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is a recording of the author's love for history, a book that has copious recordings of architectural details, multitude historical references that support the journey in reality from London, but for all intents and purposes from the Holy City to Xanadu: you don't expect it to be a light read.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.