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One End of Europe

'Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow' - Painting by Adolph Northen/Wiki Commons

An extract from The Beautiful Obscure by Luke Stegemann

I first crossed into Spanish territory in 1984 after spending four days in a youth hostel in Saillagouse, in the French Pyrenees, with a head cold and only a recovering drug addict for company. His name has been forgotten; he resembled a younger but life-battered version of the then-popular composer Jean-Michel Jarre. He considered my having arrived from the other end of the world – then a much less common event than now – to be of no interest whatsoever, and was largely silent. There was a suggestion through gestures and minimally remembered schoolboy French that he was a temporary caretaker, getting through his detox here on behalf of some family member who would customarily have taken more interest and care in the running of the establishment. For four days there were no other guests. Having slept away the mornings, there was little to do other than spend long afternoons with an axe out the back, on a stretch of cold grass, chopping lengths of firewood with which to heat the hostel. By night I would drink and write letters home, using those ancient tools of pen and paper, recounting tales of my European sojourn travelling through Greece, Italy or southern France. Only two days before, drunk in the early afternoon, I had taken a foolhardy excursion into a train tunnel on the Cote D’Azur, thinking it might be a way to reach inaccessible scenery; as it turned out, the tunnel was endless, and full of rats, and I had no source of light. I was desperately lucky to avoid the speeding trains that came through as I staggered around lost in that pitch darkness.

Saillagouse was a place to rest up. Needing to replenish my food supply, one afternoon I set off from the hamlet under heavy skies, walking across the fields to the town of Llivia. It attracted me for the simple reason it was within a small enclave that formed part of Spanish territory. The road was of a pale concrete, smooth for walking, and deserted. This was technically my first foray into Spain, but this anomaly hardly counts. A purchase of bread and tomatoes at a local store was paid for in French francs; I received my change in odd-looking peseta coins and was sure I had been ripped off. I knew nothing at the time of the character of these mountain dwellers: shepherds of the valley, runners of contraband and largely unsmiling small shopkeepers. Huddling into myself against the cold, I set off into the encroaching dark, back to Saillagouse. A bent road sign at a turning pointed north, reading: ‘Paris 820km’. I had a sudden vision of the car crash in which Albert Camus had been killed, en route to Paris. The night scene is reprinted in Herbert Lottman’s biography: the car crumpled into a telegraph pole, objects flung aside, a gendarme speaking to two men in gabardines standing by a dimly lit and winter-thin tree. My own brother had died in a car accident, some years earlier, on the Hume Highway – that devil dressed in bitumen. Like Camus, he had been a passenger; while Camus’ publisher Michel Gallimard also died, my brother was the only one of three in the car to be killed. Such is absurdity, and fate.

Paris, for now, had to wait. As it turned out, there were more rewarding places to be discovered.

The four-day tedium and cold of Saillagouse over, and feeling completely rested, I jumped aboard a toy-like train, colourful and earnest, chugging through the alpine pass. As we descended I leant my head far out of the carriage to glory in the bright sun and blue air. The grey cloud of the Pyrenees was gone, as was my awkward, dour host; now sharp outlines of rock and stream filled the view. We were moving through a luminous nineteenth-century landscape painting of yellow, green and silver-blue; a clutch of impressionists at work in paint-stained smocks would not have been out of place. We descended through French Catalonia, past Fontpédrouse and Serdinya; my object was to get into Spain by evening.

After changing at Perpignan, we were offloaded onto an alternative train at Cerbère – I was ignorant of the geopolitical intricacies that lay behind different rail gauges – and crawled at snail’s pace into another tunnel. We stopped in the darkness. The air was warm; there was a strong smell of diesel fumes. We shunted forward, stopped, moved, stopped, moved – and emerged into the light once more. And that was it. Unassumingly, we were in Spain. At Port Bou, another type of uniform: the borders in Europe were still rigid then, and men with inky stamps and machine guns were anywhere and everywhere.

I have since understood the changing of the rail gauge was a warning that we were entering one of the ‘ends of Europe’. Spain had developed, despite its centuries of dynastic connections, a mistrust of ‘Europe’, much like Russia, its cousin-in-suffering at the other, distant edge of the continent. Both shared that inheritance of mistrust, that sense of isolation from the main streams of liberal thought, along with a propensity for intense mysticism, nationalism, religiosity, literary density, authoritarian traditions, revolutions and profound folk musical traditions. (Perhaps it was something instinctual that led me to study Russian as my third language.) At either end of the European continent, as the railways were rolled out, there was deep suspicion, for Spain and Russia had something else in common: both were major victims of that previous great re-organiser of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Beautiful Obscure by Luke Stegemann is released on 27 May 2017 by Transmission Press, Melbourne, Australia. To pre-order you copy, please click here.

Blog picture shows Adolph Northen's painting, 'Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow'. (Wiki Commons)

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