Nitty-gritty cities

| January 5, 2014 | 0 Comments
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, also known as Hedy Lamarr, first became famous in Prague rather than in Budapest or her native Vienna.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, also known as Hedy Lamarr, first became famous in Prague rather than in Budapest or her native Vienna.Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, also known as Hedy Lamarr, first became famous in Prague rather than in Budapest or her native Vienna.

Odd how certain dead film stars are often the subject of popular cults. Among those with the most enduring posthumous lives is the Hollywood femme fatale Hedy Lamarr, whom many enthusiasts practically fetishize. Little surprise then that last year, on the centenary of her birth, at least two new biographies of her appeared. For the record, they are Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film by Ruth Barton (University of Kentucky Press, US$29.95) and Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer (Raincoast Books, $24.50).
Both of these very different works naturally retell the story of how the woman born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler first became famous in Prague rather than in Budapest or her native Vienna, for Prague had an energetic and innovative film industry between the world wars. In 1933, Kiesler-the-future-Lamarr appeared in Gustav Machatý’s film Extasy (in the English version, Ecstasy) in which she introduced full frontal nudity to the world of cinema. (Her husband tried, but failed, to buy up all the prints.)
Diplomat_Jan2014_0043The only interesting point to take away from the above is that the event unfolded in Prague, a city with a rich culture, needless to say, but a culture moreover that has long been tortured into various shapes by the vagaries of politics. Prague is the city of Václav Havel, the playwright who became the first president of the current Czech Republic, and the city of Miloš Forman, the filmmaker, and of Milan Kundera, the novelist. But perhaps more significantly it was also the birthplace of Franz Kafka, not to mention Karel Čapek, one of Kafka’s weird contemporaries, who coined the word robot. These facts and others like them are important to Derek Sayer, the author of Prague: Capital of the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, US$36).
Prof. Sayer is an emeritus professor of history at the University of  Alberta who now teaches in Britain. His subtitle, “Capital of the Twentieth Century,” is a salute to the German philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin, one of the most often cited figures in North American and European universities. Benjamin died in 1940, committing suicide rather than be sent to a Nazi concentration camp (whereas many other members of what’s called the Frankfurt School were able to flee to New York). One of the essays published only after his death was “Paris: The Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Prof. Sayer’s book often compares Prague’s claim to centrality with that of Paris. Certainly the two cities were engaged in cross-pollination. The author draws special attention to the role each played in the rise of political satire, dystopian fantasy and surrealism. Exact parallels are a bit wobbly, however, because residents of Prague often had much more political chaos to contend with.

The Selden watercolour map dates from the late Ming period and shows China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Southeast Asia and part of India.

The Selden watercolour map dates from the late Ming period and shows China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Southeast Asia and part of India.

Prague flourished in the Gothic period and during the Renaissance. It became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and then one of the hubs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the latter collapsed, it was bound together with Slovakia and assorted other pieces of political real estate to become the independent Czechoslovak Republic, Europe’s most easterly democracy. That status ended in 1939 when the British and French threw its citizens to the Nazi wolves. “Prague,” Prof. Sayer notes, “was occupied during World War Two longer than any other European capital.” Most of the Czech territory was restored after the war, only to be grabbed by the Soviet Union.
“For the next four decades Prague found itself in ‘Eastern Europe,’ even though the city is to the west of Vienna […] With the fall of communism in the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 Prague took itself ‘back to Europe,’ but within two years tensions between Czechs and Slovaks came out into the open again and the country split into separate Czech and Slovak Republics at the stroke of midnight”— a turn of events Czechs jokingly called “the Velvet Divorce.” The split took effect on Dec. 31, 1992, one year to the day after the official end of the USSR.
Prof. Sayer may not reside in Prague, but he writes as an insider. He knows why the city has so often worked the way it does. Its recent and distant pasts, he writes, were not part of “‘modern society’ as generations of western social theorists have habituated us to think of it, but a Kafkan world in which the exhibition may turn into a show trial, the interior mutate into a prison cell, the arcade become a shooting gallery, and the idling flâneur reveal himself to be a secret policeman at the drop of a hat.”
Prague is not, strictly speaking, travel writing but it is, among other things, an excellent example of what travel writing is becoming, if indeed it hasn’t already done so. There will always be a place for mere guidebooks and the kind of immature male adventure travel with a sort of Maxim magazine personality: ones as different as, to name two randomly, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel by Scott McCartney (HarperCollins Canada, $21.95 paper) and Chuck Thompson’s — never read an author named Chuck — To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism (Raincoast, $18 paper). The change comes partly from the fact that by now, in an age when even Antarctica has become a popular tourist destination, almost everybody has been everywhere. People are no longer so easily satisfied by the mere travel impressions of some outsider much like themselves. Instead they gravitate towards writers who actually have lived not simply in, but inside, a location for an extended period, as one lives inside one’s clothes.
A prominent example would be Istanbul: Memories and the City, Orhan Pamuk’s study of his native place, published in 2005, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Calcutta: Two Years in the City (Random House of Canada, $30) by Amit Chaudhuri, the Anglo-Indian novelist and critic, is a fresh instance. Mr. Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta (significantly, he doesn’t accept the present spelling, Kolkata) in 1962 and lived there as a boy, until his upper-middle-class parents moved to Bombay (Mumbai). Many Indians were doing the same in those days to advance their fortunes in business. Later, Mr. Chaudhuri settled in Britain, but returned in his late 30s to remember how his old home used to be and to see what it had become.
Once, long ago, the capital of all India, Calcutta is now only the capital of West Bengal. It is a city each of whose countless paras or neighbourhoods is almost a proudly distinct tribe unto itself. Given all that, plus the network of castes and classes, its colonial heritage and the new cosmopolitanism, Calcutta: Two Years in the City is a complex patchwork of topics, scenes and even genres. It’s a crazy-quilt of a book that shows the author’s ear for reproducing speech and his knack for sketching not only personalities, but smells and, especially, tastes (for Mr. Chaudhuri is a foodie). He uses these gifts to illustrate how the city of Mother Teresa has been remade by the forces of globalization.
Except for being another example of insiders’ travel, Gary Kamiya’s new book, Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco (Raincoast, $28.50) could hardly be more different from Mr. Chaudhuri’s, for it’s couched in the diction of snazzy journalism. But then before he helped to found, he, in fact, worked as a regular journalist, just as at another period of his life he drove a taxi.
These last two experiences go together as he divides San Francisco into 49 walking tours, talking all the time about the city’s past and its personality — not unlike a loquacious high-octane cab driver who, in an abundance of local pride, mixes facts with exaggerations. When gabbing about, for example, the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, he writes: “More photographs were taken of the San Francisco disaster than any event in history up to that time.” (What about the American Civil War?) He sometimes puts down the present, with its “ugly Hilton Hotel” near a pedestrian overpass that he singles out, in what sounds like Mark Twain diction, as “a monstrosity and a profanation.” For it’s the past that interests him the most, especially the city’s own creation myth: the story of the California gold rush.
In the course of the year 1848, San Francisco’s population jumped from 800 to 2,000. By the end of the following year, it was probably at 25,000. “No city in the world has ever come into existence the way San Francisco did,” he writes excitedly. “It was created ex nihilo, the urban equivalent of the big bang.” For the next few years it was “a place unlike any other on earth, a combination campground, casino, construction zone, battlefield, strip club, depot, garbage dump, stock exchange and amusement park.”
Whereas Mr. Kamiya comes up with 49 vignettes of San Francisco, Nezer AlSayyad requires only 12 in Cairo: Histories of a City (Harvard University Press, US$19.95 paper) to penetrate the Egyptian capital in a way useful to serious western readers. Then there is Xanadu (Random House of Canada, $18.95 paper), the latest work by William Dalrymple, the dean of English-language travel writer/historians on the subject of India, or, in this case, Central Asia. For her part, Alison Singh Gee, taking the outsider’s point of view, writes effectively and entertainingly (but not superficially) about marrying into an Indian family in Where the Peacocks Sing: A Place, a Prince and the Search for Home (Raincoast, $28.99 paper). One outstanding example of plumbing a city’s soul (actually, two cities’ souls) is Robert Crawford’s On Glasgow and Edinburgh (Harvard University Press, US$35), one of the most widely and most favourably reviewed of the current crop of travel literature. Another of the same quality is Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (Random House of Canada, $32). The liberal refers to classic capitalism as well as progressive ideology.
Whereas Walter Benjamin’s Paris was the capital of the 19th Century and Prof. Sayer’s Prague was the capital of the 20th, Daniel Hernandez’s Down & Delirious in Mexico City (Simon & Schuster Canada, $18.99 paper)  is subtitled “The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century.” Like Mr. Chaudhuri, Mr. Hernandez returned to his cultural home to spend a few years soaking up his ancestry. The difference between the two men is that Mr. Hernandez then decided to move back for keeps. With 20 million people, the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico City is too old and too modern for its own good and certainly too poor and, in spots, even too rich. The phenomenon of rural people going to the nearest megalopolis seeking work and a better life, swelling the population beyond the breaking point, is one now being studied round the world. One outstanding recent example is Bangkok Bound by Ellen Boccuzzi (University of Washington Press, US$25 paper).
Then there are books that try to throw light on places about which we know very little, because they are either forbidden or too dangerous for travellers afflicted with common sense. When you come right down to it, for example, we in the West get precious little information about North Korea (whose citizens receive even less about us — though private ownership of radios is becoming more common there). This last bit of fact, ridiculous-sounding in the age of the universal wi-fi, is found in The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Europe by Andrei Lankov (Oxford University Press, $29.95). The author is a rare bird, a Russian from Leningrad who studied in North Korea and teaches history at a university in South Korea. His book is full of fascinating depictions of Pyongyang in terms of the political climate and daily life. It aims to show how the present dynasty has survived since the 1940s despite the loss of the Soviet Union and slow rejection by China. It has done so, the author says, by playing up its fabled instability and odd behaviour and elevating the veiled threat to the level of rhetorical art form. If North Korea is a closed state, then Somalia is one too dangerous for individual foreigners to tinker with. Such is the message of The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia (Publishers Group Canada, $25.99) by James Ferguson, who has travelled there extensively (rare man!) and also has gained the confidence of many emigré Somalis in Britain and the U.S.
This leads to the serious (and sometimes dark) side of travel. In Motion: The Experience of Travel (Random House of Canada, $32) by Tony Hiss, formerly of The New Yorker, is a hard-to-classify meditation on how travel, especially on foot, can expand a person’s consciousness. He draws on numerous cultures for examples, but he himself is the one who puts the somewhat nebulous idea to the test. Equally serious, but differently so, Modernist Travel Writing: Intellectuals Abroad by David Farley (University of Missouri Press, US$39.95) tries to fill a gap in the number of books about travel writing itself by looking at how travel in the first decades of the 20th Century influenced the manner in which various famous authors pursued their art — in the short, the hard-to-pin-down way that the experience of travel plays with and piques creative expression generally. In a sense, Prof. Farley’s book corresponds with — or plays tag with — the essays in Jonathan Skinner’s anthology Writing the Dark Side of Travel (UBC Press, $25 paper). A quite specific example of such darkening is Roppongi Crossing: The Demise of a Tokyo Nightclub District and the Reshaping of a Global City by Roman Adrian Cybriswsky (University of Georgia Press, US$69.95), the story of how Japan’s economic collapse of the 1990s transformed an entertainment district once so popular with Japanese and foreigners alike into a highly dangerous locale characterized by property developers on the one hand and drug lords and other criminals on the other.
All of the above leads me somehow to books about cartography. For century after century, maps have been essential to geopolitics, business and war (to the extent that those can be broken down into separate fields). In the White House, what’s still called the Map Room, now of only ceremonial use, was once a vitally important place. I remember reading that Ulysses S. Grant, like so many early military professionals, was obsessed with collecting as many maps as possible. Even in the 1850s, after the Mexican-American War when he was out of the army and back working at his father’s harness shop in Galena, Illinois, he still gathered all the maps he could find, because, you know, a civil war might break out one day. Now the parties on all sides get the same maps instantly, even the same satellite imaging.
Timothy Brook, the renowned China scholar at the University of British Columbia and a writer of captivating prose, tells the story of a particular Ming Dynasty map in Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer (Anansi, $29.95). The gentleman of the title was John Selden, an early 17th-Century English antiquary who was the first British orientalist scholar. The map he once owned is important because it showed Chinese trade routes in the South China Sea and beyond. The map thus opens our imaginations to a different imperial China than the closeted inward-looking one about which we’re taught. But the hero of Prof. Brook’s book is the unknown mapmaker who drew the thing. Cartographers often deserve to be heroes. This thought runs through a curious book worth noting: Map Worlds: A History of Women in Cartography — by, surprisingly, a male scholar, Will C. Van Den Hoonaard (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, $59.95 cloth).

George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator.

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George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

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