Thursday, September 5, 2013

Paul Kriwaczek's "In Search of Zarathustra": Book Review

Well-written and intricately assembled, this tale by the author, who as a child left Vienna for England as a Czech Jewish refugee, integrates his story with other encounters and exiles when ideologies and itineraries generate the force of a concept made real. He hunts down the impacts of a faith preaching one god, conflict between good and evil, a judgement day, an afterlife of the damned and saved, and a messianic savior. This ancient faith, nearly dead in its Iranian homeland and surviving somewhat among the Parsis who emigrated to India in the 8th-10th centuries to evade Islamic imposition, fascinates Kriwaczek.

From the Oxus River and the Hindu Kush, to Hadrian's Wall and Mithras' temple in the heart of the City of London, from the last fortress of the Albigensians in the Pyrenees to the destruction wrought by Alexander the Great of Persia, from Roman legionaries to a poignant portrayal of Nietzsche: Kriwaczek connects events and places to the spread of Zoroaster's prophetic preaching.

The chronology of his 2003 work, accumulating incidents and travels over many years, does not follow conventional linear narration. One shortcoming, perhaps due to the seemingly eternal strife in many of the regions Kriwaczek roams, is that you meet far too few Zoroastrians. While a remnant survives in intolerant Iran, and while they may fear a foreigner's intrusion, I wondered why he did not balance this with a stay among the Parsis, or followers who attempt to perpetuate their culture abroad; one wants more, given that converts to today's Zoroastrianism are forbidden.

It's instead an engaging history of ideas combined with a brisk journey to places where some connection however tenuous with Zoroastrianism might be argued. I found this travelogue engaging; the asides by Kriwaczek reveal a fresh perspective on familiar topics. "Belief always takes on the face of its environment." (18) A desert faith's landscape evokes severity amidst sparseness; dales, vales, and seas welcome spirits and gods into a richer terrain for the imagination of those at ease. 

The contrasting emphasis of Christian "evidence" vs. such a mythic rather than "literal" memory encourages the convert to Christ. Kriwaczek reasons that the appeal of the Gospel lay in its insistence that Jesus lived recently among us. A "gospel truth" may have swayed many away from paganism or Judaism due to this relevance. He also notes how a lunar calendar fits a nomadic culture and the pilgrim's wanderings, while a solar one matches the imperatives of tillage and settlement. (168)

Another ancient impact shows as Satan grows from prosecutor or antagonist to policemen or "agent provocateur"; "Evil" enters via the Assyrian conquest of Judea and Babylonian exile which enables Zoroastrian suppositions to filter into the Tanakh as it gets written down. (198-199) This leads to another insight. Oral tradition gets inscribed, Kriwaczek reminds us, only when crisis comes. (207)

Ezra for the Bible, the Talmud for the teachings after the final destructions of the Temple and the Jewish nation, and an orthodox reaction that fixed the version of the Almighty, theology, and the afterlife as known but not seen: this characterizes the approach of monotheisms. (207-209). The Qur'an shared this conception. The fratricide following the Prophet's demise impelled its recording.

Finally, the problem of evil and its persistence sparked different monotheistic responses Kriwaczek attributes to each major variety. Jews blamed themselves. Christians agreed but added that all of Adam's progeny inherited this flaw. Muslims wait for the afterlife's recompense for their theodicy.

These religions unwittingly pass on core teachings traced (if in too brief a fashion at the end of this narrative on pg. 228) to Zoroaster and the followers of Mani and magi. Good and Evil as archetypal foes, "named angels," the Devil, a binary otherworld, and a messianic deliverance at the world's end define the persistence of a faith small in size today but enduring in ideas. (Amazon US 6-30-13)

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