Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Under the Tuscan Sun - Frances Mayes

La bella Italia. I will never tire of reading about Italy. And reading this book, I need not close my eyes and concentrate hard enough for me to visualize anything. Italy is everywhere, on a vast canvas. On the stark white desk top at work, the cubicle walls, at home out on the porch, I have been seeing the Tuscan rooftops, the sun-mellowed walls and pretty faded blue and green shutters; olive groves and vineyards, a limonaia here, a bright bowl of clementines there; all parade in front of my eyes, they do not mock, they allure.

Under the Tuscan Sun is the journey of author Frances Mayes and her husband Ed in buying and restoring an old stone stone house, Bramasole (yearning for the sun), in the heart of Cortona, Tuscany. Bramasole, with a facade the colour of faded apricots and pretty green shutters enchants its way into your heart. Ms.Mayes comes to Bramasole at a crossroads in her life. In her own words, any arbitary turning along the way and she would be elsewhere; she would be different. Under the Tuscan Sun is not just the quintessential travelogue; unravel all the wonderous sights, people and food described till you can actually see all of it in front of you in glorious technicolour, and you will find a vein of seriousness, a rediscovering of the self, slowly, lovingly. This is what Bramasole nay, Italy itself becomes to her. Italy and Mayes come together not with flamboyance and pomp, but with a soft tread, a gradual understanding that deepens into an intense bond. The more she unravels the cultural layers of Italy, the deeper the bond becomes. This, I suppose is all that I am going to tell you about this book. The rest you will have to find out for yourself. Rest assured that it contains a magnificent account of life in rural Italy - the people, the place, Bramasole, the olive groves, the roses and the wildflowers, the vineyards and the food, always the food. These are the shades with which Mayes has painted her canvas but to me, what makes Under the Tuscan Sun such a winner is that it offers much more.

Read the book and revel in the delight that is Mayes's Italy. I can think of few better ways to spend my time. This is a particularly lovely section of the prologue that I just can't help copying:
"My reader, I hope, is like a friend who comes to visit, learns to mound flour on the thick marble counter and work in the egg, a friend who wakes to the four calls of the cuckoo in the linden and walks down the terrace paths singing to the grapes; who picks jars of plums, drives with me to hill towns of round towers and spilling geraniums, who wants to see olives the first day they are olives. A guest on holiday is intent on pleasure. Feel the breeze rushing around those hot marble statues? Like old peasants, we could sit by the fireplace, grilling slabs of bread and oil, pour a young chianti. Under the fig where two cats curl, we're cool. I've counted: the dove coos sixty times per minute. The Etruscan wall above the house dates from the eighth century B.C. We can talk. We have time."

I know that there are gazillions of travel books on Italy, books done, dusted and shelved but every once in a while you come across such gems as Living in a Foreign Language and Under the Tuscan Sun. What sets these books apart is their souls, which, I like to think is a direct extension of the writers'. In the case of Under the Tuscan sun, the soul is deep and reflective with flashes of humour here and there, but most of all, with an immense love for the land and the simple life. The kind of soul that rejoices in simple pleasures such as fireflies dancing in the night or chestnuts roasted by the fire. How can you not love that?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

In Xanadu - William Dalrymple

I didn't know much about Kubla Khan, except that he built this beautiful palace in Xanadu (from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem). I didn't care much either ways. Now I do. I care as much about the ruins of that "pleasure dome" in Xanadu as I do about the fact that Dalrymple could take that small vial of oil all the way there.

In a journey that takes him across holy land, hostile territory, prohibited high-security zones, William Dalrymple makes a fantastic, unbelievable journey to the remains of Kubla Khan's palace in Xanadu. He has a mission: to deposit in Xanadu, a vial of the oil he carries from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerasulem, thus fulfilling some semblance of the mission Marco Polo undertook in the eleventh century to spread Christianity in the court of Kubla Khan.

A book that tells of a heavy journey to be undertaken as this, a book that is a recording of the author's love for history, a book that has copious recordings of architectural details, multitude historical references that support the journey in reality from London, but for all intents and purposes from the Holy City to Xanadu: you don't expect it to be a light read. Amazingly, In Xanadu by William Dalrymple is ironic, light, witty and extremely funny on occasions.

This is Dalrymple's first book at the age of twenty-two and what a flowing debut! It begins somewhat ironically, with the Irish Franciscan complaining about the nuisance of maintaining the holy lamps that are supposed to burn eternally:
"I thought these lamps were miraculous. They are supposed to be eternal flames."
"That's what they say, but, you try changing the oil without getting them out. Damn it! This wick's finished. Pass me up the string."

"And who is this Italian you were looking for?"
"That's the one. He told you this oil was miraculous?"
"I suppose he did, indirectly."
"Well you can tell him from me it's quite ordinary."

And so he takes you, on this bewildering, magnificent, sometimes dangerous, sometimes downright scary, intense journey across Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally, China. The route is hazardous: many nights are spent in coal trucks and filthy caravanserais. Dalrymple and his travel partners will spend much time getting disgruntled, trying to dodge officials, the maximum comfort they will face is a small seat on the floor with their rucksacks in the third-class compartment on a train to Peking. They will also meet people warm and friendly, people who help them along various stages of the journey, people who share what little they might have wholeheartedly with these strangers. They will drive across the Karakoram Highway in a truck full of chattering Afghans. They will brave the desert of Taklamakan in the back of a coal truck with a lone Uigur for company. They will meet dubious businessmen and vendors who try to fleece them. They will meet young Muslim men who are caught in the throes of confusion an in two minds about which world they really belong to. And they will have the time of their lives. It is true. They have a very smug "after" photo taken in the courtyard of Trinity College, Cambridge, to prove it.

In Xanadu is one of those rare historical travelogues that fulfill you without getting heavy. Just when you begin to think that the numerous historical recordings are getting monotonous, Dalrymple turns around and gives you a wry account of something very common place. And there, I think, lies the strength on this book. It doesn't bore. It educates but more than anything, it entertains. The balance is hard to find but William Dalrymple perfected it in his very first book. I loved the fact that Dalrymple doesn't fawn over the legendary Polo. His account of Polo is sometimes awed, sometimes exasperated but most of all, indulgent.

If you read In Xanadu, you would have done the unthinkable of being among the very first people to attempt a re-trace of Marco Polo's route to Xanadu, all from your armchair. It is a journey that you will not forget and at the very end, when you look upon the remains of Xanadu, you too will see the pleasure dome, the gardens, the splendor and the glory. You too will feel something profound when that soft earth at last absorbs the oil in that vial that became the ultimate reason for this journey. And you too will recite Coleridge's unforgettable Kubla Khan. And if you don't know it, you will definitely google it.