Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Justin Marozzi's "The Way of Herodotus": Book Review

This starts with a winning appeal for returning to a text academic historians today tend to dismiss for so many tall tales. After a deft summary of the Persian Wars, this British journalist champions the charm of "The Father of History," or, to his detractor Plutarch,  of "Lies." It's a simple pitch--retrace the routes of Herodotus and find out in Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, and the Balkans during the recent decades of more war, bordering East and West again, the legacy and lessons of a book written almost 2400 years ago.

Marozzi's pace can vary. The itinerary too often does not lead to many surprises. He begins at the little-heralded birthplace of Herodotus, today's Bodrum, but more intriguing is a section on underwater archeology, which still felt under-investigated. His stint among the Coalition's troops as the Poles and Americans make a parking lot among the fragile topsoil of storied Babylon shows more poignantly the evanescent humanism of Herodotus and his insistence that the lessons of history may not be learned.

Entertainment can be educational, and as his lunch with Patrick Leigh Fermor will later reveal, every Mediterranean tale-teller needs to keep the attention of the restive listeners. Marozzi contrasts an scholarly conference's stodgy reduction of Herodotus to predictable humdrum, yet his own interviews with sexier academics in Greece blurred what they found so much more fascinating. Conversations with curators and experts fill many pages, and Marozzi displays a sympathy for the Turkish wish to enter the EU over Greece's fears, but many sections as the book progresses lack the verve of encounters in and away from seminar rooms as the journey wanders towards a humdrum, sudden exit. Still, one cannot disagree with philologist Antigoni: "the limits of the human condition" comprise the message of the "Histories." Their author reminds us: "don't think you'll be happy for ever and don't place yourself above the gods." (qtd. 230)

The strongest section comes late on, when Marozzi finds in Thessaloniki a four-volume set "Clio in the Balkans," source-texts for high schoolers meant to redress a culture where every nation makes its grievance its morality tale. "Present difficulties are explained through past injustices, lodged deep in the historical memory, so that national history becomes no more than a badge of victimhood." (250)

It reminded me in its parallel search for a past chronicler's path of Laurence Bergreen's similar, if more sober and less stolid, take on the travels of Marco Polo. Both tale-tellers embellished their pages with innuendo and salacious hints; some reviewers appear repulsed by Marozzi's penchant for the outré, but for me as for Marco Polo's readers, I liked the eye for the erotic as well as the exotic, in Marozzi's easygoing if rather British-inflected tone. Its aimed, as his predecessors, not at scholars but a wider audience longing to find out the meaning of history invented by Herodotus, caught between East and West, as curious "inquiry."  (Amazon US 6-1-12; author's website)

No comments: