“I am standing in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In a glass case in front of me are some small, irregular beads of dark, honey-coloured amber. Discovered in a Mycenaean tomb in Crete by Sir Arthur Evans, they date from between 1700 and 1300 BC, the dawn of classical civilization. At around the same time, in north Wales, hundreds of amber beads were placed in a stone-lined tomb along with a body wrapped in the spectacular gold shoulder ornament known as the Mold Cape, now in the British Museum. Amber has been found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and in the ruins of Troy. The Etruscans imported large amounts of it, which they used to adorn jewellery, as doid the Romans after them.” So begins literary critic, cartographer and historian, C. J. Schüler’s illuminating and entertaining travelogue-cum-memoir following the Amber Route, retracing “some of the deepest fault lines in European history,” and his family’s hidden history as he goes.
A dinosaur DNA-carrying mosquito preserved inside a piece of amber was the catalyst for classic film Jurassic Park, based on the novel by Michael Crichton. As Schüler points out, this may have seemed far-fetched back in the 1990s, but not so now. A mosquito dating back to age of dinosaurs was found preserved in amber in 2019.
The author’s grandfather left Germany in 1936 to escape the Nazis and ended up in Britain with his family by way of Genoa and Yugoslavia. The small piece of “tawny, opaque amber” on the desk of Schüler’s father triggered a lifelong fascination with amber. Derived from the Arabic word anbar, amber is the resin from 40-50 million-year-old prehistoric conifers, and 90% of the world’s supply comes from the Baltic region. It has been used for making ornaments and jewellery and in healing for centuries.
In pursuit of finding out about both his family’s social and historical background, and the fossil resin, Schüler journeys 2,500 kilometres by bus, train, boat or car, starting in St Petersburg where stays in a guest house overlooking the square which is the setting for Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. We are treated to the story of The Amber Room in Tsarskoye Selo, originally built for Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, between 1718-24 as a gift celebrating peace between Russia and Prussia. The original amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors disappeared during World War II so the reconstruction was installed between 1979-2003.
In Helsinki he visits the prehistoric galleries in the National Museum where he admires various dark, rich pendants. On the way to the ferry bound for Tallinn – known as “the Silicon Valley of the Baltic” – he passes the boathouse where Arthur Ransome berthed his yacht in the 1920s. It turns out that the author of Swallows and Amazons led a double life between the Lake Country, and as the Russian correspondent for the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian, eventually marrying Trotsky’s secretary Evgenia Shelepina.
Schüler journeys on through Riga, the largest city in the three Baltic states . . . and on to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, “with its Communist street names, Khrushschev-era housing and Komsomolskaya Pravda on sale at roadside kiosks, it felt like I as back in the USSR.” Formerly Königsberg, which belonged to the State of the Teutonic Order, it was largely destroyed in World War II by Allied bombing and the Red Army. Crossing the Samland peninsula and visiting the spa town of Rauschen offer a soothing respite from urban decay and destitution. Having followed the coast he now veers inland, with the next lap of his odyssey taking in Gdansk to Vienna, and the final lap covering Carnuntum to Venice.
He brings alive as he goes the cultural, political and historical diversity of Central Europe, once known as Mitteleuropa – “a world that has disappeared forever” – stretching back to antiquity, and obliterated by the inhuman destruction, the traumatic brutality and the monstrous crimes of World War Two that impacted his very own family.
From his words about Breslau emerge the nightmare that engulfed and decimated Central Europe. “The rise of Nazism crushed the civic autonomy and cultural élan of the city, while those members of the Jewish community fortunate enough to escape were scattered across the globe.”
Along the Amber Route gains its vitality from Schüler’s erudite and skilful blending of historical fact, cultural anecdote and human insight gleaned from those he encounters on his way going about the business of daily life – hoteliers, guides, cab drivers, café owners, curators . . . threreby creating a rich and rewarding, a romantic and yet very real, portrait of a region and its people, to read and relish and re-read.
“The Amber Route stretched behind me, like a string of beads across the continent. Another traveller might have followed a different route, or, while keeping to the same itinerary, spent longer in places where I had stopped just briefly, and sped through others where my interests prompted me to linger. But it was done. I had travelled through a gazeteer of countries that no longer existed: the Roman Empire, Imperial Russia, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. I had visited places where my ancestor, just a few generations back, had loved, struggled and prospered – and been forced to flee. I am a refugee’s son. Had Britain been a less welcoming place in 1939, I would not exist.”
Along the Amber Route is a rich and rewarding read, providing a kaleidoscopic multi-layered view of Central Europe – then and now. It is essential reading for independent learners and researchers not just book readers, europhiles and culture vultures.
As I read this intense and illuminating mosaic of a narrative, what struck home with disturbing force is that when a society goes along with, amplifies or dismisses the tricks and lies of its monstrous leaders, and suppresses, rewrites or denies verified history, darkness and horror await.
Along the Amber Route by C. J. Schüler | Sandstone Press 352pp 16.99 GBP | 27 Feb 2020 | ISBN 978-1-912240-91-3 | non fiction
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