The city is shrinking now. Gaining some fiction of cohesion as it recedes into contours and right-angles, pastel-washed slopes, a matrix of shipyards. The brutalist clock tower on the port strikes the hour with an unexpected ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ jingle. I am leaving Piraeus harbour on a ferry at sunset, staking out a seat by the window, attempting to wedge my overstuffed cabin-sized suitcase somewhere out of the path of the (apparently all) more compact and more composed passengers onboard. This is typically how I travel—outsized and overburdened, with books and clothes and vitamins, whatever the mode of transport. But more and more these days, I find myself on ferries, which is good because a) I hate flying and b) there are no luggage restrictions which means that I may be even more overladen with volumes—hardcover ones even. Typically, the mobile library is constituted by various textual holes-of-shame in my reading history (Proust, Walker, Kapuscinksi), an un-started novel, a short-story anthology, a book of poetry (normally multiples), alongside a well-intentioned work of non-fiction or two and my well-travelled but equally neglected Arabic textbook. Thus equipped, I then proceed to spend the majority of the voyage (and trip beyond) gazing vacantly out the window.
This time it’s different. At this point in my life (and in what feels like writing-induced macular degeneration), I feel as happy to read landscapes as words on a page, so in an effort to focus my mind as well as my scale, I have settled on two texts: Maria Tumarkin’s Traumascapes and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The pair was a relatively random selection from my extensive pile of to-reads. But perhaps I had some inkling of how both texts might reference my surrounds on this trip—the Greek Aegean island of Lesvos, which I am revisiting for a book I am writing about exile and migration in the Mediterranean.
Over the past five years, almost 20,000 people have drowned in the body of water now churning under my vessel. A couple of days ago, a dinghy capsized a few kilometres off the coast from my destination, killing two children and five adults. Some of their relatives, also foreigners here, took ferry journeys like this one to go and ‘deal with’ the recovered corpses. I wondered what else the bereaved could recover from such a journey, from the vacant face of the sea that took their lives, from the alien landscape, unmarked by the incident, by the trauma.
Such questions of the relationship between geography (that is, the physical world) and incidents of mass suffering, violence or death, form the content of Tumarkin’s globe-spanning reflections, as she investigates various international landmarks like Bali, Port Arthur, Sarajevo, Moscow, Berlin, Shanksville and New York, though she references many others. Be it as a result of terrorism, conflict or political violence, Tumarkin classifies these locations as traumascapes—that is, ‘a distinctive category of place transformed physically and psychically by suffering, part of the scar tissue that now stretches across the world . . . places that compel memories, crystallise identities and meanings and exude power and enchantment.’ The work is in part guided by and framed around events relating to Tumarkin’s own lineage. She migrated to Australia as a teenager from the then-Soviet Union along with many other Jewish people. She says that Traumascapes is ‘about tragic things that cannot be undone—people are killed, whole cities are extinguished, most of the time there is nowhere to run.’
I think about this when I am at my destination, about the people who did try to run somewhere, from suffering and loss, only to be met here with more suffering and loss, more extinction, more trauma. It think also about the thousands (maybe five, maybe ten—nobody knows) who died on the quayside or in this stretch of sea almost 100 years ago, when they fled their blood-soaked, burning city of Izmir across the water—one incident in an event that people in this country still refer to with the name ‘catastrophe’. The suffering that’s taken place in or around these waters is unquantifiable, and yet the landscape remains largely untarnished by them—mostly free from any striking markers of trauma, incidental or contrived. Unlike Ground Zero or Berlin or Sarajevo, there is little scar tissue from past or present dramas. I wonder then if it can still be called a traumascape? Some of Tumarkin’s sites are also relatively unmarked. There is Port Arthur, with its discreet memorial to the 35 victims of the 1996 massacre, its air-brushing of the colonial horrors of penal servitude. There is also the former nightclub in Kuta where one of the 2002 Bali bombings took place; still largely vacant and sprouting banana trees. But as Tumarkin perceives, the power of the traumascape transcends physical markers. Rather, their enigmatic quality comes from their proximity to death or savagery, tapping into our most powerful human emotions, bringing us closer to accessing the ‘sublime’. Tumarkin describes how many traumascapes can function as a ‘cathartic location’, wielding a power that makes visiting them one of the ‘most eagerly sought-out climaxes.’
This is part of the mass allure of sites such as Ground Zero or Auschwitz, where ‘the intensity of emotions inspired by encounters with death as an idea, while often unnerving, can also prove to me mesmerising and addictive.’ Death is after all, as Tumarkin notes, the greatest equaliser.
And yet here at my destination, death does not feel equal. I stand one day on an empty hillside to survey the only real mass marker of trauma on the landscape, a so-called ‘graveyard’ of 20,000 cubic metres of life vest debris that washed up on the island’s shore. Here, death feels hierarchical, like a class, like there is the living and the dead or will-be dead who are different from us, more destined to die or lose or suffer trauma. And I think that if the experiences embedded in a traumascape truly formed a kind of equaliser, if they really brought us to confront our own death or the ease with which we might have been one of the dead or the suffering, then its appeal would probably be lessened. Yet Tumarkin is (of course) cognisant of this, noting as she does the safe distance which characterises many of the most popular traumascapes. Edmund Burke, cited by Tumarkin, notes that to tap into the sublime possibilities of a traumascape, we need to be ‘removed from the source of danger, either in space or in time.’ And I wonder if it is this safety that makes it possible for me to be visiting, or wanting to visit, this place? Would I still be drawn here if I was my friend, whose 35-year old sister died in last week’s wreck.
And I think that perhaps we also need cultural distance to give us this sense of safety. I think of other traumascapes I have visited—Cambodia’s Killing Fields, Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan, Dachau—and try to remember how I felt, how distant, how insecure, how (or if) I rationalised my visit at the time. Like Tumarkin, who feels continually compelled to distinguish herself as a researcher from the touristic masses at traumascapes, I am suddenly unclear and unconvinced about my own motives for being here. I too want to define myself as a researcher, or as a friend of those who have lived this traumascape. I want to grant myself greater distance from the masses of voluntourists, or disaster tourists, who have passed through this landscape. But both positions seem artificial, filled with conceit. And anyway, as Tumarkin ultimately describes, visitors cannot be categorically classed between ‘voyeurs and earnest pilgrims’—our motives are more mixed, and unknown even to ourselves.
I think perhaps that I am here to try to learn something—to discover something that is outside my own experience but taking place within my own landscape, and thereby not entirely unrelated or distant. This is probably a futile, or at least, a facile motive. After all, as Thomas Keenan, cited by Tumarkin implores, ‘oh traveller, don’t come to Sarajevo searching for a message about humanity…it is humanity, precisely, that has been put to the test there and failed.’ He is right, of course. But I wonder, like Tumarkin, whether in the physical relics of that failure, such as the dump of vests before me, there is also an important message—a message about inhumanity that is worth preserving, albeit the interpretations we might impose on these sites are too abstracted or too various to be truthful. It is this sense of preservation that is, conversely, valorised by others in Traumascapes—by the Sarajevan woman who writes that, ‘I do not want to forget a moment of this horror,’ or the retired Japanese railway worker who meticulously photographed the relics of Hiroshima’s atomic bomb to, as he put it, ‘to preserve the human rights of the dead.’ For it is in the traumascape that we can decipher, or impose, both extremes—of humanity and survival, and it obverse, inhumanity and destruction.
I go to visit a cemetery where some of those who died in the sea are buried. The site is itself buried, almost unfindable—deep in an olive grove off a rural road, kilometres from anywhere anyone would ordinarily pass. I think of what we have tried to hide here and of how the landscapes through which Calvino leads us in Invisible Cities are those of the same extremes—of virtue and vice, of beauty and of abhorrence. Here, looking down at the earth, I think of the city of Bersheeba which, as Calvino describes, is split into twin celestial and infernal identities. In the former, inhabitants honour all that is noble, virtuous and composed, while the latter becomes ‘a receptacle for everything base and unworthy that happens to them and it is their constant care to erase from the visible.’ I wonder what it is we have tried to erase or deny in such a place and what the cost of this will be. For as Marco Polo, the novel’s narrator, recounts, Bersheeba’s inhabitants err in their perception of the relations between the two realms—the lower is not the incidental consequence of the higher. Rather, ‘the inferno that broods in the deepest subsoil of Bersheeba is a city designed by the most authoritative architects, built with the most expensive materials on the market.’ This site of ruin, like all Tumarkin’s traumascapes, is likewise the direct corollary of contrived human actions, most of them engineered on a vast scale, part of an existing architecture of social, political or ideological vice. Here, I think also of the unjust city of Bernice, whose profligacy, inequity and repression are sewn by a malignant seed in its past that will determine its future. This seed is, ‘the certainty and pride of being in the right.’ I think of how as Marco Polo and his interlocutor Kublai Khan recline in the Mongol emperor’s lavish garden, an emptiness comes over them at dusk. ‘It is the desperate moment,’ Calvino writes, ‘when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all its wonders is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed.’
I go to look at a sculpture by a harbour—one of the few other physical reminders of those who have disappeared under sea or land here. It is a memorial, a humble one composed of two planks reaching upwards to the sky, supporting a panel with a list of names and a dedication. The construction has been torn down and desecrated, again and again, but it has continued to reappear, flowers and candles carefully arranged around its base. And here, I think of Andria, whose streets and buildings are artfully designed to correlate harmoniously to the shifting celestial bodies, whose inhabitants are defined by the virtues of prudence and self-confidence. It is in this city that, ‘before taking any decision, they calculate the risks and advantages for themselves and for the city and for all the worlds.’ And I see how people in this place, as in other traumascapes, recognise—perhaps more acutely—that the cost of injustice and ruin will be ours too and that is must be avoided. Of course, this place, like all Calvino’s cities, is not distinct from other places. Rather, they are all the same place—connected, multifaceted, under different names. For when Polo describes his myriad cities, he is describing one city, his native Venice. As he tells Khan, ‘perhaps I have already spoken of Irene, perhaps I have spoken only of [the city] Irene.’ It is the same malleability and universality of meaning I sense around me here which also define Tumarkin’s traumascapes, with their past events so open to interpretation and their futures so uncertain, so open to possibilities. It is therefore with a striking sense of serendipity that I find on the final pages of Traumascapes, that she concludes the book with a quote from Invisible Cities itself—a reference to this already extent, past and present, inferno of the living. As Calvino describes here, we are faced with two choices for escaping our web of suffering: either participation and denial, or more riskily, to seek out and learn from ‘who and what in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
Zoe Holman is a Australian/British journalist, poet and historian, specialising in themes of conflict, migration and the Middle East. She has a PhD from the University of Melbourne/SOAS and now lives in Athens.