hurt. Who was destroyed. Treachery in all its forms has intrigued me for years, and lurks at the core of nearly all my books. IM is the abbreviation used by the former East German secret police to denote their informers. It stands for Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or Unofficial Collaborator – a delicate euphemism if ever there was one. When I began to read about the Stasi files, I realized I had discovered traitorousness cum laude. Betrayal as a way of life. It doesn’t get worse than this.

judas1

My story begins in 1985. Anne leaves Provence to study for a year in Leipzig. She falls in love with Matthias, marries him, and settles in East Germany. She is a violinist, he is a cellist. They play music together, and stay out of politics. But in 1990, visiting her family in Uzès, Anne is killed in a car crash. Matthias is devastated. He does not attend her funeral. He declines invitations to visit. Until, three years later, he abruptly announces that he is coming to France. Anne’s parents and her sister Sophie are perplexed. Why is he coming now? What has happened to change his mind?

Matthias stays with Sophie and her husband Olivier at their house near Uzès. He is dazzled by the light and colours of the Provençal spring. Back home in Leipzig, it’s still winter, but Sophie’s garden is alive with the colours of spring. While Olivier is at work in the hospital, and Sophie is restoring pictures in her studio, Matthias sits on the terrace, on the bench beneath the deep pink blossoms of the Judas tree, and plays his cello. He is profoundly troubled, that much is clear, but Sophie is hesitant to ask what he is doing in France.

house

As for Matthias, he doesn’t know how to tell her why he has come. How can you explain to someone who has not lived in East Germany what it was like? How can you explain what people did and why they did it?   Two weeks earlier he saw his secret police file. It has turned his world upside down.

The Stasi had ninety thousand full-time employees and about twice that number of IMs. They infiltrated every aspect of East German life.   People were forced to inform on families and friends, and everything they said went into the files. When Germany reunified, the files were opened and everyone was able find out who had informed on them. Many people got unpleasant surprises.   Matthias is one of them.

I started reading about the Stasi files in 1999.   That gave me the idea for The Judas Tree.  My daughter was studying in Leipzig that year.   I paid her a visit, stayed a few days, walked around town, and tried to imagine what it must have been like ten years earlier. I had introductions to a lawyer and a university teacher, who between them told me a lot about life in the DDR, though they both turned evasive when the Stasi came up.

I visited the former Stasi headquarters, now home to the Gauck Behörde, the agency that controls the files, and explained that I was doing research for a novel. I didn’t get to look at any files – people are only allowed to see their own – but a very helpful lady showed me round, provided indispensable trivia on how the file numbering system worked and what colour the files were, and gave me a glimpse of the reading room where people went to have their souls turned inside out.  She was too young to have had a file herself.  She said that, for some people, reading their file can be a life-shaking experience: “Sie müssen zurück in ihrer Seele gehen.”

jardin

I used Provence as the framework of the book because I wanted a relaxed, aesthetically pleasing West European setting to contrast with glum communist Leipzig. The contrast worked two ways: I could show the dour, traumatized DDR through the eyes of a naïve young foreign student (Anne), and depict lush, romantic Provence from the viewpoint of a middle-aged man who has never travelled outside his own country before (Matthias).

Uzès is an enchanting town, and I’d been there several times visiting friends who have a house in the garrigue. (Technically, no, it’s not Provence, but it’s not very far away.) I stole my friends’ house, plagiarized their children’s childhood memories, and made them drive me round local cemeteries looking for Anne’s final resting place.

We made a trip to the Musée du Désert, and I worked out the story of Matthias’ ancestors who emigrated to Germany.  “Le Désert” is how French Protestants refer to the century between the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the French Revolution when they were forced to worship in secret.

Visiting another friend in Anduze, I located Emmanuelle’s house and chose the scene of the car crash.

The events of The Judas Tree are related by eight different narrators.   Sadly, publishers hated this, but it was the only way to do it. None of the characters is quite what they seem. Everyone has secrets, they all know things that no one else does, and they all know things they cannot share with anyone else. They tell the reader what they cannot tell each other. We learn what Matthias cannot tell Sophie, what Anne could not confess to Matthias, what Olivier is reluctant to tell Sophie about her sister.

marche2

Conflicting accounts of life in East Germany come from Werner, the dissident who believes that his ideals have been travestied; Dieter, the Stasi officer who thinks what he did was justified; and Anne, who is trapped into doing what she never thought possible.   In his review of  The Judas Tree, the literary blogger Paul Samael writes that the book “brilliantly conveys the emotional/psychological impact of the Stasi’s grip on East German society, reminding us just how insidious and corrosive a force it was.”

Researching the Stasi was a peculiarly unpleasant experience. I couldn’t sit and read about the organization and its operating methods for more than an hour or two.  I needed to breathe fresh air. The Stasi did not have the same reputation for brutality as the KGB.  It used means other than violence to reach its ends. It did enormous psychological harm. There were no physical wounds and no death camps, but that doesn’t mean it left no scars. They were invisible, that’s all.

The German word for what the Stasi did is Zersetzung, which defies translation. The aim of the Stasi was to destroy DDR citizens from within. Its goal was to undermine their sense of self.

In the Gulag or the torture chamber there is you and there are them. You know where the boundaries are. But in the antechambers of the Stasi, you fuses with them and them with you. They creep insidiously under your skin and into your pores, they follow you, they inform on you, they pick through your things. Your will seeps away, and your identity with it. The KGB evokes outrage, and the Stasi profound disgust.

I set the East German part of the book in Leipzig for two reasons. One, because most non-German writers stick to Berlin; and two, because what happened in Leipzig fits in perfectly with my story. For years Leipzigers attended Peace Prayers every Monday evening to protest the missiles that Soviets and Americans were positioning on German soil. The Friedensgebet was held in a historic Leipzig church, the Nikolaikirche. The Protestant Church had always enjoyed a relatively protected status in East Germany, due to the stand it had taken against the Nazis. During the 1980s, as discontent with the regime grew, people saw the church as a place they could go to speak about their problems, learn about other people’s, and feel they were not alone.

IMG_0003.JPG

In 1989, the congregation of the Nikolaikirche started to hold a silent march in support of free emigration. By then people were fleeing the DDR in their thousands. First they fled through Hungary into Austria; later they stormed the walls of West German embassies in Budapest, Warsaw and Prague. The bemused elderly leaders were incapable of reform. “Would you feel obliged to decorate your flat if your neighbour decorated his?” demanded General Secretary Honecker. All they knew was repression. More police were sent to the Monday night demonstrations. Leipzigers were undeterred. The number of marchers went from five hundred to ten thousand in the space of a month.

One of the demonstrators on the street is Anne. She has been attending the Peace Prayers for months. Despite the danger, she rejects Matthias’ pleas to stay away. On Monday October 9, 1989, there are rumours that the police will shoot. Matthias begs her not to go. Anne stands firm. Matthias goes with her. There are seventy thousand marchers on the Leipziger Ring that night. The police hold their fire. There is no violence. The marchers are carrying candles. You need two hands to carry a candle: one to hold it, and one to protect the flame and stop it going out. You cannot carry stones or sticks as well.

“We had planned everything,” said a member of the Central Committee later. “We were prepared for anything. Only not for candles and prayers.”

The Leipzig demonstration deals a death-blow to the regime. One month later, the Wall comes down. The nightmare is over.

judas2

Or is it? Anne’s relief turns to terror as it becomes clear that Germany will reunify, and the Stasi files will be opened.  Matthias will see his file, and discover the truth she has tried to conceal.  What is she to do?   No one can help her.  Julien, her father, admits that when she came to him for advice he had none to give.  Luise, her mother, has never got past the tragedy she lived through as a child in wartime Germany, when her father Ernst betrayed his family to the Gestapo.

Sitting under the Judas tree in Sophie’s garden, lost and desperate, Anne comes to think that, like her grandfather Ernst, she has only one way out.

January 2017: An updated version of The Judas Tree is available on Kindle, and a new print edition will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Share this story:
Shared 2 times.
 

- The Knights of Malta -

Malta sits in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, midway between Sicily and Tunis, Istanbul and Gibraltar. The island was colonized by Phoenician traders, Roman warriors, Islamic armies, and Norman warlords from Sicily. In 1530, the Emperor Charles V presented it to the Knights of St. John. The legacies of the invaders are still visible. The Phoenicians left boats, the Romans left villas, the Arabs left language, and the Knights left everything else.

1valletta-harbour

Valletta was named for one of the sixteenth-century Grand Masters, Jean de la Valette. It rises behind huge honey-coloured walls on a rocky peninsula with deep natural harbours on either side. The coast on this side of the island is a maze of creeks and inlets. Beach resorts stretch away to the north; fortified towns crouch on headlands to the west. My friend Julianne and I are staying in Sliema, in a hotel astutely chosen (or so I thought) for its waterfront views. When we arrive, it’s already dark. The balcony is all we hoped, and the views of Valletta are stunning, but I am mortified to discover that the main road from the capital to the beaches thunders right beneath our windows.  Booking.com didn’t mention that. We sleep with everything closed tight and the A/C on full blast.

Next day is Saturday: warm and humid and slightly cloudy. The hotel continues to be not quite what we hoped. The wifi demands a password each time you connect, the towels are threadbare, the toiletries meagre. The breakfast buffet features full-English grease, blancmange-textured yoghurt, flabby croissants, and miniature pea pasties (a bit of a shock, that one). Still, the room is spacious, and the staff are friendly. Crossing the harbour on the Sliema ferry, the sixteenth-century ramparts that guard Valletta take your breath away. Constructed in limestone by the Knights of St. John, they have been recently restored and they look fabulous.

The Knights of St. John were soldiers and monks, and their Order was founded during the Crusades. Kicked out of the Holy Land in 1291, they took refuge first in Cyprus, and then in Rhodes. In 1523, the Ottomans expelled them from Rhodes. They were settled in Malta seven years later on the understanding that they would keep on fighting. The road up the hill from the harbour is steep, and we opt for the shuttle bus to the city centre. In front of the Palace of the Grand Masters, musicians are setting up for tonight’s free concert. It’s the first weekend in October, the Notte Bianca. Museums will be open, restaurants will spill over the street, there will be strange art installations. The Palace is now the official residence of Malta’s President, but visitors get to see the State Apartments, which are suitably grand, and the Armoury, which is all right if you like armour.

2st-elmo

Under the Knights, Malta served as a rampart between Ottomans and Christians, East and West. Between 1559 and 1565, three forts were built on adjacent headlands to repel the Turkish fleet. One of them was Fort St. Elmo, our next destination. In May 1565, the Turks began besieging the island. The Knights were vastly outnumbered, but all that summer they held out, despite huge losses. In early September, reinforcements arrived from Sicily, and the Turks retreated demoralized to what was left of their fleet. The end of the Great Siege is still celebrated on September 8. Fort St. Elmo has been recently restored, and now houses the Malta War Museum, which is amazing. The science of warfare is usually beyond me but thanks to an inventive range of audio-visual displays the Great Siege comes alive as if you were there.

The other highpoint of Maltese history was World War II. The island’s strategic importance came into play again: not East-West this time, but North-South. Malta served as a base for Allied planes carrying out bombing missions to Sicily and North Africa, and Allied submarines attacking Axis shipping. It was heavily bombed, first by Mussolini and then by Hitler. I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing at all about this. Starvation and lack of supplies brought the island to the point of surrender, but it held out, and was awarded the George Cross for bravery by George VI in 1942. One of the three antiquated bi-planes that defied the Italians is on display in the museum. Its name is Faith.

By the end of our history lesson, it’s three o’clock. Time for a late lunch of home-made pasta to get up our strength for more walking (no more museums today).  Valletta is a city built “by gentlemen for gentlemen.” It was the brainchild of Jean de la Valette, who masterminded the island’s defences during the Siege. Small but stunning, it consists of high limestone buildings with shuttered gallerijas that overhang the street and lend an Oriental air. The Order of St. John was divided into eight Langues, one for each national group (Castile, Provence, Auvergne, Aragon, etc.); each Langue had their own Auberge, and there’s a palazzo on every corner. More recent constructions include Renzo Piano’s new Parliament building, which blends wonderfully well with its sixteenth-century surroundings, and his open-air opera space, built on the ruins of the opera house that was bombed by the Germans.

3renzo

Valletta was hard hit by the war: some residents moved out to new beach resorts like Sliema, and many gracious old buildings were left uninhabited and decaying. But Malta joined the European Union in 2004, urban renewal is well under way, and boutique hotels and chic restaurants are springing up. What you see at street level still tends to be backpacker bars and restaurants displaying plastic pictures of the food, but that may be about to change. In 2018, Valletta will be a European Cultural Capital. The New York Times recently ran a travel piece proposing 36 hours in the local hotspots. No doubt the buzz will create a new kind of tourist.

As things stand, Malta’s infrastructure is basically that of a package holiday destination. Until now the island’s attraction has resided in warm climate, blue lagoons, good diving, cheap alcohol, and of course the English language. The Knights were expelled by Napoleon on his way to Egypt in 1798, Malta fell to the English a few years later, and in 1814 it  became a British colony. Nearly all Maltese speak English, and Marks and Spencer occupies central locations in Valletta and Sliema. But the mood is Mediterranean and it never feels as though you’re in England. (Sometimes you could be in Sicily.) The island became independent in 1964. They still drive on the left, admittedly, but with southern panache. Maltese is the only Semitic language with a Latin alphabet. Apart from a sprinkling of Italian and English words (palazzo, pjazza, computer), it is deeply incomprehensible.

Back at the hotel, we collapse on the balcony to drink the duty-free gin that Julianne picked up in Madrid airport (always a wise precaution if you’re not sure of the wine). Over the water, the lights go on in Valletta. Somewhere beyond the headland, fireworks explode. The area round the Waterfront Hotel is beset with noisy plastic restaurants so we settle for dinner in the hotel, which proves disappointing. The buffet offers quantity rather than quality: everything from leek soup to chocolate gâteau, via overcooked vegetables and some rather nasty fish. Our fellow diners are mainly older British couples. Some of the ladies have dressed for dinner, with interesting results.

5marsa-harbour

Sunday is the day of the fish market in Marsaxlokk. Succumbing to one of the touts on Sliema waterfront, we take a ride down the east coast from Valletta to Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-shlock). It’s not entirely pleasant. The sea is choppy and the boat is small. The Brits are out in force. The gents wear checked shirts and baggy shorts, and the ladies step out self-consciously in patterned resortwear. Seen from the boat, the land looks stony and arid. The market is less exciting than promised (only three or four fish stalls, buried in several acres of cheap T-shirts), but the village is pretty, fishing boats lie at anchor in the bay, and the port is lined with open-air restaurants. In 1989, George Bush met Mikhail Gorbachev on a Soviet cruiser anchored in the harbour. The Malta Summit signalled the end of the Cold War (or so they say). The sea was rough then too.

By early afternoon, we’re back in Valletta. The weather is clear, and the sun beats down. We stop for iced coffee in a café on the square opposite the Parliament.  After that we attempt to catch a bus to the Three Cities, which is not as easy as it sounds.  Knowledgeable informants all assured me that you can get round on local buses. This may be true, but it’s hard work. (Oddly, none of my informants could remember where they’d been.)  For a start, there’s the name thing. Once upon a time, the Three Cities (villages really) were called Birgu, L-Isla, and Bormla. After the Great Siege, the Knights re-christened them Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Conspicua. The guidebook adheres to Knightly usage, but the bus company prefers the original. Thankfully, the locals are helpful. “Stick with me,” says a lady on the bus, “and I’ll tell you where to get off.”

4birgu

Entering Birgu/Vittoriosa by the main gate, we find ourselves on a narrow street lined with ancient buildings of golden stone. One of them is the Inquisitor’s Palace. Malta is a Catholic country with restrictive laws on abortion and divorce, and the exhibition is determined to show the Inquisition in a favourable light. Unblinkingly placing the Inquisitors on the same footing as missionaries, it claims that really they just had the welfare of their flock at heart. We are informed that the kindly Inquisitors built comfortable cells for their guests, and restricted whenever possible the use of torture – even though a tantalizing list of victims and sins is provided. Particularly mystifying is “abuse of sacramental oil.”   (How did they abuse it?? To do what??) I’m also intrigued by the case of Massimo Herrich, a 27-year-old sailor from Provence, who was accused of apostasy to Islam and infringement of abstinence on 19 September 1641. Why was a sailor supposed to be abstinent? Why would a Provençal convert to Islam? I will never know. We wander back to the bus stop along the marina, past spires and masts and honey-coloured walls, all gilded by the misty evening light.

On Monday we head inland on the Hop On Hop Off bus, which does tours of the island, and gives you some potted history on the way. Leaving Valletta, we drive past run-down apartment buildings, well-kept baroque churches, glossy office complexes, and billboards attesting to European funding. The urban sprawl peters out, tidily-laid stone walls edge the newly-paved road, and Mdina (pronounced EM-dina) rises from the plain on its fortified hilltop. Before the Knights came to Malta, Mdina was the capital of the island. The Phoenicians, the Romans and the Arabs all had their fortresses here. The city is a maze of winding streets lined by high stone walls that open into quiet squares and hidden alleys. Great painted doors open on to mysterious courtyards and mediaeval palaces. The city is home to a cathedral and several convents. It has a population of 400. From the café perched high on the ramparts, you can see the sea. Just outside the city walls is the Domus Romana, which houses the remains of a Roman villa from the 1st century BC. Little is left but an impressive mosaic floor. Part of the site was damaged when the British blithely laid tracks for a railway which soon went bankrupt.

7mdina-street

Time for lunch. We find a café in the shade serving Maltese Platter (a kind of Mediterranean ploughman’s lunch), with a soundtrack of Sixties pop hits for the current tourist intake. The balding gent at the next table wiggles his shoulders with discreet abandon to Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.  Ah, those were the days!  Neil Sedaka!  After lunch, Julianne visits some catacombs, and I do not (claustrophobia). Back on the bus, we head for Bugibba and the north of the island. After the manicured time-travel charm of Mdina, it’s a bit of a shock. The Maltese began developing the area for package tourists in the 1960s, and a tacky strip of hotels and bars sprawls relentlessly round every headland. People supposedly come here for the beaches – which is odd, because viewed from the bus the beaches seem to be pure rock. Occasionally there’s a watchtower built by the Knights.

By the time we get back to Sliema, our heads are aching from too much driving and too much concrete, and we have no desire to go out and forage for dinner. (In Sicily, there’s always a little trattoria round the corner.) Last night we walked across the headland to a place called the Electro Lobster Project, for swordfish and our first taste of light crisp Maltese white wine, but it was a very long way. They’re re-developing the area behind the hotel, and seem to have ripped a few roads off the map in the process. Cravenly we repair to the balcony with supermarket cheese and crackers and vodka (the gin ran out) and read our books. Mine is Martin Cruz Smith’s Havana Bay. Different waterfront, different island, very different rules.

8mdina-door

Tuesday is our day off. Definitely no buses. After a peaceful morning at the rooftop pool (stunning views, but bring your own towel), we take the ferry to Valletta to see the sights we missed the other day. The co-cathedral of St. John (the other co-cathedral is the one in Mdina) has a bling-bling interior decorated by the Knights, a shiny chapel for each of the Langues, and an oratory housing two paintings by Caravaggio, who was himself briefly a Knight before being arrested and excluded from the Order. It’s all rather splendid. Knights lie under marble tombstones beneath our feet. Tourists wander round with their audioguides, and a school group shuffles past ignoring everything.

In the Archeological Museum, a Sleeping Lady, Neolithic, 5000 years old, lies curled up on her side. She has a tiny head and hands and feet, and enormous hips. She wears a pleated skirt. The Maltese are reputed to be obese as a result of too many pea pasties, and it’s true that the people on the street are a little bulky, but seeing this statue makes me wonder if they’re not just reverting to what nature intended. We solve the dinner problem by staying in Valletta, killing the hour before dinner time with an apéritif in the café opposite the cathedral. Dusk falls, the air is soft, the lights go on. It doesn’t feel like October. In Scoglitti, the Italian restaurant by the Sliema ferry, the mood is more serious, and the bustling, stone-faced waiters make it plain you’re in their way. (“Glassy and classy,” says the New York Times.) We eat our fish, drink our wine, pay our bill, and amble over to the landing stage in good time for the ten p.m. ferry.

10birgu-lunch

Wednesday is our last day. We had planned to make a day trip to Gozo, the next island along, but this would have involved either all-day buses (which I veto), or else an all-day sea trip (which Julianne vetos), and that makes things tricky. Instead we stick with the Knights. Back in the Three Cities, we have lunch on the marina in Birgu. Two ferries to get there, two to get back, no buses, only sea. The sun shines on the ochre stone and the masts glitter above the water. The Knights sleep undisturbed. The ferocious old religion that made them fight to the death is on the wane. Church attendance is down these days, and the new craze is casinos.

October 2016

 

 

Share this story:
Shared 10 times.
 

- Interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta -

In this interview with Russia Beyond The Headlines, the English-language supplement to the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, I was asked why I write about Russia, why my characters are “two-sided,” and what interests me about the KGB.

 

RUSSIA BEYOND THE HEADLINES

Writing about a country you’ve never visited

British journalist and author Patricia le Roy discusses her inspiration.

Ksenia Khrustaleva, special to RBTH

Patricia le Roy is known for writing novels that range widely in time and space, from Burma at the height of the drug trade to France just after the war to Soviet-era Leningrad. Her heroes move cities and countries in search of love and liberty, facing the Gordian knot of parting and betrayal on their way.

A native of Liverpool, le Roy studied French at university and lived in Paris for a number of years working as a translator, editor and journalist. Eventually she joined Radio Liberty and served as a research editor from 1974 to 1991. Le Roy spoke to RBTH about how this experience inspired her to write about Soviet realities.

RBTH: As many as four of your novels relate directly to Russia in different periods of its history. Compassion spans three generations, starting from the Great October Socialist Revolution; three other novels take place in the Soviet Union heading for its decay. What inspired you to write about Russia?

Patricia le Roy: After spending 17 years working for Radio Liberty, immersed in a kind of semi-Russian atmosphere, with every hour in the working day focused on Russia or the other Soviet republics, it was unthinkable to write about anything else!

I wrote the first three books between about 1985 and 2000. Compassion came later. Reading Anna Akhmatova’s poem Requiem, I was fascinated by her themes of time and memory and loss and survival. Digging into her biography, I found the story of her affair with the artist Boris Anrep, who moved to England after the Revolution. Akhmatova never forgot him, and they were reunited briefly in London in 1966. The love that defied space and time gave me the idea for Compassion. My protagonists Andrei and Nina were inspired by Anrep and Akhmatova, even though I had to take extensive biographical liberties to make the project work. The title of the book came from Anrep. One of the mosaics he created for the vestibule of the National Gallery in London represents Akhmatova, and he called it “Compassion.”

RBTH: Did you transfer the real stories you came across at Radio Liberty to your novels?

PLR.: At Radio Liberty, I worked in the Audience Research department. Our job was to find out who listened to Western radio broadcasts in the Soviet Union (not just RL, but also Voice of America, BBC, Radio Sweden, etc.), why they listened, and what they heard. To do this, we conducted interviews with Soviet citizens traveling in the West, using Russian-speaking interviewers who were able to make contact with the travelers and inquire after their radio-listening habits in the course of a seemingly casual conversation. In the climate of the Cold War, conducting open interviews was out of the question.

Sometimes respondents talked about their lives, and we heard some terrible stories. People who lost their jobs because they had applied to emigrate, people who couldn’t study because their parents were intellectuals, people who couldn’t get medical treatment because they couldn’t afford to bribe the doctor — the tales of petty tragedy and daily humiliation flowed endlessly across my desk. I didn’t use this material directly, but my novels were inevitably colored by what I had learned.

RBTH: You mentioned in your blog http://www.patricialeroy.com/timeline/ that employees of Radio Liberty were barred from visiting the Soviet Union until 1990. When you first visited the country you had been studying carefully for many years, did your view change?

PLR:  In 1990, I traveled with a French tour group to Leningrad and Moscow. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Travelers to the Soviet Union during the Cold War had described Russia as a gray, repressive country of frightened people. Maybe parts of it were still like that, but that wasn’t what I saw. What struck me most in the two major cities was the way Russia was opening up. In Leningrad, we attended a packed church service in the Alexander Nevsky monastery; on the Arbat [Street] in Moscow we bargained in dollars for matryoshkas of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. I left the group and wandered off on my own once or twice, checking out locations that I had chosen sight unseen for The Angels of Russia.

RBTH: In your Soviet-era trilogy, the protagonists are not what they seem to others. A dissident in The Angels of Russia turns out to be a KGB agent; a Soviet re-defector in Café Maracanda publicly denigrates his Western friends and starts his life anew as a broker in Central Asia. What is behind such “two-sidedness” of Soviet people in your opinion?

PLR.: The Soviet regime was based on coercion, which forced many people (of course, not all) to say one thing in public and think another in private. One of the attractions of Western radio was that the “voices” said what many people thought or suspected but did not dare say aloud. If Pravda [newspaper] was telling you that the harvest had been bountiful and the shops were full of bread, but you could see with your own eyes that there was no bread on the shelves, it was unwise to point out the discrepancy at a Party meeting. Instead you were forced into a kind of doublethink. This is one reason why my characters are two-sided.

In the three books of the Soviet trilogy, the principal male protagonist is not what he seems. In each case, he has hidden links to the KGB. This was a deliberate choice, not because I was writing action thrillers, but because I wanted to explore the psychology of repression. By the 1980s, the KGB was no longer ideological — they left that to the Party. They were pragmatists (which is why they proved better at surviving in post-Soviet Russia). The role of the KGB was to preserve the system, but its members had access to information that showed the system was failing. I wanted to explore how they dealt with that. What interests me as a writer is people who doubt.

My three protagonists all doubt the rightness of what they do, but their paths are different. Sergei in The Angels of Russia knows from the beginning that what he is doing is wrong, but he didn’t choose to work for the KGB, he’s being pressured to do so, and he follows orders until he can no longer bear the weight of his betrayals. Axel in Music at the Garden House starts out believing in his cause, but then has a crise de conscience, breaks with the KGB, and does what he feels is right. Igor, the most complex of the three, knows that what he is doing is wrong, but goes on doing it (Café Maracanda). The theme is the same: how do you live with the choices you made when you had no choice but to make them?

https://rbth.com/arts/literature/2016/09/28/writing-about-a-country-youve-never-visited_633937
Share this story:
This story hasn't been shared yet.
 

- The Golden Road to Samarkand -

Writing a novel about Central Asia might not have been a good idea. It took almost ten years to write. Part of the problem was research, and part was the characters. The story revolved around five main characters, all of whom had complex pasts, unconventional career paths, and murky relationships with the truth and with each other.

Most of Café Maracanda takes place in Uzbekistan (Maracanda was the name of Samarkand in the ancient world), but the book begins and ends in Italy. A young American couple, Davey and Camilla, invite their colleagues Igor and Rachel to share a villa near Siena in the summer of 1990. The holiday starts out badly. The men are old friends, but the women can’t stand each other. The first day is fraught. But then Igor takes over. Igor is a Russian who defected from the Soviet Union. A journalist at Radio Liberty, where all of them work, he has a talent for smoothing things over. By the end of the month Rachel, the thrifty north-of-England bluestocking, is best friends with Camilla, the entitled WASP princess. Idling away the days in the lush Tuscan countryside, between talk and sex and wine and food, the four become very close. If anything is slightly amiss, they ignore the signs. It’s an enchanted summer they will always remember.

Sarteano

But when they return to Munich, the spell is broken. Igor vanishes. For a week they have no news. Rachel fears he is dead. And then he reappears in Moscow, gives a press conference on Soviet television, claims that his years in the West were a nightmare, and announces that Rachel is an enemy of the Soviet people, that Camilla works for American military intelligence, and that Davey is a CIA spy. Everyone is stunned. No one saw it coming – not even William Kavanagh, a Radio security officer who has been watching Igor for months. Igor’s friends are devastated. Rachel attempts to kill herself, and Davey begins to drink.

Fast forward seven years. The Soviet Union has collapsed and been replaced by fifteen independent republics. Radio Liberty has moved to Prague;  William Kavanagh has moved to Washington; Igor’s friends have not recovered from his betrayal. Davey was killed in an accident shortly after Igor left. Camilla, raising their son alone, is still wondering why her husband was so hard hit by Igor’s defection. Rachel has changed jobs and moved cities, but never got over Igor.

Only Igor has moved on. He has settled in Central Asia and opened a bar. Not just any bar. When Camilla marches into the Café Maracanda to demand an accounting, she finds Kavanagh there already, watching Igor in action. The Maracanda is a marketplace for biznesmeny, and Igor brokers the deals.

A word about Radio Liberty: During the Cold War, both East and West made extensive use of radio broadcasts. On the communist side, the “voices” included Radio Prague and Radio Moscow. On the Western side, stations such as the BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Sweden attempted to explain the way of life and political positions of their sponsoring countries. Radio Liberty was different. It was an American station funded by the US Congress whose purpose was to act as a surrogate home service and provide Soviet listeners with news they could not obtain from their domestic media. This might seem less seditious than straight British or American propaganda, but from the Kremlin’s point of view, it was much worse. Radio Liberty was competing directly with state radio, supplying Soviet citizens with undesirable information about Aeroflot crashes, the General Secretary’s state of health, and the latest casualty figures in Afghanistan. RL was demonized in the Soviet press and heavily jammed.

The starting point for Igor was a real-life two-time defector who defected from the Soviet Union in 1965, got a job as a journalist at Radio Liberty, and re-defected in 1986. Back in Moscow, he gave a press conference accusing Radio Liberty of anti-Soviet activities, and the Audience Research department, where I worked, of spying against the Soviet Union. Thoughtfully he provided our office address, and the names of two of our staffers. The office was on the top floor of a Parisian residential building, reached by a creaky little lift, and bore a certain resemblance to the office in Three Days of the Condor, where everyone is wiped out by assassins in the first reel. For a while, we were rather nervous.

madrasa

I first travelled to Samarkand courtesy of James Elroy Flecker and his famous poem: Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,/When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,/And softly through the silence beat the bells/Along the Golden Road to Samarkand. I was at school when I encountered The Golden Journey to Samarkand, and years later, when I joined Radio Liberty and found myself dealing with Soviet Central Asia on a daily basis, it turned out that the romance of the desert had stayed with me. Central Asia fascinated me in a way I cannot explain: a vast landmass at the centre of the world – east of Europe, south of Russia, previously Muslim, nominally Soviet – made even more interesting by the fact that no one seemed to know much about it. A few would-be experts solemnly forecast an incipient wave of Islamic fundamentalism but it was never clear what their predictions were based on (especially as they never came to pass). Until 1990, I was unable to go and look for myself because employees of Radio Liberty were barred from visiting the Soviet Union. My first attempt to travel there when the ban was lifted fell through, but I finally hit the Golden Road with my husband in 1995.

Almaty

Our first stop was Almaty, the capital of Kazakstan, where vast oilfields had aroused the interest of the West and engendered direct flights from Vienna and Frankfurt. Almaty was airy and green and spacious, but oddly lacking in focus. The Russians had built a fort there in 1854 and called it Verny, meaning Faithful. There was a pedestrian shopping precinct, previously Gorky Street, now re-baptized Silk Road Street. None of the Central Asian republics had been independent before, and they were all trying to find their feet.

The main tourist attraction in Almaty was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, painted pink and green, like a Little Gingerbread Church. Built without nails, it was the only building to survive a 1911 earthquake that flattened the rest of the city. Not far away was the Soviet War Memorial, a Gorgon-like sprawl of implausible bronze muscles. A school group listened intently to their teacher describing the heroic feats of the Panfilov Division, which had defended Moscow in 1941. In the park, an old man sat vacantly on one of the benches, and a middle-aged lady lay passed out on another. The air was yellowish-grey and tasted metallic. English-language hoardings advertised the Bank of Texas and Kazakhstan, and a giant Coca Cola sign sat atop the old Kazakhstanskaya pravda building.

We took a bus to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Crossing the steppe, we caught glimpses of miserable-looking villages, shepherds on horseback, and hilltop cemeteries with odd turreted railed-off graves. A leftover slogan by the side of the road said SLAVA TRUDU (Glory to Labour). When we got to the frontier, a bored police officer got on the bus and wandered up and down the aisle, requesting no passports and inspecting no luggage. The road ran straight ahead to the Tien Shan, the Mountains of Heaven.

Bishkek Lenin

Bishkek had the same grid layout as Almaty, the same greenery, the same anonymous buildings, but it was smaller and quieter. Traffic was sparse, people walked with a relaxed swing, the mountains were closer, and the air was clearer. There were fewer Russians than in Almaty, and practically no Westerners. More than once we were taken for Balts. The Soviet War Memorial sprawled across a vast empty square against a backdrop of mountains. A gigantic statue of Lenin urging on the masses was surrounded by a flock of little girls in black dresses and white aprons. It was class photo day.

“Is this really the capital of a country?” asked my husband sceptically. Half the town centre was taken up by a vast overgrown park where statues huddled unsuspected in the uncut grass, and girls lounging in idle groups waved and giggled. Shell suits outnumbered chic Western outfits on the streets, the airport was frequently closed for lack of kerosene, and there was something desperate about the way the market vendors called out their prices and tried to catch your eye.

Bishkek Statues

We had dinner in what the guidebook claimed was the best restaurant in Kyrgyzstan, the Son Kul. It had red carpets, white tablecloths and lacrymose Russian pop music. One floor was for Russian food, and one floor for Kyrgyz. We took the Kyrgyz floor, which was almost deserted. The food was excellent, and the waitress was patient when we got in a mess with the currency, which was called the som. Next morning, on the way back to the bus station, my husband bought a large wooden abacus from a man in an underpass.

Minarets of Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Thirty-six hours later we were in Samarkand. It was a cool, grey, rainy evening. Avoiding on principle the Hotel Samarkand, where all the tour groups went, we told the taxi to take us to the only privately-owned hotel in the city, the Zerafshan. Snobbery was our undoing. The outside of the building was newly painted and the lobby had a sub-harem decor with a lot of white lattice work, but the Arabian Nights charm went no further. The room we were offered was standard Soviet grunge, plus a a pile of cleaning materials on the floor, plus a strange man watching television on the bed. But it was late, and we were tired. We had spent most of the day in Tashkent airport, first persuading the immigration authorities to let us enter Uzbekistan without a visa, then convincing Inturist to book us on an onward flight. The Uzbeks did not approve of spontaneous travel.

The receptionist was annoyed by our failure to leave. She made us pay in advance. After a struggle with the unfamiliar currency (the third in five days: this one was called the sum), we finally emerged into the mythical city. The grave of the Emperor Tamerlane was just round the corner, at the end of a quiet street lined with mulberry trees. But it was after hours, and there was no one around. Should we come back next day? Suddenly a uniformed caretaker appeared. Otkuda? he demanded; where were we from? Frantsia, we told him. Dollari? he asked.

Gur Amir

We agreed that we had dollars, and he ushered us into the tomb. The mausoleum contained six white marble tombs and a huge slab of jade. The caretaker told us earnestly about the tombs and the architecture, and then abruptly put his finger to his lips, ushered us through a side door into the courtyard, took us round a corner, and unlocked a door. A flight of stone stairs led down to an underground crypt. This, he explained, was where the bodies of Tamerlane and his companions really lay. The jade upstairs was just for show.   Here was the last resting place of Timur the Lame, son of a minor tribal chieftain, spiritual heir of Genghis Khan, conqueror of Delhi, Baghdad, Moscow and Damascus. The man who rampaged over half of Asia, dead of a fever in 1405, lay disintegrating into dust beneath a plain slab of marble. We gave the caretaker a dollar bill, and stumbled off in search of dinner.

Samarkand turned out to be distressingly un-golden. Flecker, of course, had never been there. Neither had Goethe or Marlowe. After the demise of the Silk Road, it had fallen into ruin, and now it was a charmless socialist city. The ancient sites were spread out through the town and we had to plod through vast stretches of Soviet residential wasteland to get from one set of turquoise domes to another. Having worked our way through the Registan (three enormous madrasas looming round a vast courtyard), the Bibi Khanym mosque (named for Tamerlane’s favourite wife), and the Shah-i-Zinda (the royal burial ground), we pitched camp in a chai khana with loud Turkish music and a row of men in white coats grilling shashlyk, and watched the world go by. The contrast with the cities of the steppes was striking. This was another world. It might not be golden, but it was colourful. People in traditional costume marched purposefully past, heading for the market next to the Bibi Khanym. The women wore brightly-coloured dresses. Older men favoured embroidered skull caps, boots and baggy breeches. Younger ones went for Western-style trousers and shirts. Down here in the oasis there was a bustle and dynamism that we had not seen before.

Bukhara

It was a five-hour bus ride to Bukhara across a flat desert landscape. We lunched off lepeshka and apricots. The man across the aisle demanded to see our guidebook, asked if the man with me was my husband, and inquired where our group was. Bukhara was more atmospheric than Samarkand. It had no monuments on the scale of the Registan, but the old city was in better shape and there was more of it left. A maze of little alleys wound past earth-built walls, and there was a madrasa on every corner. In the tenth century, Bukhara the Noble was a centre of Islamic scholarship. It was still a holy city, you could feel it. Spirituality seeped out of the walls and hung in the dry desert air.   At breakfast in the hotel we met a German couple who had come to visit the mausoleum of Sheikh Bakhautdin. The man explained that they converted to Sufism after seeing Peter Brook’s The Conference of the Birds in London, and announced that this was a great experience for them. The lady wore a hijab and said nothing.

On the edge of the old city stood the Ark, a barbaric construction which was once the citadel of the Emirs of Bukhara. Above the eighteenth-century gatehouse, overlooking the square, was the euphemistically named “music pavilion,” where the royal family used to gather to watch public executions. Again we arrived at closing time, and this time we were rescued by a sixteen-year-old English-speaking Tajik boy called Ulugbeg. “Tomorrow we are closed,” he said, “but you come back and I show you round.” We accepted the offer, which was payable in dollars. All the Central Asian republics had their own currency, but no one seemed to want them.

Next day Ulugbeg showed us the fortress, the madrasas, and the prison, including the notorious Bug Pit where less fortunate criminals (including two emissaries of Queen Victoria) shared living quarters with rats, scorpions and sheep ticks. Then we took the bus out to the suburbs to visit the Emir’s Summer Palace. That was closed too, and all of Ulugbeg’s persuasiveness failed to get us in. He took the refusal as a personal insult: “This very bad man.” We strolled round the gardens, which were pleasantly cool after the heat and dust of the city. My husband invested in an embroidered camel bag.

Summer Palace

The best place in Bukhara was the chai khana at Lyab-i-Khauz. Wooden diwans were spread out on a flagged terrace overlooking the tree-shaded pool. Old men in traditional costume sat cross-legged on their diwans, with bowls of tea on small tables before them, gossiping, playing chess or backgammon, moving round the pool in the sun’s shadow. Workers dropped in for shashlyk or plov, a kind of Central Asian pilaff, which cooked all day long. It didn’t look as though much had changed since the last Emir fled the Bolsheviks in 1920.

We returned to Tashkent on the Transcaspian Railway, which ambled along at a leisurely pace. It had liux two-berth compartments, sheets and pillow-cases, free chai, and obligatory piped radio which dispensed news in Uzbek, followed by a little local night music. Tashkent was a pleasant surprise. It felt like a capital city ought to feel. It was a bustling modern city complete with yuppie restaurants, gleaming fountains, and a dazzling new metro. It hummed and buzzed. The air smelt of money. Much of the city was levelled in a 1966 earthquake, and the city was rebuilt by Republican First Secretary Sharaf Rashidov, an authentic Arabian Nights potentate whose private mansion was said to possess several underground storeys crammed with gold and jewels and prisoners and concubines. Rashidov’s wealth came from the Great Cotton Scam. Under pressure from Moscow to increase cotton production in the republic, he falsified figures to show that quotas were being fulfilled, pocketed money for cotton that was never produced, and allegedly netted the equivalent of some $2 billion for himself and his cronies.

Lyaub

On the strength of this trip, I began to plan Café Maracanda. Hubris, of course. To make up for my lack of first-hand experience, I read everything I could get my hands on. Most of it was written by academics discussing Central Asia from a Russian point of view, and it took me a while to realize that their vision was flawed. After making a second, somewhat longer, trip to Almaty and Tashkent, it became evident that what I was reading did not square with what I had seen. My book ground to a halt while I tried to figure out the social fabric of the new republics. One of the things I needed to know was the role played by local clans. I posted a query on a couple of Central Asian websites, and got some intriguing responses. All the Central Asians informed me firmly that clans no longer existed. All the Westerners begged me to pass on any information I obtained. Eventually a French expert on Afghanistan helped me get back on track.

Meanwhile I had discovered that Samarkand was the centre of a thriving drug trade, and I was planning Igor’s bar. The Café Maracanda serves fine Italian cuisine and the best margaritas in Central Asia. Tourists come to sample the charms of the old khanates in the fine tiled courtyard. Drug lords come to negotiate the price of heroin in the discreet inner rooms. Igor’s old KGB cronies drop in to chat. Arias from Italian opera (Igor’s favourite) drown out illicit conversations. Dormiro sol nel manto mio regal…. The café, of course, is straight out of Casablanca, but instead of letters of transit and appointments with Monsieur Renault, what is on offer is enriched uranium from Kazakstan, drugs from the Chu Valley, money for the Chechen rebels, and arms for the warring factions in Afghanistan.  Everyone goes to Igor’s.

I have always been drawn to ambivalent characters: wives who betray their husbands, dissidents who report to the KGB, men and women who appear to be what they aren’t, and don’t always know themselves what the truth is. Igor is no exception. For most of his career as KGB officer, radio journalist, and biznesmeny, he has managed to be all things to all men. In Italy, he was a sorceror, seducing Rachel with love, Davey with understanding, and Camilla with sex – all the while negotiating with his Soviet contacts to return to Moscow. In Samarkand, he is the rainmaker, introducing people who have things to sell to people who want to buy them. But now the past is catching up with him. He has made too many enemies. The Uzbeks have withdrawn their protection. The KGB has cut him loose. The CIA wants to close him down. Kavanagh is gathering evidence and enlisting allies. Igor knows what awaits him.  The game is nearly over, Rachel. My time is running out.  He has one last wish. Writing late at night in his diary, he admits the truth: Rachel, whom he abandoned in Munich, has always stayed in his mind. Rachel, without you, my life would have had no sense. You have never left me once in seven years. I don’t want to die without seeing you one last time.

Shah i Zinda

Some of my research into the Café Maracanda’s clients was done one evening in Tashkent in a place called the Vernisaj Kafé. Situated in the basement of the Union of Artists building, it was recommended by the guidebook as a cheap alternative to the ubiquitous plov and shashlyk. It was my second trip to Tashkent, two years after the first, and I was travelling with a friend who was based in Almaty. It was early when we got to the Vernisaj. The place was empty apart from three Westerners chatting at the bar, and a troop of very young Uzbek waitresses in short black skirts and tight red tops. There was a long row of tables next to the window with deep couches on either side. It seemed entirely civilized, though the prices had gone up since Lonely Planet was there. The waitresses avoided eye contact, which was a bit odd, but there was a vast choice of cocktails, and a perfectly edible menu of chicken, steak and salads.

About half-past seven, the place began to fill up. Apart from one Russian family group, the customers were men, mainly Uzbek, mainly in groups. They all wore dark suits. They moved from one table to the next, they waved, they exchanged greetings. On the surface it all seemed very convivial, but they did not look pleasant to know. Then all of a sudden the atmosphere got very strange. Nothing remotely threatening was happening, nobody was paying attention to us (though they looked us over), there were neither drugs nor weapons in evidence. The waitresses’ faces grew blanker with the strain of not overhearing people’s conversations. Their manner became more nervous and deferential. Time to leave. When Vasily, our driver, came to fetch us, the doorman followed us out and said something through the open car door. Vasily said, Ya priedu, I’ll come back, and drove off very fast and clearly annoyed. Neither of us caught the sense of the exchange. Vasily refused to tell us what had been said.

Café Maracanda was conceived as the third volume of a trilogy covering the fall and legacy of Soviet communism. Its predecessors were The Angels of Russia (set in 1986) and Music at the Garden House (set in 1990). I wanted to explore guilt and responsibility in societies whose citizens were not free to decide their own actions. How does the individual withstand coercion? How does he come to terms with the wrong he has done? How does he survive in a society which has turned morality on its head? I had no idea where I would end up. It was a fascinating journey.

Tuscany

At the end of the book, Igor gets his wish and is reunited with Rachel. But he cannot bring himself to admit to guilt for what he did, and Rachel will not forgive that.  We missed each other in time, Igor,” she says. “We never had a chance.”

Igor has one last chance to tell the truth.

“Don’t you see?” he asks her. “That was why I left. It was the only way to keep what we had. Yes, I regretted it, of course I did, but what is there to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear that matters.”

 

 

 

 

Share this story:
Shared 3 times.
 

- Driving to Koenigsberg -

When Katharine opens the door of her London house one summer morning, she finds Axel, her old lover from Moscow, standing on the doorstep. Music at the Garden House goes on from there.  I liked the idea of having a ghost from the past show up and seeing where it led. Only later did I work out who the woman was, and who the ghost was, and what had happened to them in the past, and what happened to them next.

Reviewing the book, the London Sunday Times called Music at the Garden House “a tense and intriguing novel that raises provocative questions about betrayal: personal, national and political.”

I set the novel in July 1990 – a time of transition. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Cold War was more or less over, but Germany had not yet reunified, and the Soviet Union had not yet collapsed. Lots of loose ends to work into a thriller; plenty of room for betrayal. Axel tells Katharine he’s being hunted by the KGB, and asks her to help him leave England. Initially reticent – and sceptical too – Katharine smuggles him across the Channel and shelters him in her house in France.

normandy-holidays-19-160x160

My husband and I used to own a house in the Perche region of Normandy, and it was here that I set the tale. The house was in the middle of nowhere, down a tiny lane,  on the edge of the woods, several kilometres from the nearest village. There were one or two other houses nearby, but basically you could do what you wanted out there and no one would know. We used to lead a quiet life on our weekend visits, but I gave my characters a tense three days that culminated with the incursion of the KGB and a dead body on the floor.

Well, that’s what Axel tells Katharine. That’s what gets her out of the house and into the car, on the autoroute driving east. But there are other reasons too. Axel vanished from her life without explanation ten years earlier, and she has never got over it:

I would never again let any man rip apart my life to such an extent. Unless, of course, the man was Axel himself. His disappearance had left me with a sense of things unfinished, accounts unsettled, a journey of discovery uncompleted.”

And then Axel takes over the narrative, and it’s clear that he’s been lying to her from the start. Not just in London, but in Moscow too. But Katharine doesn’t learn the truth until they get to Prague, and in the meantime she has driven Axel across half of Europe, and they have fallen in love all over again.

So what happens next? Can she forgive him? Can he forgive himself? As the miles roll by, Axel comes to doubt himself and what he has done:

“For the time being, we were safe. I would be able to spend the night with Katya, fending off questions about the past, telling her lies about the future, using her, deceiving her, betraying her with every word I spoke.  In Moscow, I had abandoned her. Because of me, she had nearly died. And now I had come marching heedlessly back into her life, with no thought for what I might find, nor what I might leave behind me.”

thuringian-forest

Music at the Garden House is structured as an East European road trip. The original title of the book was Driving to Koenigsberg. To make sure I had the geography straight, I covered most of the route myself on two different journeys. In 1992, I dragged my family on a camping holiday to explore the ex-communist East. Because of my job at Radio Liberty, the area had been off-limits until two years earlier. We went to East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. We stayed in some rather dubious campsites, and swam in some frankly filthy lakes. We took the Autobahn to Kaiserslautern with car chases in mind, and drove the slow road through the mountains from Dresden to Prague.

We did not drive to Koenigsberg. You can’t: it doesn’t exist. The old Prussian capital where Frederick the Great was crowned was awarded to the Soviet Union in 1945, renamed Kaliningrad in 1946, and is now a Baltic enclave belonging to Russia. In the book, Koenigsberg is a fantasy land where Axel and Katya imagine themselves leading a different life, away from Katya’s husband and Axel’s career and the divisive political loyalties of the Cold War. But the print publishers made me change the title. They said no one knew where Koenigsberg was, especially in Australia where my previous books had sold well. I came up with the new title after a night of feverish brain-racking. I suppose I can see their point.

koenigsberg

The other journey was in some ways more enlightening. It had taken place a year earlier. I rented a car in Bavaria and took my fourteen-year-old daughter to explore the DDR. Braving bad roads and inadequate road signs, we went to Erfurt and Weimar and Eisenach.  We found a witch’s hut in the Thuringian Forest where Axel and Katya spend a night. We also encountered Ludmila, a disillusioned East German Party member, who was later to play a pivotal role in Axel and Katharine’s story by helping them escape Stasi surveillance.

In real life, Ludmila lived in Erfurt. For the needs of the story I moved her to Weimar, but otherwise, I hardly changed a thing. The real Ludmila was retired, sixtyish, a widow who rented a room to tourists to make ends meet, very chatty. She said it was interesting for her to have people to talk to, and added that it was interesting for me to visit East Germany and talk to people living there. And then she launched into a requiem for the recently vanished DDR (Germany had reunited the previous October). Communism had always been her ideal. Could I imagine how she felt now that her ideal had been taken away? She complained that the West Germans were moving in and taking things over and pushing up prices, and she accused the market economy of failing to look after those who needed protection, such as old people, children and the handicapped.

Ludmila was half Russian. She was born in Leningrad, still had family in the Soviet Union, and made periodic trips there. This dovetailed nicely with my story and I used it all.   On her last trip to Moscow in 1989, she had seen glasnost in action and been much struck by the sight of people singing satirical songs and selling caricatures of Brezhnev on the Arbat. Arriving home in August 1989, at a time when East Germans were pouring through Hungary into Austria, and holing up in West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw, she went to a Party meeting where an official stood up to say: “We don’t understand what Gorbachev is trying to achieve with his perestroika. We don’t need that here. Our reforms are completed.” Ludmila felt that the Party had let her down.

My daughter was lying on her bed reading her book, and Ludmila and I were sitting round the coffee table eating cherries straight from Ludmila’s garden plot, getting on beautifully. So I asked her what she thought of the Stasi. (If you come out with a direct question on a delicate topic, people will sometimes take you for a stupid foreigner and give you an answer.) It worked. Ludmila suddenly got very intense. She pulled her knees up under her chin and said that natürlich, she hadn’t worked for the Stasi herself. Natürlich, I said. However, she went on, the Stasi were being treated unfairly. They were being used as a scapegoat. They had only been doing their job. They hadn’t done anything the West German secret services hadn’t done. There was a witch hunt underway. It wasn’t right.

Next morning, my daughter and I went to Buchenwald, which was disturbing in more than one way. Not just the lampshades made of human skin, but the odd slant of the museum. The prisoners at Buchenwald had liberated the camp themselves, and the curators seemed more excited by their brave anti-Fascist deeds than saddened by the loss of life. Anti-Fascism? Really? Forty-five years later?  But what shook me most was the inscription Jedem Das Seine (To Each His Own) emblazoned across the main gate.

We drove on to Weimar. The West German colonists had set up a branch of Benetton on the main square. After what we had seen that morning, it felt very civilized. We each bought a capitalist T-shirt. We visited the Goethehaus and the Schillerhaus and wandered through the park to the River Ilm. On the far bank was Goethe’s Gartenhaus. As we arrived, an outdoor concert began. I don’t remember what they were playing. In the book, I said it was Bach. Axel and Katharine stumble on a concert of music they once listened to in Moscow, and hearing it again ten years later makes them understand why they are driving across Europe together.

Goethe's Garden House at Park an der Ilm in Weimar, Germany

Music at the Garden House was originally conceived as the second part of a trilogy exploring the moral compromises forced on the individual in a police state.   (The first was The Angels of Russia, set in Russia in 1986, and the third was Café Maracanda, set in post-Soviet Central Asia in 1997.)  To solve Axel’s crise de conscience, I used the real-life confessions of a dissident colonel in the KGB called Oleg Kalugin. Kalugin acknowledged the wrongs he had done, and expressed his regrets, on the front page of Moscow News, the cult newspaper of the perestroika period.

To balance the sombre admission of sins at the end of the communist era, I tried to show the other side of the coin. In 1999, Axel’s father dies. He is a general in the Red Army. He was born in a peasant’s hut in 1923, and he owes everything to the Party: his ideals, his education, his career. He believed in the advent of socialism but, at the end of the century, he is dying disillusioned. I wanted to take a look at Soviet communism from another perspective. The Bolshevik experiment was a great adventure that won the faith of millions of people. When it failed, it destroyed their hopes of a certain kind of life. One of the inspirations for the character was Ludmila.

 

Share this story:
This story hasn't been shared yet.
 

- Evita Never Sleeps -

Buenos Aires feels like a place one could live in. Coming in from the airport, it looks lush and green, with none of the peeling suburbs that greet you in so many capital cities. Our rental apartment is in Palermo, an upscale neighbourhood of cafés and designer boutiques with a Mediterranean feel. The apartment is vast and white and loft-like, with concrete floors. You could be in Barcelona or Naples. Kathy’s flight from Washington gets in shortly after mine from Paris. We eat lunch at the parilla (grill) downstairs, and then I drag her off to look for the Casa Borges, where the writer was born. You can’t go in, but from the outside, it has a subtle, quirky air. Inside there might be monsters and labyrinths.

Argentina is the most European of the South American states, and in some ways you feel entirely at home, but this is the Southern Hemisphere, and things are different. The monsters and labyrinths are of course invisible to the naked tourist eye. What we notice first is the climate. It’s March, the summer is over, there’s a cool breeze blowing up from Patagonia, and winter is coming.

Evita's family mausoleum

Kathy’s daughter Lara joins us next morning, and we head for the Recoleta Cemetery to pay our respects to Evita: saint, whore, jefe spiritual, “that woman” – take your pick. The cemetery is vast and well-kept, laid out in a tidy grid of narrow alleys. All the best dead people in Buenos Aires are here. Eva Duarte de Perón resides in a plain black marble tomb. Her corpse was removed from the country soon after her death, but she was finally laid to rest twenty-two years later.

After lunch at La Biela, a grand old nineteenth-century café whose terrace is shaded by a venerable gum tree, we head downtown. The Microcentro district is the financial and administrative heart of the city. At the height of its wealth and glory, in the late nineteenth century, with immigrants pouring in from Italy and Spain in search of a better life, Buenos Aires aspired to become the Paris of the South, and built accordingly. The eight-lane Avenida 9 de Julio claims to be the widest street in the world.  The Teatro Colón was for years the biggest opera house in the Southern Hemisphere, until Sydney overtook it in the 1960s.

Heads spinning with traffic and jetlag, we stumble round the Plaza de Mayo, where the mothers of the desaparecidos demonstrate on Thursdays. Today is Monday, there’s some kind of activist tent city, and cars pounding all round the square. At one end is the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, painted an unappealing salmon pink colour to symbolize the blending of the red of the Federalists with the white of the Unitarists in the nineteenth century (don’t ask). It has a balcony overlooking the square where politicians come to stir up national passions. This is where Evita used to whip up the “peasant resentment” of her descamisados (shirtless ones).  Further down the square, the Metropolitan Cathedral is a shrine to José de San Martín, Argentina’s most revered hero, who liberated Chile, Peru and Argentina from the Spaniards in the early nineteenth century. I’m intrigued to realize that the Libertador is a neighbour of mine. There’s a statue of him in the park across the road from my house in Paris.

The first European to reach Buenos Aires was Pedro de Mendoza, who made landfall in San Telmo in 1536, and founded the settlement of Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire (at a time when traffic pollution must have been much less acute). San Telmo remained a fashionable residential area until an outbreak of yellow fever drove out the bourgeoisie, and Italian immigrants took over their elegant mansions. It claims to be the birthplace of tango, and is supposed to be the haut lieu of urban poetry, but we missed the Sunday market, and nostalgia is in short supply on a Tuesday. A couple of mediocre dancers are practising their craft on Plaza Dorrego, surrounded by the output of some mediocre painters. It’s the Argentine equivalent of the Place du Tertre. The dancers are technically proficient, but short on passion. They pass the hat round the tables when the shift is up.

La Boca

South of San Telmo is La Boca – which also claims to be the cradle of tango – and which is a district of Ill Repute. The guidebooks warn about not straying out of the tourist areas, the people at the next table in the café on Plaza Dorrego advise us not to go there on foot, and the taxi driver instructs us not to come here at night. No por la noche. He says it twice and with emphasis, to make sure the gringas have understood. But in daylight, La Boca is fun. After quiet San Telmo, it’s a sort of funfair thirties slum. It was founded by Genoese dock workers who built corrugated metal shacks along the dockside and painted them with whatever colours were left over from the ships. The result is a lurid hodge-podge of low-lying buildings running along one or two main alleys: yellow staircase, pink sidings, orange balconies, all mixed up together. Shops sell tourist tat, restaurants offer cut-rate menus, Carlos Gardel blares out on every corner. Gardel was one of the most famous tango singers of the 1930s, killed in a plane crash in 1936. His songs feature plaintive violins, bouncy bandoneons, and a suffering tenor voice that sends old-fashioned shivers down your spine.

Back in our laid-back yuppy neighbourhood, Kristoffer, the apartment manager, born in Sweden, drops by to change our euros and dollars into pesos, and advise us on where to have dinner. The Argentine peso is so low that the locals are desperate to get their hands on some serious currency. There is much talk about the Argentine Debt, protests break out sporadically here and there, and at one point there’s a public service strike. For us, however, everything is cheap. Restaurants, taxis and trendy boutiques are well within our reach. We don’t get jolted out of our happy tourist bubble until the end of the week, when a taxi driver refuses one of Kristoffer’s hundred peso notes. The heladería doesn’t want it either. Alarmed, we rush home and check our piles of notes, holding each one up to the light to inspect the watermark of Evita. Only two are fake. Kristoffer apologises and agrees to change them. The monsters and labyrinths recede.

Colonia

The ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay takes an hour and a quarter. We arrive in Colonia del Sacramento at half-past one. It’s a quiet, still, grey day. There is no one to be seen, and no cars on the road. After the chaos and energy of BA, it’s disconcerting. But at the entrance to the Barrio Historico we find the Restaurant Florida, which has lace tablecloths, antique ornaments in a glass-fronted bookcase, and Carlos Gardel record covers on the walls. The owners are elderly, and speak clear distinct old-fashioned Spanish. (Argentine Spanish is slushy: Cafayate becomes Cafajate, and “llamar” becomes “jamar.”) The owner’s father came from Bordeaux, and the cuisine is advertised as cocina de autor, auteur cuisine. We have an exquisite three-hour, three-course lunch, accompanied by two bottles of Tommasí, a delicious Uruguayan Chardonnay that just slides down. After that, there’s just time for a quick stroll round the historical centre. Colonia has some attractive colonial buildings, cobbled streets, a lighthouse, a vast central square. Tourists are few and far between. The season is over. On the way back to the ferry we see a few men sitting on their porches, and some little boys on bicycles who scream, Holà, how are you!

Back in Palermo, we’ve taken to having breakfast in a café called Bartola that has nursery-coloured pink and blue chairs, a wide choice of brunch, and delicious medialunas (croissants). A poster at the entrance says: La vida es como la bicicleta – hay que pedalear hacia adelante para no perder el equilibrio. (Life is like a bicycle: keep pedaling or you’ll lose your balance.) Anyone who rides a bike in Buenos Aires must be insane. The traffic is ferocious, and the city is huge. In a week we only skim the surface. There are districts we don’t get to, and monuments we don’t see. As the days go by, culture shock is kicking in. The Catholic underlay and the European faces make you think you’re at home, but it’s a whole parallel universe down here. The politicians are people we’ve never heard of, and so are the rock stars. The shops sell clothes in colours that are brighter than we’re used to, created by designers whose names mean nothing.

Bartola

The Museo Evita is housed in an elegant mansion that was originally bought by the Eva Perón Social Aid Foundation in 1948, and converted into a shelter for homeless women. The Museo claims to “disclose truth with historic rigour,” and a few book covers at the entrance acknowledge that there is indeed a “white myth” and a “black myth,” but any negative impressions are soon swept away by film footage of adoring crowds and bereft mourners, and glass cases of glamourous dresses. Evita was a star of radio soaps during the Thirties, and became a political figure during the Forties, when she married Juan Perón. She died of cancer in 1952, aged thirty-three. The military thought she was a dangerous whore, and shipped her body out of the country. The Argentine film Eva no duerme (released in 2015, the year after our trip) tells the story of her macabre posthumous existence, and draws a straight political line from Eva and her descamisados to the Generals and their desaparecidos.

eva

Back to tango. After the elusive sighting on Plaza Dorrego, we try to find a milonga, which is a place you go to dance, watch other people dancing, maybe take some lessons. Milongas are supposed to have sessions in the late afternoon and in the evening, but the ones we find are all closed. One of them has a drawing on the pavement showing you how to place your feet, so we try that instead. We are not gifted. It seems that Serious Tango People don’t come out until after dark, but we have dinner reservations. La Cabrera is supposed to be one of the best restaurants in Buenos Aires. It occupies three or four addresses stretching over two city blocks, and there’s a queue in front of each one. The steaks, like all the steaks we’ve eaten this week, are far too big for any non-Argentine to consume, but they give you a map of the cow to help you navigate the menu.

Abandoning a side-trip to the pampas to see the cows in situ, we fetch up at the Museum of Latin American Art. It’s housed in a striking trapezoid structure. Glass walls allow natural light to flood the exhibition space. It houses over five hundred works of twentieth-century Latin American art that were collected by a local millionaire. Some of the Cubist works are clearly influenced by Braque and Picasso, but they’re so drenched with colour that they have an entirely different feel. There are paintings by Rivera, Kahlo and Botero, but most of the works are by artists I’ve never heard of: Tarsila do Amaral, Xul Solar, Jorge de la Vega. More of the parallel universe. A temporary exhibition by the Peruvian fashion photographer Mario Testino is called In Your Face. The photos show Beautiful People baring their fangs in various states of dress, undress, and feigned sexual arousal, all preparing to leap down from the walls and devour you. It’s a bit like being at the zoo.

It’s Kathy’s birthday, and we have seats for the show at the Esquina Carlos Gardel. Although it’s a tourist venue, the setting is elegant, the food is all right, and the dancing is not bad, though the older dancers have a flair and style that the younger ones have yet to acquire. Tango, like wine, has to age.

Lara goes back to Washington, and Kathy and I get down to business. A few years ago we took a swing through the Napa Valley, and we’re anxious to pick up research where we left off. Argentina is the world’s fifth-biggest wine producer and the industry is centred in Mendoza, on the edge of the Andes. We leave Palermo for the airport as dawn is breaking, and reach Mendoza mid-morning.

The wine harvest is over and Mendoza is quiet. It’s a functional little town organized in a grid system of one-way streets, which they call contra mano. Street signs are an optional extra. The locals don’t like drivers who don’t know where they’re going, and they keep their hands on the horn. After driving three times round the block counting the intersections, we locate our hotel, which is called the Bohemia. Oil paintings decorate the pool, and there’s a bookshelf in the bar. The rooms are cramped and the shower is lukewarm, but the owners are friendly and helpful. We spend the afternoon in the park recovering from early rising, and dine on grilled chicken in a nearby parilla. The wine is a Malbec called Finca La Linda that I discovered in Liverpool last year. Nice choice, says Marco, our friendly waiter, who has spent time surfing in Hawaii.

Bodega

Most of the bodegas that offer wine tours and tastings are scattered along Ruta Nacional 40. Bicycles can be rented to tour the vineyards. We had assumed that Highway 40 was an idyllic little country road with wineries nested on either side, but it turns out to be a four-lane highway lined with warehouses. There’s an unappetising shopping mall on the edge of Mendoza, and an entrepreneur selling dog food from a pick-up truck. More serious is the fact that today is feriado, and most of the wineries are closed. We fetch up at Roberto Bonfante, where the only tour is in Spanish, a language we don’t really have down, but there are no better offers. The guide is a very nice lady who takes our group through the process of wine-making from start to finish. Most of the finer points go over our heads. Dudas? she asks, preguntas? Doubts? Questions? but linguistic deficiencies prevent us from expressing either. She urges us on to the next part with Adelante! and is kind enough not to charge us for the visit.

We drive back to Mendoza for a late lunch in a cavernous Italian restaurant with white tablecloths and artificial lighting that looks like the kind of place the Godfather would take his family. On the main square, the Frente de Izquierda (Left Front) is endeavouring to break the holiday calm with megaphones and a small band of demonstrators. It’s not at all like Napa here. Not a single health food store or trendy clothing boutique. Well-dressed Mendoza seems to favour T-shirts and tracksuits.

Over the next two days, we visit four more wineries. The Bodega Lagarde is foodie paradise, and we indulge in a gastronomic lunch of honey melon soup, pumpkin terrine, goat cheese on beet mini cake with hummus, and fillet steak, each with its own specially chosen wine. Not entirely sober, we roll across the road to Luigi Bosca, the producers of Finca La Linda. The climate here is cutting-edge commercial, they produce one million bottles a year, and the winery has a Californian air.

Next day, at CarinaE, a “boutique bodega for high-quality wines,” we meet a Frenchman called Philippe who came out to Argentina to work for EDF, found an abandoned vineyard, and stayed on. The bodega uses the traditional cement vats that have been phased out in some vineyards to produce what they call “Argentine wine with a French soul.”  It’s a cool grey day, and the Andes are hidden by mist. Our guide is an amiable young man who offers us a choice of wines, accompanied by sausage and cheese. I opt for the in-depth experience with five different Malbecs, while Kathy is more open-minded.

Catena Zapata

Our last stop is at Catena Zapata, which is built in the shape of a Mayan pyramid, and has delusions of grandeur. Catena is an empire producing five million bottles a year. By buying up smaller vineyards, they’ve created a vast range of wine. There’s a guard with a walkie-talkie, a barrier across the road to keep out the riff-raff, and a stone and marble interior that could have been built for Mussolini. In the grandiose oval cellar where the wine is stored, the barrels sweep round the corner into the distance. After the tour, our guide gives us a lesson on how to assess the wine. First you swirl it round, then you smell it, which she calls “first nose.” Then you do it again, “second nose,” and discover that the smell is different. Then you take your first taste, swirl some more to let the air in, and taste again. The first and second sips are completely different. We may not know what we’re looking for, but at least we know how to do it.

Next stop is Salta, a colonial city on the edge of the Andes, founded in 1582. The plane lands as it’s getting dark, and the drive into town is a nightmare. First we miss the turn off the highway, and then we get lost. The town is laid out in another contra mano grid system, and there are no street signs. It’s too dark to read the map, buses thunder past, drivers hoot, the car mists up, the ventilator fails to shift it. We’re relieved to reach the hotel.

The Hotel del Virrey is vast and dark and colonial, and we are given a huge room furnished with what looks like Grandmother’s cast-offs, on the ground floor overlooking the street. There’s an iron grille over the window. The first night we enjoy strewing our possessions around after our cramped quarters in the Bohemia: the second night, having discovered a succession of quiet, white, unoccupied rooms on the courtyard side, we are not pleased to have been fobbed off with the the ugliest, noisiest room in the hotel. Still, the water is hot in the shower.

Salta:  Cathedral

Salta is rougher and tougher than sleepy Mendoza, with a frontier edge and more colour. Bolivia is not far away and there are more Indian faces. It has a colourful, noisy town square with trees and fountains, stalls selling local handicrafts, a mournful Andean guitarist singing something impassioned, and a pink and white colonial cathedral that looks as if it were made by Baskin Robbins.

The Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montana was set up to exhibit the mummified bodies of three Inca children who were found in 1999, preserved in ice, near the summit of Mount Llullaillaco. They were sacrificed to the Inca gods in the early 1400s. The museum exhibits a range of artifacts that were intended to accompany them into the next world, describes the expedition that found them, and explains how the sacrifices worked. The children came from high-born families, the sacrifice was intended to ensure the continuing fertility of the land, and it was considered an honour to be chosen.   The three children, a young boy and girl, and an older girl of around fourteen, travelled to Cuzco in Peru for the ceremony and were then taken home. The journey would have taken months. After being welcomed home, they were taken up into the mountains and entombed. Studies have shown that the children, especially the older girl, imbibed considerable quantities of chicha (an alcoholic drink) and coca, in the months before they died.

Salta

It’s all rather grisly, and we’re happy to fall into the nearest restaurant and order a glass of wine. Salta is another wine-producing area, and I’m developing a taste for the local Torrontés, which is not the same as the one produced in Mendoza. The Mendoza Torrontés grape is an uva mentirosa that is dry and fruity at the same time. The grape up here is crisper and more straightforward. Eating our Ensalada Caprese, with mozzararella that comes from goats and is unexpected in colour and texture, we watch the comings and going on the Plaza 9 de Julio. (The Ninth of July is a very big deal: it’s the day Independence was declared in 1816.) There are old gents in pullovers, schoolchildren in uniforms, sharp young lads with jeans hanging off their hips, women carrying quite large children (not a single buggy in sight). Sellers of necklaces and pink Rolexes offer their wares politely, but don’t hassle us.

By late afternoon, we have exhausted the town’s colonial and sociological opportunities and seen a great many churches. The light is drained and dusty; people flop in the square. A young mother is asleep on a bench, and the baby beside her is sleeping too. The culture shock we barely noticed in Buenos Aires is creeping up, and the baños (restrooms) are getting worse. We go in search of an ATM. Our supply of pesos is running low, and tomorrow we’re leaving for a three-day trip to the back country. In Mendoza we got done by the traffic cops for not having our lights on, and it might well happen again. At dusk, we retire to the hotel swimming pool with headphones and a bottle of Malbec to watch the sun go down. Kathy has an audiobook, and I listen to music. Out here on the edge of the desert, it takes Bach and Brel and the late great Roy Orbison to keep me grounded.

Clouds

It’s 159 km from Salta to Cachi, and the trip takes five hours. We leave as soon as it’s light, which is not until eight. All of Argentina is on the same time zone as Buenos Aires, and we’re quite far west. It rained in the night, but around ten the sun comes out. By then we’re up in the mountains. The road is unpredictable, but the views are amazing. We stop for coffee and a visit to the baños, buy some earrings from a lady selling silver jewellery, and peel off a layer of clothes. We’re about to enter Los Cardones, a national park, where there are no services at all. The landscape is spectacular and desolate, red soil, grey rock, cactuses standing guard like sentinels on the hillsides. Traffic is sparse. Layers of cloud, high and low, grey and white, off-white and pearl, light and thick, cotton and gauze, drift past the mountain peaks and float across the plain.

By one o’clock we are in Cachi, feeling smug that we survived the wilderness. Cachi has a central plaza, a simple church, and not much else, but the hotel where we’re staying is delicious. El Cortijo has low beams, flagged stone floors, and is decorated in warm earthy reds and browns. The service is friendly and the food is excellent. It’s so cosy that we linger longer than we should the following morning. The distance to Cafayate is 154 km, about the same as the previous day, and we think we’ve got it down. It’s a beautiful clear sunny day and the sky is a pure deep blue. At least we have the wit to fill the tank and buy bottles of water.

El Cortijo

The road is far, far worse than the previous day. Nine-tenths of it is unpaved, and the surface is dreadful. Why did nobody warn us to get a four-wheel drive?   There are emergency telephones every few kilometres, but we’re not anxious to have a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. We crawl along. We cringe every time a stone bounces off the car. It’s less isolated than yesterday, with occasional houses and dried-out pueblos. We average 20 km an hour. This gives us plenty of time to admire the landscape. There are mountains all around us with snow capped peaks. Little clouds drift out of nowhere and perch on their summits. Dogs stray in the dust along the road.

Around lunchtime, we stop in Molinas, in the hope of finding sandwiches, but there’s only a sleepy restaurant across from the church and we want to keep moving. The only thing worse than breaking down in the midday heat would be breaking down at night. It’s starting to feel very Thelma and Louise. Kathy wonders when Brad Pitt is going to show up, but he doesn’t appear. The mountains have been thrust up from the earth and tortured by the wind into strange quasi-human shapes. Twenty kilometres out of Cafayate, the paved road begins.  You can hear our whoop of joy back in Bolivia.

Road to Cafayate

Cafayate is a pleasant little town. It’s the centre of a big wine-growing area, and if we had had time we would stay longer, but we have to get back to Salta to catch the plane to Iguazú. We squeeze in a morning visit to a bodega in the town centre, but the tasting is jinxed by the arrival of a large group of morose, middle-aged French tourists, who look as though they have got up too early, driven too far, and heard too much, so after a rapid lunch of empanadas and a glass of Torrontés, we get back on the road. It’s 190 km back to Salta, but the road is good. The Quebrada de Cafayate is a landscape of towering red ravines and weird rock formations, scarlet and crimson, rust and vermilion. As we get closer to Salta the mountains flatten out, the traffic gets thicker, we get stuck behind trucks of corn, and start to stress, but we reach the airport in plenty of time for the Hertz guys to do their long weird South American routine on the computer, check in for the flight, and decompress in the bar.

Quebrada de Cafayate

Aerolineas Argentinas flies a circular route from Buenos Aires to Mendoza to Salta to Iguazú and back to BA.   The flights work like clockwork. The planes are clean. The flight attendants are polite and impersonal and address us as “Lady” (gap in the training manual there). The invariable inflight snack consists of one lemon cookie, one chocolate cookie, and a packet of crackers.

When we get to Iguazú, night has fallen, and the sky is full of stars. The drive to the hotel takes us through what seems to be the rain forest. It’s dark and tropical, faintly menacing. We’re staying at the Sheraton, the only hotel in the national park, and the only one with a view of the falls. Since it’s dark we can’t actually see them yet – but we can hear them.

The adventure is over, and for the rest of the trip we will have a guide. Joining a group of English-speaking travellers, herded by an Argentine guide called Gabriel, we take a small train through the jungle next morning to Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), which is the biggest and more impressive of the cataracts. Then we take the train back to the starting point to do first the Upper and then the Lower Walk. This might sound like overkill, but it isn’t. The Iguazú Falls are amazing, there are over 250 different falls, spread over 2.5 km, and you don’t tire of contemplating them from a variety of angles. Today we’re visiting the Argentine side, and tomorrow we’ll cross the border and do the Brazilian side. At least, I will. As a US passport-holder, Kathy needs a visa for Brazil, and she doesn’t have one. The guidebook implied that she could get away without one, but Gabriel is categorical that no, she can’t. By the sound of it, his agency was burned in the past, and had to pay a fine.

On the train back from Garganta del Diablo, we share the carriage with a group of international twentysomethings discussing cattle roping at an undisclosed location on the Brazilian side. One of the girls (probably English) asks one of the boys (probably Argentine) how they can eat so much meat.  The solution, says the Argentine kid, is to avoid vegetables, which are entirely useless and take up space in your stomach that can be more profitably reserved for meat. Ah, so that’s it.

Iguazu

The first European to see the Falls, says Gabriel, was called Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish soldier and explorer who was shipwrecked in Florida in 1527. It took him nine years to make his way to Mexico, and he wrote an account of his journey called The Shipwrecked. He saw the Iguazú Falls on his way to the Rio de la Plata in 1540.   When he talked about what he had seen, no one believed him. He died in poverty in Seville. (I come across his book on Kentish Town Road in London two weeks later. Small world.)   The visit ends with a very nasty boat trip that takes you along the river and under the Falls. You get soaked to the skin and they give you canvas bags to wrap up your shoes and cameras. Kathy thinks it’s hilarious, and I hate it. There’s so much water you can’t open your eyes, and so you don’t see a damn thing. It’s waterboarding that you have to pay for.

Much more congenial is the helicopter trip they offer us next day on the Brazilian side. It costs an extra US$100, but it’s worth it. They take us up in a small four-seater helicopter for ten minutes. Seeing the falls from the air makes you see how it all fits together, Argentinian side, Brazilian side, river before the falls, river after the falls.  I’ve never been on a helicopter before, and it’s a damn sight drier than the boat. Back on the ground, we cross the Brazilian national park to see the falls from a different angle, and Gabriel fills us in on filmography. The Mission, with Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro, was shot in Iguazú in 1985, and all the scenes that show the falls are authentic. Moonraker with Roger Moore took place on the bank over there. The villain’s house in the movie Miami Vice was located right here where you have a view of two waterfalls (no such house actually exists). Our walk ends up right beside the Falls. There’s a platform where you can stand right beside the water, and a panoramic elevator to take you back up the hill.

Iguazu

After all that energy and violence, it’s good to spend a quiet afternoon at the Sheraton eating a lunch of useless vegetables, followed by a Guaraní massage that involves lumps of wood shaped like lemons, followed by Pina Colada by the pool as the sun goes down, watching exotic-coloured birds that match the exotic-coloured cocktails. If the Sheraton wasn’t so stingy with the free wifi, it would be perfect.

The Jesuits arrived in Argentina in 1609, and founded fifteen missions in the provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, organizing the local Guaraní Indians into social and religious communities to cultivate the land. The best preserved of the surviving missions is San Ignacio Miní, which is a four-hour drive from Iguazú. According to the museum at the entrance to the mission, the Jesuits found their vocation in South America, away from the political and imperial intrigues of Europe. The missions benefited the Indians by protecting them from bandits and slave hunters, and the result seems genuinely to have been a kind of social utopia. But the Jesuits fell foul of Portuguese and Spanish colonial interests in the New World, and were ordered to leave South America in 1768. All the missions were abandoned, and they fell into ruin.

San Ignacio Mini

San Ignacio Miní was rediscovered at the end of the nineteenth century, by which time it was completely overgrown, but in its heyday, looming out of the jungle, it must have been an impressive sight.  There was a huge red sandstone church and an enormous plaza. The gilded baroque interior is long gone, but you can still make out the insignia of the Society of Jesus over the altar. (In Buenos Aires, we visited a building called Manzana de las Luces, which was the former headquarters of the Jesuits in Argentina. The cab driver had never heard of it, and we had to tell him where to go. When we found it, it was in serious need of upkeep. The only sign of life in there was a ratty handicrafts fair.)

From the mission we drive down to Posadas, a sleepy town with a manicured riverbank, just across from Paraguay. There’s a five-hour wait for our flight to Buenos Aires. The airport has no departure board, no planes announced, no passengers waiting. But time goes fast in the air-conditioned bar with free wifi and very cheap whisky.

We spend our last night in Argentina in an odd little hotel in the Retiro district called the Art Hotel. It is long and narrow and loft-like, manned by unsmiling black-clad young men. Imaginatively positioned mirrors on a black-painted wall open up the space, and there’s an art exhibition on the ground floor. Our room is dark and cramped and might, in less cultured circumstances, be described as dingy. Midway through your shower, you have to turn off the water to let the drain cope with the flow. After the nonchalance of the provinces, Buenos Aires feels like another planet. Mothers pick up uniformed schoolchildren, dog walkers exercise seven or eight animals on leashes, cars flood past. The air smells of petrol and parilla. In the cemetery down the road – maybe – Evita sleeps.

March 2014

 

Share this story:
This story hasn't been shared yet.
 

All Titles