When the Tugendhat family from Brno in Czechoslovakia decided to commission architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design their new home in 1928, they had no idea that his creation would come to reflect their country’s turbulent history and politics, being passed from their own hands, to those of the Nazis, the Russians and eventually the Czech authorities – until one day being deemed a vital part of Czech and world heritage.
The Tugendhats wanted something daring, modern and original, and when work was completed in 1930, that’s what they were presented with. Floor to ceiling windows, some of which slid to the floor, and an onyx wall which changed colour depending on the light, were just some of the features of the innovative Modernist design which became their family home. But not for long. Eight years after they moved in, the Tugendhats were forced to flee. World War Two was on their doorstep and this Jewish industrialist family decided to get out while they could. What happened next to the house is like a microcosm of Czech history, and so fascinated writer Simon Mawer, he decided to tell the story in a novel.
The Glass Room was published in 2009 to much critical acclaim, and a shortlisting for the Man Booker Prize. The name of the city, family and architect were changed and the lives of most of the characters fictionalised, but Mawer took the actual house as his subject, bringing it alive, even for people like me who up until reading the book had no interest in Modernist architecture whatsoever.
“Liesel and Viktor stood and marvelled at it. It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the gardens, light reverberating from the glass. It was though they stood inside a crystal of salt.” – The Glass Room p64
Having finished the book, I wanted nothing more than to get myself over to Brno to visit the house itself, but on investigating, I discovered it was closed to the public while undergoing a program of refurbishment. Two years and nine million dollars later the house is once again ready for visitors, and we’re told that around 80 percent of its original features have been restored.
“Just the space, the light, the white. Just the gleaming chrome pillars. Just the onyx wall and the curved partition of the Macassar wood. The cool, calm rationality of the place, undisturbed by any of the irrationality that human beings would impose on it. They pause for a moment and look.” – The Glass Room p183
After the Tugendhat’s left the house, it was seized by the Nazis, damaged by soldiers and then bombarded by the Allies – the famous windows smashed. When the Soviets arrived it was in turn a horse stable, a dance school and a rehabilitation centre for children with spine defects, before being left to fall into a state of disrepair. Much of this, with some adaption, is told in the novel.
“Zdenka pushes open the glass door and leads the way through into the gymnasium. The curtains have been pulled back and they walk across a lighted stage with the whole city as their audience. Behind her the visitor gives a small sigh, maybe a sign of longing maybe a mere exhalation of regret. ‘I’d forgotten how marvellous the place is,’ she says. ‘But what happened to the windows? It used to be all plate glass.’” – The Glass Room p348
In the 1980s the Brno authorities took ownership of the house and there was a half-hearted attempt to restore it, but many believed they did more harm than good in their efforts to make it fit their own plan. In 1992, Czechoslovakia divided into two – the Czech Republic and Slovakia – and the deal was signed by the new countries’ prime ministers in the house itself. Villa Tugendhat was opened to the public in the mid 90s after being declared part of Czech cultural heritage and in 2001 it became a World Heritage Site.
Now it has finally been returned to its former glory and from March 6, 2012 will be open once again to visitors – and I cannot wait for an opportunity to visit.
Mawer’s novel is not just a great read with an engaging narrative, it makes you fall in love with this house. He has taken much of the detail of the building and incorporated it into his story in a way that binds you to it.
“In the Glass Room they mounted the onyx wall. The slabs had veins of amber and honey, like the contours of some distant, prehistoric landscape. They were polished to a mirror-like gloss, and once in place, the stone seemed to take hold of the light, blocking it, reflecting it, warming it with a soft, feminine hand and then, when the sun set over the Špilas fortress and shone straight in at the stone, glowing fiery red.” – The Glass Rom p72
The Glass Room helps us to understand how much a country like the Czech Republic has been through over the last 80 years, how its people have been forced to live under several extreme regimes, and how even as it re-invents itself time and time again, the impact of that history remains – in its people, its character and its buildings.
“And all around them is the past, frozen into a construct of glass and concrete and chrome, the Glass Room with its onyx wall and its partition of tropical hardwood and the milky petals of its ceiling lights, a space, a Raum so modern when Rainer von Abt designed it, yet now, as Hana Hanakova sits and weeps, so imbued with the past.” – The Glass Room p372
And while I know very little of the Tugendhat family themselves, Mawer’s characters – Liesel, Viktor, Hana and Zdenka – are my friends, and when I finally get the opportunity to visit “their” home, I will feel I know all of its secrets and stories in a way I never could if I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading The Glass Room.
If you’d like to explore the story of Villa Tugendhat a little further, you may want to have a listen to an interview with Mawer, see old pictures of the house in this two-minute video, or visit the website.
I have been living in London for around eight years now, and somehow, without realising it, I have fallen out of wonder with it. How can that be? London is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, full of history, great architecture and an absolute wealth of stories. But after years of commuting to the office, cramming onto trains and buses with millions of others, and collapsing gratefully at home at the end of the working week, I have forgotten how wonderful it is to get out and explore.
And yet here I am, urging you to explore all these wonderful locations around the world as you read the novels inspired by them, and yet I can’t get myself away from the computer and into the alleys and towpaths of this magnificent city on my doorstep.
So, I am determined to do something about it. I need to get reading some novels set in London and lace up my walking shoes.
Having not read a novel set in London for some time I decided to start my London project by taking advantage of a handy podcast provided by the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian is marking 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens with a whole lot of interesting content, including three podcasts you can download with Dickens related walking tours. The first one takes us into parts of London frequented by Oliver Twist.
So, armed with iPod (downloaded with said podcast and interactive map) and a printout of a rather funky hand-drawn style map, also provided on the Guardian website, I set off. I was hugely excited…I hadn’t done anything like this in London for such a long time.
It was only when I got to the starting point of the tour (near Angel Islington where Oliver would have arrived after walking several days from his workhouse in the country to London) that I realised I hardly had any battery left on my iPod. What a rookie mistake! The whole thing would fall apart without that marvel of Apple technology. All I could do was set off and hope for the best..
It’s just so cool (not geeky at all, I assure you) to walk the streets, passing fast food places, supermarkets and cash machines, while you have someone whispering stories in your ear of life in 19th century London. Everyone else might be struggling with their shopping, while you are learning that in this very spot Oliver met the Artful Dodger, or was brought before the cruel magistrate Mr Fang. I was taken down alleyways, past two hundred year old pubs and outside buildings, some of which I had walked past many times before, with no idea of their significance. I mean I was in complete ignorance that a post office I have lined up at many times was actually the site where young boys were made to walk on a huge treadmill as part of correctional therapy. (Ironically, the area is called ‘Mount Pleasant!)
The experience wasn’t perfect. Sometimes the directions weren’t entirely clear and I had to back track a few times, which was more stressful than it should have been because I could see the battery life on the iPod slipping away, but all in all, it was a terrific way to spend a couple of hours on a grey, threatening-to-rain kind of afternoon.
I finished up wishing I had time to have a drink in one of the wonderful old pubs on the journey, but feeling worldly and wise with a little bit of that love of London rekindled. Here’s to many more afternoons of wandering…
By the way – I finished with three percent of battery life to spare. Phew!
PS. The Guardian has released its second podcast which takes you to Dickens locations in Rochester, Kent and in part three, it’s back to London for sites relating to David Copperfield. That’s my next mission.
What about you and where you live? Have you ever explored your town or city through a locally set novel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
John Shors is the author of the Thailand-set novel Cross Currents, which tells of a family who own a small resort on the beautiful island of Ko Phi Phi Don off the coast of Phuket. The family are struggling to make ends meet, and things are about to get a whole lot tougher, given that the book starts in the week before the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 when thousands of Ko Phi Phi residents lost their lives. You can read more about the book itself here.
This is Shors’s fifth novel – the others being set in places as diverse as Vietnam and India, and he delights in making the settings of his novels as important as the characters in the books.
John has kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the writing of this novel, and of Ko Phi Phi itself.
John, this is a novel in which the location is extremely important – tell us a little about your own relationship with Ko Phi Phi…?
After graduating from college, I taught English in Japan for several years, where I worked hard and managed to save some of my income. After leaving Japan, I backpacked around Asia for almost a year, and came across Ko Phi Phi, Thailand. This butterfly-shaped island was probably the most beautiful place I had ever been, and I basically fell in love with it. Not only had I discovered a tropical paradise, but the local people were quite friendly, and there was a wonderful rapport between locals and travelers, something not always present overseas.
In the years that followed, I found myself returning to Ko Phi Phi. Once I became a full-time writer, I decided to create a novel set in Ko Phi Phi, but I couldn’t figure out the vehicle to make such a story happen. I wanted to write more than a love story set in paradise. I wanted something that was global in nature. When the Indian Ocean Tsunami swept through Ko Phi Phi in 2004, I realized that I could write a novel that brought that day to life, celebrated the strength of the human spirit, and generated money for those who had been hurt by the wave.
How did you go about deciding whose perspective this story should be told from?
My goal with Cross Currents wasn’t to create a novel centered on the tsunami, but a character-driven story that could stand on its own feet without the wave. It seemed to me that Cross Currents should be told from two perspectives—Thai and tourist. So, I created the Thai family and the American family, and put a lot of effort into bringing these characters to life.
Ever since the film “The Beach” the Phi Phi islands have come under the world tourist spotlight, but there is a concern about the environmental impact of tourists – is this a place you think tourists should be visiting?
‘The Beach’ certainly brought a lot of attention to Ko Phi Phi. I visited the island long before the movie ever appeared, and have been back since its release. I wish that the island was as unspoiled as it was twenty years ago. But the world doesn’t work that way. And, fortunately, for the most part, Ko Phi Phi is still in good shape. There are no high-rise hotels, no cars, and no pollution. It’s certainly true that the Thai government could do a better job protecting this paradise, and tourists could do better as well. I was on the island a year ago, for instance, researching Cross Currents, and to my dismay I saw several tourists leave or drop litter on this pristine beach. So, while I encourage people to travel to the island, I also hope that they treat it with the respect that it deserves.
Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Ley (Lee or Leh), made famous by the film ‘The Beach’- Image courtesy of Cybercap via Wikimedia Commons
For someone who has not visited the Phi Phi islands before – how would you suggest they approach a visit?
A trip to Ko Phi Phi has some logistical challenges, but is doable. One can fly into Bangkok, and then fly to Phuket, which is Thailand’s biggest and most popular island. It’s a two-hour ferry ride from Phuket to Ko Phi Phi. The islands around Ko Phi Phi also make for wonderful day trips. There is world-class snorkeling, an abundance of white-sand beaches, etc. Many of the islands are completely undeveloped.
Any special recommendations for things to do or places to visit/stay?
I made an effort to bring a lot of the highlights of Ko Phi Phi to life within Cross Currents. For instance, my characters swim with sharks, hike to the top the island, visit a huge cave, etc. One of my goals with the book was to bring the joys of the island to vivid life on the page.
Have you been back to the island since the tsunami?
The tsunami occurred on December 26, 2004, and I visited the island in 2007 and 2010 to research Cross Currents. I was amazed at how everything had been rebuilt. One would have never known that such a calamity occurred there.
When we look at the types of novels written in English that are set in Thailand, Cross Currents stands out as being very different from much of what is generally available, how do you feel it fits in relation to what is normally published?
There certainly are many gritty novels that occur in Bangkok and have to do with the underworld there. At one point I thought about doing such a story, but in the end decided that I wanted to write a novel about the beauty of Thailand and its people.
You have made a habit of choosing interesting locations for your novels, often places that have not been written about before. How do you choose your locations?
I try to pick locations that I want to further explore and that haven’t yet been brought to life through popular fiction. Many writers have written novels set in Paris, London, Rio, Shanghai, and Tokyo. I want to write novels that occur abroad, but that are set in destinations that people aren’t quite as familiar with.
Do you have a favorite?
Well, I really do love Thailand. It will always be a special place to me.
What do you hope people take away from your novels?
One of my hopes is that my novels will help people realize that the world is a small place, that people are a lot more alike than they are different. Sometimes, through politics, we focus on our differences. Yet there is a lot more that binds us together than separates us.
If you are looking for a virtual journey to a beautiful Thai island, then I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of Cross Currents. Thank you John for your time and we look forward to your next novel adventure…
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “Cross Currents” by the publishers.
I have found Thailand one of the most challenging of our World Challenge countries, because in general the literature about this beautiful, friendly country is very different from that of others in the region. When it comes to countries like Japan or China for example, there is a multitude of books to choose from which explore issues such as family life, the position of women, aspects of history etc – all subjects I am passionate about. But when it comes to Thailand, the novels available tend to fall into two categories.
The first are books about Bangkok crime – such as John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, described as “ a sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious novel set in one of the world’s most exotic cities” or Dean Barrett’s Skytrain to Murder in which an American detective is on the trail of a murderer through “Bangkok’s seedy underbelly including dangerous slums, high class gentlemen clubs and a house of domination.” These novels have a big following, and for those who like gritty, underworld crime they are ideal.
The second category consists of books about Western sex-tourists and their relationships with conniving Thai bar girls. These books are often marketed as “warnings” to gullible Western men and at least on first glance appear to do little to really explore beyond the stereotypes. At this stage I am loathe to include these novels on Packabook’s list of books set in Thailand, until I have had a chance to read some of them myself and determine their level of sensitivity and respect for the country itself. So far, I’m not convinced.
Neither of these categories particularly appealed to me as I searched for a book to read for our challenge this month…but I have found a few other titles which look a little more promising.
You may want to try Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, a mystery novel set in the northern hills. Reviews suggest this novel gives a sensitive and well-researched perspective on the landscape as well as the cultures of tribes in the area.
Or for a closer look at Bangkok there is Letters from Thailand, a 1969 novel by Botan which has recently been re-released in English. The book is one of the country’s most enduring novels and gives us the story of a Chinese migrant attempting to make his fortune in Thailand.
But for this challenge I decided to try a new release which ticked all the right boxes for me, and had the added advantage of being set in a place I have actually been to, albeit just for a few hours.
Cross Currents is a novel set on Ko Phi Phi Don, an island off the coast of Phuket. You may be more familiar with one of the other Phi Phi islands, Ko Phi Phi Leh the location for Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 film ‘The Beach’ which introduced the stunning beauty of the islands to the world.
This novel is set the week before the Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, so there are no prizes for guessing where things are heading. While the actual number of people who died on Phi Phi during the tsunami is hard to determine and will probably never be known, it seems it was in the thousands. The particular shape of Phi Phi Don (butterfly-shaped with two wide bays and a thin strip of land in between) meant it was hit by waves from two directions. The resulting damage and loss of life were devastating, and the infrastructure has had to be completely rebuilt since.
Cross Currents tells of a family who run a small resort on Ko Phi Phi Don. Lek and Sarai depend on convincing a few tourists a day to stay in their beachside bungalows, but it’s a challenge. Many people prefer to stay in high-end accommodation, and for the family, it is a daily battle to make ends meet. Into the picture comes a young American called Patch who is clearly on the run from someone, but is helping Lek out with work around the resort. When Patch’s brother arrives to try and convince him to give himself up, he is torn between dealing with his past and staying in paradise and helping the family who have pretty much adopted him.
Ko Phi Phi Don – Image courtesy of C-Fix via Wikimedia Commons
The novel has a fairly simple narrative and won’t tax your brain cells too much, but it does a lovely job in exploring the lives and feelings of the protagonists. We get a wonderful insight into Lek and his family and the challenges they face, something I doubt you’d be able to read about anywhere else. The tension obviously grows as we approach Boxing Day, as we all know what is about to engulf this beautiful island. The description of the tsunami itself is terrifying, and while the ending of the novel feels a little unbelievable, it takes nothing away from the emotion of the story itself.
There are some wonderful characters in this novel, not least two of Lek’s children; his witty, feisty daughter and his dreamy, budding marine biologist son. As that tsunami approaches, I can guarantee you will be praying to every god you’ve ever heard of for those two delightful children to survive. It is heartbreaking to think of the number of children who were actually swept away when the wave approached, and the novel really brings that home.
I highly recommend this book for those of you looking to join us for the Thailand leg of the World Party Reading Challenge. If you fancy trying something else, here’s our selection of books set in Thailand to explore. Let us know what you are reading and what you think of it in the comments…
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “Cross Currents” by the publishers.
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.
I am delighted to host this guest post from Packabook reader and travel blogger Jackie Smith whose trips to the Greek island of Crete with her husband Joel have been heavily influenced by books…read on to find out how Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzkis and Victoria Hislop’s The Island impacted on their travel decisions…Over to you Jackie!
Finding Zorba’s Beach…
We had two ‘novel destinations’ tucked away in our travel plans for Crete when we arrived there in 2009. And finding “Zorba’s beach” was the first.
The 1952 novel Zorba The Greek by Cretan author Nikos Kazantzkis led us to the 1964 movie of the same name. One of the black and white film’s most famous scenes is of Anthony Quinn, as Alexis Zorba, teaching the sirtaki dance to his boss (played by Alan Bates); arms-interlinked-step-step-kick on Crete’s Stavros Beach.
Click on the video image below to see the scene from the film…
We often use novels and narratives as supplemental guidebooks on our travels, so in this case, who would be a better guide than Zorba himself?
Stavros is a crescent-shaped beach on the Akrotiri Peninsula, 14 kilometers east of Chania at the base of a rocky mountain (it is this mountain in the film that Zorba’s ill-fated logging plan failed). The beach was virtually empty on our mid-morning visit; a few beach chairs and a single food concession stand. In fact, there isn’t much in Stavros (a plus!) other than a few scattered restaurants and beach homes.
By chance we picked Mama’s Place across from the beach for lunch. The white-haired, 61-year-old owner, Petros Vasiliki, told us that his family opened the restaurant in 1951. The movie’s cast and crew had dined there while filming, he told us, and because they couldn’t pronounce his mother’s name, they’d simply called her ‘Mama’ and the restaurant has been “Mama’s Place” ever since. Vasiliki was 16 when the movie was filmed and today entertains diners with tales about the filming, proudly telling the stories behind the dozens of photos taken during the filming that line the restaurant walls.
Our second ‘novel destination’ in Crete was at the opposite end of the island: Spinalonga, just off the north coast. This small island served as Greece’s main leper colony from 1903 to 1957 we learned when reading The Island, a 2005 novel by English writer, Victoria Hislop. The book, definitely a light-read, love story spanning generations, brought the island – that we’d previously never heard of — to life for us through the story of a Greek family whose loved ones stricken by the disease were taken to Spinalonga.
We based ourselves in Elounda, just down the road from the small town of Plaka, which plays prominently in the novel. From Plaka we took one of the many shuttle boats that deposit and pick up tourists on Spinalonga. As we toured what is left of the town created by the lepers, I thought of Hislop’s story but also of the thousands of real people who had spent their lives turning this tiny lump of a rock island into a world. It was a fascinating tour and one we would have missed had we not read the book.
Who Pays the Ferryman?
Elounda itself led us to another novel. While exploring this harbor town we passed The Ferryman’s Bar which called to mind the title of a late 1970’s BBC television show, Who Pays the Ferryman? set in Crete.
After returning home from Crete and researching that show, we found Who Pays the Ferryman? a novel by Michael J.Bird, that is based on his BBC television series of the same name. Reading the book ‘took us back’ to some of our favorite Cretan spots as we followed the story of Alan Haldane’s return to Crete after a 35-year absence and the love story that ensues. The book was first published in England in 1977.
Winds of Crete
Among our favorite souvenirs are books. So, while in Crete, we searched for one that had been recommended – a narrative, not novel — but we were unable to find it. It wasn’t until months later, back in the Pacific Northwest, that I struck gold when I found a very used, dog-eared paper-back copy of Winds of Crete, by David MacNeil Doren, in a Portland, Oregon bookstore.
While not a novel, it was a great ‘guide’ that we used on a subsequent trip to Crete. In it the author writes of the Crete he and his wife experienced during the six years they lived there. Their accounts of places they had visited enriched our travels. The book was first published in England in 1974.
One of our favorite Cretan destinations is Chora Sfakia, a small harbor town on the island’s southern coast, best known for the role it played in World War II as the route for Allied Troops who boarded ships to escape the approaching Nazi troops. The town these days is a quiet, laid-back community, a good base for hikers and other visitors who want to get away from the maddening crowds of mass tourism.
English writer Peter Trudgill fell in love with the place and wrote about his decades-long love affair and his more than 60 visits there in his book In Sfakia published in 2008. We purchased the book while there and savored the memories it provided after we’d returned home. We also used it as an excellent travel companion when we returned to the town last year.
Thank you Jackie for this wonderful peek into your travels and inspiring us to explore Crete a little further.
You can see where else Jackie and Joel have been adventuring at TravelnWrite.com where they are documenting their journeys…and if you are looking for more Crete-inspired novels to read, you can find them at books set in Greece…