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A vanishing metaphor
by Vernon Young
A review of On the Shores of the Mediterranean by Eric Newby.
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In a paragraph memorable to anyone who has read and re-read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Cecil Fielding, a British schoolmaster, on his way home to England after many years, pauses in Venice. There confronted with the visible coherence of Europe, he is driven, not without “a sense of disloyalty,” to compare it with the visible formlessness of the country he has left.
The buildings of Venice, like the mountains of Crete and the fields of Egypt, stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong .... In the old undergraduate days he had wrapped himself up in the many-coloured blanket of St. Mark’s, but something more precious than mosaics and marbles was offered to him now: the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting .... [T]hough Venice was not Europe, it was part of the Mediterranean harmony. The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake, whether through the Bosphorus or the Pillars of Hercules, they approach the monstrous and extraordinary; and the southern exit leads to the strangest experience of all.
Sixty years later, the “exquisite lake” is polluted from one end to the other; the monstrous and the extraordinary can be experienced without leaving the borders of the Mediterranean; harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them is as faintly visible on the Mediterranean as it is anywhere; and if the spirit in a reasonable form is evident anywhere in Western Europe (outside the buildings and paintings), Italy will be the last country where you can expect to find it.
In his new book, On the Shores of the Mediterranean, Eric Newby may not have set out to demonstrate how drastically Fielding’s vision has been devaluated in our implacably eroding century, but among other things that is what he has unmistakably done in this fairly abrasive scrutiny of the countries he has chosen to visit (or to revisit). Newby is the least dilettantish of travel writers. His journeys have usually been done the hard way—as an apprentice on a foremaster in The Last Grain Race, on foot and sky-high in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Other considerations aside, his personal memories of the Mediterranean were bound to be of a grimmer cast than those of E. M. Forster. Newby’s Mediterranean was a crucial battleground in World War II, where, as an officer in the British Army, he took part in the desperate defense of Tobruk, in Libya, against Field Marshal Rommel. Forty years later, “Tobruk, with its shuttered shops and dusty streets full of garbage . . . was still the noisy, unlovely place it has always been, the only real difference being that now there was more of it.” His verdict on many of the fifteen countries he treats in this book is comparable. Either they have remained dismally unchanged or they have changed for the worse.
Of course, it is arguable whether, as late as 1924, the Mediterranean could have been described by anyone as exhibiting the human norm, but we know what Fielding (or E.M. Forster, if you like) meant by his Eurocentric preference. From the eastern Mediterranean we inherited the doctrines of Athenian Greece and of Roman Christianity, together with less prominent influences from Islam and Byzantium; if this was an incompatible mix, it was nonetheless the crucible in which were shaped our arts, our laws, and our sciences before they took on the confounding dimensions of the Renaissance.
To judge by Newby’s book, the comparatively few decades which have passed since Fielding stated his ideal conception have seen an alarming speed-up of the disharmony between the works of man and his conduct. I don’t want to sound more portentous than Newby’s narrative justifies. Newby himself is not given to reflective brooding over decline and fall; he is a first-rate observer with an unsteady conception of how much historical background he should provide. But his observations of the contemporary scene do lead us to the depressing conviction that the human norm represented by Mediterranean countries today can’t be what Fielding had in mind.
“The buildings of Venice . . . stood in the right place.” Read this literally and a queasy sensation will ensue. For how long will they stand in the right place? If you have ever lingered in Venice through the marvelous early days of October—"going home” at night in a vaporetto after a day spent in the automotive alienation of noisy Padua—you may forget, for a hushed hour, the commonly held opinion that Venice is sinking. Yet Venice was always sinking! Like a mortal, its death was built in with its conception. In pre-industrial centuries, as now, the determining conditions for the flood that one day will not subside at the crucial hour—the so-called acqua alta—are heavy rain, a full moon, falling barometric pressure, and a strong sirocco, all of which prevent the water in the lagoon from getting out. As far back as 1240 the water rose to the height of a man; in 1280, rising from 8 a.m. until noon, it drowned hundreds in their houses, and as many perished of the cold. In modern times such calamities have increased with serious frequency. During our century the city has been inundated no less than forty times and the accompanying effects have been the more destructive, Newby reminds us, because to the normal waste products in this city without drains have been added the poisonous effluents of industry: “dangerous quantities of ammonia and its by-products of oxidation, phenol, cyanide, sulphur, chlorine, naphtha, as well as oil from passing ships.”
The most spectacular instance to date of the fatally impending deluge was the acqua alta of November 4, 1966, when waves twelve feet high smashed the bathing facilities on the Lido, and at Venice itself the water rose six and a half feet above the normal sea level. According to Newby’s recital of the consequence, which is supported by his passion for the numerical, the flood threatened four hundred and fifty bridges, submerged the one hundred and twenty shoals or islands on which the city is allegedly built, and inundated fifteen thousand houses in which people lived on the ground floor. Three thousand miles of streets and alleys and the various open spaces known as campi were also inundated “with an unimaginably vile compound of all the various effluents mentioned previously .... To which was added diesel oil and gas oil which had escaped from the storage tanks, leaving the city without electric light, means of cooking or hearing, or any communication with the outside world.”
One of my recurring nightmares is what will happen if the waters of the Venice lagoon neap sufficiently to engulf the Scuola di San Rocco, in which are housed under one roof more masterpieces by a single painter (Tintoretto) than anywhere else in Europe. Such considerations seem not to have inspired any major effort of prevention or rehabilitation (whatever these might be) on the part of the Italian government. Imbued by the spirit of classical timelessness, perhaps, civic officials do nothing in Italy until a crisis makes unopposable demands. It was always predictable that the Arno would overflow at Florence and inundate the basement archives of the Uffizi. This is what happened—in the late Sixties, if I recall correctly—and innumerable manuscripts and facsimiles were either destroyed or irretrievably damaged. Newby doesn’t mention that in the Seventies a small fortune was donated to the city of Venice by an international committee for purposes of salvage. When, a few years later, the authorities were consulted on the progress being made, the fortune had mysteriously disappeared.
Newby’s last word for the situation is spooky: the fateful alliance of indifferent nature with procrastinating man. The waters of our oceans are constantly rising because of the melting of polar ice; in the Venetian case the city is sinking because the subsoil has been deprived of alluvium by the re-routing of rivers. “So that one day, quite suddenly, without warning, just as the Campanile collapsed [July 14, 1902], so too will the wooden piles that support the buildings of the city, of which there are said to be more than a million beneath Santa Maria della Salute alone, suddenly give up supporting them and allow the city to disappear forever.”
Death in Venice. I have long thought Thomas Mann’s title appropriate to the sunset ambience invoked by almost everyone (E. M. Forster excluded) who has written an elegiac word on the sinking city. Death is in fact a conception more profoundly associated with Italy than the popular attribution of vitality—yet vitality, of a sometimes macabre order, is by no means absent.
See Naples and die. There seems to be a good chance that you will, if Newby’s recital is taken to heart. Here is a city where violent crime has been accepted, not helplessly but with bracing eagerness, as the flourishing norm of the community, and all the strategies of public life are dedicated to it. A kind of internecine war is the rule. Rival criminal organizations and two special-operation groups of the Carabinieri seem to make up, in essential outline, the Neapolitan populace. The criminal rivals are the Nuovo Camorra Organization and the Nuovo Fa-miglia. (That in Italy a criminal syndicate should call itself the New Family is altogether characteristic.) “This battle . . . taking place under our eyes,” Newby assures us, as of 198 3, “was for the ultimate control of almost everything criminal: robbery, kidnapping, intimidation of shopkeepers, all sorts of smuggling including drugs, male and female prostitution and illegal property development not only in Naples and the offshore islands of Ischia and Capri but in the whole of Italy from Apulia and Calabria in the deep south as far north as Milan”: an embrace that should silence anyone who had it on the tip of his tongue to protest that Naples is not Italy!
How a citizenry survives corruption and decimation to the extent reported by Newby is hard to understand but in Naples survive it does, in an atmosphere of resonant melodrama, with spoils galore for the conquering group. What we take for granted as urban amenities simply don’t exist in vast areas of this fantastic city. Most remarkable for its outlaw status is the area known as II Triangolo della Morte, composed of three districts subdivided into municipalities (comuni): “Inside II Triangolo . . . live more than half a million people, a large proportion of whom are unemployed and without any apparent hope of finding employment. Everything within II Triangolo is inadequate: schools, water supply, housing and recreational facilities.” In Caivano-Fratta, one of II Triangolo’s three districts, five of the eight comuni have not a single police or Carabinieri post. Hence it is not surprising that II Triangolo is a prominent battlefield for the warring clans: “there were fifty murders there in the first eight months of 1983.” One thing I find puzzling: that in such a situation statistics are available and, by Newby at least, accepted without question.
All the same, a peripheral society endures, shaken but unbowed, or perhaps just unheard from. Seen as a single collateral image, Naples is like one of those genre paintings in which figures of a primary color are placed in centered position at the frontal plane of the canvas and subordinate elements, while differentiated and visible, shade off into the middle distance and the margins. In Newby’s account a rich melange of occupations and beliefs finds expression in this otherwise static composition. He describes “a long, long street with eight different names .... an astonishing, fascinating street full of medieval, renaissance, baroque and rococo churches, palaces and monuments; bookshops; repairers and vendors of second-hand dolls; and with long, narrow dangerous alleys running uphill from it in an area infested with robbers, one of which is full of makers and sellers of presepi (cribs) and the painted terracotta figures of the infant Christ, the Virgin, the Shepherds and the Kings and the animals which every Neapolitan family brings out in Christmas week.” Life, with undying emblems of the faith, goes on, in the teeth of our logical inferences that it cannot.
No Italophile I know would dream of living in Naples and I wouldn’t go there for a day. Yet, since all values are nourished by alternative choice, one way of appreciating the energetic, if nefarious, mise-en-scène is to compare it with its virtual opposite: that of Albania. Newby’s account of this supremely dreadful country is especially welcome; so few writers visit the place, often being forbidden to go there either by Albania itself or by their own governments (ours, for instance: the United States broke off relations in 1946 and vetoed Albania’s admission to the United Nations). When Newby was there in 1983, no Rusians, no Yugoslavs, and, for the moment, no Chinese were admitted: “nobody with ‘writer’ or ‘journalist’ inscribed on his or her passport, no males with long hair or beards, unless ‘with a large shaven area between sideboards and start of beard’. . . . No mini-skirts, maxis, flared trousers, no bright colours .... No Bibles .... No Korans.” (And Newby astutely noted that in ten days there he saw only six dogs and no cats!) As there are no privately owned cars, group travel, it goes without saying, is the only form permitted. From Newby’s testimony it is evident that, as in East Germany, the border officials and the delegated guides are incomprehensibly hostile. All visitors are judged to be guilty (of something).
It is tempting to deduce that an invariable style of encounter follows the national adoption of Marxism-Leninism. Having been in three Communist countries, I find the deduction too hasty, for in each of the three I visited the determining tone was set by the native disposition rather than by the political program. But when a country is as ironclad as Albania it must be next to impossible to distinguish a citizen at large from the man with the holster. Newby doesn’t seem to know what enforces the totally puritan vigilance in Albania. I suspect that lingering traces of the Islamic heritage, rendered fanatical by resentment of the previous regime’s defection, may be responsible.
When Albania was invaded by Italy (April, 1939), King Zog (originally Achmed Zogu, son of a Muslim tribal chief) fled the country with ten chests said to contain the entire Albanian gold reserve, together with his Hungarian queen and twelve bodyguards who, the rumor goes, were eventually discharged for having made substantial inroads on the treasure they were guarding. Zog kept travelling, one step ahead of the Nazis: Greece, Turkey, Rumania, Poland, Sweden, France, and England. Newby actually met him, in Alexandria in 1963, “apparently poised for further travel. . . but without any immediate hope of returning to his native land, and in fact he never did.” For during World War II the Left in Albania, “having successfully liquidated the Center and Right with the unacknowledged and perhaps unintentional aid of the Allies, founded a National Independence Front.” By means not given in detail by Newby—but we've been there before, haven’t we?—the National Independence Front was converted by war’s end into a single-party dictatorship.
Henceforth, Albania was even more remote than before—from the West, at any rate. From its Communist cousins it was not so remote as to be unprofitable. The history of its changing, paranoid relations with Russia, Yugoslavia, and China is dizzying and utterly unscrupulous, the general pattern being the acceptance of huge sums of money and technical aid in the form of manpower, which is then never returned or reciprocated because the Albanian Party has introduced a political resentment at the strategic hour. With a species of economic enterprise (and pure luck) the regime has maintained its frugal independence. By 1981, Albania was the world’s second largest exporter of chrome and had a sufficient surplus of hydroelectric power to acquire Yugoslavia as its customer.
Officially godless since 1967, Albania, like Russia, has a Museum of Atheism that features then-and-now maps. Before the abolition of religion, seventy-three percent of the population was Muslim (the remainder Orthodox or Roman Catholic). With his abiding affection for numbers, Newby maintains that there were, in 1938, 144 mosques and churches, 48 schools, and one hospital. In 1973, there were 371 hospitals and clinics, 307 schools, and no mosques or churches. And no more cakes and ale. After 1967 students were given the job of blowing up religious buildings, destroying graveyards, and publicly reviling anyone who persisted in religious observances (by what means Newby does not clarify). Today (meaning 1981) Albanian authorities admit to having five thousand prisoners in forced-labor camps. Albanians in exile insist that the figure is closer to forty thousand. One of the worst camps is at Burrel, where a sign over the entrance reads: “This is Burrel Where People Enter But Never Leave.”
“There is perhaps no other city in the western world which exists so much out of time . . . .” Newby is here referring not to Corfu and Albania but to Old Fez in Morocco at the other end of the Mediterranean. His statement is anachronistic because Fez is not in the western world. If I may be captious, further, it exists out of our time but fully in its own, Berber and Arabic; as Newby himself adds, it is one of the most revered localities within the Muslim surround. In any event it is obviously a city of endless fascination which evokes from Newby a throb of poetry, as in this crescendo where he listens, you might say, to the sun coming up over a world we never made.
Surely it is for just such passages that we read travel books. While we may be only ruefully grateful for being supplied in documentary detail with the awful truth about Venice, the Camorra in Naples, and a Gulag peninsula fronting the Ionian Sea, we wait for those moments when the travelling author has depended most fully upon his own instinct for the equivocal sensation he wants to convey. And contrary to the sentiment expressed by E. M. Forster, that sensation is the more compelling—the more exotic—if, to the cultural assumption we cannot sensibly live without, there is added a tinge of the barely comprehensible, the forever alien. In the sequence above it is perhaps gathered up in that strange cry, “Prayer is better than sleep.”
Newby is at his best—I suppose any travel writer is likely to be—when he is telling us not what he has learned but what he has seen, the unedited images that occur before he sorts them out and adds research to observation. Newby has a ready response to group diversity and to the animation which it generates. In Jerusalem, for example, he finds a host of sects “giving tongue, buying and selling, praying, reading sacred and not-so-sacred works, listening to taped music, teaching the living, tending the dying, calling the faithful to prayer, quarrelling, picking pockets .... begging, cooking and eating, digging their plots, feeding their hens, their flocks of sheep, their donkeys and their camels—all of which are also from time to time giving tongue—or simply waiting for the Second Coming.” He is no less effective, and second only to Graham Greene, when describing desolations: Kotor, in Montenegro, stricken by an earthquake; unexploded mines still lurking in the deserts of Libya; the Awful Hotel, that phenomenon as universal as death and taxes, exemplified here by the Yala in Tobruk (where Newby had helped fight a war), so named following the Revolution in Libya (Yala, Newby was assured, means Go Home, British!).
The Mediterranean today as a metaphor of reason and harmony is not confirmed by Newby’s personal ventures to its periphery, and this would be an unconsoling experience to read did he not, for compensation, regale us with the contingencies of travel. The contingent is synonymous with the notable and the notable spells life. And life spells food. Alone among travellers in the literature, Newby is not content to recall, with justifiable depression, the lower depths of cuisine to which all tourists to the remote are sooner or later subjected. He rises to those superlative occasions which remind us that perhaps nothing is more indicative of civilization (“the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them”) than the meal as a work of art. With conscious irony and without apology for the extravagance he was, by some means, free to indulge, he concludes his travel episodes with what can best be called a baroque recollection, designed to activate the gourmet reader’s gastric juices, of a feast (beginning with truffles and pigeon’s breast and ending with salmon and wild strawberries) consumed at the principal restaurant of the Negresco hotel in Nice, among the last of a dying order: the hôtels-palais axis on the French Riviera.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 October 1985, on page 73
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