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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Bratislava

Heading into town from the outskirts, Bratislava seemed unpromising; rows of tower blocks marched in formation, channelling the tram through a concrete gorge which let little light in, and little dust escape. We stepped off, however, outside the lovely Primacialny palace, and passed under a graffitied underpass to a different place.

Like both Krakow and Prague, the old town square is the centre, although this one is much smaller than either of the former. In contrast with Krakow, although three sides of Bratislava’s old town square are made up of the same kind of Renaissance architecture, the fourth is a blue wall of windows and steel, although it combines well in its contrast. Radiating out of the square and up the side streets (where, incidentally the best and cheapest, family-run restaurants are to be found), this pattern repeats with the many old buildings interspersed with modern – often imaginative but sometimes insipid – new structures.

Photograph of a castle on a hill above an old, narrow street
Bratislava Castle
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Indeed, the castle which heads the skyline is an example of the latter. This is unusual in that it is a 1950s reconstruction of a building which was knocked or burnt down and rebuilt many times in its history. The result is not altogether successful, the whole thing seeming too coherent and well-designed, though still in a traditional style, and thus it has none of the contrasting architectural features which are normally added or removed from a building over its lifetime, and which have written in their stonework political or cultural stories. It fits together too nicely, reminding one of the kind of castle a giant might build with a Lego set. The views from the ramparts, however, are good, although they give a sense of the way the old town has been obliterated by Soviet grand schemes. East is the old city, with its roofs and church towers, but even these are mirrored by factory chimneys and towers. A Soviet-built bridge crosses the Danube, a bizarre saucer-like restaurant rotating on top of one of its pylons; aptly named the Novy Most (New Bridge), its north edge was landed where a Jewish synagogue once stood, and it appears unappealingly to lead straight towards St. Martin's Cathedral, whilst it does head straight to the piles of Soviet tower blocks on the south bank. Later, we used the bridge to waltz across the muddy grey river (hardly the blue imagined by Strauss), huge barges passing up and down beneath our feet; unlike any waterways back home (perhaps with the exception of the Thames) this remains a working river and, had we the money, we could catch a hydrofoil direct to Vienna or Budapest, as easily as taking the train.

Whilst the buildings of the Soviet era have invaded and stand like grey guards in the city, on the whole the very contemporary exists largely at the city's outskirts, where new department stores are springing up everywhere. This is a country which, unlike Poland, seems to have embraced almost unanimously its 24 hour Tescos, its mobile phones and other digital fashions. The clothes people wear could have come from Paris, whilst the billboards proclaim this fashion revolution with adverts for exclusive shops in Praha, Wien and, newest of all and now open, Bratislava. Nevertheless, visiting Vienna for the day whilst staying in Bratislava, I was struck by the contrast in the architecture of commerce. For although Bratislava may have new buildings forcing their way through the roots of the old, in Vienna (as in Rome, or Paris, or London) it is clear in contrast what price modern economy has had on design. Everywhere are glass shop fronts, and we walk around gazing at our reflections, diverted by the imagination of what that shirt in the window would look like – and looks like in the mirror image – on us, and as a consequence we stare at ground level, never willing or drawn to look up. In the centre of Bratislava, old shop fronts with their smaller windows still survive, letting one walk with attention to the permanent detail in the buildings above the transient fashions.

Oddly, with the visual imposition of Soviet grey against the surviving beauty of the historical city, we were given the physical sense of what it may have been like to tread in the city with Western shoes when it was under Russian rule. With a NATO conference in town, armed police stalked the streets, whilst suited agents lowered their heads to whisper into lapel microphones. As we ate tea in front of the heavily-guarded American embassy, I will admit to having been slightly nervous, even though the delegates clearly hadn’t yet arrived. Nonetheless, there was a surreal moment as we watched a man stroll past with his girlfriend, who was holding a balloon. As they joked and pushed each other, we saw him strain upwards, whilst she twisted away laughing, until in spite of her manoeuvres he tugged on the string. The next few seconds took on a slow-motion inevitability, during which the sandwiches hung from our mouths. Bringing the balloon to his chest, he looked at his partner, then towards the fence against which, his back turned, a US soldier in his bullet proof vest was leaning. With a conspiratorial wink, he took a pen from his pocket, jabbed once, then twice, and then, with a loud bang, the balloon exploded. The birds scattered in fright; our sandwiches dropped into our laps; the man with a machine gun never turned around.

Photograph of a group of musicians having a break
Street Musicians
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After this humorous excitement, that evening, hoping to gain some quiet space in which to relax, as opposed to tramping through streets with 65 litre rucksacks, we moved to Zlate Piesky on the north-east edge of town. The name means Golden Sand and, although there may indeed have been sand here once, which may, given an appreciative sunlight, have looked golden, when we arrived the sand was gravel; the paint of the hotel was peeling; and this once grand holiday camp now seemed fading, perhaps the tourists pushed out by the new industrial park that had sprung up on the edge of the wood. If this place was a woman, she would be sat in Blackpool on a grey spring day, 60 years old, and have too much cracking make-up on, looking for a young stag who rarely comes.

The next day, we caught a tram to the Little Carpathian Mountains, which reach down to a gentle curve in Bratislava after their long and high spining across eastern Europe. We climbed for about 20 minutes, and reached a TV transmitter at the summit.

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Travel Writing
We went up the lift to the revolving restaurant, a surprisingly cheap but smart place, and we ate two bowls of pasta whilst watching over this sprawling city of tower-blocks, chimneys and bright red roofs. On a clear day, apparently, one can see the Czech Republic and Poland but on the day we visited, the haze prevented us from seeing much other than the Danube snaking its way across the plains to the north. After lunch, we walked through the forested hills for a few kilometres, relishing the chance to explore some quiet greenery after two weeks in the brown and grey hum of cities. But the descent through the trees was eerie, as the decibels of sirens and engines grew as if we were passing into some unseen underworld.

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This page was published on September 20, 2005 | Keywords: Bratislava, Slovakia, Eastern Europe, travel journal

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