Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Crooked paths: The Snow Leopard

Mt. Kailash (Crystal Mountain)
After reading the NYT feature on Peter Matthiessen, just days before his death, I decided to read The Snow Leopard, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1979. It is his recounting of  a trek through Nepal with his friend, the biologist, George Schaller.,

The goal for Schaller was to study the blue sheep of the Himalayas in their remote natural habitat on the Tibetan plateau, in the region known as Dolpo. It is also home to one of the most sacred places for Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists, and the Bön religion (predating Buddhism), the Crystal Mountain. As a Zen practitioner, Matthiessen was not only assisting his friend, but also making a pilgrimage and working through the aftermath of his wife's recent death from cancer.

The appeal of the book is multifaceted. First, there is the description of this adventurous trek through some of the most challenging geography on earth. Narrow, twisting paths through high mountain passes, snow fields, and icy ravines offered constant danger and discomfort. With scant fuel and food sources, everything had to be carried with the help of porters and sherpa guides. Retaining the help of these necessary men provided much of the external drama, as well as the threat that inclement winter weather would trap the entire party within the Dolpo for longer than they had food, fuel, or money. Matthiessen's descriptions of his fellow travelers and the natural beauty of the landscape are finely detailed. It is the land of the elusive snow leopard, which they hope to see, and of the yeti, a creature that the writer suggests may not be purely mythical: Such a remote, ghostly, and barren waste could hide an as-of-yet undiscovered being, even more mysterious and as rarely seen as the snow leopard.

And finally, there is the inner journey, which Matthiessen weaves into the story seamlessly. Memories of his wife, especially in her final days, accompany him. He becomes a clear-eyed observer of the river of thoughts and feelings that confront him as the trek becomes ever more dangerous. He sees himself reacting harshly and unjustly to those around him, then acting on generous impulses. He is sometimes despairing and sometimes consumed with joy and serenity. Beautifully written throughout, The Snow Leopard is a book that stays with you and opens a window on to worlds rarely glimpsed -- both the external reality of Dolpo and the internal life of the mind.

I found some great video on youtube of current-day trekkers making the same journey (though in less forbidding weather). I wanted to see some of what Matthiessen so vividly described, like the narrow path rising above Lake Phuksumdo in Nepal:

Monday, April 07, 2014

Monte Cristo: More than a sandwich!

by Yann Droneaud via Flickr
Okay, I probably am more familiar with the novel than the sandwich, but I had not actually read it until a few weeks ago. In fact, it is the first Alexandre Dumas I've ever read. Not even The Three Musketeers! I'm not sure how I've gone for so long ignoring Dumas, since I've read so many other French writers from Hugo to Robbe-Grillet (and even Michel Houellebecq, whom I'm not sure I should mention in polite company). Of course, I have one other major omission in my reading of French literature. Proust! But there's still time; I'm just working up to it.

There are some classics you can probably get away with pretending that you've read, simply because they are so ubiquitous in literary conversations and essays, not to mention, the movie versions. But somehow, I must have tuned all that out, because I really knew nothing of the plot except that it was a revenge story. Briefly, our hero Edmond Dantes, a young sailor on the cusp of professional success and marriage to the girl he loves, is falsely betrayed to the royalist government as a Bonapartist spy in 1815, just before Napoleon escapes Elba in an attempt to regain power. Edmond is sent to the island prison called Chateau d'If (pictured above) -- the French version of Devil's Island -- and left to die through the machinations of an envious shipmate, a jealous lover, and a guilty judge, who sacrifices Edmond to conceal a dark secret of his own.

I'm not to going to give away much more of the plot, so like me, you can read it with surprise. Suffice to say, Edmond manages to escape his prison and create an entirely new identity (several actually). These feats rather miraculously achieved, he sets about tracking down and exacting revenge on those who were responsible for all that he lost.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a good, old-fashioned adventure story and has a number of well-drawn characters, particularly the villains: Caderousse, Danglars, Morcerf, and Villefort. It is also epic in length (first published in 18 parts as a serialized novel, much like Dickens' works), but if you're ready to settle into a fictional world and stay awhile, you won't mind. I liked the rich historical background, Dumas' description of Carnival season in Rome, and of course, all the details of Parisian life in the 19th Century.

Dantes contemplates suicide:
Before him is a dead sea that stretches in azure calm before the eye; but he who unwarily ventures within its embrace finds himself struggling with a monster that would drag him down to perdition. Once thus ensnared, unless the protecting hand of God snatch him thence, all is over, and his struggles but tend to hasten his destruction. This state of mental anguish is, however, less terrible than the sufferings that precede or the punishment that possibly will follow. There is a sort of consolation at the contemplation of the yawning abyss, at the bottom of which lie darkness and obscurity. (Project Gutenberg edition, p.110)