Book review: Belomor, by Nicolas Rothwell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 12:31pm

by Nicolas Rothwell
3.5 stars

Alex Clark

In the opening pages of Nicolas Rothwell's impressive mixture of art history, travel journalism and fiction, we encounter Bernardo Bellotto, nephew of Italian artist Canaletto, who in 1747 journeys to Dresden "to record the dream of an autocrat".

His chilly cityscapes, Rothwell writes, "seemed almost to pass judgment on the worlds he delineated with such exactitude" - except the exactitude already described something that existed at one remove, for the Dresden created by Polish monarch Augustus the Strong was modelled on "elusive, potent Venice". A work of art is not a document, or at least not an uncomplicated one; it may also record desires and dreams unknown to its audience.

Rothwell swiftly leaves Bellotto to travel forward in history, via Victor Klemperer's diary of the Dresden firestorm, to 1987, when he arrives at the home of Stefan Haffner, an East German dissident-philosopher. Haffner gives this book its title when he offers the author a cigarette, a Russian brand called Belomorkanal, named after the canal that connects the White Sea and the Baltic Sea, and that was built by convicts.

The philosopher claims the cigarettes are the strongest in the world, and they certainly have head-spinning associations, involving a pilgrimage Haffner had made as a young man to a former prison archipelago in the Arctic. "As I was looking, what was before me had vanished. It melted away. It became whiteness - not waves, and beams of light, and sky. It was the whiteness behind the world. I understood that I was staring into the void at the core of things; that what we see is not the final verdict on what exists. Since that day it has been clear to me there are moments in our lives when the world becomes unstable, when our visual field gives way: things break before us; they burst into fragments, disappear," he says.

Belomor is captivatingly studded with such dramatic encounters, and with characters whose pronouncements and memories lodge in Rothwell's mind, often lying dormant only to resurface in some unexpected context years later.

Such global psychogeography encourages a certain grandiose mysticism; filled with coincidences and convergences, symbols and auguries, its attempts to reach what is out of sight or already disappeared make it by definition unsuccessful, unable to achieve anything beyond a kind of yearning provisionality. To some extent, susceptibility to this way of seeing the world is a matter of personal taste. But the attempts to forge connections also make for a magpie brilliance over the course of four loosely connected and magnificently unsettling essays.

Guardian News & Media