The Istanbul Quintet
Trojanow’s Drive toward Mobility and Cultural Confluences
My father played jazz in his twenties, in postwar Italy, no money in his pockets, but echoes of America in his ears. Together with his cousin he tried to migrate to Australia. His problem was that during the war, barely fourteen, he had been wounded and lost an eye: in 1951 the Australian Department of Immigration accepted his cousin but rejected him as disabled. When I was born, I inherited his restlessness, his longing for the elsewhere. I grew up listening to him singing in English and reciting pas sages of novels in English, and accepting his reading suggestions: Conrad first of all, then Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald—all writers on the move, ex patriates open to the world. A man paralyzed by fate, my father passed on to me the gene of permanent mobility and the lust for the frontier. Only now, after almost four decades from the child that I was, do I realize that I have unconsciously made my life his dream. All my choices, my studies, my interests, my professions have taken me away from my roots, in a never-ending search for other territories, other horizons. For him, I have crossed borders, opened new life trajectories, and immersed myself in cultural streams away from my origins. Even the man who would become my life and road companion needed to fulfill those requirements of impermanence and derootedness. My husband, S., was born in Jeddah, after his migrant father left Eritrea (when Italy lost the war and its colonies) and crossed the Red Sea instead of repatriating. Thus S. grew up in Saudi Arabia, speaking Italian at home, Arabic with the locals, and English with the expatriates: a foreigner by birth, a cosmopolitan by vocation, and, like me, a neonomad by choice.
I was on a train, a long-distance train. One of those trains that even at full speed speak to you of the slowness of past times, when moving from one corner of Europe to another would take days of railroad, not a few hours of flight. Slowness—the Czech émigré Milan Kundera wrote a whole book, directly in French, on this disappearing state of grace, synthesized in the first rule of his “existential mathematics”: “The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting” (39). I got on in Venice, would change in Budapest and get off in Istanbul: the same route as the Orient Express, but without its luxury. Ahead of me I had all the time in the world. Trains have always had this effect on me. Like books, they act as temporal tunnels: in an instant—in a page, in an eternity—traveling through physical or mental landscapes the past passes in front of you together with the present and all your possible futures. No wonder that to explain his space-time concept Einstein resorted to a train metaphor. Or that, to conceive the universe, Borges thought of a perpetual traveler lost in an in nite library. And are they not the Inuit who tell us that every imagined and recounted story already contains in itself the past, the present and the future, since “it is the story—not time—that travels” (Manguel, The City 79)? Trains, libraries, labyrinths, fantasies, myths, transitions: my destiny on earth. My name is Arianna—Ariadne in Greek, like the daughter of Minos king of Crete who helped Theseus kill the Minotaur and escape from the lethal maze with a thread. Ungrateful, Theseus abandoned her on a beach in the island of Naxos. Dionysus found her, drank her tears, and married her. Wife to an itinerant god, since then.
I was travelling alone, but not for much longer. As we were entering the central station in Sofia, the couple of French tourists with whom I shared the compartment said good-bye quickly before making for the exit. I had not encouraged any conversation between us; instead, as I waited, I had withdrawn into my book. It was Italo Calvino who wrote that books can be “a defense” that shut out the external world, “a dream” to sink into like a drug, or “bridges cast toward the outside” (If on a Winter’s 142). I use them in all the three ways, depending on the circumstances. The screeching of the train’s brakes covered the sound of my footsteps as I was heading towards the carriage restaurant: we had agreed to meet there. I looked out of the window trying to capture the soul of that Eastern European capital from the history of its station. I quickly reinterpreted what I had been reading in the guidebook: built in 1888 with the help of Italian workers; demolished and rebuilt in 1974 to give way to the brutalist architecture of the Soviet era; recast in 2000 to shape the new times by adding questionable tensile elements that badly mimicked the canopies of acrylic glass of the Olympic Stadium in Munich. Some people had defined it “a Kafkaesque nightmare.” That is how they mask the past, I thought—without elegance. The train set off again with a slight jolt; before reaching a level crossing it emitted a long whistle, a warning that it wouldn’t stop. I tore my gaze away from the grey uniformity of the umpteenth urban outskirts and met the eyes of a man standing in front of me, a backpack slung over his shoulder, a book in his left hand. I took a peek at the title and smiled faintly, more to myself than to him.
In my fiction of my conversation with Trojanow: “Does it amuse you?” the stranger asked me in English, following my glance. I held up the volume that I was holding in my lap, to show him the cover: Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk. Same author, same title, different editions. I introduced myself, stretching out my hand, as if wanting to catch the rattling of the train over the railroad switches while we were leaving Sofia: “Arianna Dagnino.” “Ilija Trojanow,” he replied, holding out his right hand and scrutinizing me with a serious expression, as if he were trying to connect the mental image of me that he must have been forming during our repeated email exchanges and the woman of Italian origins (but living in Australia) who now was facing him, outside the virtual dimension of a computer screen and so distant from the Latin stereotype: no trace of Mediterranean abundance, of dark and obscure sensuality. But he had already gone beyond that: “I guessed it was you.” A passage from Trojanow’s travel diary came to mind. In it he recounted his verbal exchange with two Arabs outside a mosque, during his pilgrimage to Mecca. They asked him where he came from. He replied, “India.” “It cannot be,” they retorted. “Why?” he asked. “You are too fair.” “You have an obsession with skin color,” he shied away. The older one smiled at his quip but then insisted on knowing where precisely his family came from, reassured only when Trojanow invented some distant ancestry from a central Asian tribe, though this was not far from the truth. Now that same pilgrim-writer stood in front of me and, after raising his book, talked to me as if we already were travel companions. “An obvious reading given where we are headed.” I nodded and again detected a slightly foreign inflection in his English. Clearly a man accustomed to travel, I thought—I would have sensed it anyway, even if I had not known who he was.
Trojanow showed that relaxed way of filling a space, without encroaching; of bringing into focus people and situations without making himself noticed; of adopting a neutral language without imposing one of his preference or of obvious belonging. As if he knew there was no point in revealing oneself straight away. After all, this is what I had experienced wherever I had been: the émigrés, the eternal wanderers, the new and old nomads know how to smell and recognize each other; they are aware they speak a common language able to go beyond whatever lingua franca or secret idiom. It is a universal language that some value and others barely sense: the great privilege of wayfarers who travel the routes of the world—physically, mentally, or through a book. Calvino had also mentioned it, writing how, by night, around the camp res of Euphemia, city of barterers and merchants, people came from “seven nations” to tell their stories of “wolves, sisters, treasures, scabies, lovers, battles” and weave their memories “at every solstice and equinox” (The Invisible Cities 36). It was their way of trading memories before setting off again for new horizons. But it was also their way to preserve memories, to place them where they could rest like stratified sediments of past humanities. Only then one might use those memories to weave wefts of meaning, longings, regrets that do not want to be silenced—in this world of ours where everything is transient and nothing seems to last. Calvino knew what he was talking about, having lived himself as a wanderer—he was born in Havana, Cuba, had grown up in Sanremo, Italy, married the Argentinian translator Esther Judith Singer, lived with his family in Paris for thirteen years, and spent his last years in Rome.
After taking a seat Trojanow pointed at the position of my bookmark. “You are almost at the end.” Speaking in English, I realized, we had neutralized the linguistic formalities of the Italian lei and of the German Sie. From now on he would simply be Ilija, even though I would keep referring to him by his surname. “Will you also meet Pamuk?” “I’d love to, but presently he is in the U.S.” And I thought of the transitory quality of our biographies, mine and those of the other authors I was about to interview—moving biographies, shaken by chance, destiny, or stubborn willpower. Only a few years before, for example, the writer who was now sitting in front of me had lived in Cape Town, South Africa, and before that had lived for five years in Mumbai, India. These were just a few scraps of information about Trojanow that I had been able to gather in anticipation of our interview. In accordance with his character, his bio-notes seemed to be rather scanty.
We were both hungry. We skipped polite conversation and instead agreed to scan the multilingual central European menu. He ordered for both of us, after having inquired after my tastes, addressing the waiter—a native from Innsbruck, as it turned out—in soft German, a language in which he appeared perfectly at ease even though it was not his mother tongue.
“Here, if I had to write the biography of someone like me, I would start in 1971,” Trojanow began answering my first question over the digital audio recorder before the waiter served us our lentil soup with Knödel. “In this one year, between the age of six and seven, I ascertained that everything important in life changes, and it can change at an incredible speed. In this one year, I moved from communist Bulgaria to a refugee camp in Italy, from another refugee camp to the normality of capitalist life in Germany, and, then, from the cold winters of Northern Europe to equatorial Kenya.” Trojanow had his transcultural baptism of fire at a tender age but not so tender that he would not be able to remember: “I was a normal Bulgarian kid living in a Bulgarian family in the same room with my parents, another was occupied by my uncle and my aunt, my grandmother slept in the living room. I was attending kindergarten and probably nothing much would have happened with my life if my parents hadn’t decided to free Bulgaria.” Instead, in that fateful year, one night the young Trojanow found himself smuggled across the Yugoslavian border into Italy by wading a river on his father’s shoulders with the help of certain Arab students in Zagreb (an odd way to pay for one’s studies, I thought).
After that, the Trojanows found themselves locked in a refugee camp near Trieste, on Italian soil. “They served us spaghetti,” said my companion, retrieving another memory. “At the beginning, I found it exotic and a great treat, until we realized it was the only item in the menu, both at lunch and dinner, and that the only way to get out of there and change diet would be to accept the visa for one of the countries in their list: Argentina, South Africa, Canada, Australia—but nothing in Europe.” “I guess after that you hated spaghetti.” “Not at all, it’s all forgotten,” he said with a smile. After several weeks of pasta-only meals, the Trojanows were on the run again, crossing other territorial borders and finally landing in another refugee camp in Germany. “After six long months, we obtained political asylum and my father—being an engineer—found work at a small consultancy. Only a few months had passed, though, before the company sent him off to Kenya. I still remember when he came home and said: ‘We’re off to Africa.'” “We had just settled down,” Trojanow said in
a low voice, absentmindedly rotating the spoon between his fingers, engrossed in his memories. I watched the scene from the outside, as if at the movies. He paused slightly, almost imperceptibly, but just sufficiently long to produce the necessary rhetorical effect before concluding the first chapter of his life: “After two weeks we were in Nairobi.” Then he kept quiet, as if he wanted to leave me the time to retrace his child’s journey and relive, together with him, that further change of scene. As the silence fell between us, I was suddenly aware of the light chatter that had started to liven up the carriage restaurant, but I did not look around. Instead, I stared out at the desolate sunset plains, imagining dusty acacia trees engulfed in purple light before his voice started again, this time in an even lower, more intimate tone. “Everything was different: the language and the climate but also the colors, the smells, the landscape, even the bird calls—a cacophony of sounds to me incomprehensible, then. Of course I’m embellishing here, because it’s impossible to analyze yourself in recollection.” I knew he was right: every time we remember our past we become novelists of our life books, we keep inventing and reinventing our stories, trying to fill in the gaps in the elusive nature of past events, eroded or augmented by the dysfunctional time of memory.
The train was running fast now, in the extreme oblique light of a dying sun. I realized that I had not even started to decipher the man in front of me, and that probably I would never be able to do so, even by reading him. But that was as it should be. Nothing in him seemed out of the ordinary, as if he purposely tried to go unnoticed, to blend in. Of average height, with grey-speckled hair cut short but not too short, at 46 he could happily pass for a youngish, carefree globetrotter or a more mature academic. He seemed quite t but not in an obvious way; his skin might have become darker in the open sun but it did not stand out among the pale northern Europeans among whom he had returned after living under sunnier skies. All in all, he was a chameleon, ready to transform and adapt (deliberately or naturally?) according to his environment, be it a carriage restaurant rattling through the European East, a coffee house in Vienna, where he now lived, or any hangout in Sofia, where he had boarded to reach Istanbul with me. One might see him as a moveable man, in the same way that the nineteenth-century traveler and explorer Sir Richard Burton would have appeared to his contemporaries. For years Trojanow had imagined himself in the shoes of that great orientalist, translator, polyglot, and master of cultural metamorphoses, following his tracks in India, Africa, and even Mecca, before writing his “biographical novel” (The Collector of Worlds)—rather than his “novelistic biography,” as he was keen to underline—the book that in 2006 would grant him international exposure. His “love and hate” relationship with Burton, as he himself had described it, had lasted seven years (five for pure research—readings, travels, experiences—two for writing). Seven years spent with the aim of staying true to Burton’s character, to safeguard his personality and his mystery, without “caging” him in a point of view. “For this reason I detest biographies—he remarked in a previous interview—which claim to tell the definitive truth of someone’s life, to contain a person’s existence” (see Trojanow, “Le identità”). In collecting the early memories of the first writer in my list, it occurred to me that my resilience—that capacity of recovery and persistence in the face of adversity—was also born from my childhood experiences: in my case not for a sudden transnational adventure (how fascinating it would have then appeared to me, aside those dramatic circumstances), but simply because I could hardly draw breath.
From my travel diaries (Sestri Levante, Genova 11 January 1995)
I suffered from asthma. How many nights had I endured the huge weight that pressed against my chest. How many days had I been confined to bed while all the other children went to school. It was a different kind of forced paralysis from my father’s one, but it would lead me all the same, as if by reaction on my neonomadic path. Something similar had already happened, I would later discover, to the asthmatic Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born and bred in Scotland and died in the Samoan Islands: ‘During the long night of his childhood, when, gasping for breath . . . he had sat up in his bed . . . waiting for what they called the Night Hag to finish her ghastly business and go, he had told himself that if ever he had enough strength, he would use it to lead his body to the edge of any possible adventure; he would take to the road or the sea, he would set off like a new Ulysses in the hope of strange encounters but, above all, he would travel for the sake of the journey itself” (see Manguel, Stevenson 35). My native Liguria, that thin strip of land wedged between the Apennines and the sea, felt restrictive. The perceived limitation of its spaces and views was stifling. I had realized that even before I left in search of my elsewhere, before reading of Stevenson’s wanderings or Rushdie’s words: “He had spent five years, five springs, away from home . . . Now, returning, he saw through travelled eyes. Instead of the beauty of the tiny valley circled by giant teeth, he noticed the narrowness, the proximity of the horizon; and felt sad, to be at home and feel so utterly enclosed” (Midnight’s Children 11). Thus, at fifteen, I already knew what I wanted: to be a foreign correspondent; to be sent far away; to be paid to travel and write. I wanted to be put on an airplane and find my “interviews with history” over many borders, as my undisputed role model—the war reporter and journalist Oriana Fallaci—had been doing for years. At that time, when she published her shocking personal report on Vietnam War, Nothing, and So Be It, and Interview with History (after having met and intellectually wrestled with powerful figures such as Henry Kissinger, Indira Gandhi, the Shah of Iran, Muammar Gadda , Yasser Arafat, Golda Meir, and Deng Xiaoping), she was at the zenith of her career, long before her controversial about-face and the reductive anti-Islamic fervor that would characterize her later years. In a nutshell, it was the lack of air and intellectual stimulation that pushed me out of my provincial cocoon.
Who knows how Trojanow as a child had taken what was happening to him, the several moves, the new places, the different people. I was curious. “Never had any problems, if you listen to my parents. They always said I was easy-going and very calm,” he answered quickly, before dwelling upon his consequential line of reasoning: “But why are we what we are? My Indian friends in Mumbai, for example, say that they have never met anyone more culturally flexible than me. They’d take me along and I’d blend in: but I can’t tell you why I’d do that; it’s not a choice, it’s not that I belong to a religion and I wake up in the morning determined to blend in. It has to do with something beyond my own choice and feeling. I have a friend in Buenos Aires who used to be a diplomat and, looking back at the reactions of his three children, has developed his own theory. According to him, there are two kinds of people: those who have no difficulty whatsoever and actually find moving around the globe exciting and intriguing, and those who really suffer in this kind of situation. This friend of mine has a daughter who is like me, to whom all the changes are like a blessing, certainly beneficial; and he has a son who has been traumatized by the reiterated moving—even now that he is an adult he can’t get over this sense of existential loss which happened at a certain point in his life.”
“A drive toward mobility, the other toward a sedentary state,” I proposed. “Mobile or rooted, longing to leave or eager for territorial stability: these are the yin and yang of our human existence. In Lila, the philosophical novel in which he expounds his value-based Metaphysics of Quality, Robert Pirsig talks about them dialogically, in terms of ‘static quality’ and ‘dynamic quality.'” Trojanow took on a quizzical look and bent over his forearms, ready to listen. “The way I understand it, the first one is the fundamental structure of culture itself,” I started to explain, “It is the asset that comes from fixed rules, from the tradition and values that have expressed them.” The second one is an asset external to any individual culture and cannot be caged in any system of precepts but needs to be constantly rediscovered according to cultural development. Dynamic quality, the quality of freedom, creates the world in which we live, but only the configurations of static quality, the quality of order, keep it functioning. According to Pirsig, the two qualities need each other to exist and pros- per, in the same way that—paraphrasing—the mobile person, the nomad, needs her sedentary counterpart. If we look at it this way, it’s a win-win situation.
“At this point one might ask,” Trojanow said following my reasoning, “whether or not becoming a transcultural author—multipolitical, multisocial, multisocietal, or whatever—is an artistic choice. And if it’s not a truly artistic choice how has it become part of my artistic expression?” “That’s precisely what I’d like to know,” I replied, smiling at him, and then I tried to spell out what I meant: “Probably, one does not become like that out of choice: simply, it happens. One does not say: right, I want to become a transcultural writer, thus I have to write this kind of fiction, with these characteristics. Probably, in some way or another, the way one experiences the world, one’s transnational biography, or simply some hereditary genetic trait (if we are willing to take into consideration the innate nature of certain psychological specificities) have an effect—although subliminal—on one’s writing, on what one decides to tell and the way one chooses to do it. There hardly seems to be anything artificially constructed, calculated, or self-imposed about it. Every time I read a certain kind of book, every time I perceive strong resonances and affnities in its pages in terms of themes, sensibilities, or stylistic choices I also discover that their writ- ers’ lived experiences—as migrants, travellers, exiles, diasporic, stateless, transient, neonomadic subjects, or whatever has prompted them to translate or transpatriate themselves—have something in common.”
“Transpatriate?” asked Trojanow. He seemed intrigued. “Yes, in the sense of physically and psychologically—better, ideologically—letting go the grip of one’s homeland. Or, at most, as the Italian writer Nicola Lecca told me when I met him in Innsbruck, where he was currently living (after his stints in England, Sweden, Spain, and Hungary), choosing one’s own homeland, “without having it imposed on you by birth or by incidental circumstances” (Dagnino and Lecca). “Actually, I don’t think that many writers feel the urgency of having a homeland,” Trojanow stepped in. “I mean, this year we celebrate the bicentenary of the death of Heinrich von Kleist, the great German writer. Here is someone who actually believed in the German concept of Heimat, the fatherland, but in my opinion that’s an exception. I find that even the idea of having one form of allegiance to a country is a form of idiotism.” “It may be so,” I said, a bit doubtful, “nonetheless, there seems to be, in some cases, even amongst intellectuals, a reassertion of that attachment to the terri- tory where a shared language and a specific set of cultural heritages and values are seen as the essential binding agents.” “If we take into consideration Italian authors,” he replied, “I have no doubt it might be so. In my limited experience, I have the feeling that they don’t change even when they go abroad. The worst books I have read on India are by Italians. I mean, Pasolini wrote about India: a disaster. And Moravia wrote about Africa: another complete disaster—he looks out of the window and all he sees is Italy; he compares Accra with pasta: it’s so funny, but also so parochial. In a way, when you read their books you feel an unwillingness to be transformed by India or Africa, which I find very typical of these men. It’s as if they wanted to measure it, ethically measure India or Africa, but they don’t actually want to slide into it, live it.” I caught myself slightly smiling, thinking instead of Trojanow, who claimed he “wore” the four languages he knew best (Bulgarian, German, English, Hindi) as if they were clothes in a wardrobe: “I put them on whenever I need.” But I also realized I was smiling out of a slight embarrassment (why, then? because of national pride?), thinking—even more than of Pasolini’s India or Moravia’s Africa—of what Lecca had told me only a few days before, when I had asked him why in his opinion there were so few Italian writers living and working abroad: “It’s not worth it. Every time you go to a dinner party in Rome you meet someone from RAI who then invites you to put on a TV show; when you are in Milan, you go to a certain author’s house, or invite someone to your literary festival, who then will reciprocate by inviting you to his. This kind of mentality—I do something for you, you do something for me—goes with the territory. Going away, as the Italian writer Cesare De Marchi did (he now lives in Germany), is suicidal from an economic point of view. And, anyway, even abroad, this is what the market wants from Italian authors: books about the mafia or the camorra” (Dagnino and Lecca).
“Some prefer to guard the territory, to play the role of the provincial writer,” I thus said, “in the same way that, although in a different epoch and circumstance, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard decided to do.” Trojanow nodded in agreement then said: “Bernhard stayed only in one place and studied it deeper and deeper. At the end of the day, he himself was a provincial petit bourgeois who had a very keen sense of the hidden horrors of the petty provincial bourgeois life. He was never able to overcome that, he was stuck in this world that he hated but was also the only one he could imagine. He needed this kind of hatred as the gas that fuelled his narrative engine. He exaggerated reality, constructed it, and transformed it into a caricature of the existing world.” “Done with the fatherland, the nation, the province,” I thus remarked with ill-conceived irony, picking up the thread of our interview, “only home remains, feeling at home….” Trojanow finished his cup of Turkish coffee and peered intently at its grounds before looking me straight in the eye with a serious expression: “I don’t believe people when they say, ‘my home is Germany.’ Either they haven’t thought about it thoroughly, or they are lying, because I’m sure their home is where their loved ones are, where mother is, or where their children are, where they grew up. It’s the soccer pitch where you have spent your youth, the ice-cream parlor where you kissed a girl for the first time, stuff like that. I think people are being intellectually dishonest when they dispute that belonging is extremely subjective, extremely intimate, extremely personal, and extremely limited in space.”
I kept quiet, thinking back at what the playwright Michael Schindhelm had told me in a recent exchange of emails about his book on his Dubai experience (Dubai High): “It is the concept of feeling ‘at home’ that has changed. Expatriates in Dubai (or Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne) live it as a chapter in their life more than anything else. To them, Dubai is a safe and easy environment where to live, work and communicate. I believe that this makes a city your home. Not forever, of course, but ‘forever’ doesn’t exist anymore.” Life lived in chapters: it was like that now, wasn’t it? You end a chapter, you start a new one—increasingly complying with the artifices, and the unlimited possibilities, of a narrative without borders. “And what about you? Do you ever feel the need to belong to anything? Even if not to a fatherland or a nation. . . .” I asked him at this point. “I actually think that I belong more than many other people do,” Trojanow answered without thinking. Then he took his time to elaborate: “I’ve a very strong sense of belonging to planet Earth, which sounds a bit esoteric but it has to do with my continuous awareness that we need a paradigm shift in the way we relate to nature. We are reaching a stage where we really have to readjust our form of civilization or there will be huge cataclysms. Thus, I actually sense a real urge to belong there, I mean, belong to an intellectual development. But, apart from that, I feel I have many other forms of belonging.” “What do you mean exactly?” I prodded. “That I am just as nostalgic and sentimental and de ning as anybody else,” he replied. “For example, I sense a very true belonging within the German language, despite the fact that my mother tongue is Bulgarian and that I grew up playing and joking in Swahili. I sense a belonging when I’m walking through the streets of Sophia, when I’m in Mumbai, or when I’m in many countries in Africa. I miss Africa in general, with its sounds, its smells, its lights.”
“Thus, however feeble, you also acknowledge a connection between belonging and territory,” I insisted, “like those who maintain that it is there, in that particular region, in that particular spot on the map, that their roots lie.” “I never use the word roots, I’m not a tree,” Trojanow replied in a determined tone, as if he had provided that same sort of answer many times. “Nonetheless, this confirms what I have already said. That is, the way one identifies oneself with the territory has a very personal connotation and concerns a very limited space. For example, if you are a wine grower, the boundary is your vineyard. Metaphorically speaking, ‘the vineyard’ could be any small piece of land: a mountainside, a valley, a bend in the river, a beach. Nothing bigger than that.”
“The border ends there, it cannot be extended to encircle a nation, an ethnic group, let alone a state,” I concluded on his behalf. At this point, as if we wanted to mark the resonance in our way of thinking, we both let our gazes wander beyond the window screen, there where the landscape owed free and undisturbed in the early crepuscular lights. After all, for the two of us the territory was like that: one of the places in which we had lived, which we had crossed by foot, bike, bus, or train. In transit. The territory was everything and nothing—what might unexpectedly emerge on the wave of a memory, an emotion, an accent. Simultaneously we belonged to everything and nothing. Following the thread of his—of our—thoughts, my interlocutor continued: “I am well aware of a certain criticism formulated against people like myself: that is, our lifestyle is a luxurious postmodern existence that allows one to hop from one country to the other, to juggle around and jet-set; a kind of chic cosmopolitanism; a form of elitist pastime.” “A deplorable irresponsibility, one might argue.” “Since it’s a criticism leveled quite often, of course I’ve thought about it a lot.” “And you have reached certain conclusions, I presume.” “Exactly. First of all, this criticism doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I’ve no other choice, that being cosmopolitan for me is an existential blessing but also a challenge and a necessity, as much as there would be no other choice for someone who had a strong sense of belonging or who had a very strong sense of —yes, let’s use here the German word—Heimat.” “And the second conclusion?” “It’s as though there were a reinforced chronology in all these discussions about sense of belonging and cosmopolitanism; and that this chronology, which must adhere to a kind of Darwinian evolutionary linearity, is sup- posed to start with belonging and end with uprootedness and cosmopolitanism.”
“Nonsense,” he continued, “I actually think that in order for them to be so clear-cut and regulated, these definitions of belonging had to be invented by an enormous industry, an enormous machinery working through politics, science, and the arts. You can see that any kind of definition of belonging—whether it is regional, national, or extremely local—happens because an enormous amount of energy went into it: this is the proof that this is not a natural state. We might therefore argue that the transcultural consciousness is the natural state and that the other guys are unnatural because they have been bogged down in some kind of box of belonging. In these people’s minds, cosmopolitanism, or what you call transculture, cannot be a natural state.”
As night was slowly falling, I pondered upon the apparent unnaturalness of our shared way of feeling and living. The train darted ahead illuminating its way towards the south like a comet and I wondered if the transcultural might be reduced to the banality of a fashion, or to the pressures of the market. Right at that moment, my mobile phone, sitting on the table between us close to the audio recorder, silently vibrated, signaling that I had just received a text message. I touched its screen and read quickly: “Depot Dans Cafe, Cihangir, Istanbul, Saturday 8 October 9:00 pm.” I raised my eyes and Trojanow, who must have read the message furtively, couldn’t hide a half-smile tinged with amused suspicion. “My secret lover . . .” I said, playing along with his half-smile. Trojanow looked at his watch for the first time since we had met—it must have been past midnight—then looked at me with a conspiratorial expression: “There is still time for another batch of questions.” I smiled at him gratefully, while the phone, changing to stand-by mode, dimmed with a vague halo of secrecy. The train was running faster than ever in the night, across the steppe without apparent limits, as it had done, a quarter of a century before, on my journey to Moscow.
From my travel diaries (Moscow, 11 November 1985)
I was a student then, but I was already in transit. Three nights and two days rattling on the rails: Milan-Venice-Budapest-Kiev-Moscow. Tolstoy kept me company with his Karenina, along the tracks of a foretold destiny. The year before I had met a young man who had struck me with a sentence: “I will become a famous writer.” He eventually became one. He had the right stuff. He talked of gods. He thought of himself as a god. He had “il senso della frase,” the sense of the sentence, as he used to say, and a remarkable sense of humor. Physically he was a disaster: he stank of beer, wore a moustache (at 21!), smoked a cigar. But he was coming from the historical Milan and he frequented its literary circles while I was still moving about with the cautious gait of a provincial girl, although inside me, with all my reading, I already felt a worldly wise woman. It was that same writer who, one year later, accompanied me to the Central Station in Milan and hoisted my luggage on the train that would take me beyond the Iron Curtain. In Moscow I plaited my hair in a single braid fastened with a black bow, wore a black fur busby and a long black woolen overcoat. It seemed I had just come out from a nineteenth-century novel—instead I was in the middle of the Soviet crisis. People queued in the streets at minus ten degrees to buy our, soap, toilet paper, boots, whatever they might be selling clandestinely from the trucks at that moment. There, at that time in history, my way of dressing was not considered late Romantic but simply gloomy, if not openly offensive, as I would discover too late. One day, in a street coffee house (only standing places, sitting down was considered bourgeois) a babushka (an “old woman”) spat those words at me: “Aren’t you ashamed, devushka? (“girl,” that’s how elders addressed young women in Soviet times; the courtesy, but also bourgeois, pre-revolutionary titles Mr., Mrs., and Miss had disappeared from the daily vocabulary). You are wearing the Nazi color.” Instead, I suddenly felt pride: because that old woman, despite having harshly addressed me, had done it in Russian, mistaking me for a young Russian. I could pass for one of them: to me only that counted, then. I read Dostoyevsky, I read about the miseries of the Russian people, then as much as ever. I sent letters to my family, writing with a pencil on the coarse paper that they used as tablecloth in unauthorized basement taverns. For six months I was almost cut off from the outer world. To phone abroad from a public place was an enterprise that demanded long hours of waiting among hundreds of ethnic proletarians assimilated by the empire: Turkmens, Kazaks, Georgians, Kyrgyzs. The news from abroad was metered out with a dropper. My missives were full of growingly bleaker tones—at least that’s what my mother told me, worried, when I got back home. But then I was not aware of it. I had adapted to that humid subterranean world of mechanics who read Gogol, of poet-engineers, of incognito intellectuals, of non-declared Jews. Vodka, Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, and cigarettes without filters. I was right in the belly of the Russian devil. I was exactly where I wanted to be, on the other side of the barricade, the Wall, the Curtain, there where few ventured.
Arianna Dagnino, Transcultural Writers and Novels in the Age of Global Mobility, Purdue University Press, 2015.