Given our society’s penchant for overstatement - we constantly hear the most banal activities described as “awesome” or “traumatic” - we may see the day when, having stripped so many words in our language of degree and meaning, we run out of superlatives. Maria Tumarkin, however, is adamant that the title of her book Traumascapes is not just a catchy word for sites of tragedy, but reflects the medical origins of the word “trauma” in the sense of being so bad as to be overwhelming or incomprehensible.
The book traces her personal odyssey researching major contemporary sites of violence, suffering and loss - “the scar tissue that stretches across the world” - encompassing Bali, Berlin, Moscow, New York, Port Arthur, Sarajevo and Shanksville, Pennysylvania, where the fourth plane involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks crashed.
Tumarkin immigrated to Australia with her family from the Ukraine in 1989 shortly after her 15th birthday. She credits the strange story of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with instilling in her the power of place and ultimately providing the impulse for this book.
Built with donations from individuals - the size of which were restricted so that the poor might contribute and the rich not be tempted to seek glory from the size of their sponsorship - the huge cathedral on the Moskva River, not far from the Kremlin, was designed to immortalise Russia’s defeat of Napoleon in 1812.
In December, 1931, Muscovites awoke to the sound of a series of explosions marking its demolition on Stalin’s orders. In its place he planned to erect the Palace of the Soviets, the highest and biggest building in the world, topped by a statue of Lenin which would be visible from all over Moscow (the head alone was supposed to be larger than a five-storey house). However, during construction the foundations began to slide towards the river and despite the best efforts of British and German consultants, the slide could not be stopped and construction had to be abandoned. It was said that the sliding stopped completely once the project was discontinued.
The gaping hole remained for two decades until it was replaced by a giant heated swimming pool which it was claimed was the biggest in Europe; and ultimately, in 1991, by an exact replica of the original cathedral, ordered by Boris Yeltsin as atonement for the crimes of the communist regime and to mark Russia’s cultural and spiritual renaissance.
But the manner in which it was funded and built - not to mention the hubris involved - prompted widespread scepticism and speculation at home and abroad about what new Ozymandian fate might await the grandiose edifice.
Though she doesn’t attempt to connect other sites of tragedy and loss with such inexplicable phenomena, Tumarkin writes about the powerful sense of place which marks even the most unlikely scenes of trauma, for example, at Shanksville, a tiny rural community in Somerset County, Pennysylvania, the crash site of infamous Flight 93 on September 11.
After the terrible event, victims’ relatives felt a compulsion to go there to be in some way close to them, and found comfort in the embrace of local people who took responsibility as volunteer guides. Similarly, relatives of many of the Bali victims said they felt “more connected” to them when they visited Bali and some survivors of the siege of Sarajevo reported feeling lost and emotionally incomplete away from the site of their trauma.
Media attention to places of trauma has been seen as the catalyst for the phenomenon known as “trauma tourism”, but Tumarkin claims that this can’t fully explain what it is about sites of violence and suffering that resonates with so many people. When you consider Auschwitz and Gallipoli and the numbers of visitors they attract annually you’d have to agree with her.
Many of the contemporary traumas of the world, particularly those resulting from terrorism, have been characterised by the almost total obliteration of human remains. This can create a profound crisis for mourners because rituals of mourning tend to revolve around the body. Aware of this difficulty, New York mayor, Rudi Giuliani arranged for soil from Ground Zero to be given in special urns to the victims’ families. In the absence of anything else to hold on to, place can become the only thing mourners can rely on.
Moreover, it can be immensely upsetting for victims and their families when authorities attempt to erase completely all signs of a traumatic event, no matter how terrible. The speed with which the site of the 2002 Chechen siege at Moscow’s Dubrovka Cultural Centre was cleaned up - it took about two months - appeared to imply there was no need to stop and ponder the implications of what had taken place there. It seems self-evident - especially when Tumarkin draws our attention to it - that ruins can be far more evocative of tragedy than elaborately constructed memorials.
It is impossible to erase a tragedy by renovating the site concludes Maria Tumarkin, for all places are palimpsests, filled with intricate layers of meaning and history. Traumascapes takes the reader on a thought-provoking journey, the itinerary of which - sadly - is almost certain to expand in the years to come.
Maria Tumarkin will be appearing at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in conversation with Raimond Gaita at the Cremorne Theatre at 4pm. Sunday, October 2.