Saturday, September 26, 2020



 Per J Andersson  (1962-    )

Translator:  Anna Holmwood


This is the story of Jagat Ananda Pradyumna Kumar Mahasssandia (not his full name), PK for short.  He was born and raised in the jungle province of Orissa in the country of India.  He began drawing with bits of charcoal at the age of three, and received the prophecy at an early age, that "he will work with color when he grows up and that he will marry an alien girl who is musical and owns a jungle".  His family was of the Dalit caste, sub-caste Pan:  also known as "untouchables".  His father made a living as post-master of a local village and PK lived a free life, playing with animals, insects and cobras in the surrounding jungle until he reached school age.  The reality of being Dalit gave him a shock.  Starting school, he had to sit outside the schoolroom;  the other students literally couldn't touch him;  he had to eat by himself;  and he had to clean up after everyone else.  Still, he had a natural talent for drawing, and impressed his teachers by his art and intelligence.  His mom was known for her skill in drawing and design:  she painted gods and tutelary figures for the frequent religious holidays.  PK resented being ostracized from the other students at school, and took revenge with a sling shot.  

Meanwhile, Lotta von Schedvin was growing up in Boras, Sweden.  Her grandfather was a weaver and Lotta developed an irresistible interest in India at a young age.  She had a lot of relatives;  they owned land in a forest in Southwestern Sweden, not too far from Gothenburg, and she had a more or less normal upbringing except for her preternatural interest in India.  She played the flute and had blond hair.

Pk was sent to a boarding school and hated it.  He tried to drown himself once, but failed.  Next he was enrolled in a military academy where he broke his leg in a cyclone.  His parents entered him into a science and engineering program, but PK just felt lost, so he ran away to West Bengal and tried to get into Rabindranath's art classes, but they wanted more money than he had so he went home again.  Luckily, there was a "free school" in the area.  He began attending classes there and was delighted to find that Dalits were treated just like everyone else at this particular location.  Prejudice against untouchables was actually illegal, but there was a strong dichotomy between the state law and religious practices.  The Brahmins (the top caste) were staid and stodgy in their relations with the other castes, and their influence carried through Indian society to the effect that Federal laws governing repression were ignored, especially in the wealthier and commercial sections of the populace.

Having done well in the free school, PK received a scholarship to an art institution in New Delhi.  He traveled there on a train, and started classes while sleeping under bridges and scraping by with as little food as he could manage.  Then the scholarship money quit coming, probably because of sticky fingers in the financial distribution department.  So PK gradually quit going to school and spent his time wandering around, trying not to starve to death.  Eventually he got back in school when the money showed up again.  At this point he started drawing people for money.  He'd grab a place in the central market and advertise a portrait in ten minutes for ten rupees.  He did well, and began traveling with a friend.  He went to Nepal and a few other places and acquired a national reputation through his portraits of well-known figures.  He drew pictures of Indira Gandhi, Valentina Tereshkova (the first Soviet cosmonaut and a member of the Supreme Soviet) and others.  He was written up in newspapers.

Lotta went to London when she was of age and attended nursing school, from which she graduated.  Still interested in India, she joined a group of friends and journeyed there in a VW bus.  Meeting PK, they formed and instant bond, even though she only stayed a short time.  In 1975, Ms. Gandhi seized control of the government and instituted major reforms in an attempt to eliminate wide-spread corruption.  Lotta returned to Europe, but came back to India to see PK.  They visited his father and uncles and had an Indian wedding.  She returned to Sweden and told her family of her espousal;  they were curious about him, but not dismissive.

PK became more famous, becoming partners in a magazine which only lasted a few issues.  He graduated from art school and took a job with the India Post, a national newspaper.  But success didn't satisfy him;  he misses Lotta, so decided to go to Sweden.  Airplane tickets are 40,000 rupees, so he bought a bicycle instead for 80R and started pedaling to Pakistan.  Not being sure of the route, he took along a copy of the Mahabharata for directions.  At the border he was denied entrance, but he drew pictures of the guards and they let him through.  Later, a friendly Jain bought him a ticket to Kabul and a German traveler agreed to transport his bicycle there.  He earned money drawing in that city and used it to buy a new bike, as the old one's chain was "sluggish".  Pedaling to Kandahar, he came upon a young lady from Vienna who was hurt in a car accident, so he took her back to Kabul to a doctor.  She fell for him, but he was determined to reach Sweden.

His ultimate goal is to reach Lotta, so he's not concerned about accepting rides from other vehicles.  He gets lots of rides from truck drivers and hippies.  Upon arriving at the Caspian Sea, he  discovers that Linnea, the girl he'd rescued near Kabul, has sent him a train ticket to Vienna.  So he goes there only to find that she's left to go back to India only two days before.  Her mother makes him take a bath and an appreciative gallery owner, in admiration of his talent, donates a ticket to Sweden.  He has a hard time at the German border because of hard-case guards who want to arrest him because of his poverty-stricken status, but a nice lady loans him 3,000 Kroner to show them, and they let him pass.  He returns the money forthwith.  Lotta picks him up at the railroad station in Gothenburg and takes him home.

PK learns the language and gets a good job teaching art and he and Lotta have a happy life, with two children.  He retires 35 years later with an honorary doctor's degree from Utkal university in Bhubusserwar back in Orissa.  They travel back to his home town, Athmalik, build a house, and live there.

I started this book because i thought it was a bicycle adventure, but it turned out to be more than that.  Following PK's checkered life and reading the author's descriptions of India and its cultural and governmental problems was enlightening as well as entertaining.  Andersson is a good writer and has the gift of bringing the reader along in his disquisitions.  He's quite obviously a devotee of Eastern religions, a practicer of Yoga, and a bit surreal in his assumptions about why and how events occur, but he comes across as a warm, intelligent person and I enjoyed reading his book...

note:  PK made his trip in 1977...  he was born in 1949

Saturday, September 19, 2020



 OLYMPIAN NIGHTS


John Kendrick Bangs (1862-1922)


Pursuing his employment as a war correspondent, Mr. Bangs found himself camped at the foot of Mt. Olympus after several days touring with a native guide.  The guide (Hippopopolus by name) was an irritable sort whose negative qualities began to display themselves after a 43 kilometer walk in search of printable data concerning the ongoing conflict between Turkey and Greece.  The two converse about the Gods and Hippopopolus has not much good to say about them.  After a makeshift dinner of sardines and toast, he referred to Mercury as a stock market grifter and criticized Apollo's attempts at music making as "not rare, but raw - awful".  During the night, while Mr. B was asleep, Mr. H managed to abscond with his employers wallet, watch, and overcoat.  Awaking in the early dawn, wet and cold, Bangs began walking back toward the local village, but he got turned around and after a couple of hours found himself in front of a cave, half-way up the mountain.  He entered and fell asleep again and several more hours elapsed until he woke once more due to a faint light shining from the back of the cave.  Investigating, he noticed a sort of door apparently incised into the wall with a button beside it.  Pressing said button a light came on above the door and it soon opened.  Bangs, startled, said, "My heart sank into my boots but as these were wet, it promptly returned to my throat...".  A dark figure with brilliantined hair dashed out of the revealed cavity and a small naked person invited him inside.  The door closed and the elevator soared upward.  A few exchanges in Classic Greek told Bangs that his fellow conversant was none other than Cupid.  The little operator was a chatty kind of Being, who shared some information about Zeus, his employer:  that he'd been more or less ignored by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Cronos and in consequence had grown into a rather unpredictable and scatter-brained leader.  Cupid's parents, Venus and Psyche, had kicked him out of the house at an early age which was why he ran an elevator for a living.  He was unable to improve his situation due to the influences of Mammon and Greed, who undermined his credibility with the general public.

Reaching the top story, Hebe showed Mr. Bangs to his room, which was a very nice one with magnifying glass windows that permitted extensive views of the city of Olympus as well as vast prospects of the solar system and surrounding galaxies.  In the morning, Adonis appeared in his position as hotel valet and helped Bangs into his new toga, arranging and draping it according to accepted divine practice.  Adonis, talkative fellow, said he was only temporarily employed, as he had to spend half the year in Hades, where he had a nice apartment.  After breakfast, Bangs ventured outdoors and met Phaeton who was in charge of rapid transit.  Ankle wings were popular but neophyte users had difficulty keeping themselves upright, tending to flip over in mid-flight with resulting contusions to the head and face.  Bicycles were also available:  the tires were filled a special gas that allowed them to float, greatly relieving the pedaler from excessive exertion.  In fact they were one way to reach the planet Mars, as it was well within cycling distance, being at perihelion, only five minutes away by bike.  There was a golf course there,  eighteen holes, each of which was some thousands of miles long.  Playing the entire course would take one around the planet several times.  Before doing anything, Mr. B asked to see a doctor, as he was suffering from post-breakfast stomach cramps.  He was led to the office of Dr. Aesculapius whose motto was:  "onmes homines mendaces sunt" (all men lie).  His office hours were anytime for mortals, but 10-12 on Tuesday for gods.  He used X-ray glasses to stare into people vitals.  He offered to operate on B's imagination if he was having trouble obsessing about anything.  But he finally offered several digestive tablets and suggested B call him in the morning.

Mr. Bangs visited the zoo.  He saw the Trojan horse inside which he could have taken a trip around the premises, but decided against it because of the possibilities of mortal sea-sickness.  The Cardiff Giant was lurking about somewhere:  he was shy because he wasn't supposed to exist.  The Prometheus vulture was in hiding because he was tired of eating the same thing day after day.  Some of the other gods and goddessses were there in different forms.  Callisto was a bear, Actaeon was a "Holy Terror", Dryope was a lotus, etc.  St. George's dragon was present:  his name was Fido and he helped with the annual fireworks celebrations.  He was expensive to keep around as he ate ten tons of coal and drank sixteen gallons of kerosene a day.  The Phoenix had its ash nest nearby.  It resembled a spun dry buzzard with a voice like a fog horn and demanded its bed to be lit every day.

After the zoo, a regiment of Amazons escorted Mr. B to visit the boss, Jove as he preferred to be called.  They passed gardens and palaces of gold and jewelry, onyx and opal, and traversed an eight mile corridor to the divine gates.  Entering, Bangs thought for a bit that he'd been misdirected, because the room he found himself in was littered with odd bits of machinery and tools tossed haphazardly around.  Work benches were filled with partially disassembled gadgets, and an older man, dressed somewhat sloppily, greeted him in a friendly manner and offered a tour of the palace.  They saw a sports arena sixty square miles in area, with a track and a soccer field.  The teams that usually played were Hades Vs. Olympus.  There were foot races periodically scheduled between various divine-like figures:  Alexander, Napolean, Julius caesar, Hannibal and others.  Hercules almost always won, mainly because the others couldn't resist posing for the audiences.  Jove participated once, but was irritated upon not coming in first, so he turned Hercules into a weeping willow for 500 years.  Night games were illuminated by great balls of fire.

Back at the hotel, Mercury arrives in a "Skitomobile" which is a sort of space ship used in interstellar travel.  Mr. B steps in and they take off, leaving orbit and careening around the solar system at unheard of rates of speed, taking full advantage of the lack of gravity to perform all sorts of aviational tricks and stunts: loop the loops, meteoric slides, and the like.  On Mars, they join Jove, Phaeton, and Jason for a game of golf.  Bangs noticed that what had appeared to be canals back on Earth, were actually bunkers filled with sand, and the dark green spots some astronomers had spotted were actually the putting greens.  The golf clubs were a version of a cannon, with a hole for pushing in the golf balls and a trigger to initiate action.  The balls themselves were made of coiled up electricity.  Bangs was overly enthusiastic with his first drive and his ball circled the planet and struck him in the back of his head.  Jove explained that a proper drive resulted in a zig-zag path in which the ball gradually approached the green in a sideways fashion to avoid divots.  But, without meaning to, B accidentally hit the Skitomobile and broke it instead of following Jove's instructions.  The latter became upset and cancelled the game and they all returned to Olympus.  Jove invited B to dinner and afterwards made him a god:  Zero, god of Nit.  The new god became a little carried away with his new-found abilities and without permission, used the Future machine to see what happens to mankind in the next few thousand years.  Jove in irritation, erased his memory and sent him back to Earth.  He woke up in his bed in Des Moines with a headache.

This is a very funny and imaginative book.  Bangs wrote others like it, The House-Boat on the Styx for instance.  His output was over fifty volumes, almost all of which are unavailable now.  His ability to instill almost terminal laughter in his readers is, imo of course, unparalleled.  I wonder if he was an influence of any sort on Wodehouse, as his type of humor, being sort of a crazed antilogical lunacy might have inspired the former's more methodical plot structures.  Where Bangs is out-of-the-box hilarious, Wodehouse prefers to build up his ludicrous situations bit by bit, slowly overwhelming the reader with the sheer nuttiness of his plots.  It least it seems that way to me.  Whatever, if any of Bangs' books cross your path, snatch them up, is my advice.  They will permit the reader to escape turgid reality for awhile...

Saturday, September 12, 2020

more new arabian nights: the dynamiter




 


MORE NEW ARABIAN NIGHTS:  THE DYNAMITER


Robert Louis Stevenson  (1850-1894)

Fanny Stevenson (1840-1914)


Mr. Godall owns and operates the "Bohemian Cigar Divan", a tobacco store in London.  One day several unemployed young men enter and plop themselves down disconsolately.  Challoner and Somerset are at loose ends and don't know how to earn a living.  They see an advertisement in the paper touting the profession of detective, so they both agree to give it a try.  A third young person enters and they commiserate with him, telling him their plans and he is enthusiastic about the idea.  All three leave the store and have adventures.

Challoner is a somewhat sedentary individual, rather aimless and without ambition.  While walking through a seedy district he hears a loud "Whomp" and observes three persons dashing out of a nearby house.  One of them, a girl, grabs his arm and accompanies him as they quickly leave the scene.  They sit down in an adjacent park and she tells Challoner her story.  Her father was a member of Colonel Fremont's exploration party in western America.  He became separated from the group at one point and accidentally stumbled across a small group of travelers who were lost and starving.  Observing from a vantage point, he sees one of them, an older man, steal food and a blanket from a young lady.  He later is informed that they are Mormons and that the older man was Dr. Grierson.  Colonel Fremont joins them and guides the pioneers to the great Salt Lake, where the Mormons have established a city and their own society.  Lucy Fonblanque and her husband are slain through the manipulations of the evil Dr. Grierson, and Asenath, after receiving aid from a handsome stranger, travels to London, where she falls into the clutches of the demonic Dr. Grierson again.  He wants to marry her, even though he's twice her age, and he's concocted a vital serum which will return him to his lost youth.  He drinks it and it blows up, killing him and driving Asenath into the streets.

Challoner disbelieves her story, but she convinces him to help her anyway, by delivering a sum of money to a certain address in Glasgow.  Arriving in that town, he wanders the streets for a while until he finds the proper house.  He rings the doorbell and asks for Ms. Fonblanque.  The man that answers, beard and all, says that's his name, and Challoner gives him the money.  The police stage a raid and Challoner is rescued and disguised with some old clothes;  he walks aimlessly through the city until catching the first train back to London.

Meanwhile, Somerset leaves the cigar emporium and idly strolls about until he's picked up by an older lady who takes him home and feeds him and tells her story.  She was the daughter of the Revered Fanshawe, prefect of the Bath and Wells area, and had an ideal upbringing until the Rector remarries and the bad-tempered wife drives Miss Fanshawe away, giving her an allowance on the understanding that she should never return.  The young Miss loses her money in the river but is befriended by Henry Luxmore, the second son of Lord Southwark who has nine thousand a year and owns eight houses in London.  They marry and have a daughter, Clara.  Twenty years later, Clara ran away to seek adventure and old Mrs. Luxmore was left to run the financial empire.  She rents her favorite house to Colonel Geraldine who says he's in the service of Prince Florizel of Bohemia, and he's an ideal tenant for a while until Mrs. Luxmore notices strange persons entering and leaving the premises.  After a series of homicidal events, she evicts the Colonel and his obnoxious friends and allows Somerset to stay there rent free.  He had been lured there through questionable and sneaky operations on the part of the undesirables, but he impressed her as a reliable personage and so she left him in possession while she toured Europe.

Somerset is short of money, so he rents the upper floor to a tall, blond gentleman named Zero Jones.  Somerset soon realizes that Jones is a dynamiter:  an amoral anarchist devoted to bringing down the government by blowing it up.  Jones is a very friendly, intelligent companion who makes friends with Somerset, and repeatedly convinces him not to turn him out of the house merely because he has unusual predilections.  One of Zero's bombs is carried around the town by a co-conspirator named M'Guire, who can't make up his mind where to leave it and still elude the authorities, and so throws it into the river where it explodes and creates a minor tidal wave.  Distraught, Zero goes up to the roof and careers about, in a pathetic state over his failures as a dynamiter.  Somerset saves him from falling off the roof.

The third wanderer, Harry Desborough, lives in Bloomsbury next to a Children's Hospital.  Smoking on his rear terrace one day, he breaks his pipe and a comely neighbor, Ms. Valdevia, flounces over and rolls him a cigarette.  Her story is a bit different:  she was raised on an island just off of the Cuban mainland, on a sugar cane plantation, run by her father with the help of a large number of slaves.  When she was sixteen, an older lady, Madame Mendizabal, arrives and through voodoo, gains control of the island.  The father buries his jewels in the boggy depths of a local swamp, then dies, and Valdevia escapes through the swamp, finding the jewels en route, and makes her way to the shore, where Mendizabal is about to sacrifice one of the servants so she can renew her youth.  A hurricane arises and disrupts the ritual, blowing away all the accouterments and most of the participants.  Valdevia is rescued by a pirate who wants to obtain her jewels.  She's imprisoned in a sugar go-down and rescued by Sir George Greville, a local magistrate, who lands her in England after some other adventures.  Harry falls madly in love with her.  One day he espies a stranger lurking in the vicinity and sees the lurker enter Ms. V's apartment with a mysterious brown box.  Teresa (Ms. V) gets Harry to carry the box down to a ship leaving for Dublin, which he does, but brings it back without shipping it off, partly because it ticks.  They set the box down on a table in her room and it begins popping and letting off noxious odors, so they leave.

At the same time, Zero is depressed because his bombs don't seem to work very well.  He's on the roof threatening to jump, when Somerset convinces him to give up the business and escape to New York.  The two leave the house, abandoning all the dynamite except for one brick which Zero slips into his suitcase, just as a sample.  At the train station, Somerset leaves him and immediately afterwards, there's a loud explosion.  Zero has bumped the corner of his suitcase against the framework of a bookshop and the brick has blown up taking the shop and Zero with it.  Somerset returns to the Cigar store and tells Godall his sad story and also meets with the other two would-be detectives, Challoner and Desborough, and they all sit down while Godall, who turns out to be Prince Florizel, explains some of the mysterious happenings they've all experienced.  Valdevia, Clara, and Asenath are all the same person, even though they were different for each protagonist.  Mrs. Luxmore was actually married to Prince Florizel who was the father of the Valdevia girls and Prince Florizel was actually Reverend Fanshawe.  At least, I think this was the manner in which the plot was resolved:  i'm still not completely certain about that...

In the epilogue, Challoner inherits some money, Ms. Luxmore gives Clara an allowance, Somerset takes a job in the cigar store, and Desborough marries Valdevia.

This was a confusing book.  I wasn't entirely clear about what exactly happened to all the various strands of plot that threaded the tale like the weft in a political intrigue.  I assumed that Robert wrote most of the tale, and that Fanny ( a writer in her own right) finished it, but the warp of language was so smooth that I couldn't tell when the writing of each stopped and started.  But it did progress like a tale in the Arabian Nights, in which stories all tie into each other and only become resolved at the very end.  And it was quite humorous, even though the humor seemed to be tongue in cheek a lot of the time, as the subject was a pretty explosive one at that time, what with revolutionary idealogues fomenting revolt throughout Europe.  I think Stevenson's letters might be informative as to the basis of his conceptions leading to this particular topic;  i'd like to get a copy of them sometime and read them:  so little time, so many books, though...

Saturday, September 5, 2020



THE SECRET OF THE EARTH

Charles Willing Beale (1845-1932)

The Dutch ship Voorne was cruising near the Celebes Islands in the late 18th Century when a crew member spotted a casket floating with a short mast attached to it.  Picking it up, the Captain found a deteriorated manuscript inside entitled "The Attlebridge Papers".  It told a remarkable story of exploration and adventure by a pair of American twins:  Gurthrie and Torrence Attlebridge.  (The following is not non-fiction, so far as i know...).

The twins had just arrived in London, having failed to arrange monetary support for Torrence's new invention in their homeland, and were hopeful about discovering it in England.  They were staying in a cheap hotel room, casting about during the day for entrepreneurs willing to back an unusual project.  The firm Wetherbee and Hart seemed a decent prospect, but the former owner and operator, Mr. Wetherbee, was too old and decrepit to offer much help.  His partner, Hart, suggested they use an abandoned barn on some of his property to carry out their constructions.  The twins split up for a while, hoping to double their chances of making money, but Gurthrie was at the end of his tether when he reunited with his brother several weeks later.  Torrence was ebullient and apparently rolling in money.  He took his brother to the most expensive hotel in town and although he wouldn't share the source of his new-found wealth, he promised great things for the future.  Months later, after the expenditure of wagon-loads of money, Torrence woke Gurthrie up one night and they escaped from the hotel over the roofs.  Making their way to the afore-mentioned barn, they carefully stepped over numerous bodies lying asleep around the barn entrance and climbed into what looked like a double-ended vessel made of aluminum, with a cabin and an observation deck on top.  Silently, Torrence twiddled a few knobs and the ship silently arose and floated out of the barn and away into the sky.  Totally mystified, Gurthrie speechlessly asked his brother to explain.  Torrence has invented an anti-gravity engine and is using it to propel the airship.

They fly north.  Adventures ensue, involving attempts  by Hart to arrest their escape, claiming he has an interest in the ship due to unpaid bills, which Torrence says is nonsense.  Leaving Britain, they fly silently above the clouds, admiring the rainbow colors produced by refracted light at sunset, and the unreal sense of living in a magical environment.  They stop briefly at Spitsbergen before continuing north, and while dining on the beach, Torrence shares the story of his sudden wealth.  He had met by accident an ancient mariner who told him a fantastic tale of unlimited gold and jewels in a land far to the north.  The sailor was dying and as a last request, had asked Torrence to travel there and verify his account which he had failed to convince anyone was true.  He donated his wealth to finance the expedition and the completion of the airship, amounting to millions of dollars in gold and diamonds.

They sail on through storms and fog until they reach a range of 12,000 foot high mountains with two gigantic pillars delineating a sort of gate to the land beyond.  The compass has been behaving erratically for some time and after they float through the mountain gate, the light becomes softer and the horizons vanish in a kind of fuzzy luminescence.  They land briefly on a pink beach on which pearls are scattered about randomly by the thousands.  At this point, Torrence explains to his brother that they are now 1,130 miles north of the North Pole, and further elucidates, that they are inside the planet, which in point of fact is hollow and floats through space like a giant soap bubble.  The illumination surrounding them is reflected sunlight from the sun, and is seasonal:  for six months the light enters the cavity from one end and for the remaining six months, the other end receives the sunlight while the first area is dark.

They travel over forests and fields, occasionally spotting highly decorated ships on the rivers.  Swooping down, they realize that the sailing ships are covered with gold and jewels of every description.  In fact, in this land, the minerals that are priceless on the earth's surface are common as dirt on the inside of the planet, so everybody has however much they want.  Soon after, they approach a large city.  It has a 300 foot high arched gate at the entrance, and on top of that a 100 foot statue of a golden man reaching his hands toward the skies.  The people below become excited and ring bells and blow trumpets and run along the streets following the ship as it slowly progresses along above the minarets, towers, arcades, hanging gardens, palaces and parks that make up city's infrastructure.  Passing into the surrounding farmlands, they pause at a low eminence a few miles away and stretch their legs while picking up a lot of gold and jewels.  A crowd of inhabitants has been following them however, and before they're aware of it, the horde has almost reached their position.  One fellow actually manages to board the ship, but they turn around and take him back to the city, flying low enough so that the people can see that they mean him no harm.  Piles of emeralds and diamonds are thrown into the ship as a sign of appreciation.

Torrence and Gurthrie continue on, sailing a long way over the fruitful land.  They note that the wheat grown in this vicinity doesn't have to be processed;  it's edible directly from the husk.  Fruits of all sorts, and of many that they don't recognize, abound in vast orchards interspersed with the fields of grain.  After observing for a time, Torrence realizes that in this world, nobody has to work.  In fact, trade is non-existent for all practical purposes, as food is readily available to all, and money is not needed or used.  The arts seem to be the principle occupation of the citizenry, and murals and statues decorate all the buildings.  From the airship, the only music to be heard is echoing trumpet sounds that have a carrying quality partly due to the clear and refreshing atmosphere.

At length the bounteous countryside begins to fade, to be replaced by a more desert-like climate.  Husbandry dies out and the population thins away.  They soon find themselves in an uninhabited wasteland with no water or plants, just red dirt and rocks.  And after a while the propelling mechanism on the ship starts to fail:  something about the heat effecting the temporal vibrator has thrown it out of whack, so they gradually sink until they're just off the ground.  The brothers dump as much gold over the side as fast as they can, but eventually they are grounded and stuck, miles from water or assistance.  They see a range of hills in the far distance and Gurthrie starts walking in hopes of finding water while Torrence tries to repair the vessel.  Gurt  feels he's dying and collapses on the sand, his last impression being of a vulture-like bird with a fifty foot wing span hovering just overhead.

Gurthrie awakes in a cool stone room without knowing where he is.  He begins exploring and discovers that he is in a labyrinth of passages that penetrate the range of cliffs that he and his brother had seen from the ship.  In fact the cliff-side has been turned into a palatial warren for its residents, who appear to be some sort of monastical society.  Creeping through the dark hidden tunnels, Gurthrie finds a large stone door which he manages to open.  Inside the walls are decorated with vast images of unknown creatures and the ceiling consists of transparent mosaics splitting the incoming light into a myriad shades of subtle color.   He suddenly realizes he is not alone, but there are a lot of ornate chairs standing in rows before the far wall and that they are occupied by silent figures of ancient aspect.  One of them slowly turns his head and looks at him with silent significance.  Gurthrie quietly leaves and continues wandering.  He meets an old white-haired man, tall and rail-thin, who leads him into another room and closes the door on him.  Gurthrie anxiously looks for a way out, but sees nothing but stone all around until he notices a narrow ledge leading up toward a square opening in the roof.  Climbing up, he finds himself on top of the cliff with no way down.  He despairs, but at the last moment sees the airship approaching from the desert.  It lands and rescues him and they sail away.  Torrence explains that  he had been on the point of expiring when one of the large vultures landed beside him and left a small barrel full of water and food.  As a result, he was restored and managed to repair the vibrator and begin searching for his brother.  The vultures were apparently sort of St. Bernard dog of this world, employed to rescue travelers and save lives.

Eventually they cross the remaining one hundred miles of barren mountain ranges and enter once more into inhabited areas, with grandiose cities and rich farmsteads.  They don't land anywhere, however, as they can't speak the language and are becoming a bit homesick.  So they continue on for thousands of miles until the weather becomes colder once more and they find themselves with an operational compass which tells them they are pointed north.  They have left the underground world.  They point the ship toward San Francisco and note the gradual disappearance of the ice and snow, and the presence of the Pacific Ocean.  But after several days, they see that they're losing altitude again.   They milk their machine along until they are just about to be subsumed in the large waves (the tail end of a storm) when Torrence grabs a barrel of oil and dashes it into the  water, thus calming the wave action and allowing the ship to beach itself on an unknown island located at about 23 degrees south of the equator.  And upon investigation, they discovered that a crucial part of the complex machinery had broken in two.  And there was no way to repair it without access to a machine shop.  So Gurthrie wrote down all that had happened to them and set it adrift inside a small casket, hoping for rescue some day.  A year passed and relief had not arrived, but they still live there in hope...

This was a great read.  Not a great book, i suppose, but certainly well written and entertaining.  Beale is one of those authors that it is a delight to find because of their alluring gift for description and clear exposition.  He wrote only one other book that i've been able to find, about a ghost.  Although this book was published in 1899, the Symmes theory of a hollow earth (see my post several weeks ago) was still taken seriously by many members of the public.  The North Pole was not reached until 1908, so the possibility of unknown lands seemed real to a lot of people.  In some ways, it's legitimate to express the idea that "ignorance is bliss", lol...

Saturday, August 29, 2020




SANNIKOV LAND

Vladimir Obruchev (1863-1956)

Rumors of an occupied island north of Bennett Island had persisted for some time.  Baron Toll had mounted an expedition in search of the lost bit  of land north of the New Siberian Island group, but his mission was presumed lost.  No news of his voyage had ever been received by the authorities.  Rumors of a range of mountains in the far northern reaches of the Arctic Ocean beyond Kotelny Island had been bruited for some time, and Toll's intention had been to verify those rumors.  Birds had been observed flying north for the winter and one of the Siberian peoples, the Onkilons, had reportedly been driven north over the sea to an unknown destination by the fierce Chukchi tribe.  Professor Schenk, naturalist and geologist, had long been fascinated by the idea of a civilization in the far north, above the 80th parallel, and he determined to mount an effort designed to discover its location.  So he arranged for three of his former students to assemble the requisite materials for an investigation.

Matvei Goryunov, Semyon Ordin,  and Pavel Kostyakov had been expelled from the university due to "student disorders", and they formed the core of the attempt.  Other hunters and sledge drivers went along also, and they took sixty dogs with them.  Traveling to Irkutsk, they floated down the Lena river to Kazachye village on the coast and left the mainland in the middle of March.  The first goal was to Cape Nos, 200 kilometers east of Kazachye.  From there it was 70 kilometers to Bolshoi Yakov Island, the closest member of the New Siberian Archipelago.  They set off with eight sledges and forged their way, chopping passages through ice hummocks and pressure ridges, reaching the island after a long day's trek.  They stayed in a hunter's cabin and spent some time exploring the area for mammoth tusks and other fossils.  The land was principally Quaternary silts and extruded granitic eminences.  The next objective was Kotelny Island, much larger, and a center for seal and bear hunters, with a large winter house equipped with food and spare gear.  At this point, most of the sledge drivers and hunters stayed behind or went home while the three principals continued on. 

Reaching open sea in a few miles, the group unloaded the canoes that had been carried on the sledges, and set out to paddle their way to what appeared to be a very faint range of high mountains in the north.  They were overtaken by a very violent storm and were lucky enough to run across an ice floe sufficiently large enough to enable the erection of tents and provide protection from the powerful wind gusts.  The wind eventually blew itself out but not before it had pushed the floe a long distance to the north, and adjacent to what was determined to be Sannikov Land.  After landing they managed to ascend a coastal cliff about 3000 feet high.  From the top they were able to look down into a lush, verdant valley with grasslands and forests, dotted with lakes and rivers and completely surrounded by the range of mountains they were standing on.  Clambering along the top to the west for several miles they found a sort of pass that seemed to lead down into the valley.  When they arrived at the bottom, they discovered an edenic savannah being browsed on by herds of fossil animals:  yaks, deer, wooly rhinoceroses,  and even Przevalsky horses.  The temperature was warm and pleasant and it wasn't long before the geologist among the travelers understood that they were standing in an ancient caldera that was apparently heated by underlying magma deposits.

They set up a base camp and left one of the hunters in charge of it while the rest explored the nearby forest.  From the top they had estimated that the valley was about 50 by 80 kilometers in area and included various types of habitat.  The vegetation was dense but penetrated with animal trails which permitted easier traveling.  They saw jays, magpies, jackdaws, eagles, wooly rhinos and huge ancestral cave bears.  One of the lakes had a tufa hill in the middle which erupted a spout of water every 33 minutes.  Entering an opening in the woods they were suddenly accosted by a tribe of indigenes.  After some peaceful gestures, they were able to converse a little, as the strangers were Onkilons who spoke a version of Tibetan, which one of the hunters understood.  They were naked from the waist up and tatooed all over.  They wore bear claw necklaces and had feathers stuck in the their top knots.  All in all, they resembled American Indians.  The travelers were welcomed as gods because of their killing sticks (rifles) and their unusual clothing:  the Onkilons wore trousers made of animal skins.  They lived by hunting and by cultivation of maragon bulbs and water chestnuts, from which they made a kind of soup or, alternatively, a version of pancakes, to accompany their main diet of meat.

The explorers lived with the Onkilons for several months and during the native "Spring Festival", they all were assigned wives.  Soon, however, a new peril made itself known.  There was another humanoid race on the island, called the Wampus, who were much more primitive and more aggressive.  They were covered with fur and resembled Neaderthals, or maybe Neanderthalian ancestors.  They ate raw meat and snarled a lot.  They worshipped mammoths and lived in caves.  A source of danger to the Onkilons, their aggressive behavior had already destroyed one Onkilon enclave, of which there were about twenty in the valley.  A plot to attack them was arranged with the help of the visiting Russians, and carried out with enthusiasm, but shortly thereafter, to the satisfaction of the Onkilon shaman, the new gods were seemingly responsible for a series of earthquakes that shook the whole island.  The quakes became worse over time until it became obvious to the new comers that some major cataclysm was on the verge of destroying the entire caldera.  The water vanished and steam began erupting from large open fissures and the explorers determined that it was time to make tracks out of there.

After a number of violent clashes with the natives and animals, and some hair-breadth escapes, the newcomers struggled to the top of the surrounding mountain range just in time to see the valley erupt in a major conflagration, with explosions, very loud cracks and crashes, and the disappearance of most of the valley floor, unfortunately taking the inhabitants with it.  Hurriedly descending the outer cliffs, the survivors reclaimed their canoes and after more dangers and close shaves, arrived back at Kazachye.  When they reported back to Schenk,  the latter was not disappointed with the results of the expedition, but planned on financing a new venture to the place almost immediately.  But he died before he could carry out his new plan and the members of the company were soon separated by the onset of the Japanese/Russian war of the early 20th century.

Sannikov Land was purportedly a real place, first sighted in the early 19th century by an itinerant hunter.  Some years later, a Baron Toll mounted an expedition to find it but his team vanished without a trace.  There was a lot of speculation in the following years about undiscovered country in the far north, but to date, Henrietta Island is the most remote piece of land that has been located, north of Siberia.  It's slightly north of the deLong archipelago, at about 77 degrees latitude.  There was a lot of interesting geological information included in the book, as Obruchev was a prominent Russian geologist, and any one interested in the pretty complex substructure of the north sea might find this book informative in an elementary way...

Saturday, August 22, 2020






ASHENDEN:  THE BRITISH AGENT

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)


(Note:  lots of spoilers in this report).  As WW1 got under way, Ashenden, novelist and play-wright, felt the need to do something for the war effort, so he joined the Intelligence Service.  "R", his immediate supervisor, sent him to Geneva to operate a courier service conveying information provided by German spies to sources in France.  He made a weekly trip to France on the ferry boat and this was a source of curiosity to the local police.  So he was interviewed and after a few tense moments was able to convince them that he was a mere author searching for the peace necessary to his artistic output.  He's staying at a local hotel along with an assortment of odd expatriots, among whom were a former girlfriend and an Egyptian royal family.  A Mrs. King was a servant to the family;  she was roundly mistreated by the two daughters, who seemed to delight in shaming her before the rest of the residents.  She was very old and maintained a haughty presence in spite of her lowly position.  Also present were Baroness von Higgins, an old friend of Ashenden's, and several more spy types, all more or less involved in secret information bartering.  One night, Ashenden is called to Mrs. King's room.  She's dying and has something to tell, but will only share it with Ashenden.  With her last gasp, she utters "England", and expires.

For his next job, Ashenden is sent to Italy with a character called "the hairless Mexican".  This is a totally narcissistic personality attached to a strong fearless body with no hair.  He brags constantly and is along to assassinate a courier from Greece who is carrying valuable papers.  The plot becomes confused and Carmona (the Mexican) with blithe unconcern, kills the wrong man and tells Ashenden that there were no papers on his body.  Then he catches a ship to Spain with the remaining monies.

At the next meeting with R in Paris, Ashenden learrns of an East Indian agent named Chandra Lal who has been creating a lot of havoc for the British by working with the Germans to undermine British influence in India and other places.  R sets up a plan by which he uses Lal's girlfriend to attract him to France, with the intention of wringing a lot of information out of him.  The trap works, except Lal commits suicide via a small bottle of prussic acid before he's arrested.

The next city R is interested in is Lucerne.  There's a couple living there, a botanist and his wife, who are suspected of being double agents for Germany.  Ashenden registers in the hotel they're living in and becomes friends with them.  After some more Sneaky-Pete finagling, he persuades the botanist to return to England, where he's shot.  The wife falls apart and is left dangling and bereft.

In another unidentified city, Ashenden acts as a double agent in order to test the loyalties of several ambassadors.  The American drinks a lot and leaks information that is overheard by his maid and delivered to Ashenden.  The latter gets him sent back to America.  In a more or less ancillary operation, Ashenden learns about an opportunity to blow up a Polish armaments factory, but has trouble deciding whether to do it or not, as it would result in the deaths of a large number of Polish citizens.  He flips a coin to make the decision, but the reader never learns the outcome of the toss.

In the final episode, we see Ashenden in Vladivostok, where he's about to entrain for Petrograd.  He's traveled by ship around the world to get there and is not looking forward to the ten day train ride.  (It's never explained why he didn't just take ship through the Baltic Sea).  He's joined on the journey by a New England salesman named Harrington.  Harrington is tall and thin and an immaculate dresser.  He talks constantly about his clothes and why things are better in New England and drives Ashenden nuts.  They arrive in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) at last.  Kerensky is head of the government and is in a quandary about how to unite the Russian people, and all the political sects, into one faction.  Soon chaos reigns and rioting in the streets occurs, with the militia cruising around stealing and shooting people.  Harrington is upset because his laundry has vanished.  Against advice, he runs out of the hotel to look for the washer-lady and never comes back.  Later, Ashenden finds him face down in a pool of blood.  End of book.

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this book, and i realized that it was not at all what it seemed to be.  The character of Ashenden is caught in a stream of occurrences about which he can do little, and he appears to be carried along in a completely nonsensical series of events.  At several points, the Polish arms factory, and Harrington's death, there is no sense of drama or story-telling, just an ongoing sequence of meaningless violence and brutality.  I think Maugham was playing a double game of a metaphoric sort, alluding to the horror of human experience, especially war, and how it permeates almost all human activity, without actually coming out and saying it.  Ashenden's career rolls along like an ocean wave, gaining impetus as it nears the shore and finally crashes on the beach.  That's the only way i can think of that would resolve the abrupt ending of the book.  The double meanings inherent in the way it was written don't appear to me to suggest any other rationale.  It's like Maugham was so horrified by so-called normal events that he could only intimate what he considered to be the reality of what he saw through suggestion, and not very overt suggestion at that.  Or perhaps, since he saw the skull beneath the skin of human existence so clearly, it was the only way he could think of to make what really seems like a "cri de coeur";  a heartfelt scream against reality as he saw it.

Saturday, August 15, 2020




SIR HARRY HOTSPUR OF HUMBLETHWAITE

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

Sir Harry's principal concern, contemplating his will, has to do with maintaining the family's reputation as upper  class stewards of the lands, villages and inhabitants of the Hotspur holdings;  a relationship that has lasted 400 years and that is now in some danger of disarray due to the death of the elder son at a premature age.  Harry sees that the best solution is to marry his daughter Emily to a suitable suitor with a lot of money and a title, but the most obvious candidate, Lord Alfred, is devoid of any merit in Emily's eyes.  There's another possibility, cousin George Hotspur, but he's not regarded as honorable or rich.  In fact, he, as a result of a Parisian upbringing and an overly liberal education, is somewhat of a rakehell whose only interests are gambling, drinking and card sharpery.  Somewhat at a loss, Sir Harry throws a party and invites the cousin, hoping against hope that he is reformable and that faced with the chance of becoming wealthy and powerful, he might abandon his heedless ways and become a responsible citizen and a worthy husband for his daughter.

So Emily falls in love with the young ne'er-do-well, convinced that she can change him into a loyal servitor and trustworthy land owner.  Young Harry is deeply in debt to London money-lenders and his first thought is to somehow influence Sir Harry to pay off his debts.  But he's such a waster that, even though Emily loves him, it seems like throwing money down the drain to regularize cousin Harry's financial affairs.  Later it's revealed that not only is he in debt, but he's a criminal, having cheated another young man with marked cards.  Emily discovers all this but loves him anyway, being the sort of young lady who, once committed, never changes her mind.

After a certain amount of waffling about, with Harry trying to act civilized and Emily trying to convince her father that he's salvageable, Sir Harry agrees to pay the bills and to provide an annual income for Harry of 500 L's a year.  But even so, the young villain eventually realizes that being stuck in the country for the rest of his life is not a situation that appeals to him.  He would much rather marry his actress girl-friend and drink brandy and gamble with his friends, than marry Emily and spend his life cooped up in a structured rural farming society. which he didn't know anything about anyhow.

Devastated (spoiler alert), Sir Harry and his wife and daughter travel to Italy in hopes of distracting Emily from her single-minded love, but to no avail.  She passes away and is buried in Lugano.  Returning home, Sir Harry creates a new will, leaving everything to a rich relative of his wife.

This was in a way an unsatisfactory book, partly because the plot was overly obvious, and the tragic ending was evident early in the denouement.  The main interest to me lay in Trollope's astute and well presented observations, psychological and social.  I learned more about him in this book than in the Barsetshire novels.  Trollope has a sort of kaleidoscopic ability to study his characters while he's developing their roles:  with a twist of the kaleidoscope sleeve, he's able to view his people from an entirely new viewpoint, and describe their behaviors from a stance that might not have been previously obvious to the reader, or anticipated through the plot development.  These sorts of changes also indicate possible events that may have transpired in Trollope's own life.  As in:  how did he become aware of the feelings and actions of gamblers and card-players if he hadn't experienced similar situations in his own life?  And it's not only in small details that this sort of connection is evinced;  it pervades the whole book:  he reveals throughout his familiarity with social behavior on all levels of British society as well as his feelings about how individuals cope with the invisible mores which govern their lives. 

It was quite surprising and enlightening, a side of Trollope i hadn't noticed in such a powerful way before, and on the basis of that, i'd recommend the book highly.  I'm sure other readers are familiar with this talent on the part of T, and this is in all probability one reason why he's so popular.  So maybe it just took this long for me to get it, haha...  anyway, it was an unusual experience and will most likely lead this reader to more of his books...