Thursday, June 29, 2017

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767, by Thorkild Hansen

97816381370729
NYRB Classics, 2017
originally published as Det Lykkelige Arabien,  1964
translated by James McFarlane and Kathleen McFarlane
381 pp

paperback

NYRB Classics has delivered what I think is one of its best offerings yet with this book, which, in a word, is outstanding. It is also one of the best books I've read so far this year, and I put it down only when necessary, each time grudgingly so.

On January 12, 1761, the front page of the Copenhagen Post relayed  the news that the King of Denmark, who "strives indefatigably for the furtherance of knowledge and of science and for the greater glory of his people,"  had "dispatched a group of scholars" on a rather extraordinary  mission. They were to
"travel by by way of the Mediterranean to Constantinople, and thence through Egypt to Arabia Felix, and subsequently return by way of Syria to Europe; they will on all occasions seek to make new discoveries and observations for the benefit of scholarship, and will also collect and dispatch hither valuable Oriental manuscripts, together with other specimens and rarities of the East."
This undertaking was the first of its kind for the Kingdom of Denmark; it was also of great interest to Europe as a whole since this was to be a journey into Arabia Felix, or what is now known as Yemen, which at the time was "a corner of the world unknown to Europeans."  As Colin Dwyer notes in his review at NPR, this expedition was "King Frederick V's chance to make his own splash in the era of the Enlightenment," drawing on not only this period's focus on science, but also on "the enthusiasm for foreign and particularly Oriental lands."

What the press didn't know was that this small group had already been "riven by bitter dissension" even as they had been rowed out of Copenhagen a week earlier; later on, this discord among these people would come to a head when they realized that one of their number had purchased arsenic, adding fear and distrust to the already volatile mix.  That story alone makes for compelling reading, but there's so much more to keep readers turning pages.    Arabia Felix follows this remarkable expedition from its origins through its end in 1767, with the return to Denmark of only one survivor who, as the back-cover blurb notes, found himself "forgotten and all the specimens that had been sent back ruined by neglect."

While I won't go into any detail here, Arabia Felix turned out to be a gripping read, full of adventure, tragedy, a number of nail-biting moments, and even humor.    The author also reveals how many of the discoveries made on this expedition would come to have great significance for scholars in several fields to this day -- as just one example,  the inscriptions painstakingly copied by Carsten Niebuhr at Persepolis were so well done that later scholars built from them, eventually solving the "mystery of the cuneiform script."  Speaking of Niebuhr, his amazing story alone is well worth the price of this book, not to mention his often-comical adventures with his trusty astrolabe.

I can't begin to express how much I loved this book.  I bought it looking forward to the story of the expedition, but I was not expecting what I found here.   Arabia Felix is a very human story in which Hansen gives the men their due, bringing each of these people vividly alive both individually and collectively in terms of the group's dynamic.  But it's not just that.  Working with a variety of sources, the author  manages to bring everything to life -- the successes, failures, miscommunications, misunderstandings, mistakes, and ultimately, what these people sacrificed in the long run to complete their given mission. The tragedy of their stories having been long forgotten is beyond rectified here, and delightedly so.

Kudos to NYRB for publishing this book.




Wednesday, May 31, 2017

...and speaking of lost cities: whoa.


- Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan Vols. I & II by John Lloyd Stephens
             9781605204468, Cosimo Classics, 2008
             originally published 1841

 -Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vols. I and II, by John Lloyd Stephens
               9781605203799, Cosimo Classics, 2008
               originally published 1843

- Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and The Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, by William Carlsen
                 9780062407405, William Morrow, 2016

I don't know if anyone else does this, but when I read nonfiction, I go through the listed sources like a fine-toothed comb to find more about what I'm reading.  While I had some issues with the book,  one very nice thing to come out of my reading of Preston's Lost City of the Monkey God was the reference to this book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Vols. I & II -- so voilá, within a few days it was in my mailbox.  I had thought to only read the sections about the Yucatan since I was just there a few weeks ago, but I started from the beginning and got totally caught up in Stephens' book.  What may seem dull to quite a lot of people kept me flipping pages.  Stephens' account of his travels with partner Frederick Catherwood reads like an old-fashioned adventure story combined with history and the thrill of discovery as Stephens and Catherwood only make their way through Central America during a time of major political upheaval, battling dense jungles, illness, and even sharks while in a leaky boat.   Its true importance though, as Carlsen so aptly describes in his own book, is that these two people "altered the world's understanding of human history." More on that later.

After finishing that book and still hungry for more, I picked up Carlsen's Jungle of Stone, made it about halfway through, and then realized that Stephens had published yet another travel account, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, also in two volumes.  Like any good nerd would do, I put the Carlsen book on hold  until I could read the second Stephens book, then picked it up again where I left off.

This book was less of an adventure story (although it did have its moments) than an account documenting the often-harrowing travels of Stephens and Catherwood through the Yucatan, where they made a circuit of several ruins from Copán to Tulum, as Carlsen calls it,  "their last great ghost city."

Fascinating stuff, made all the more interesting since, as I said, I was just there, which was the reason behind why I wanted to read these books.  Last year we were there as well and visited Coba, which is only briefly mentioned in Stephens' account, and made it up an eight-story pyramid,

my photo

while this year we did Tulum:

my photo

It's one thing to visit these places after they've been excavated, gone over, studied and written about, but imagine what it must have been like for these two men in the 1840s, coming across these places and having to hack out enough jungle just to get close enough to examine them. Their wonder at these discoveries is well documented in this book, along with Stephens' theories about the people who built these once-flourishing cities.  Their travels took them not only to these still-unexplored ruins, but also underground at times, for example at Bolonchen, as captured by Catherwood's excellent illustrations (pp 97, 99, and 101 respectively)


the cave opening at Bolonchen

making their way down through the opening into the cave on a ladder that kept falling apart

and

exploring the passages leading from the main chamber.


Both books are very much worth looking into for anyone who has an interest in Central American history, the history of the Mayan civilization, and archaeology; it's also great for armchair travelers.  But the most important thing about both of these books is explained very nicely in William Carlsen's book, Jungle of Stone.  


This book not only gives a great summary of both of Stephens' accounts, but also examines the lives of both Stephens and Catherwood. While Stephens was very well known, Catherwood's life  has been an enigma, and Carlsen gives as much insight into this man as is probably possible, since very little is known about him.  He  also examines the archaeology, the history and the studies that have been done since Stephens and Catherwood first made their way to the area to find this "hidden jungle of stones" that would "begin the process of unraveling the Maya's amazing, improbable history."   But there's much more here -- for example, the current view before their trek of discovery was that
 "the Americas had always been a land occupied by primitive, inferior people," 
but that notion would be radically altered after Stephens published his books.  As Carlsen notes,
"After the publication of their books, the mysterious stone ruins in Central America, the vast, sophisticated road network of the Inca in South America, and the monuments and temples of the Aztecs could no longer be viewed as the Lost Tribes of Israel, the ancient seafaring Phoenicians, or the survivors of lost Atlantis. They were understood to be solely indigenous in origin, the products of the imagination, intelligence and creativity of Native Americans."
In short, Stephens and Catherwood not only paved the way for future exploration, but their discoveries and their keen awareness of the significance of what they'd found actually turned our own prevailing assumption about the development of civilization on its ear. And seriously, all you have to do is to visit a place like Chichen Itza or Tulum to discover the truth of what Carlsen (and earlier, Stephens) is saying.

I can very highly recommend all three books here -- reading the first one was often like being in the middle of an adventure, and there were times when I wondered how this guy managed to stay alive.   The second book was just sheer pleasure to read, and I'm already thinking that next year we'll go to Mérida as a home base for exploring more ruins.  Carlsen's book is absolutely perfect for readers who may be interested but don't want to spend the time reading Stephens' accounts, since he gives the highlights of both but adds in so much more.

I can't begin to say how much I enjoyed these books.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston

9781455540006
Grand Central Publishing, 2017
326 pp

hardcover

I took this book along with me on vacation in Mexico a few weeks back and read it after a day touring Tulum. I know that Tulum is a Mayan site and is not in Honduras where the action in this book takes place,  but being there and experiencing the ruins only whetted my appetite for a story of exploration in the dense jungles of the Central American rainforests.  If the truth must be told, I'm also a huge devotee of stories concerning exploration and archaeology, both fiction and nonfiction, and I've been reading about archaeological finds since I was a kid.

The "Lost City of the Monkey God" is one title for a lost city said to be "hidden in rugged Mosquitia," the circled area in the map below.


What the map doesn't reveal is that this area that covers roughly thirty-two thousand miles, and that it is  a "land of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers and mountains."  According to the author, the area was once labeled on maps as the Portal del Infierno, "the Gates of Hell."  It is a dangerous place to explore, not only due to the hazards posed by "the thickest jungle in the world" but also because of the fact that, as Preston says, "Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world," and that a whopping eighty percent of the cocaine that comes to the US via South America comes through Honduras, "most of it via Mosquitia" leaving "much of the surrounding countryside and towns" of the area in the hands of the cartels.

In 1526 Cortés wrote a report to Emperor Charles V while off the coast of Honduras, saying that he believed that there were "very extensive and rich provinces"... that "will exceed Mexico in riches..." According to Cortés,  this "new land" was known by the Indians as "the Old Land of Red Earth," and it existed "somewhere in the mountains of Mosquitia."  While he never explored there, twenty years later a missionary "found himself looking down on a large and prosperous city spread out in a river valley," and although he didn't go into the city, his report to Charles V kept the legend alive.  The legends of as-yet undiscovered lost cities continued to flourish over the next few centuries, until as Preston says, "by the dawn of the twentieth century," they had "coalesced into a single legend of a sacred and forbidden Ciudad Blanca," so-named because of the stories collected by Pech Indians (aka the Paya) of Mosquitia that told about a "White House" located "beyond a pass in the mountains at the headwaters of two rivers."  It was also known as "the City of the Monkey God," and more than one explorer set off in search for this legendary place.

After going through a brief history of attempts to discover this lost city, Preston's account reveals how he joined an expedition to the area after a documentary filmmaker named Steve Elkins had decided to make a search of the area using lidar technology.  The cost to do the whole area was prohibitive, so Elkins settled on a search area of about fifty square miles. The gist of the search you can read about here in a New Yorker article written by Douglas Preston in 2013; suffice it to say that not only did Elkins and his team discover one large site, they discovered a second one as well. Most of the book details the ground expedition -- pitfalls, surprises and discoveries, etc., -- as well as its aftermath.

I have to say that I was pretty much glued to this book as far as this expedition goes because of my fascination with this sort of thing, and I do believe he does a fine job of relating events for armchair travelers like myself who will never be part of anything so exciting.  He manages to do it in such a way that transmits the excitement, the frustrations, the hard work, the perils, etc., involved so that it becomes a bit of a page turner.  I also enjoyed reading about the history of other attempts at finding the Lost City that he provides, which puts the search for this particular site in a larger context. But having said that, I do have a couple of big niggles.

Aside from a couple of issues re sources (using his brother Richard's books as source material for one example; not using more current scholarship that examines other possible reasons for decimation of indigenous peoples of the area as another example), I have a big complaint.  Quite a bit of space was used by the author in this book  to discuss a horrific illness that some of the expedition members picked up, brought on by bites from parasitic sand fleas at the team's camp.  I didn't mind that so much, since it was interesting, but he uses this potentially-deadly illness to bring up dangerous effects of global warming.   Now before anyone gets huffy, does the eyeroll, and starts calling me a denier,  that's not the case at all. In fact, I totally share Preston's views about climate change and global warming.  It's just that it came across as out of place in this book, and left me thinking that perhaps this is not the correct venue for that particular discussion.  Another thing:  the history of diseases brought to this area that he offers in making his point as to what may have caused the disappearance of the indigenous population of the "Lost City" is certainly compelling, but Preston is a journalist/author, not a scientist, and once again,  his own speculations seemed misdirected and out of place here, especially without evidence from the site itself to back them up.

On the whole, I enjoyed the story of the modern expedition, the history of the searches for the "Lost City," and as long as Preston stayed there, all was quite good and I'm happy to have read it.  Considering the caveats mentioned above, I can recommend it to people like myself who are interested in this sort of thing.

You can find more about this expedition, complete with short video, in an article the author wrote for The New Yorker of January 2017.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston



9781590518144
Other Press, 2016
340 pp

hardcover


 Jeremy Thorpe's leadership of the  Liberal Party began in 1967.  Then, after a career which set him on a path to participation in the highest ranks of British politics,  just twelve short years later he was not only out of a job and in disgrace, but standing trial for conspiracy to murder.

In this book, the author traces exactly how this happened, following the story of Norman (Josiffe) Scott, who had claimed that he and Thorpe had had a sexual relationship starting in 1960  when Thorpe forcibly sodomized Scott.   Thorpe, of course, denied the claim, while Scott would tell others exactly how Thorpe had ruined his life. One huge bone of contention between Scott and Thorpe was that Scott had lost his National Insurance Card, which Thorpe had promised to replace and never did.  As Thorpe continued to rise in the political firmament, Scott's mental health and living situation deteriorated to the point where Scott felt compelled to tell his story to anyone who would listen.While nothing was really done about Scott's accusations, over the years Thorpe realized that Scott had documents (letters that could prove Scott's claims)  -- and that his very existence could become problematic vis-a-vis Thorpe's career.  He allegedly hired a hitman to take care of Scott, who proceeded to bungle the job, garnering the attention of the police and the press by killing a dog instead.

I'm not someone who is much into reading about scandals, since I prefer to devote my reading time to other pursuits.  However, while the murder plot is interesting, there's much more in this book worth examining.  First, of course, is how quickly Thorpe's political connections closed ranks to protect their man and their party, down to the prosecutor who obviously failed to "prosecute the case as vigorously as he might have done," with some people commenting that his ambitions led him to not wish "to ruffle too many feathers." Thorpe's friend Peter Bessell continued to cover up for him even after he knew about the murder plot, based on some long-standing, blind loyalty until Thorpe began to throw Bessell under the bus.  Even the judge in the case, if Preston is correct here, had already taken sides as the trial began. Then there are the police -- shutting down any inquiries that may have revealed the truth of things, hiding documents that could wreck Thorpe's career, accusing Scott of "hysterical fantasizing," and putting Scott through the emotional wringer instead of treating his complaints as valid. Second, and probably the most interesting aspect of this book for me, is the fact that until 1967, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Even after the law was changed (a brief history given here as well),  gay men continued to be treated contemptuously, and politicians like Thorpe continued to remain reluctant to come out of the closet publicly.  During the trial against Thorpe, for example, Scott's sexuality was put on trial more than once, with one barrister saying that homosexuals were known for their "terrible propensity for malice."

While Preston can tell a story like nobody's business, I was a little disoriented at first with the lack of footnotes. Sources are also nonexistent, except for mentions of people and books in the Acknowledgements section, and even there we're told that "All the exchanges between Jeremy Thorpe and Peter Bessell come from Bessell's book, Cover-Up," Bessell's aide-memoire, so buyer beware.  On the other hand, it is so well told that you'll find yourself becoming immersed from the beginning and unable to stop reading.

Recommended.