Written by Toby Gay
Rather like the 1957 guidebook with which the work shares its name, James W. MacNutt’s On Five Dollars A Day can be appreciated for being an exceptionally precise and intimate tool with which to explore over 20 European cities, albeit instead of the work of fiction it presents itself to be. Macnutt’s descriptions of towns like Istanbul bring to life the world of the late photographer Ara Guler, and of ancient artefacts such as the bust of Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin, which are remarkably vivid, bearing in mind that the author has not visited them in 50 years. Combined with this, his extensive knowledge of the history of the places he visits, and his astute awareness of the contemporary political and social climates in each of the countries, make him a role model traveller.
In West Germany, the author visits the notable and (still) war-torn cities of Bonn and Cologne, before reaching the infamous concentration camp of Dachau. Interestingly, he is immensely disappointed by the lack of clarity in the museum and how the ‘whole site had been cleansed’, with rooms repainted to cover the worst of the horrible conditions in which the Holocaust victims had been tortured and murdered. Surprisingly, this is true. It took another three years after MacNutt’s visit (May 1965) for the West German government to acknowledge the protests of former prisoners and reverse the refurbishments which had been made to the camp to house refugees in the post-war period. The now famous memorial sculpture by Nandor Glid was only erected at this time, more than twenty years after MacNutt’s compatriots liberated the camp. However, and despite MacNutt’s tainted observations after coming across a Neo-Nazi family in Lübeck, West Germany was remarkably quick to come to terms with its problematic past, introducing Stolpersteine to the streets of its cities and agreeing to pay reparations to Israel in 1953.
However, as Jan Werner-Mueller pointed out in the Guardian in 2010, little has been done to come to terms with the crimes committed in East Germany, a state which existed from 1949-1990, and which the author visits in this book. While his anecdotes about being harassed by East German border guards and witnessing the stark contrast in living standards between the East and West are nothing new, the account of how he was spied on for the entire duration of his stay is fascinating. This account also helps bring to life the eerie quiet and disintegrating Big Brother society of East Berlin.
Macnutt’s trip to Turkey proved to be less stressful, but just as interesting. With difficulty, he purchases a Turkish lira on board his ship from Turkey to Greece, a testament to the political tension between the two counties at that time over the expulsion of Istanbul Greeks in the early 1960s, and the struggle over the control of Cyprus. On arrival in Istanbul, the author mistakenly comments on the ‘middle phase of its history when it was called Byzantium’, but proceeds to enjoy various misadventures with the ethnically diverse locals, involving alcohol, money and masseurs. Due to economic migration and conflict in the Black Sea region over the last 50 years, Istanbul has now regrettably lost much of this diversity, making this work a valuable portal to the past.
On the downside, Macnutt’s pedagogy often turns to pedantry as he concentrates on minor superficial details and information readily available in any rudimentary history book (or Wikipedia). He also turns to prudishness as he reacts to the sexual revolution unfolding around him in Belgium and Holland in particular.
Nevertheless, Macnutt’s ‘first foray into fiction’ proved to be an immensely enjoyable read. It is confused, rather like the world it is set in, which is a telling reminder that the Europe of today is still a much safer and more stable continent than it was not just 2000, but even 50 years ago.