The Danube: A Journey Upriver*

Nick Thorpe acknowledges Gary Snyder up front. In this book he brings over to “the shoulders of the old Danube” (Thorpe’s phrase) some of Snyder’s ideas on ecological and cultural bioregionalism. Snyder has been writing about reclaiming the home watershed, from his farm in the Sierra foothills, where 19th century Yuba river hydraulic gold miners washed out of the Sierra eight times the amount of dirt removed for the Panama Canal. Literally the watershed is a river’s drainage system, along with the varieties of plants and animals and human usages that it superintends, but of course this is equally an image of some power, ecological but also political and aesthetic. For Snyder watershed is the “first and last nation” and also the “final jurisdiction”, overriding political–legal boundaries (like those of the nine nation states along the Danube); river-basins, fish and owls and snails and plants and humans are equal in value and “cities and dams are ephemeral”. To create Snyder’s new community of watershed and to protect the commons, Snyder’s tiny group of river-keepers must think its way out of industrial societies, “having collected or squandered the fruits of eight thousand years of civilisation”, and must turn back to the land like natives and peasants, though we know we are neither.

Thorpe, English and based in Budapest since the 80s as Central European Correspondent for the BBC, is a watershed writer in the spirit of Snyder: following the great waterway, Europe’s second longest river after the Volga, all 1,770 miles upstream from the Black Sea to the confluence of the Brege and the Brigach in southwest Germany. Simon Winder is also English and has also published in 2013, but his Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, is (despite the title) in no way similar to what Thorpe has written. Winder’s Danubia is a territory of imagi-nation, the label of a seeming-nation, but Thorpe’s Danube is commerce- road, cruise-route, invasion-path, sewer, source of livelihood and daily bliss for millions on its shoulders, fish-breeder, energy-source, powerful (2000 cubic metres a second through Budapest) yet vulnerable. Winder is a genial museum-going re-teller of the story of the Habsburg family as rulers from the 15th century to their ejection from the Central European scene after the First World War, but Thorpe is an athletic morning swimmer of the river, conversant in most of the needed languages, who gets the stories of named living people.

Thorpe briefly pays respect to the two writers on the Danube basin with whom he will be compared: Patrick Leigh Fermor in three books about 1930s travel, and Claudio Magris, who published Danubio in Milan in 1986.(1)(All four, including Winder, are outsiders drawn to Central Europe.) Thorpe’s arrival with very particular merits will bring a revaluation of the two major predecessors, just as their achievement helps to place his. I am not alone in thinking that Leigh Fermor is the greatest of all writers of personal memoir, who does everything better than everyone else, and who just happens to be writing about teenage journeys along the Danube. Claudio Magris, whose book once seemed packed with insights, must suffer the judgement that he wanted to read about the river rather than reading the river, rather than living on it and in it and next to it and speaking with river-bank people.

In Leigh Fermor, the Danube is a frequent companion, described in its many moods and colours, but not his main concern. For one thing, he spends months far  from  the  river  in  the mansions  of  German  and  Hungarian  aristocrats, reading history in their libraries, playing polo, chasing girls. This is the story of an immense informal university education, beginning when he is eighteen: a boy-becoming-man who’s independent, handsome, courageous, gregarious, self- sceptical, resourceful at times of danger, with talents linguistic and musical, able to get the best out of interlocutors whether they be aristos or shepherds. He’s up for everything anyone proposes. He’s curious about the languages, architectures, local cultures he passes through, with perfect retention of what people say, their life stories, and of sounds and sights.

His 1933–4 journals were lost, so he is re-fashioning his youthful adventures later on, during the 1970s and 1980s, so there is the parallax-effect blend of fresh response, admitting all ignorance yet astonished at his own boyish luck, and the judgement that comes from the forty intervening years: fighting against Nazis with the partisans on Crete in the Second World War, and writing a novel and other books of travel. The I who speaks knows he was then and is now a charmer. Leigh Fermor is a let-it-rip stylist who gives more than the reader thinks possible when it comes to descriptive detail, lists, linguistic speculation, historical backfilling, the impulse to be gorgeous, a lexicon that for accuracy yet voluminousness can only be called Shakespearean.

If Leigh Fermor and Thorpe are centrifugal into vivid detail, always finding delight,Magrisisabig-ideawriter,andhisleadingandunoriginalthemeis: river as mortality. He is admirable on the cultural history of the basin, which for him is mostly literary and mostly German. His bias as a trained Germanist, who wants to call Danubian territory Mitteleuropa, does not stop him from despising the Nazis. I do also like his frequent noticings of yellow-ochre colours in the houses and sunflowers of East Central Europe, but there is nothing else to praise.

It is hard to slam Magris for writing, in 1986, as if communism would last forever in the eastern territories, and that Yugoslavia while precarious was some kind of unity. (We all knew these things then, until suddenly we did not.) But now that we have Thorpe, who reports on the changes both before and after 1989, with special attention to ghastly events of the 1990s in Romania and the wars in former Yugoslavia, the non-recognitions in Magris largely disable Magris as historian. And  Thorpe’s  watershed  concern  for  the  health  of  the  river,  his  principled stand against straightening river-bends and in favour of riverine flooding, show a necessary emphasis entirely missing in Magris, who perversely admires the grandeur, the epic achievement of communism’s hydroelectric plant at the Iron Gate (joint venture between Romania and Serbia).

With seven literary allusions in his first three pages, with bland summaries of over thirty novels written by mostly German writers over three centuries, Magris is a literary traveller. The only time he almost sees an animal is when he uses two pages to lament a hare who has been shot for someone’s dinner, and even that episode must be read as one more instance of his Danubian death-theme. Going down the river from source to delta is the Magris allegory of human decline, so he must linger on suicides in novels and worry about Paul Celan’s suicide, he must conclude chapters, sections and the whole book on gloomy thoughts of his own end. Magris must go from birth to dissolution, from the bright literary Germans to the “wearisome” (his word) East Europeans, so the book like the river of his journey gets dispersed as it goes downhill to the Black Sea at Sulina. When his river becomes an emblem, he cannot see it as a watershed.

It makes a very great difference that Nick Thorpe has decided to move from delta to source. As he starts out, a retired Black Sea fisherman tells him “You will be like the sturgeon!” coming upriver to spawn: cheerful, nonhuman, an eco-image. This disables self-identifying and all the easy metaphors about mortality, and it moves the centre of the river (and the book) 135 miles to the east, from Vienna (in Magris) to Thorpe’s home-base in Budapest. He hopes, he says, to diminish “the arrogance of the West towards the East”: to tell the historical influence of Ottoman Turks who brought Islam (also coffee) up the river to the outskirts of Vienna, but also to hear the stories of present-day immigrants from Turkey, Chechnya, Romania.

Here are a few things in Thorpe that are unimaginable in Magris: four good maps and twenty photos mostly of Danube people whose words are quoted in the book; travel by car, foot, bicycle, boat, canoe, train, plane, the author’s son’s skateboard; seen in a museum, a gold coin found in the stomach of a ram; eating wild garlic soup, salty white sheep’s cheese, and the river’s catfish and carp; an author who takes a day to help a man crush grapes; two pages on cigarette smuggling; recording that a Chechen mother, Hava, and her family of six live in Austria on 720 euros a month. The river is at different points, different times of day, blue, milky-green, grey-brown, black, mud-brown, a silver ribbon. We trust Thorpe’s perceptions, all the way to the “deliciously cold” start-waters of the river as he wades in the Brig-Brigach on the last page. Because of the ubiquity and detail of those perceptions I accept his claim when he concludes, “I now carry the whole river within me”.

The book has an assured personal voice and moments of eloquence, but more than half the time Thorpe is bringing attention to others. With Magris the focus is on writers and political leaders, but Thorpe’s special skill, developed as correspondent, is to evoke the speech of river-humans: “Everyone has a story to tell.” He gets their names, their permission, their life-stories on tape, and selects to get sentences that reveal character-in-history, like these: “In those days, everyone rowed. There were no engines before the 1989 revolution” (river-man); “Just look at me. Do you think I look like a happy person?” (transgender Roma prostitute); “The bullet which is meant for me hasn’t been made yet” (Ivan Prilavić, a Croat living in a Serb village); “The sun is the god of the paprika plant” (Irén, a paprika harvester in Kalocsa, Hungary); “We should use the woods more efficiently – and not sell them to Canada for toilet paper!” (Siegfried Geissler, river-restorer outside Neuberg). Among those he speaks to: fishermen, charcoal-burners, Roma copper- workers, librarian, thatcher, cow-minder, monk, Roma fortune-teller, German ferry captain and Turkish deckhand, ecologist, anthropologist, biologist student of owl behaviour, paprika-growers, Turkish tailor in Ulm. It’s their book as much as his.

These characters help to make a crossover book from a University Press accessible to non-academic readers, while the running themes of politics and ecology provide a frame of argument for academic readers. Some of those who suffered under communism are still alive and show their bitterness, resignation, and even for some, nostalgia. This is the time to hear from the older generation in the East, and Thorpe is a listener who knows the full context from both sides of 1989. Alexander in Karaorman, Romania, says “Life was better under communism… Everyone had animals, and work”. Todor Tsanaev, from Ruse, Bulgaria, served eleven years in Belene prison camp on an island in the Danube, and after release was active in politics in the 90s, “but now I see everything is lost. There’s no way of putting the state back together”. When a miller in Ráckeve in Hungary asks why the authorities in 1950 destroyed the mills on the river, he answers himself “That was the point of communism – to take away everything from everybody, and destroy it”: here Thorpe thinks to himself, “Through the creaking of the planks on the water, I heard Karl Marx turn in his watery grave”. The reporter plainly has opinions, especially when monumental government schemes violate the integrity of the watershed.

Communist bioregion-destruction from 1950–1990 was even worse than that in Western Europe, though NATO was to blame for the April 1999 bombing of three bridges at Novi Sad, Serbia, effectively blocking traffic on the Danube for six years. Top-down planning continued into the 90s in the Slovak–Hungarian plan for the Nagymaros dam; Hungary backed out (all honour to József Antall and his government), but Slovakia went ahead, and Thorpe who at the time made a film documentary on the forests and creeks on both sides, comments here: “Just as for the Romanian and Serbian governments when the island of Ada Kaleh was destroyed by the Iron Gates dam, the local inhabitants were seen as collateral damage.” Thorpe describes the harm done by the Cernavodă(Romania) nuclear power station, toxic fumes from the chemical works at Giurgiu (Romania), the 2000 poisoning of the Tisza river (Hungary) by a dump of mercury from a gold mine in Romania, massive fish-kills from spills of phenol from the Csepel Paper factory (Hungary) in 1954 and 1964, and the Slovak dam in the early 90s. He notes that power from four river-driven hydroelectric stations, from Bertholdsheim to Ingolstadt, is used exclusively to run the German railway system.

“You will be like the sturgeon!”: once the author heard this it became a theme, sturgeon as symptom. In the 70s one fisherman caught a ten-foot sturgeon whose flesh and caviar paid for his children’s educations, but there are no sturgeon left, and the waves from fancy cruise ships destroy the eggs of other fish in the shallows. Thorpe also notes: “Each successive map seems to have less islands.” Thorpe praises ecologist Siegfried Geissler of Neuberg and others, more on the Western end of the Danube than in the post-communist East, for being “guardians of the last flood plains, restorers of kinks and twists in the river”. But damage from the last half-century has been greater than ever in history, and our mitigations, however intelligent and effective in local stretches, must be minor.

So why, reporting on trouble (author also having suffered a bad back injury in Hungary in the middle of things), is this book in a quiet way joyous? Thorpe has not used the word until the very end, but there, having earned it, he says he’s “overwhelmed with happiness”. He is thinking of the grandeur of the queen of rivers absorbed into his life, but also of the canny and resilient people he met on the way, especially the assurance he got from minders of the watershed, and from immigrants from the East.

In river-side Szentendre near Budapest Nick Thorpe met the Slovene geomancer Marko Pogačnik, who said “the river is also somebody, is a being… If we could learn again to relate to rivers, this would be a great help to these beings”. Marko did not say, a great help “to us”; the interview with him was like drinking white wine from the banks of Lake Balaton with a Central European Gary Snyder! Earlier in Lom, Romania, he heard from Spasska, a Gypsy who read fates in a big pile of beans, divided into piles, that “I will have a very good exit”. Entirely enigmatic, of course, but more modest, more believable, than the fate Magris tried to impose on a being whose origin and delta are undiscoverable. Certainly Thorpe’s book has a careful exit, a small curl upward. It’s enough to conclude, as he does in a rare Marko-like, last-page personification, that the Danube offers solace, and preaches tolerance, and reminds human beings of the power of nature.

* Thorpe, Nick. The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest. New Haven and

London: Yale University Press, 2013.

1 Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977), Between the Woods and the Water: The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates (1986) and The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, assembled and completed by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron (London: John Murray, 2013). The Broken Road was reviewed by Neal Ascherson in LRB for 7 November 2013. Nick Hunt has recently tracked Leigh Fermor’s 1933 route and described changes seen, in Walking the Woods and the Waters, forthcoming in London by Nicholas Brealey. Claudio Magris, Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea, translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh (London: Collins Harvill, 1989).

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