Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Nostalgia & Central Europe

Iasi, Romania
Photo by Valyt

A little while ago, a Lithuanian reader of this blog commented on a post I’d written about Vilnius. He suggested that historians (including, I think, me) should be wary of nostalgia for the Central European past. That comment came back to me this spring in Poznań, when I was eating dinner in a ‘Jewish’ restaurant (Jewish recipes, non-kosher, apparently cooked by non-Jewish Poles), which advertised itself as offering fine food and ‘nostalgia’. This week, I finished reading Georgina Harding’s Orange Prize short-listed novel The Painter of Silence, set in Romania in the 1930s to 1950s. It is about an aristocratic girl and her deaf childhood companion, as they make the transition from rural pre-war idyll, to a country devastated by war and totalitarianism. The most memorable sections of this deeply humane novel describe the estate at Poiana. I was struck by how well this British writer has captured the way in which Central Europeans from privileged pre-war backgrounds talk about their family homes – the modest but perfectly formed manor house, orchards with an impossible abundance of fruit, enchanted lakes, the warm and devoted servants. Painter of Silence deals very much in the currency of nostalgia, that of the protagonist Safta and her class, and our own romanticised image of a timeless, Chekovian Central European countryside.

Nostalgia, for individuals and societies, is surely a (superficial?) way of processing profound loss; loss of family pasts and houses, of entire peoples and cultures. Nonetheless, I can see my Lithuanian reader’s point, that some of its manifestations are intellectually problematic and morally uncomfortable. It can lead to a saccharine reading of Central Europe’s extraordinarily violent 20C past, casting it (especially pre 1939) as a innocent land of fairy tale. The Poznań restaurant’s whistful recreation of spiced Jewish pancakes, the idealisation of pre-war Romanian aristocratic life, and perhaps even my grandmother’s magical realist stories about 1920s Vilnius are a way of keeping real history at bay – perhaps to make it easier to cope with, but also perhaps to avoid engaging with the dark reality of what lies beneath. So nostalgia is probably a gremlin that historians – not least historians of Central Europe - should keep a keen eye on.

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