Wednesday 21 August 2019

Feeling so empty and dispirited as our worlds drift apart


Haunted by its past: Krakow, Poland, is just an hour’s drive from Auschwitz, where many died in the Nazi concentration camp
Haunted by its past: Krakow, Poland, is just an hour’s drive from Auschwitz, where many died in the Nazi concentration camp

Fergal Keane

All night the mosquitoes whine, elusive and malign, my hand claws at the air in half sleep and I wonder if this will be the trip where cerebral malaria strikes home.

The heat is of the evil variety. It fills the air with the rank odour of blocked drains and rubbish dumps. When the dawn finally comes I rise and find I am drenched in sweat. So is the pillow. So are the sheets.

Somewhere in the middle of the night the mosquitoes were joined by ghosts of old horrors. No surprise. Walking to the window I look out and see the brown soup of an equatorial river meandering through the morning haze. Out there living and dying has already begun. Nobody with any power to change things cares much about what it is going on here. I am in a place of butchery and despair. Of this place I will write on another day.

The world is divided into the following categories: the places where people vote, have rights, earn a living, have some kind of social welfare system, go on holidays, spend too much time on their mobile phones, see too little of their kids, fear death in a long-term abstract kind of way, argue about Brexit, fear Trump and North Korea and worry about terrorism.

Then there are the places where people have some of the above rights and some of the same oppressive preoccupations but are ruled by governments that believe in shrinking liberty and who help themselves to just enough of the public wealth to avoid being classed as kleptocrats; and there are places where people can live or die at the whim of gunmen, where government exists in air-conditioned offices, remote and constantly repressive, venal and careless, monstrously corrupt.

There is the world of no choices and there is the beautiful city from which I have just arrived. I am struggling to connect the two. That is never wise. Places are too different. The distances in miles and mind are too great. But I have the kind of mind that claws at connections between worlds. I long still to believe that while our human experiences are very different, our humanity is universal. I think long exposure to war makes you either very cynical or a perpetual prisoner of hope.

I ended up a hopeless hoper.

A few days ago I was walking with my son through the streets of Krakow, where its native poet Czeslaw Milosz described returning "from the big capitals/To a town in a narrow valley under the cathedral hill/With royal tombs. To a square under the tower…" It was late autumn and the parks were deep in brown leaves and full of families enjoying the sunlight.

The Polish government is less than liberal these days but the country is free and the citizens are free to vote out their leaders if they choose. In Krakow of the elegant squares and coffee shops we walked and talked and enjoyed each other's company. This city bears lightly, outwardly at least, the marks of successive invasions: the Mongol invasion of the 12th century, the Austrians, Bonaparte, the Nazis, the Soviets. The atmosphere has been shaped far more by mittel Europa, the easy going, tolerant milieu of late Austro-Hungarian, than it has by the influence of tyrants and dictators.

But there is a permanent shadow over Krakow. It is haunted by proximity to the most notorious charnel house of any era. We drove in the rain to Auschwitz, about an hour along the motorway and then on smaller roads through drab towns and villages, passing patches of forest until the railway line pointed in the direction of the iconic gate. My son is of an age when the death camp represents something more than an atrocity exhibition. He is alert, keenly so, to the moral voids from which such horrors emerge and watches for them constantly in our own time. I love his questioning mind. He is far sharper and wiser than I was at his age. I believe he will need to be.

His generation knows, or has the capacity to know, far more about the atrocities of the world than mine. But so much knowledge can be overwhelming. The dead pile up everywhere. They scream silently from You-Tube, draw forth customary expressions of sympathy and sorrow.

For all our obsession with terrorism the dying is mostly done in the other world, the one from which I am now writing. And the more we know the more exhausted we become. Knowledge of atrocity is no longer a call to action. It is a heavy press on world-weary brows. What is to be done and how can we do it, we used to ask. No longer. That is what frightens me most. The gap is not merely between the lived experience of Krakow and the cities of war - it is between knowledge and the will to act. So we watch the United Nations diminished by the ruthless self-interest of the great powers while a new authoritarianism rises across the globe, justified in the name of stability. I have often in these pages preached the message of optimism. I am not so sure now. The global village is not smaller thanks to technology. Worlds are drifting apart.

I go back to Milosz, Nobel Laureate, master of the human soul, and great poet of Krakow, who wrote:

So the Earth endures, in every petty matter

And in the lives of men, irreversible.

And it seems a relief. To win? To lose?

What for, if the world will forget us anyway.

Too many are forgotten. Driving back from Auschwitz in the dark we became briefly lost. It was in a part of the country thick with forests. High trees loomed over the road. Suddenly I had this sense of history pressing in from all sides, an oppressive crush that left me empty and dispirited. Then we found the highway and saw the lights of Krakow and returned to the world, our world.

  • Fergal Keane is a foreign editor with the BBC

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