to die in a holy place
October 19, 2009, 2:43 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

This is an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje‘s The English Patient.  One of the story lines in the novel is about explorers looking for a mythical desert oasis city.  Madox – the man who kills himself in the excerpt below – is a quiet explorer who has just returned to his wife back home, his work interrupted by the war’s incursion into the north African desert.

One of Ondaatje’s themes is nationalism.  When the Church becomes a propaganda arm of a warring state, civilized people kill themselves.  At least this civilized man does.  The uncivilized demur and look for profits.  And the flunkie priest in his robes blathers on.

It was July 1939.  They caught a bus from their village into Yeovil.  The bus had been slow and so they had been late for the service.  At the back of the crowded church, in order to find seats they decided to sit separately.  When the sermon began half an hour later, it was jingoistic and without any doubt in its support of the war.  The priest intoned blithely about battle, blessing the government and the men about to enter the war.  Madox listened as the sermon grew more impassioned.  He pulled out the desert pistol, bent over and shot himself in the heart.  He was dead immediately.  A great silence.  Desert silence.  Planeless silence.  They heard his body collapse against the pew.  Nothing else moved.  The priest frozen in a gesture.  It was like those silences when a glass funnel round a candle in church splits and all faces turn.  His wife walked down the centre aisle, stopped at his row, muttered something, and they let her in beside him.  She knelt down, her arms enclosing him.


It is important to die in holy places.  That was one of the secrets of the desert.  So Madox walked into a church in Somerset, a place he felt had lost its holiness, and he committed what he believed was a holy act.

~Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient


contagion of an unknown clime
October 12, 2009, 10:58 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Here is an excerpt from Alain de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy in which he describes the French philosopher Montaigne’s trip to Rome.  Things haven’t changed much, we are as in love with ourselves and our cultures and our way of doing things as they were in 1580.  His larger point is that at a certain level our unwillingness to adjust to cultural differences of other people is foible; but that if we are not careful it can be much more and can even lead us to do terrible things against people that we haven’t taken the time to understand.

In the summer of 1580, Montaigne acted on the desire of a lifetime, and made his first journey outside France, setting off on horseback to Rome via Germany, |Austria and Switzerland.  He travelled in the company of four young noblemen, including his brother, Bertrand de Mattecoulon, and a dozen servants.  They were to be away from home for seventeen months, covering 3,000 miles.  Among other towns, the party rode through Basle, Baden, Schaffhausen, Augsburg, Innsbruck, Verona, Venice, Padua, Bologna, Florence and Siena – finally reaching Rome towards evening on the last day of November 1580.

As the party travelled, Montaigne observed how people’s ideas of what was normal altered sharply from provice to province.  In inns in the Swiss cantons, they thought it normal that beds should be raised high off the ground, so that one needed steps to climb into hem, that there should be pretty curtains around them and that travellers should have rooms to themselves.  A few miles away, in Germany, it was thought normal that beds should be low on the ground, have no curtains around them and that travellers should sleep four to a room.  Innkeepers there offered feather quilts rather than the sheets one found in French inns.  In Basle, people didn’t mix water with their wine and had six or seven courses for dinner, and in Baden they ate only fish on Wednesdays.  The smallest Swiss village was guarded by at least two policemen; the Germans rang their bells every quarter of an hour, in certain towns, every minute.  In Lindau, they served soup made of quinces, the meat dish came before the soup, and the bread was made with fennel.

French travellers were prone to be very upset by the differences.  In hotels, they kept away from sideboards with strange foods, requesting the normal dishes they knew from home.  They tried not to talk to anyone who had made the error of not speaking their language, and picked gingerly at the fennel bread.  Montaigne watched them from his table:

“Once out of their villages, they feel like fish out of water.  Wherever they go they cling to their ways and curse foreign ones,  If they come across a fellow-countryman … they celebrate the event … With a morose and taciturn prudence they travel about wrapped up in their cloaks and protecting themselves from the contagion of an unknown clime.”

-excerpted from The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton

bright yellow walls a thousand metres high
October 12, 2009, 2:02 am
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: , , ,

Here is a list of winds and sandstorms in the Middle East and North Africa described by Michael Ondaatje in his beautiful book The English Patient.
There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives.  There is the africo, which has at times reached into the city of Rome.  The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia.  The arifi, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues.  These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.

There are other, less constant winds that change direction, that can knock down horse and rider and realign themselves anticlockwise.  The bist roz leaps into Afghanistan for 170 days — burying villages.  There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition.  Th haboob — a Sudan dust storm that dresses in bright yellow walls a thousand metres high and is followed by rain.  The harmattan, which blows and eventually drowns itself into the Atlantic.  Imbat, a breeze in North Africa.  Some winds that just sigh towards the sky.  Night dust storms that come with the cold.  The khamsin, a dust in Egypt from March to May, named after the Arabic word for “fifty,” blooming for fifty days — the ninth plague of Egypt.  The datoo out of Gibraltar, which carries fragrance.

There is also the ——, the secret wind of the desert whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it.  And the nafhat — a blast out of Arabia.  The mezzar-ifoullousen — a violent and cold southwesterly known to Berbers as “that which plucks the fowls.”  The beshabar, a black and dry northeasterly out of the Caucasus, “black wind.”  The Samiel from Turkey, “poison and wind,” used often in battle.  As well as the other “poison winds,” the simoom, of North Africa, and the solano, whose dust plucks off rare petals, causing giddiness.

Other, private winds.