Borders, bluefins and the Basques
Lilian Pizzichini reviews two books on the nature of nations in the new Europe. And if that's too heavy - try a spot of fishing
Sunday 21 November 1999
(HarperCollins, pounds 17.99)
For centuries, Germany has been defined by its ever-shifting borders and the struggles they have ignited. As German-born Oliver August states in this intriguing social history: "The Romans sliced Germany in half when they built the Limes defence wall that stretched from Scotland to the Black Sea. Two millennia later, Hitler tried to push back borders in his quest for Lebensraum."
August's concern is more contemporary - his 800-mile journey from the Baltic Sea to the Czech border along the vanished Iron Curtain is an account of post-Wende Germany's attempt at reunification. August's father was 14 when the Second World War Allies drew a line across the family's tree nursery. Their house was in the Soviet zone, while the fields were in the British zone. Divisions are constantly cropping up in this book, with devastating effects for families: August senior escaped to West Germany, leaving his parents behind. In the next 40 years he was allowed to return only twice - for their funerals.
Although August finds little physical trace of the so-called "death strip", there are psychological scars aplenty in the former border guards, ex- Stasi members and decollectivised farmers he meets along the way. His most interesting discovery is that environmentalism has become Germany's latest "panacea". August strolls through the fields and river banks of eastern Germany which, left to their own devices during the Cold War, have become fertile nature reserves. Their conservation is the one thing that, at a grass-roots level, unites Ossis and Wessis.
When reminders of the recent past crop up, they are unbidden and unattended. Sinister watch towers erupt from the landscape in a crumbling, broken- down mess of brick and steel. August is amazed to discover there are no signposts commemorating the purpose of these obsolete outposts of the Cold War. Instead, houses are built, inevitably by Wessi developers, and worse symbols of the homogenising effects of consumer culture cannot be imagined. "The red is of a uniform hue and the windows and doors all come from the same manufacturer. The pattern is repeated in every village."
Luckily, there is one village that is unique: Ruterberg, on the edge of a forest on the river Elbe. For 22 years, its 150 inhabitants were virtually imprisoned by a wall built by the East Germans. Inevitably, all forms of commerce and industry collapsed. Now, due to a historical fluke that dates back to Bismarck, this former "riverine Alcatraz" has declared itself a republic, its only source of income a paltry trade from tourism.
August is keen to find the humour in every situation. On the whole, however, there isn't much cause for cheer. August is too intelligent to be suckered by state programmes for redevelopment, or to applaud the conversion of minefields into golf courses. As a piece of reportage, his book is a fascinating slice of history, if somewhat discouraging.
PLACE THAT CHANGED ME, BACK PAGE
A Jerk on One End: Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman
(Harvill, pounds 12)
According to Robert Hughes, fishing is "a ridiculous human passion". But this doesn't stop him from composing a series of meticulous portraits of the delicately striped bass, the elusive trout and the giant bluefin tuna - a fish that he honours as the most expensive animal on Earth.
Hughes traces his love of fishing back to his early boyhood when he dangled a rod over Sydney Harbour. It was a pastime, he asserts, that taught him patience and reverence before nature. This is expressed in a prose style that is both seductive and flashing with insight. For Hughes, inactivity is the sport's essence, for it provides a rare lesson in "seeing". He gently explains to the uninitiated reader that you know you are learning to see when boredom evaporates in the "absence of the spectacular".
Which is not to say that there is a lack of spectacle. Hughes compares the capture of a hammerhead shark on Bondi Beach to a public hanging. People gather from miles around to watch the death throes of the massive "finny criminal". So, blood lust is implicit, too, and Hughes does not hide his glee at spearing his victims, because he respects them, too. For this reason, he concludes this profound meditation with a powerful argument against plundering the sea.
The Basque History of the World
(Cape, pounds 15.99)
Mark Kurlansky began his career as a foreign correspondent writing about the last years of Francoism, especially in the Basque provinces. Clearly his job became a vocation, as this is a deeply felt celebration of Europe's oldest nation. Its people live in seven provinces in a small corner of Spain and France in a land that is marked on no maps except their own. In short, "they are a mythical people, almost an imagined people."
Nevertheless, Kurlansky goes on to tell their story. It is a riveting one told with charm and dexterity, as he marshalls the mind-boggling historical facts into order. Briefly, signs of Basque civilisation existed well before the arrival of the Romans in 218BC. No one has determined their origins. Their native tongue, Euskera, is equally mysterious - it is the oldest living European language, related to no other language on Earth.
There's more: numbering only 2.3 million the Basques have had a disproportionate impact on the world for more than 2,000 years. Pioneers of cod fishing and commercial whaling, they were the first Europeans in the Americas, Africa and Asia.
They are lucky in their historian. Kurlansky has an eye for the strange and wonderful; last year, he turned the prosaic subject of the cod into a bestselling book. This time he convinces readers to look again at the unique Basque concept of nationhood. For even as they cling to their ancient tribal identity, they are ready for a borderless world.
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