MOST travels to dying places begin in the traveller’s imagination. Something stirs, attracts or impels, be it nostalgia, curiosity, fascination.
Tom Pow’s intense collection of stories, poems and essays began ostensibly with a stirring – not inappropriately – in a coffee shop in Edmonton, Alberta, when, in a newspaper he read about Villabandin, a “dying village” in northern Spain. “Who will look after our graves, once we are gone?… After us there will be nothing,” one of the villagers lamented.
However, Pow’s journey, criss-crossing Europe, began far earlier. In the coffee shop he recalls, “I felt a jolt of recognition as one place (Villabandin) brought to mind others from other times… The images of Spanish depopulation brought to mind the stubborn remains from the part of Scotland where my template of abandonment first took root – to where, whenever I am faced with a domestic ruin, my imagination returns.”
He describes the “deserted croft house” that his family once owned, near Culrain close to the heartland of the infamous Highland clearances. There in the coffee shop in Canada, the threshold between the past and the present , as Pow himself notes elsewhere in the book, becomes “porous”, and seeping up to the surface comes a consciousness of the material out of which he has always written: “memory, home, love lost and mourned, elegy, earth and stone.” He imagines Europe as a totality: ‘.the whole continent becoming irrevocably changed’ – and in that moment a stab of urgency strikes, induced by Villabandin.
He eases the book towards Villabandin by means of a baleful, bifocal poem of migration: “At the other side of the world they remembered… Some memory/came back of what their fathers/or grandfathers had told them/their hands were still reaching/ for tools. Still feeling a need to make a world.”
The world created here by Pow – and it is in the nature of a mission, not merely a project, as one of his travelling companions describes it later in Russia – is the tragedy-rich, yet transient re-creation of rural decay, born of a pilgrimage of respect and curiosity, a journey of verification and discovery. Villabandin (coincidentally) lies in the hinterland of the Camino di Santiago, the old pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. “It is good to walk out on an open road, to breathe in the summer smells of fresh-cut hay and cow shit. Good to be unencumbered and to be excited by what one will find.”
Pow’s sustained excitement, from time to time, creates a shimmer through the atmosphere of the book. He brings its resonance and contagion – most especially in his intelligent, sensitive essays – to the experience of the reader, and also, one senses, to those he encounters, drinks with, or interviews on the road. It makes for a labour of commitment that never feels laboured. What could so easily have teetered towards a study weighed down by quotations and statistical analysis gleaned from his sources (90 are cited under ‘Sources and Further Reading in the end-piece to the book), is throughout a limber, engaging and enervated quest.
In part this derives from the book’s shrewd structure, comprised of three sections, each devoted to dying communities in, respectively, Spain, France and Russia, each containing a range of essays, poems and stories, sometimes linked within their sections, but also free-standing pieces of writing to be encountered on their own terms. Each moves the journey, the exploration, not only forward but also deeper.
It is in the poems that Pow’s engagement seems most felt, and is most moving. His poem “Singer” is a shock wave of brilliant perception, moving seamlessly from an image of his mother on winter evenings throughout his childhood intent at her sewing machine – “the faintest glow of pleasure fanning her cheeks” – to the Nazi slaughter of the villagers of Oradour-sur-Glane in the region of Limousin, a chilling, efficient massacre which is described in Pow’s previous essay “Of Armoires and Wolves”.
Read in sequence, coupling aftershock with shock, they make something seismic yet unsensational, and illustrate that villages, like those who inhabit them, die variously, not always by dint of attrition born of economic blight.
Those he encounters in the remoteness of France and Spain, down dead-end roads, on the flanks of hillsides, seem for the most part the stubborn elders of half crumbled settlements, whittled by wind, assailed by neglect or baked by a merciless bleaching sun.
In Villabandin they fail to connect with his reason for being there. And, elsewhere, he spends his goodwill in attempts to engage with the plain reserve of those long rooted in their ways. For yet others, the suspension of reality is over: “In the village of Villaneuve, a small, gap-toothed woman told me … the people had all gone from her village because there was nothing there for them … and once she was very old or sick, the village would no longer be a possibility… Yet she remembered that when she was a child village life had been very happy – fiestas, dancing with the accordion, all the people together. No they wouldn’t come back.”
Sometimes finality vies with hope, abetted by memory of the good times. In Russia lingering nostalgia still attaches to the days of collective farming.
There, since the overthrow of the old regime, a priest is now building churches, but few come to worship. He, like most who have stayed to moulder, exudes an in-placeness which Masha, Pow’s guide, a young “new” Russian from the city, has never enjoyed. She is essentially an outsider, as is Pow – and a central problem, (which Pow addresses in his Afterword, set in Scotland), is that of finding a means to inhabit, not simply observe, record or reflect upon, that which he finds.
It is a task that demands a leap of heart and mind, and a catalytic imagination, which he possesses, though less successfully in his stories (of which there are five) than in his nine poems, compact elegies to survival, pain and loss, as good as anything he has written.
Unlike the essays, which tell the story of Pow’s advances – almost a travelogue such as Stevenson might have written – the five short stories, at least one of which, “Fair Exchange”, is wholly engaging and beautifully constructed, possess a self-consciousness which the poems, little “found” gems, so stunningly polished you can’t see the artifice at all, never hint at. Within the book’s context they glow with meaning, “in a slip of time between action and elegy”, as Pow writes of those who led him to the substance of his book, “facing their future with resilience”.
This book is both his testament and his tribute to their humanness of being, his gift to them, and to readers too.
In Another World: Among Europe’s Dying Villages
by Tom Pow
Polygon, 246pp, £12
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