Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Odessa - Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King

This is a book I have read, connected from The Hare With the Amber Eyes. To try to lower the Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.
number of TBR books, the 'connected reading' will have to come from these shelves or from the library. I am in the process of creating a separate page, for this my very own challenge. I will use two different 'lanes' of books to connect. First one is the one above and the second one is

The Hare with the Amber Eyes connection: this book is about the Ephrussi family who originated in Odessa. There were many connections to pursue from this book, but since I have a book about Odessa it was a natural choice.

Mark Twain felt supremely at home when he visited Odessa in the late summer of 1867. He had come to the Russian port city on the world's first long-distance pleasure cruise, a jaunt across the Near East related in The Innocents Abroad. After a twenty-hour run across the Black Sea on the american steamer Quaker City, Twain stepped ashore to see Odessa's cascade of stone steps - one of the most famous staircases in the world - beckoning him from the docklands to the upper city. At the top, looking like a casual visitor peering out over the harbour, the diminutive statue of the duc de
Richelieu, one of the city's early builders, held out a welcoming hand. Twain puffed his way to the heights and gazed out over the grain silos and quays below. Behind him rose the city centre, buzzing with the business of trade, shipping, and exchange. 

This is how Charles King starts his book about one of his favourite cities; Odessa. I visited Odessa some years ago, and I just would have liked to read this book beforehand. It would have given me so much more of the city. The only thing I can remember is the famous steps.


The Beginning

King starts his tale of the city when Gregory Potemkin, Catherine's the Great lover and statesman, as the head of her army conquered these southern lands in the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-92. Potemkin was a man of many talents, and I can highly recommend the biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. From this man we also have the saying "Potemkin villages", which derives from this time. Catherine the Great was to visit the area that was conquered. Potemkin manages to 'build up' villages to show a prosperous and rich area. However, the houses were just fake facades and behind the fronts there was not anything.

Khadjibey was a fort by the Black Sea that was capture by José de Ribas. In 1794 it became the city of Odessa.  de Ribas was born in Naples, the son of the Spanish consul and his Irish wife. Maybe he was the first true Odessan, with his multiple nationalities, fighting for the Russians and founder of a city that would be known as a hot-pot of different nationalities and religions. The French duc de Richelieu was appointed city administrator in 1803 and Count Vorontsov with his French wife became governor-general of what was then called New Russia in 1823. These three persons put their mark on the city. They built it up with care and an urge to make it into a functional place for its inhabitants.

King takes us through times of the early city which made its richness in the grain trade exports with its necessary access to the sea, into a very cosmopolitan and artistic city, through the Crimean War, anti-Jewish pogroms, First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Second World War up until today. He tells us of the people who lived there; their lives during war and peace, the successful times and the not so successful times. It is a book that affects you and even after finishing you think of the people who populated this magic city. Part of the book is terrible reading about atrocities and you can hardly imagine the sufferings. King finishes with the following words:

It takes a special effort to memorialise, not just look past, the times when the urge to self-destruction won out over human achievement. Visiting Odessa today, you can feel and smell a place that, in the middle of the twentieth century, became practiced in the art of devouring itself - consumed by some aspects of its own past but painfully ignorant of others. yet an identity that embraces people who speak with an accent, talk too loudly, and are somehow your neighbours is still there in Odessa's streets, even amid post-Soviet kitsch, Ukraine's preoccupation with national mythology, and Russia's new fascination with its old imperial vocation. With attention to the dark times as well as the golden ages, Odessans might again figure out how to make a grounded kind of patriotism out of the leftovers of empire. After all, the children and grandchildren of Ukrainians, Russians, and others who settled in the city after the Second World War - along with new migrants from Turkey, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and East Asia - now have the chance to construct their own visions of "Odessa-Mama," different from but no less complex than those of the past two centuries. Like Parisians, Berliners, Viennese, and New Yorkers, they might even be able to convince themselves of something that vanished generations of Odessans knew instinctively: that with the right combination of neighbourliness and mayhem, cities really can be the highest species of patria.


The Famous Steps

The steps of Odessa are magnificent. When you stand at the top you only see the landings and when you look at them from below, you only see the steps. They were completed in 1841 and are today called "Potemkin steps". The steps were made immortal in Eisenstein's classic film Battleship Potemkin on the so called "Potemkin mutiny". In the film he lets a pram with a baby inside move wildly down the steps. It is a very dramatic peace. You can have a look at the sequence here:



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