GREAT MAN THEORIES
Curl up this winter with these tales of occupation, exploration, and depredation
By John Man
Bantam Press, $39.95, ISBN: 13579108642
Of all would-be world conquerors, Attila the Hun (406-453 AD), self-declared Scourge of God had the worst reputation. And his ferocious Hungarian hordes – reputed to be descended from the Xiongnu – were the subject of some very bad early PR: ‘They were squat, with thick necks, so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be two-legged animals … there was nothing like them for cruelty and ugliness … they knew nothing of metal, had no religion and lived like savages, without fire … eating their food raw … once they put their necks into some dingy shirt, they never took it off until it rotted … their legs so bowed that they could hardly walk … stunted, foul and puny … pinholes rather than eyes’.
You get the idea.
If the Huns swept all before them, due to their mobility, horsemanship and rapid-firing archery, the victims were determined to have the last say. Since the Huns had no written language, it is others who have described their culture – and their appearance. John Man, while not exactly an apologist, balances up the evaluation by telling us of the Huns’ metal work, cooking, religion and even, at times, their comely women. Above all, he vividly details the formidable power of their archery: 2000 arrows could hit 200 of the enemy in 10 seconds, a rate equivalent to ten machine guns as they wheeled in whirlwind fashion, even firing back over the shoulder (the parting or Parthian shot.) The trick is to hold a bunch of arrows in your bow hand and fire when the galloping horse – which you control with your knees – is off the ground.
Priscus, Attila’s principal historian, describes him as ‘excellent in council, sympathetic to supplicants, gracious to those who received his protection’. Not to be outdone, Man adds, ‘I think he had a sudden smile that could melt rocks.’ At least this item of whimsy is prefaced by the words ‘I think’. Man’s book is well written and a good read, but suffers from certain disturbing oddities in its approach. There is, as suggested above, a tendency to novelise history and to add in embellishments or dialogue that are blatantly of Man’s own imagination, not historical fact. Surely this sort of thing is better left to historical novelists – or is the writing of history undergoing a quiet revolution?
Man dismisses or challenges traditional accounts of the time. Pope Leo’s miraculous turn-around of the Hun hordes was the result of a bribe not a miracle; the great defeat of Attila by Aetius was a stalemate followed by a strategic withdrawal; the 11,000 Ursuline virgins were really 11 – an ‘M’ which stood for martyrs was mistakenly interpreted as ‘1,000’. Then he adds one of his own – he muses that had Attila played his cards right, Britain would have fallen to the Hun and Chaucer and Shakespeare would have written in Hunnish!
The book also has an odd structure. Attila is briefly mentioned in the first few pages, then disappears for over 100 pages. This long lead time is used to describe theories of origins of the Huns and the political situation that preceded their dramatic arrival on the stage of history. Fair enough, perhaps, though a trifle imbalanced. There is a detailed account of Lajos Kassai – a contemporary – who has remastered the art of mounted archery. Fascinating stuff to be sure, but why place it before outlining Attila’s military feats? Surely it would have been more appropriate as an appendix instead of as a ‘flash forward’ in the historical backdrop to the saga of the Huns’ brief domination of central Europe? Once you get used to Man’s time machine approach to history this is an enjoyable and informative read – I learnt, for example, that the habit of referring to First World War German soldiers as ‘Huns’ was derived from a 1902 poem by Rudyard Kipling.
THE FINAL SOLUTION
By Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate, $24.95, ISBN: 0007196024
I throughly enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a romp through the golden age of American comics, but this short novel by Michael Chabon is a much lesser work. A note on the copyright page notes that this book was published in an earlier form in the Paris Review in 2003. So it is a backdated, then updated, work written prior to the rambunctious Kavalier & Clay work. It’s cruel thing to say but The Final Solution would have been better left in the prestigious pages of the Paris Review, otherwise noted for its definitive interviews with world-famous writers.
The basic plot is – depending how one chooses to look at it – either preposterously whimsical or intriguingly colourful. An 89-year-old Sherlock Homes (only ever identified as ‘the old man’) encounters a mute nine-year-old boy with an African grey parrot that spouts numbers in German. The numbers are subsequently speculated to be a top-secret Nazi code.
I have no quarrel with resurrecting the world’s greatest detective and surely one of the most well-known characters in literature. After all, Conan Doyle (though admittedly under publisher and public duress) did the same after he had killed off Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. Other crime fighters like Bulldog Drummond and James Bond have been revisited by subsequent admiring author-fans.
Chabon has successfully rendered the high Victorian prose and elegant speech of Doyle, plus the surprise villains and implausible plot but there is something slight and flimsy about the work as whole. Now and then, Chabon writes a dazzling sentence that hints at the stylistic splendours manifest in Kavalier & Clay. Even the fanciful plot fizzles in a way that would have dismayed the plot-conscious Conan Doyle. I look forward to new novels by Chabon that are not rewrites of minor material.
OVER THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
By Laurence Bergreen
HarperCollins, $24.95, ISBN: 0007118317
Great as was Columbus’s voyage to America, it was exceeded in length, duration and endurance by the globe-encircling expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan 27 years later in 1519. Indeed, as Laurence Bergreen notes in this excellent biography, Magellan’s voyage was fifteen times longer and encompassed far greater hardship and adventure as well as more spectacular feats of navigation. The discovery and navigation of the 300-mile-long straits that now bear his name is regarded as the greatest single feat of navigation of all time. Magellan was also the first to cross the vastness of the Pacific Ocean in a single journey – 7000 miles of uncharted water. The mediaeval map-makers of Europe did not know of its existence – hence their estimate of the circomference of the earth was about 18,000 miles instead of the true figure, 24,900.
It should be made clear that educated people of Magellan’s time did not believe the earth to be flat. The whole expedition was predicated on the globularity of the planet – in particular, the possibility of approaching the Spice Islands from a westerly instead of an easterly direction. The motive behind the expedition was to grab the spice-rich islands off the Portuguese who had a passion for secrecy and had been harvesting them for some time.
Apart from any few remaining doubters of a round planet, the men may have feared that they would boil alive at the equator, meet a variety of monsters (including the wondrous Socolopendra with a face of flames) or sail near a magnetic island that could pull nails out of ships. They did meet sharks, whales and flying fish, but ultimately the greatest dangers they encountered were those of scurvy and mutiny. Bergreen notes that Magellan and his officers did not get scurvy while many of the men succumbed. The explanation, unknown at the time, was because the Captain and his officers were eating preserved quince which had enough vitamin C to keep them healthy. It is humbling to think that without a few regular helpings of preserved fruit the expedition might never have succeeded at all. Magellan and others thought the cause of scurvy was ‘bad air’.
All in all, there were four mutinies. Magellan, a man of his time, didn’t treat the ringleaders lightly – they had to endure strappado, a thoroughly nasty form of torture involving weights tied to the feet and being hoisted and violently dropped. Bergreen doesn’t spare us the details. In reading about Alexander the Great, Captain James Cook and Magellan, a strange similarity becomes evident: all came to be treated as gods, and when they came to half-believe it themselves, they became arrogant and cruel.
Some three years later, one ship out of an original five and 18 battered survivors from an initial crew of 260 arrived back in Spain to tell the tale of the greatest sea voyage of all time. Without Antonio Pigafetta, the ship’s chronicler (also a lucky consumer of preserved quince), we would know almost nothing of these extraordinary events.
This is a grand tale, perhaps the grandest in all sea-faring history, and it is thrillingly told by Bergreen. This will be the definitive biography of Magellan for quite some time.
THE MERMAID CHAIR
By Sue Monk Kidd
Review, $36.99, ISBN: 0755307623
Many satisfying novels have been written about what is cynically called the eternal triangle – the situation where one partner strays from the marital bond and has an affair with a third party – but regrettably this is not one of them. In today’s up-tempo world, it’s risky to set in motion a plot of this kind – attractive married woman and rookery-minding monk about to take his final vows meet and are overwhelmingly attracted – and not have anything happen between them until more than half through the novel. They ‘make love’ twice at my count and their dialogue is unlikely to set the world on fire: ‘I can’t believe how beautiful you are’; ‘I’ve wanted you from the beginning.’
It’s hard to get interested in the jilted psychiatrist husband who does a good turn in angry jealousy but otherwise is fairly ineffective as a character. Two women sidekicks also fail to rouse interest. Then there’s the dog, Max (yawn). I’ve tried to warn writers about allowing in dogs as characters in serious novels but to no avail.
There is also a saint-demented mother who keeps lopping off digits and apparently is intent on severing all ten – though thankfully the narrative only takes us up to two. (How do you chop all ten anyway? The way I figure it is, it’s got to be damn difficult to finish the job after you’re chopped off eight of them).
It’s a convention with this type of story that the sudden rush of blood to the head (and other parts) isn’t always the strongest foundation for new lasting relationships. Whatever, Graham Greene did this sort of thing infinitely better a generation ago. Ms Kidd also needs to work on her style: ‘He stood. He lifted his shoulders. I don’t think he knew what to feel any more than what to say.’ I rest my case.
By Augusten Burroughs
Hodder, $29.95, ISBN: 0733619002
Most of us want to be thought of as nice people but Burroughs has made outrageous capital of the opposite tactic. By his own confession (though can we always believe him?) he is cruel to mice and children, hates babies and is promiscuous as an alley cat. By way of self-deprecation, he tells us he has an undesirably skinny ass, is domestically grossly untidy, and once had sex with an undertaker. And in case you’re wondering, yes, there was a body only 20 feet away.
Depending on the location of your funny bone, there is black humour to be extracted from these real life tales.
Burroughs’ accounts of his frequent meeting of partners through ads, picking them up willy-nilly, affirms the stereotype of the extremely promiscuous homosexual. With paradoxical humour, Burroughs reports there was one fellow with whom he was sleeping but not having sex with – ‘I told him how it’s really difficult for me to have sex with somebody unless I know them very well and am extremely comfortable with them. This sounded better than the truth which is I can’t have sex with somebody unless they’re a stranger and I’m drunk’.
The sexual high jinks (or low jinks) quickly pall and it’s easier to feel more sympathetic to Burroughs at his missing out on being in a TV ad as a child and – after goggling at a sumptuous Vanderbilt mansion – informing his parents that they had kidnapped him and in reality he is a Vanderbilt who wants to go back to where he rightfully belongs.
‘You’re monsters. I hate you I hate I hate you’, he screams at his parents. Confirming the impression he was a difficult child and maybe a worse adult, Burroughs cheerfully lists his flaws as a ‘wide, deep cruel streak’ plus ‘fear of intimacy, sexual dysfunction, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, social anxiety disorder and mania’. (And don’t forget that skinny ass.)
Looked at from the outside, all of Burroughs’ weirdness belong to a tradition of potentially harmful eccentricity and self-endangering lifestyle which we can readily identify as a sub-set of American behaviours most frequently associated with the inhabitants of California or New York (Burroughs is a Manhattanite). Burroughs’ rollicking lucid style make for an easy read though it leaves the reader jaded after several very same-sounding chapters about casual sex. The reader, whether bemused or shocked, must be wondering if Burroughs is a nice guy pretending to be an asshole, an asshole who somehow wants us still to like him, or a guy who just can’t help himself – or a combination of all three?