The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe, From Finland to Ukraine
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New York Times Book Review
May 28, 2015
A large dried fish — a gift from a fisherman in a sliver of Norway beyond the Arctic Circle — was the Italian journalist Paolo Rumiz’s unlikely visa into Russia during a journey he took in 2008 down the “zipper” of Eurasia, from Finland to Norway, through Karelia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, all the way south to Odessa. In THE FAULT LINE: Traveling the Other Europe, From Finland to Ukraine (Rizzoli, $27.95), beautifully translated by Gregory Conti, Rumiz recalls that the Russian border agents were “dumbfounded, almost respectful. Standing before them is a 60-year-old man with a business visa and a dried cod. Nothing in their rules and regulations contemplates anything like this.” Indeed, the author’s self-assigned vertical route (longitudinal as opposed to latitudinal) was so extraordinary that no map existed to guide him: “I had to make my own,” he writes, “on a scale of one to one million, transferring pieces of various atlases onto a single strip of paper . . . folded like an accordion.” Idiosyncratic, lushly observed and aglow with philosophical asides, this questing travelogue sheds light on regions you’ve never heard of, where traditions endure from other ages.
While Rumiz doesn’t shy away from reporting industrial blight, Putin-era grievances and regional resentments (he made his trip well before war broke out in Crimea and Ukraine), he rejects the lazy globalist thinking that mistakes a country’s headlines for its society. “To understand which way the world is heading, you have to go to train stations, not to airports,” he argues. It is on land, he believes, in remote villages, woods and lakes, among the sort of simple, ordinary people Dostoyevsky designated “Poor Folk,” that the true life of nations reveals its colorful weft. Woven through his rich warp of reporting and storytelling are conversations with the people he met — reindeer herders, fishermen, peasant farmers — so artless and surprising they feel like fables. “Explain to your readers that it’s a sin not to cultivate the earth,” one woman adjures him, while a gregarious izba dweller on Karelia’s Lake Onega declares, “Bear prints look exactly like human feet!”
Rumiz’s paean to “peripheral places” shows his readers that dystopian modernity isn’t the only story of the present-day eastern borderlands: A fairy tale lurks between the lines, and those who have enough intuition and courage (and perhaps a Russian translator) can discover it for themselves, if they borrow his map.