Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 17, 2016

Traumascapes (2005), by Maria Tumarkin

TraumascapesIt’s synchronicity: this week Karen at BookerTalk posted about her ‘bad habit’ of buying non-fiction books that she never gets round to reading and here I am reviewing a book that very nearly fell into that category…

Karen identifies some possible reasons for behaving in this somewhat irrational way.  It can be because of a desire to know more about some issue than is accessible in the media, or it can be a ‘vain attempt’ to keep up with some issue of importance.  Some of my neglected NF books fall into this category: I have half a dozen books about terrorism that represent my vague unease with how the media distorts this issue, and yes, those ones survived the Tidy-the-Bookshelves cull.  But they have not yet jumped out of the shelves demanding to be read.  No, it’s those pushy author bios that do that – and probably always will…

But others on Karen’s NF TBR, like mine – including some very recent purchases – are unlikely ever to be read and there appears to be no rational reason for buying them, other than that I thought I ought to.   They’re not there to impress anybody: these books are tucked away on the shelves in my library, a private space in my house and a  room very rarely visited by my friends.

But perhaps one other reason might be the influence of the zeitgeist – which is why I think I’ve had Maria Tumarkin’s Traumascapes on my TBR for ages and ages.  This book was everywhere in the year of its publication in 2005: there were author interviews in the media, reviews all over the place, author events at bookstores, and if memory serves me correctly, festival appearances too.

Quite unexpectedly, now that I’ve finally read it, I found myself having reservations about this much-lauded book.  (And, to be honest, I have some qualms about saying so).  Charlotte Wood was troubled by the lack of structure in the book in her review for The Age  but I was more bothered by the tone.   In exploring the haunting nature of places where terrible things have happened, Tumarkin selects Moscow, Bali, Berlin, New York (9/11), Shanksville, Sarajevo and Port Arthur and others – but adopts a lofty tone.  God forbid, Tumarkin says on page 224 that I might sound moralising or rhetorical.  Yet in the midst of this most thoughtful of books, here and there I found myself confronting accusatory generalisations.

Unravelling what is labelled ‘dark tourism’ Tumarkin explores the compulsion that takes people to the sites of tragedy.  But at pains to separate her motives for doing so from the herd’s, Tumarkin claims an immunity conferred by her upbringing in the Soviet Union.

Our life in the former Soviet Union taught us that people’s only real defence against paranoia and deceit perpetuated by the totalitarian regime was their individualism – hungry, uncontrollable and self-renewing.  Being part of the herd was a sure path to moral and psychological disintegration.  For as long as I can remember, I have referred to emotionally or otherwise charged activities customarily done in groups (demonstrations, mediations, parties, book clubs and group tours) as ‘group sex’.  Collective undertakings like these have always seemed to me like the very definition of unnatural acts.  (p.33)

This makes her, she says, an ‘unlikely pilgrim’.  She isn’t ‘comfortable’ with ‘the idea of trauma tourism.’

To this day, when I go to the sites of trauma, I always catch myself trying to keep the greatest possible distance from tourists.  I am writing a book, I tell myself.  I need to come here.  I am not sightseeing, but gathering vital research.  I have no curiosity, only the need to see these places with my own eyes.  When I come to sites of trauma, I try not to stay in hotels.  This is not just a money-saving strategy; I need to make sure I am not bound in any way to other tourists.  If it so happens that I end up joining guided tours – an extremely rare turn of events, all in all – it is only to see what kind of stories are being fed to tourists – a category from which I obsessively exclude myself.  (p.52-3)

I find this sanctimonious.  When in Berlin to visit museums of classical antiquity, The Spouse and I also visited the Berlin Holocaust Memorial out of respect.  For us, one cannot visit that city without acknowledging its evil history; no matter how much time passes it would be morally wrong to ignore the past.  We were not looking for a ‘cathartic experience’ as a ‘release from the burden of a traumatic past‘.  We were honouring the murdered.  We were asserting that they are not forgotten and that individually and collectively they still matter, to gentiles like us from the other side of the world who were not even born when it happened.  It is not just that I could not look my Jewish friends in the eye if I chose not to do this; it is part of being fully human to remember the Holocaust.  I don’t think this makes me and my motives special, because I don’t presume to judge the motives of the other people who are there.

Writing about the siege of Sarajevo,  Tumarkin has this to say:

In more than a decade that followed the onset of the siege, much as been written and said about the attempted murder of the Bosnian capital.  Yet I have found intolerable most of the accounts produced by outsiders who had come to Sarajevo during or after the siege.  I find intolerable what they say about Sarajevo and Sarajevans, their shaming adjectives and epic descriptions.  It’s either barbarians slaughtering other barbarians driven by age-old ethnic hatreds or angelic victims in the multicultural paradise of a city now forever lost – a place where all ethnicities once lived together in unheard-of harmony.  But people are neither cattle nor angels.  That’s the point – they are people.  To go insane with pain for them, you don’t need to diminish or inflate their humanity.  You just need to know that these were and are human beings, who were put in a situation the rest of us should pray we never find ourselves in.  (p.93).

Tumarkin goes on to say that she makes her way to the city to get away from these mountains of words, trite, patronising and soaked in guilt as if she has some special quality that enables her to expunge all these images, a quality not felt by everyone else who has tried to make sense of this conflict, never mind go insane with pain….

Likewise, she moralises about tourism in developing countries:

Before October 2002, I had never considered going to Bali.  To me the thought of travelling through the countries of the developing world, whether self-styled tropical paradises or places outside most people’s itineraries, was never even remotely appealing.  Morally, I found it to be a deep, dark hole.  I had never caught on to the enthusiasm shown by much of the Western world, to which I now belonged by virtue of having the right kind of passport, for travels in countries whose extreme poverty led them to form an acute dependency on tourism.  There was a quote by a Caribbean writer Jamaica Kincaid, which I came across years ago; that, to me, said it all:

An ugly thing, that is what you become when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you … But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere … They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are to poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go …

In my mind, I could not understand why I would choose to go into people’s homes as a piece of rubbish – an empty, stupid, ugly thing eager to touch, taste, sample, get close.  And the fact that in so many countries people were so poor that they desperately needed my empty, stupid, ugly self to come only made things much worse.  (p.55)

No,  when Tumarkin goes to Bali, it’s with moral purpose.  Suddenly, for her, death suspends judgement and replaces it with a shared wound.  It no longer matters what the victims were doing, their innocence came across as startling and absolute.  She recognises that her moral disengagement and intellectual snobbism is no different to the ignorance of tourists gobbling up Bali for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now she sees that both are cowardly and dishonest.

What then, are readers to make of her research there, which reveals with no apparent sense of irony what tourists can learn from the first Balinese cremation that they witness, that the Balinese have a different attitude to life and death and that what she calls the ‘traumascape’ left behind after the bombing of the Sari Club does not hold the same resonance for the Balinese as it does for Australians?  And while she notes the absence of sites where the 1965-66 Indonesian anti-communist massacres took place, Tumarkin makes no mention of the site of the massacre and ritual suicide (Badung Puputan) of the Balinese Royal Family which took place in Denpasar in 1904.  Why is one a traumascape, and not the other?

Tumarkin is a Russian émigré and at times it seems as if objectivity falters when discussing Chechen terrorism:

‘If you are honest,’ I once heard someone say, ‘there are no answers.’  There are no answers, when on both sides people are continuously driven, by their pain and their powerlessness, to hatred.  Yet in Moscow there are no answers to the bare bones of the tragedies themselves – to simple things like who killed my child, why, with whose silent assistance and where are the murderers now ?  The apartment blasts of 1999, the Dubrovka siege of 2002, the Metro blasts of 1996, 2000, 2004, the Tushino rock concert bombing and now Beslan – to this day all of these tragedies are shrouded in secrets and lies.  None has been satisfactorily explained to the survivors, families of the victims and the Russian public as a whole.  Of course, Chechen terrorists have been blamed for everything that has happened, but time and time again the evidence supporting Chechens’ categorical guilt has not stood up to scrutiny. (p. 116)

Indeed?  What should readers make of this juxtaposition of the suffering of the Dubrovka hostages with that of Chechens?

For fifty-seven hours almost 850 audience and cast members (the precise number of spectators is not known to this date), as well as the forty-one captors with guns and explosives, would remain inside the building.  In the auditorium, the hostages would sit motionless in the red seats, patrolled by nineteen women in black, draped in explosives, only their eyes visible from hijabs.  This sitting – still, desperate, humiliating, with time freezing and hope evaporating – in a sense mirrored the fate of many Chechen civilians.  In the besieged Grozny, tens of thousands of residents had sat just like that in the basements of demolished buildings, hiding away from the Russian bombs and artillery shelling, mutual lawlessness and the bitter cold, only to grow ill and apathetic from oxygen deprivation, hunger and despair.  (p.108)

Is there moral equivalence?

Perhaps I have focussed on segments which disturbed me and placed them out of context, but the more I read, the more the judgemental tone seemed to rankle.  I had expected to be enlightened by this book, but I was disappointed.

Author: Maria Tumarkin
Title: Traumascapes
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2005
ISBN: 9780522851779
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.


  1. Trauma tourism!? That’s definitely one book I won’t be reading. Loved the review though.


  2. I’ve read this review because I don’t think it’s one I’d read – and having read your review I’m now confident I won’t read it. I think I’d agree with you re the tone. It sounds insulting to many who go to these sites for a whole range of reasons, and mostly for reasons, I’d suggest, as thoughtful as she believes hers are. I’ve never heard the term “trauma tourism” but I have visited some terrible sites.

    The first was Dachau in 1980. It was moving and taught me much – about the Holocaust, and about German discomfort with their history at that time. That was an intentional visit – we had to get a train to specifically visit it. But, I have also visited the site of the Martin Bryant massacre. That was not intentional but was because I wanted to visit Port Arthur, which I hadn’t, at that time, seen for well over a decade. You go to Port Arthur for many reasons – convict history, physical beauty – but now you can’t help but see this most recent part of its history. It’s sobering. And then, most recently, I visited the Changi museum. The prison is now gone but they have retained some walls which our tour took us past. Again, we went to learn more about the history, to be reminded of those who suffered so much. The first person stories contained there – from those in the forces on both sides, civilians – add to our understanding of the human costs. If only we all remembered, we surely wouldn’t let these things happen again. Perhaps we need MORE people to visit some of these sites. And perhaps it matters less WHY we go but what we take away from the experience.


    • Yes, I agree. While I might not like the idea that some people might go out of some macabre interest, it is what people take away from the experience that matters and I don’t think we can judge that. I did once, when I was in the Berlin Holocaust Museum and some tactless American woman said something about how she’d heard it all before. I cringed, and I remember being very indignant afterwards when discussing her comment with The Spouse. But now I think it might have been a nervousness and a sense of discomfort that made her say that, a sense of not wanting to know any more because it was too awful.
      On reflection, I suspect that this book was written when the author was too young for her subject, all fired up with passion for her opinions about things. An older author might have tempered her judgements about other people because ( as we all learn, eventually, and usually to our own cost) it does no good to alienate people when you want to change their minds about things…


      • Yes, I think it’s always important to start by respecting other people. We don’t know their stories, or their experience, or their personalities, or how articulate they are in terms of expressing themselves. It’s the old walk in another’s shoes philosophy isn’t it?


        • Absolutely. It’s partly why we read books, to get that vicarious experience:)

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review Lisa. I’ve not heard of this term “trauma tourism” either, which seems emotionally loaded. Surely most people visit these sites to honour the dead, not to get any vicarious pleasure out of it. I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in 1998 and it remains one of the most profound visits I ever made, because it put the Holocaust into perspective for me and made me feel connected in a way I had not previously despite reading dozens of books on the subject. And, like Sue, I also went to Port Arthur and “accidentally” saw the monument to the massacre and, again, that horrendous loss of life was suddenly put into context. I’ve also gone out of my way to see the plaque at the site of the London 7/7 bombing near the British Medical Association, because my OH was working in that building at the time do there but for the grace of God etc…


    • We had already booked our flights and accommodation in London when those bombings took place, and so we blundered into the aftermath, staying right near it. And what I remember was the people, so pleased to see us, bringing back a bit of normality to their shattered lives. Because of course for them, it was also a case of ‘there but for the grace of God’ and we could tell that many of them were still in shock. We went out of our way to say e.g. to shopkeepers that we were tourists from Australia and that we were so sorry about what had happened, because I think, when your community has been the victim of blind hatred, it’s some small comfort to meet up with strangers who are just normal people, mostly nice, mostly friendly, mostly good-hearted… because that’s what most people around the world are, in my experience.

      Liked by 1 person

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