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Byzantium Beckons

An honest travelogue: across a past enveloped by the present
From The Holy Mountain
By William Dalrymple
Harper Collins Pages: 483; Rs:732
The British are (or were) instinctive adventurers and travellers. Witness the number of outstanding travel writers who have come out of Britain. To their names, that of William Dalrymple has been come out of Britain. To their names, that of William Dalrymple has been added in recent years. Dalrymple has a purpose in mind when he sets out on a book, a purpose which is both intelligent and an arrival. His books some-times turn out to be slightly different from what they started out to be. This is his third book and it is somewhat like his first one In Xanadu, which is in fact subtitled "A Quest". Travel writing has now become a quest, because all the world is known.

There are no undiscovered places left; the mysteries that remain are connected with phenomena largely extant in the imaginations of people. To write a travel book, it is necessary to invent a quest which will take you on it. Alexander Frater, for example, was Chasing the Monsoon when he decided to write about India. Dalrymple has subtitled his new book "A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium".

The area over which the Byzantine emperors held sway has frequently and rather inappropriately been called "the cradle of civilisation". Cradles are supposed to soothe whoever occupies them into an induced sleep; the area one occupied by the Byzantine empire has been notable for its unending unrest. As for civilisation, all it seems to have taught the human race is new ways of genocide. Dalrymple is a very good writer in the sense that his prose style is strong, and can stand up without too much ornamentation; also that it conveys his character, which is highly intelligent, sensitive and observant. When you accompany Dalrymple through a book, you know that in a literary sense you are safe.

He is also something of a scholar, and deeply committed, or at least it appears so here, to his native country, Scotland. He declares his Scotland. He declares his Scots nationality to everyone he meets. He is also, in strange but apparently rooted ways, a Roman Catholic, which was often to his disadvantage in the Christian monasteries he visited. These are part of the Eastern Church and regard the Pope and his flowers as heretics. Dalrymple visited various monasteries, including the one at Mount Athos about which Patrick Leight Fermor has written a book. However, Dalrymple's account of this monastery and of others includes a new element. The area covered by the book, having cradled civilisation for centuries, have through the same centuries been making incessant and determined efforts to destroy it.

Dalrymple's hardly an innocent and in his apparently random wanderings in the shadow of Byzantium, he has done two things at once. He has given us an account of what the monasteries, settlements and habits of the followers of the Eastern Church are like. He displays enthusiasm about his discoveries, especially when they have some tenuous relationship with the catholic Church in Scotland (where it is not, these days, immensely popular). He finds that the singing in one monastery is perhaps a precursor of the Gregorian chant; in some other mountain eyrie of monks he finds the paintings similar to those in early Celtic church art.

Then he makes a discovery which surprises him, though he must know that many before him have made this discovery: monks in ancient, secluded Middle Eastern churches prostrate themselves in prayer, rear ends raised, in exactly the same posture Muslims do nowadays when praying. From this he logically concludes: the way in which Muslims pray is similar to the way in which early Christians prayed. Since the founder of the church or the inspiration, whatever you call it, was a Palestinian Jew, this does not really seem surprising. But his enthusiasm carries the reader with him on his quest for the places across which the long shadows of Christ and Byzantium fell.

The strength of Dalrymple's book is that it is neither exactly a historical work nor a research volume nor a collection of poems. In its own way, it combines all three. As I said earlier, Dalrymple's books often tend to bring him to where he wants to be by ways he does not want to go. The areas he went to are now the killing fields of a quiet war which has gone on, sometimes well--reported, sometimes not, for many years. There have been massacres and genocidal warfare there on a scale that is sometimes not worth a news editor's column inches, but which it is inhuman not to report and record somewhere. Dalrymple found that not only the monks he met but all the villages and townspeople around were seared and scarred by a war not properly reported. He has provided the report of this quiet, deadly, long death; he has recorded it.

To be a good writer takes courage. To be a good travel writer may take more. Dalrymple is a good writer in an absolutely unpretentious way. He does not twist or bounce the language around. He lets it say itself. As a consequence his books are always readable and valuable because what he writes about ultimately turns out to be valuable, whether by chance or choice. The trouble with many good modern minds is they ignore the past. Dalrymple does not and by telling us of the past as it is enveloped by the present he is also telling us of the future. He is not a prophet, simply one of the very few good, and honest writers left.

READ MORE IN:
AUTHORS: Dom Moraes
PLACES: UK
SECTION: Books
SUBSECTION: Reviews
OUTLOOK: 18 June, 1997
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