Monday, July 30, 2012

Lus na gréine agus beirt seabhrac

Ach d'fhág mé mo tí an lá eile. D'imigh mé go ansin go dtí mo san ionad oibre. Bhí maidin go hiondúil ann.

Thiomaint mé níos lag chun breathnú ar lus na greine mór. Bhí blath ag fás ar an taobh ó na gcnoc ag imeall na sráide ag trasna go direach ó mo teach. Meas agam ar an mhéid agus an dath air ar feadh nóiméadh.

Go tobann, chonaic mé ag eitilt seabhac suas.  Ar aghaidh mé, thug sé mus seisean ard os cionn. Tá ean i dtír an crann eucalyptus ag trasnú.

Stop mé an gluasteán. Bhreathnaigh mé an ean níos lú ag peice ar an seabhac aríst agus aríst eile. Ní raibh mé ábalta a thuiscint an fath.

Cheap mé go raibh an t-éan beag a raibh neamhad. Ar an lamh eile, bhí leanbh é suas thuas ann.  Bhí ocras ortsa.

Fhilleadh mé ar ais an lá de ghnáth sin. Rinne machnamh mé faoi saor agus marbh ag timpeall mé. Shos mé chun breathnú ar nádúr, agus fuair mé é.

A sunflower and a pair of hawks.

I'd just left my house the other day. I went off from there to my workplace. It was an ordinary morning.

I drove slower to see a giant sunflower. The bloom was growing on the side of the hill across the street straight down from my house. I admired its size and its color for a moment.

Suddenly, I saw a hawk flying up. Before me, it took a mouse high above. The bird landed in a eucalyptus tree at the intersection.

I stopped the car. I watched a smaller bird peck at the hawk again and again. I wasn't able to understand the reason.

I thought that the little bird was a rival. On the contrary, it was a child up there. It was hungry.

I returned back to that typical day. I reflected on life and death around me. I'd paused to look at nature, and I found it.

(Mo ghriangraf leis an lus agus an crann ansuid ar an tstráide in aice leis mo teach/My photo with the bloom and the tree beyond near my house, 18ú Iuil/July.)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton": Book Review

The seven weeks of late 1968's passages are often dense with citations and musings from his studies, but in their midst, such entries as this from New Delhi leap out: "And yet I have a sense that this mandala business is, for me, at least useless. It has considerable interest, but there is no point seeking anything for my own enlightenment. Why complicate what is simple? I am reading on the balcony outside my room. Five green parrots, then eight more fly by shrieking over my head." (59)

He quotes the scholar on those mandalas, Giuseppe Tucci, a renowned Tibetologist, who sums up the Shaivite schools who divide men into three classes: the herd who need precision in what to do and not to do; the "heroes" wearied by their own laws and own contrariness against the herd; the holy souls who get beyond such struggles. One senses Merton's own tensions with his monastic community vs. his intense desire to stay a hermit, perhaps in Alaska or Asia, far from the Kentucky abbey full of factories, tractors, and a few tourists.

Can society change? His circular letter announcing his Asian visits notes his weariness with signing petitions, and he assures readers he is not going near Vietnam. He watches on the Hawaiian flight over a soldier and he prays for him from a distance. Soon, Merton's own body would come back on an Army plane for burial among his community, in the monastery he loved yet longed to get away from. This search, untimely terminated in its own mysterious way, underlies the journals he kept.

Meanwhile, this can be a dense read. Endnotes and the labors of a faithfully observant editorial team diligently record the authors, thinkers, contexts, and places he refers to, for this volume will be more academic than readers of his earlier works may expect; whether it would have been published if he had lived remains speculative. For those with some grounding in Eastern thought, which Merton sought to open up, it can reward. (See "Merton and Buddhism" also reviewed by me, for scholarly essays on the intersections.) It does appear, as he marveled at the massive stone figures of the Buddha and Ananda at Polonnaruwa in Ceylon that he found a breakthrough into a mystic state, "everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don't know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination." (235)

On the middle way of Madhyamika in Buddhist philosophy, he notes how the teacher plays off his opponent's "principles and arguments accepted by him" to show their contradictions. "However, when his supposed values are returned to him in irony, in static, he will not accept the implications. That is his problem." I wonder if Madhyamika's own rhetorical stance could undermine the teacher himself?

Merton examines his romantic tendencies. "Reassessment of this whole Indian experience in more critical terms. Too much movement. Too much 'looking for' something: an answer, a vision, 'something other.' And this breeds illusion. The illusion that there is something else." (148) Returning to the idea over and over that he could find a retreat here, permanently, he reflects on the landscape of the Mim Tea Estate: "A permanent post card for meditation, daydreams. The landscapes are ironic and silent comments on the apparent permanence, the 'eternal snows' of solid Kanchenjunga" which fascinate, even as over them, the Chinese armies occupy Tibet. (150)

One of the best passages is brief, when at Darjeeling he battles a cold. "Anatomy of nice thought rot. No use isolating consciousness and then feeding it, exacerbating it. The ruse of nourishing the self with ideas of self-dissolution. The 'perfectly safe' consciousness, put on a diet of select thoughts, poisons itself. The exposed consciousness is in less trouble. It relaxes. Is free in fresh air. Is perhaps a little dirtied--but normal or more normal. Less garbage. Select garbage, luxury garbage is the worst poison." (159-60)

He wonders in Colombo as he waits at the airport: "The 'selfless' world of the machine. A good angle. Are we really headed for a kind of technological corruption of Buddhism? A secular nirvana?" (212)

Merton reflects on the delusion along the journey inward. "The hazard of the spiritual quest is of course that its genuineness cannot be left to our own isolated subjective judgment alone. The fact that I am turned on doesn't prove anything whatever. Nor does the fact that I am turned off.) We do not simply create our lives on our own terms." This last appendix about the renunciation of violence in the Bhagavad-Gita concludes: "In following mere appetite for power we are slaves of appetite. In obedience to that truth we are at last free." (352-3)

The most haunting phrases were two. Out of an "International Herald-Tribune" he copies headlines. One: "Smiling boy dies of poison." Two, from the last sentence of his talk on Marxism and monasticism (where he astutely notes how the only possible place to realize "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" is in a monastery, not a Communist regime): "So I will disappear." A few hours later, he suddenly died from electrocution in his Bangkok hotel bathroom. (Amazon US 6-16-12)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sweet + Zwilling's "Mission to Tibet" Book Review

This new edition of Notizie istoriche, which was consulted by Pomplum as in turn his study informed this edition, appeared in the same year, 2010. Translated by Michael Sweet and edited by Leonard Zwilling as Mission to Tibet, this massive compendium collects what is necessary to comprehend Fr. Ippolito Desideri, S.J., within his own writings, alongside a brief report from his early confrere Manoel Freyre. Desideri reworked his account often, and this version allows readers to compare, thanks to a generous introduction, careful endnotes, and appendices, how the Jesuit honed his narrative as he tried—in vain—to convince the Vatican upon his return from Tibet the priority that his Society held over the Capuchins to control the Catholic mission assigned by a rather vaguely defined set of boundaries that included, with some room evidently for error, the “third” or innermost region of the Himalayan heartland.

Fr. Ippolito energetically marshals, as Pomplum explains and Professors Sweet and Zwilling document, the claims of the Jesuits against his Franciscan rivals, even as personally he graciously thanks the friars for their assistance during not only his roughly seven years in the Himalayas, but over his decade-and-a-half away from Italy on his wide-ranging mission to, in, and from the Indies. He likewise acknowledges the hospitality shown by his Buddhist hosts in Lhasa. They grant the newly arrived priest time to prepare his objections for debate, the better to allow a fair contest between one who has barely learned their daunting language and the comparatively tolerant lamas themselves.

Desideri argues against what he calls “metempsychosis” as the transmigration of souls, against the doctrine of emptiness, and against the non-theistic nature of their “false religion.” He prepares a catechism designed to woo the elite away from their faith, the better to weaken its sway over the middle and lower classes. This applies the Jesuit approach towards missionizing.

While Desideri skillfully channels the arguments of the lamas, as when he seems to defend the “supposed virtue” of their practice of sky burial, he does this the better to defeat their delusions. He judges Tibetans as truly compassionate. Yet, he cannot condone their superstitions. His logic and his faith, both articulated over many pages of this hefty report, compare the natural goodness with their ultimate damnation, for idolatry and ignorance.

Ethically, he praises their “inclination to mercy” among those meritorious “things practiced by this blind people,” which put to shame the efforts of many Christians (Mission 283).  While eerily able to expound the proofs set out in Buddhist texts that portray their doctrines as convincing, Desideri accomplishes this verbal feat only to demolish the Dharma he examines. He approves the Tibetans for a “natural inclination to good and their propensity to virtue,” even as he must condemn their entrapment by the snares of the Devil in keeping them from the “true religion.”

With exacting reason, he interprets the intricate selection of a new incarnation of a lama; Desideri concludes after painstaking analysis that neither a boy barely able to talk nor the lamas assigned to interrogate him nor the toddler’s parents can be held culpable for what can only be a clever stratagem of Satan himself.  The denial by the faithful of Tibet of a First Cause makes their religion atheistic in theory if not practice, moreover. Applying classical philosophy and Catholic scholasticism, the Jesuit dismantles Buddhist philosophy as Tibetan scholasticism. Summarizing a work Desideri has translated (an English edition may be in preparation) of Tsongkhapa’s Lam rim chen mo (“Great Stages of the Path”), the missionary compellingly tells in his judgment how the Devil crafts this as a glittering lure.

Desideri knows Tibetans do not worship the figures they conjure up to bow to or depict on their tapestries, but he also must convince his devout readers of the seductive construction that these “pagans” create and refine. The “veneer and façade” of their elaborate “sect” hides deceit behind “pretty tinsel,” as if the Devil crafted a beautiful artifice within which to trap Tibetans within the errors of denying a Creator and of asserting emptiness as the fundamental dogma by which damnation will be achieved for his earnest, learned, but doomed hosts, teachers, and friends (Mission 364).

Nevertheless, Desideri recounts their tale of Urgyen with verve and passion, to convey to his European readers the flavor of a native narrative told in the original style. He retells the life of the Buddha (if by another name), Trisong Detsen, and Padmasambhava. He explores the mythic origins of the Tibetans, and he takes us into their many levels of hell. Fashions, geography, food, customs, beasts, language, marriages, funerals: all gain attentive and engrossing description.

After he must leave Tibet, once the Office of the Propaganda has ruled in favor of the Capuchins over the Jesuits, Fr. Ippolito tells with great verve his adventures by land and sea. He sojourns in  Kathmandu (where he includes in passing “Bod” among the pantheon of Newar gods), visits Benares (where he notes the birthplace of “Shakya Thupa,” his term for Shakyamuni), and delights in relating the machinations of Delhi’s khans, Patna’s date gatherers and opium harvesters, and the power plays of the Moghul Empire, which contest for court intrigue and pitched battle with those he dramatizes between the Dzungar Mongols (“Tartars”), the Chinese, and the Tibetans during the civil strife that caused him to flee Lhasa for Dakpo. His dramatic recounting of this episode remains the only substantial account by a Westerner; Zwilling remarks how Desideri rewrote it three times to mix fiction with fact just right. This mingling, as the editor’s endnotes and vast bibliography attest to, makes this epic more exciting and easier to read, despite its considerable bulk and digressions, which the author himself apologizes for now and then—even if he can never apologize for his extra ecclesiam nulla salus sermonizing.

This logic, inescapable for any Catholic missionary, dominates the undertones of most of this narrative. The tone turns eloquent as well as overwhelming, as chapters expound how, in one of many vividly told biblical analogies, Judith used not only her wiles but the weapons of her foe, Holofernes, to carry out her virtuous victory. Similarly, missionaries must--as Desideri did when he was given time by his Lhasa lamas to prepare his debate in favor of the Church against Dharma--master the arguments of their foes so as to defeat pagan errors and diabolical rituals.

Such strains of mingled sympathy and disgust, given the refusal of his Tibetan interlocutors to accept Catholicism, may infuse this central section of his travelogue with poignancy for a modern reader. Those among whom he labors in the Himalayas appear unwilling to accept Christ. In India, the mission field is harsh, but the Church finds some success. Fluent in Persian and Hindustani, and later studying Tamil, Desideri spent years as a pastor in Delhi and then along the coast around Pondicherry; he writes movingly of the deprivations endured by his confreres in that Karnatic mission. He also recounts implacably how his prediction of a boy’s death comes true after his parents neglect his catechizing; Zwilling remarks: “One can only speculate as to Desideri’s frame of mind when he wrote this account” (Mission 737 n. 1190).

He was summoned back to Rome in 1726 to advance the cause for canonization of a Jesuit martyr in India, Fr. Joâo de Brito. Desideri continued to press for the approval of the Jesuit claims to priority against charges by the Capuchin friars of the Society’s “poaching” (unwittingly, perhaps, even if the priest, as Pomplum shows, remained a master of how he phrased his interpretations and justifications) of the Tibetan mission far away.

His ambitious report, as Pomplum has explained, is designed for the edification of both Jesuit novices and readers of “relations” sent back by the Society’s missionaries to audiences in Europe who find in them inspiration and an appeal for donations. He combines both purposes at his conclusion in a richly baroque rhetoric of “extravagance.” His giant work was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, and Sweet’s assured translation and Zwilling’s attentive editing combine to make a solid contribution to Tibetan studies, Jesuit missionizing, and early European travel reports from Asia. Shelved next to Pomplum’s compact study—the two texts cite each other—they combine as crucial evidence for the importance of this pioneering scholar-priest. One leaves this figure from three centuries ago with a curious speculation. What if the Jesuits had succeeded? How might we understand Tibetan Buddhism today if, perhaps, the Dharma survived only through this record?

[I reviewed both books in a combined pdf article here: "Jesuits in Tibet" in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics 19 (2012): 451-459. A shorter version of the Pomplum review with some editing is on Amazon; my review of Sweet + Zwelling is here similarly: Amazon US both 6-22-12]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trent Pomplum's "Jesuit on the Roof of the World": Book Review

"The gravity-defying domes and impossible skies of Jesuit architecture evoked, with precise deliberations, the interior extravagance of generous abandon." (42)

Jesuit visual aids and verbal rhetoric, employed in the prolix account Ippolito Desideri sent back and re-wrote five times, aimed at inspiring novices in the Society of Jesus with the same fervor which fueled this young scholastic to ask to be sent to convert Tibet in 1712, even though he may have known nothing substantial of this most remote of outposts in the Society's Indies province. Furthermore (although there remains possibly some ambiguity in historical record as to what the young Jesuit knew and when), the Capuchin Franciscans had already been granted papal permission to establish themselves in Tibet. All the same, Desideri, not yet ordained when he left Italy for the East, arrived in 1715 and reached Lhasa the following year.

There, he quickly learned Tibetan; the preceding efforts of the Capuchins assisted him, but he certainly made astonishingly rapid progress, beginning his first book in the language the same year. The invasion by the Zunghar from Mongolia in 1717 impelled the Jesuit missionary to flee to Dakpo. He continued his writing of his Notizie istoriche, intended to justify his mission against both the claims of the Capuchins and, more crucially, the assertions of the Buddhists.

Their Madhayamaka philosophy earned the brunt of Desideri's assault. He sought to undermine the Buddhist denial of a supreme God as absurd, and this "evident falsehood" combined with the need for salvation, in Catholic theology, to rest on "certainties of reason in addition to certainties of faith." (94) In his new study of Desideri, Trent Pomplum discusses this in a dense chapter which analyzes Desideri's methods via post-Tridentine theology, and scholastic applications. The Tuscan Jesuit's sought to deny his Tibetan hosts and interlocutors the ability to assert their claims to what Desideri might define as prevenient grace, the assistance given by God to those seeking Him without their direct knowledge, but who gained by their unwitting good will to seek the ultimate truth the benefits of natural virtues.

This theme creates intricate terrain to explore in a compressed chapter, and those without added theological surety may find themselves challenged here. Still, Pomplum sums up the contrast between "natural virtues" which an unbeliever might possess and "supernatural fulfillment" which directed these virtues towards a Christian salvation and he shows why Desideri sought to refute Buddhist doctrines. Desideri, as any missionary of his time and formation, admired Tibet even as he tried to undermine its religious and cultural formations, in an attempt to win it over for Christ. Therefore, he had to unrelentingly refute the claims of dharma.

This book progresses through Desideri's training as a Jesuit as Pomplum introduces us to the baroque mindset within Italian Catholicism. Professor Pomplum sets out in a couple of hundred pages a narrative that conveys the gist of Desideri's aim to confront and convert a land that he came to nearly ignorant of. As the first Jesuit to establish a mission in "the third Tibet" of the innermost heartland, Desideri mastered the arguments of his opponents, who were also his instructors. He translated works and he commented upon them, seeking to correct what he regarded as mistaken notions of some Christians who had conflated Asian resemblances to Trinitarianism via the Three Jewels, for example, or those who had speculated that Nestorian traces of a vanished Christianity had remained in China.

The narrative devotes additional treatment to Jesuit missionary efforts in Asia and India, as it concentrates upon two of this scholar's areas of overlapping (for Desideri) expertise, Indo-Tibetan religion and culture, and Jesuit missions history. For a reader in Buddhist areas, Pomplum presumes familiarity with these theological and philosophical essentials. He delves into the finer points of Catholic-Buddhist contention as taken up by Desideri deeply and quickly.

However, a hundred pages of notes and a bibliography add to the usefulness of this compact work on an admittedly intriguing figure. Despite what may be for more casual readers an onslaught of information about the Zunghar invasion, there is merit in analyzing the complications reported, if with a bias, by Desideri. For scholars of this period, this summation in the fourth chapter will prove useful. The book tends to cover a wider area than its subtitle, and from it, readers will learn more about the influences which created and sustained zealous figures such as Desideri to do so much in so little time. Given but his half a decade in Tibet, while not as much about Desideri as a crafty and flawed figure may emerge as one might wish given the aims of Desideri's confident and clever report as "true history" to the Society, Pomplum energetically examines the nuances of the Jesuit's self-presentation and self-justification with all the scholarly acumen he and his academic colleagues have acquired in the centuries since this mission.

The twists and turns of Desideri's mission to the Indies, before and after his stint in Tibet between 1715 and 1721, are only part of the story. He was forced to leave when his sometime colleagues and sometime rivals the Capuchins reasserted and were reassured of their missionary status in the region, even as the Zunghar and then Manchu invasions created havoc in the Himalayan kingdom. He later served in Delhi and other outposts in India, before returning to Rome to vainly convince the Vatican to rule in favor of the Society and against the Capuchins for control of the Tibetan mission to which he must have longed to return.

Pomplum carefully corrects the excesses of Catholic hagiographers and then post-colonial critics who distort the truth about Desideri's missionary attainments, and those also of the Capuchins--who have often been denigrated while the accomplishments of their confreres the Jesuits have been elevated or caricatured. Jesuit ambitions are placed in context of the time, and Pomplum surveys the legacy of Desideri in the wider Chinese Rites controversy in which Matteo Ricci would be involved, and the question of Jesuit "accommodation" of native rituals and practices which would characterize the Malabar Rites fracas which in India would again pit Capuchin against Jesuit, and which would involve papal intervention. Pomplum defines what linked the friars to the Society of Jesus as to shared aims at how far to adjust Catholicism to Asian traditions, as well as what distinguished Jesuit missionaries among the Hindu such as Roberto de Nobili from their Franciscan, Dominican, and Vatican critics.

Pomplum concludes by reminding readers that if Desideri's mission had been as successful as many Buddhist Studies scholars appear to have wished it, there might not be any Buddhism left to study, four centuries later. "Viewed as a work of history, Desideri's narratio is a curious mélange of hard-nosed reporting, breezy innuendo, and simple mistakes." (172) The professor suggests it is better understood as we would an account today "based on a true story." Despite its flaws as history, the Notizie istoriche stands as a testament to how much one diligent missionary could amass about his adopted land to carry out his determined apostolate.

Its new edition, which was consulted by Pomplum as in turn his study informed this edition, appeared around the same year of 2010. Translated by Michael Sweet and edited by Leonard Zwilling as "Mission to Tibet", this massive compendium collects what is necessary to comprehend Desideri within his own writings, and those of his early confrere Manoel Freyre. [I reviewed both books in a combined pdf article here: "Jesuits in Tibet" in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics 19 (2012): 451-459. A shorter version of the Pomplum review is on Amazon US 6-22-12]

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Laurence Bergreen's "Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu": Book Review

This retells and comments upon the complicated tales told by "Marco Million" eight centuries ago. Bergreen, as an experienced biographer, navigates the tangled legacy of a hundred versions of the  manuscript, and explains in a useful closing section how the erratic tone and the meandering coverage of "The Travels" stems from the lack of a coherent edition. Ironically, the popularity of his tale led to so many copies and so many versions that the telling of its marvels, suppositions, and innuendos deepened its inherent exaggerations and knotted up the factual twists gleaned from twenty years spent by Marco and his father and uncle in Kublai Khan's vast Mongol empire.

Reading this, therefore, eases the encounter, for you get both generous excerpts from the original tale interspersed with Bergreen's summations, observations, and contexts. He often compares Marco's hearsay or eyewitness accounts to what we know about Mongol, Chinese, and other reports from contemporaries and early explorers. Marco worked, due to his facility for languages, for information gathering and tax collections in the Khan's realm, and Bergreen reminds us how the Polos were the inheritors both of the ruler's largesse and his prisoners, for the fate of the Venetian trio depended on the stability of the monarch, which could be unpredictable.

The impact of "The Travels" lies in its position of its teller as insider able to view the Mongols as an adopted resident and yet, as a Catholic Italian, irremediably as an outsider who will never fit in despite the flexible nature of the Mongols towards employing foreigners as one way to involve others in the administration of the realm by both its conquering overseers and its complicit co-operators. One slight drawback may lie more in the source material than Bergreen's retelling: unlike Tim Severin's incomplete (halfway to the Chinese border) 1961 motorcycle tour along the route of the Polos published as "Tracking Marco Polo" or Belliveau and O'Donnell's "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo" about their '94-'95 journey all the way to China, Bergreen does not despite his visits to the original lands convey an impression of, say, how the Pamirs feel so desolate or how Cathay compares now to then. The map of Marco's conjectured travels into East Asia and India is far too miniscule to do its scope justice. While one welcomes the color inserts mostly of medieval depictions of scenes, one  wishes for the handsome endpaper maps of historical books much more common not too long ago.

Also, while Bergreen tells us where in the chronicle Marco begins to mature and separate his sensibility from his editor-collaborator Rustichello da Pisa, or that Marco started to accept Buddhist precepts despite his Christian suspicion of idols and rebirths, such assertions do not find much support in the texts he cites or sums up. Lots of this book is a combination of large portions of Marco's reports, collated with Bergreen's observations. As expected, but for some stretches, it's unadorned and the tone is more dutiful than enticing; that being said, hints of wit regarding Marco's eye for the salacious and astonishing enliven our time as they have many eras before now. Bergreen's chapter notes at the end of the text and his in-depth bibliography show he has done his research, but his assertions about the multicultural model pioneered by Marco do not appear to be as clearly conveyed as Bergreen would want them to be here.

I found therefore that this study fulfilled my expectations regarding a sustained commentary on Marco's adventures, but its value lies more in the contexts Bergreen provides gleaned more from other studies in other books than his first-person reports, which are barely evident for most of the saga. His strength lies in the straightforward recital of Polo's tale juxtaposed with what scholars and adventurers have since found verifies or challenges the supposedly tall tales or true ones Marco told. (Amazon US 5-28-12)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tim Severin's "Tracking Marco Polo": Book Review

This spirited tale tells of the trio who left Oxford, as undergrads, to seek the path of Marco Polo in 1961. Tim Severin asserts that nobody had tried to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo, ever since that journey in the 1260s. Severin wrote this soon after his return from the frontiers of Afghanistan, and it appeared in 1964 originally.

After his fame with voyages in the paths of Brendan and Sindbad among others, he presumably accrued enough cachet to have this early account republished. It's brief, for the "Marco Polo Route Project" as they christened themselves and garnered sponsorships, took off with vigor but could only go halfway on the 10,000 miles that the Polos covered, as they could not obtain permission to enter China. With few supplies (if far too many as they found on a rough road), they set off blithely.

It moves rapidly, and there's not a lot of surprises. I enjoyed the book, but it's inevitably somewhat anticlimactic as the destination will be left unfulfilled. That's not to say it's dull for in the spirit of intrepid British adventurers, the trio manage to ride their BSA motorcycles (and sidecar) precariously across the Alps, Yugoslavia, and into Turkey. The highlights here are seeing the Tito regime's statue to the Unknown Partisan Fighter, rendered to them as "The Ignorant Peasant" and the hospitality shown them by their Istanbul host Arghun and his family. Severin's affection for that vast city is infectious, as is the wonderful, thrilling saga of their later visit to the legendary Valley of the Assassins.

Here, however, Severin breaks his foot. The rest of the tale moves in less dramatic if no less harrowing fashion. He sought to try to prove Marco Polo's claims to find, say, buckram, a hot springs of sulphur, a Persian hidden orchard, or "the apples of paradise" among other mentions in the "Travels." Severin argues that such sights were those in the chronicle, and that, logically, Polo took pains to include the more noteworthy places he saw, and to leave out the more mundane along the long way. Severin as expected intersperses snippets from Polo's report with the trio's own findings, in efficient fashion.

Severin closes by reviewing the impact of his own journey. Leaving the beaten track into the surprises, Severin notes how this venture took the trio into "fresh scenes and unlikely events." And, doing so helped the British students verify Polo. (A 5-7-12)

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)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Lár an tsamraidh

Bíonn an aimsir níos mó teasa faoi deireadh ann. Nuair chuaigh Léna agus mise ar ais go dtí An Cathair na hÁingeal ó Naomh Crios, bhí sé níos fuath an tseachtaine seo caite. Bhí sé go hiontach agam, go fírinne.

Go lag, achan lá, d'fhásaim an teocht de réir a chéile. Chuala mé ar an nuacht go bhfuil is teas inniu. Mar sin, bím ag suí ina seomhra níos thíos staighre ag scríobh seo agaibh.

Mar sin féin, bíonn an samraidh mar is gnách, i ndáiríre. Tá mé mo gcónai anseo, mar caitheamh mé maireadh leis an aeráidh i gCalifoirnea. Ar ndóigh, is maith liom an aimsir ag timpeall an cathair seisean go minic.

Sílím go raibh ag teacht go luath an fior-samraidh seo. Bhí mí na Meitheamh go hálainn ann, go cinnte. Gnách a, beidh níos teo an mhí Iúil trí Deireadh Fomhair nuair bhínn Meitheamh níos fionnuar anseo.

Ach, d'fhoghlaim mé an tráthnóna seo go beidh mo láthair obair gan uisce. Tá chúis go bhfuil an tógála leanúnach ansin. B'fhéidir, bheinn an staid chéanna nuair a fhillfidh mé.

The middle of summer.

The weather's warmer lately. When Layne and myself came back to the City of the Angels from Santa Cruz, it was cooler this past week. It was great for me, truly.

Slowly, each day, the temperature grew gradually. I heard on the news that it's the hottest today. Therefore, I'm sitting in the room more downstairs to write to you all.

All the same, it's summer as usual, really. Living here, I must live with the climate of California. Of course, the weather around the city itself pleases me often.

I think that this "true" summer may be coming soon. The month of June was lovely, certainly. Customarily, the months from July through October will be hotter when June was cooler here.

But, I learned this evening that my workplace will be without water. The cause is that there's ongoing construction there. Perhaps, I shall be in that same situation when I return.  (Léarscáil/map: Almanac na Fheirmeoiraí/Farmer's Almanac 2012)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Shulamith Hareven's "Thirst": Book Review

As biblical novellas narrating the raw core of what became mythic tales of Exodus and the settlement of Canaan, "the Desert trilogy" explores everyday characters on the fringes of the Hebrew migration and conquest. Hillel Halkin skillfully translates Israeli novelist Shulamith Hareven's spare, poetic, and blunt shifts of tone. Her characters struggle at the margins, far from Moses or Joshua, and they witness the dramatic changes in their lives distanced from the heroes, among scrub, wilderness, mountain hamlets, flimsy campsites, and uneasy cities, isolated and vulnerable. How the Exodus felt, if you were the type who was pushed aside or stayed out of Moses' way.

These accessibly told, yet literate and elegantly phrased stories combine vivid protagonists with an omniscient point-of-view which glides from interior observations of characters with untutored, basic perceptions to unsparing, distanced, modernist dispassion about their fates. We care about them, but we also watch them along with Hareven, as from a detached, resigned, existential perspective. All three figures "thirst" for understanding, but they confront a tense terrain where borders are invisible and where journeys may end in betrothal, betrayal, or sudden execution, and where enemies lurk unseen.

Eshkar's resentment of Moses and his fellow Hebrews who keep wandering in Sinai when they could easily enter the Land of Promise comprises "The Miracle Hater." The rabble of fleeing slaves and castaways from Egypt, along with hangers-on and no-accounts, relies on their leader. Moses promises the crowd they will enter the Land, but he exacts from them fealty. "He talked on about olives, about pomegranates, about grapes, about figs, and wearily they answered, yes, yes, anything you say, as long as we don't all have to drop dead in this desert, amen. No, they would make no more statues or graven images. Yes, they would not murder. They would not bear false witness. Whatever he told them, amen."

After the Golden Calf debacle, they submit to the Law. But, Eshkar cannot, and he herds beyond the movable camps of the desert tribe. "The deception of miracles was keeping them purblind and lost." (51) He enters Canaan, he sees it, and he returns, wondering why those he leaves behind delay.

There's no pat endings for his tale or the other two, but Hareven arranges the simple events in a manner that reflects how what the Bible makes grand once was so ordinary, as with Passover and the "tenth plague" emerging out of events barely elaborated upon, in an existential time without miracles at least as Eshkar can see. For Hivai, in the middle novella, "Prophet," his failure as such for his besieged city of Gibeon compels him to flee to seek sanctuary in nearby Ai, as the Hebrews press their campaign. (This is the longest entry and there's some wandering in its telling; the other two are more tightly told, but it never lacks inherent interest.) What transpires leaves Hivai "neither Gibeonite nor Hebrew," and the original situation for the Hebrews as marginal border-dwellers and outcasts becomes, inextricably, his identity as he shares their fate but not their satisfaction with the Land of Promise, until he meets another exile.

"After Childhood" takes us to the other vantage point, that of Salu, a "blinker" who lives in a hardscrabble hamlet near the Wilderness of Zin a few years or generations later. His marriage to a mountain dweller, Moran, allows Hareven to alternate between two main protagonists, and this enriches this evocation of the barren landscapes and intimate challenges faced by a bickering couple.

Just before the story concludes in a moving scene, Moran prefers--much of the book is in interior monologue with little dialogue--to stay apart from her Hebrew neighbors and family. "[S]he would rather God stayed away from her. Let him ignore her in his heaven, because the gods burned all when they came. They brought death and sickness and madness and drought. It's all we can do to make good what they ruin. Spare us both their honey and their sting. We're no match for them." (183)

Hareven's trilogy may be a metaphor for Israel and Palestine since, and this adds depth to her story, but taken on its own terse terms as an eloquent evocation of how people once scraped out a bare living in harsh times, it's also a universally applicable theme which will reward any careful reader. (Amazon US 6-4-12)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending": Book Review

I heard this via Richard Morant's graceful audiobook narration. It added the "ordinary" touch that deepened both the erudition and hesitation of Tony, the protagonist who tells his tale, and the accessibility of this short novel. As hundreds of {Amazon} reviewers have already noted the plot's turns and hinted in a few cases at its very subtle twists, let me just add how re-hearing the final chapters helped me to follow what those more astute than myself had noted, perhaps at re-reading themselves some remarks concerning the impacts from a certain conversation with "the secret horizontal gesture." 

"Memory is not a fixative, but a solvent," Tony ruminates earlier in this novel about what's recollected and what's forgotten. The attempts of Tony, from the 1960s on, to navigate the sexual and intellectual currents of what's defined as success, gain poignancy in the first two-thirds of this account. It moves neatly, if rather slowly even for a brief storyline.

Trying to reduce love and sex to mathematical equations, as Adrian Finn, his classmate, does, reveals cleverly "the chain of responsibility" which implicates Tony himself in this chain, broken off before resolution. It's no surprise this won the Booker Prize, for it fits the understated ending to this meditation on affection, desire, betrayal, loss, and revenge. It may be too downbeat and understated for many readers, but those with a liking for character studies will find it rewarding. (Amazon US 7-5-12)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tim Wendel's "Summer of '68": Book Review

This narrative history examines America's "Great Confrontation". Not the murders of Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy or the Nixon-Humphrey campaign, but the Tigers-Cardinals contest that led to their showdown in the 1968 World Series. Tim Wendel, however, does not neglect the political and social upheaval that pivotal season.

He uses that background of national unrest to compare and contrast with Major League's Baseball's last competition when, all year long, the National League's best team fought against nine contenders and the American League's did against theirs. Before the rise of the Super Bowl's dominance, and football's replacement as the Great National Pastime, Wendel tells of the major leagues' final old-fashioned World Series. The teams that autumn would square off as the best of one league's brutal weeding-out process, before expansion changed--and weakened--a century's balance of teams.

Wendel had begun his own reporting career in the late 1960s. He tells the story of not only the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers with verve, in the familiar cadences found in sports journalism. While the details of most of this book will understandably appeal to baseball fans, the added angle of how teams and players faced unrest in their own cities, and how they contended with each other on teams as well as on the field against their rivals enriches this presentation. The Cardinals' Bob Gibson possessed an aloof demeanor and a ready scowl. These only deepened after the news of King's and Kennedy's deaths, and his rage channeled into his pitching. He tried to hold off the Los Angeles Dodgers' Don Drysdale. This season showed off amazing pitching against sluggish scoring.

Another rival on the pitching mound, Denny McLain for the Tigers, epitomized what Wendel characterizes as a frat-house attitude of that team, compared to a multi-ethnic, composed, fashion model ambiance for the Cardinals. McLain had to hold off Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians for his own success as a pitcher. While a few teams, such as the Indians, had not enjoyed a Series appearance since the popularity of television allowed games to be broadcast, the Tigers had their first chance in a generation to play before their fans who could watch them--on the air--compete for the championship.

Wendel wryly examines a debacle of the rising American Football League in a notorious gaffe late that year, when the film Heidi was aired at 7 p.m. and interrupted the climax of a Jets-Raiders match. He reminds readers how television brought images of riots along with the Summer Olympics, itself mired in demonstrations in Mexico City, where Black Power fists were raised and Mexican students fell. While the context of political change feels more muted than expected, given the perspective promised in this book, Wendel uses some interviews now and summary of back then to establish a brief feel for what happened that dramatic summer.

For instance, he returns to Detroit's depopulated neighborhoods blighted by an increasingly open cityscape. The gaps appear due to deserted and torn-down buildings. "It was sort of like viewing a film that breaks off time after time, revealing a giant blank screen where the image should be. We were literally moving through a landscape with built-in pauses, giving anybody plenty of room for reflection and, dare we say, regret." There, outfielder Willie Horton had risked his life trying to calm a riot in July of '67; meanwhile, pitcher Mickey Lolich had to report to his National Guard unit.

Out of such juxtapositions, Wendel demonstrates how the nation's tension infiltrated its storied sport.  Perhaps his subtitle dramatizes his moral, but he makes a telling point with one vignette. Old Tiger Stadium has been razed; a chain-link fence prevents anyone from pickup games on its site.

Baseball comprises, no surprise, nearly all the text. Wendel fits in asides that enliven the scene. Even those less enchanted by sports may appreciate his storytelling. Richard Nixon had dedicated San Francisco's notoriously windy Candlestick Park, telling The City it could call the field "the finest ballpark in America." Wendel adds: "It wouldn't be the last time Nixon stretched the truth."

A coda to this narrative follows the '68 Series, won to restore some dignity to riot-torn Detroit. Not only the Cardinals and Tigers earn credit, but such names as the New York Jets' Joe Namath, the Oakland A's Catfish Hunter, the Boston Celtics' Bill Russell, the NFL's Roone Arledge. Out of such a list, the future emerges: the rise of the NFL, the continuing careers of teams made by pitching, and the rivalries of basketball competing against those of baseball for many fans. Finally, Tom Hayden appears, as a Michigan radical who had little time in '68 for the Tigers, but grew up by the '80 to attend the Dodgers' fantasy camp. So ends Wendel's last comment on how now differs from then. (PopMatters 3-16-12 and Amazon US in shorter and altered form 6-29-12.)