(Note: I am here republishing an article I posted in September, 2008. I feel it timely with respect to the present).
… Thus ends The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, one of the three books I present today. The others are: Thesiger by Michael Asher; and The Search for Sana by Richard Zimler, the latter book having been recently discussed in my book-reading group.
I had made a promise to myself, and a bold statement to a fellow reader in my book group, that I would find a common theme among these seemingly disparate books, my having chosen them for different reasons. I intrepidly assert the title of this blog provides the connection among the books.
The introductory page before the table of contents has two quotations, one by Joseph Conrad, in French (Conrad is mentioned much in this book and occasionally in Thesiger), and one from Brockhaus Encyclopedia, as follows:
“The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect (→ Roche limit)”
Such a beginning certainly presages the coming apart of things, as this singular book does provide evidence for, at least in The County of Suffolk, England.
The author takes us on a journey through his county, starting in Norwich on a train to the coast bordering the North Sea, and thence generally along the coast on foot, sometimes dangerously. Later, having walked inland, he visits a friend, a writer and teacher, who lives in a house the author once lived in. He takes a taxi back to a previously visited town to think and write, as he had been doing all along this journey, then he traveled back home.What, you may be asking, assuming you have read this far, is so interesting about all this?
As the caption of the image immediately above implies, the author uses his travels to expose thoughts and memories stimulated by the places and people he visits. This section of England, or Great Britain in the larger picture, has had great forests, great industry (including the manufacture of silk), great homes and hotels, great resorts and, last, great airfields─staging areas for Great Britain’s execution of its role in the Second World War. All are gone.
Not only are all these things and events gone, they have left a poisonous residue, killing the vast herring industry once centered here, among other insults. Nature has had a role in eating away at the vulnerable coastline, toppling cliffs and their made-made objects.
As I read through this compelling book, I was taken on imaginary trips, accompanied by great detail, to: China (via an exposition on the origin of silk and its resultant world trade); The Enlightenment and many of its famous characters: the writers Gustav Flaubert, Algernon Swinburne, Edward Fitzgerald (The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), Joseph Conrad, Sir Thomas Browne, and Jorge Luis Borges, the latter’s short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius being given much discussion.
In the “Tlön”story, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön. “According to … a key tenet of the (several) philosophical schools of Tlön … the future exists only in the shape of our present apprehensions and hopes, and the past merely as memory. In a different view, the world and everything now living in it was created only moments ago, with its complete but illusory pre-history. A third school of thought…describes our earth as a cul-de-sac in the great city of God, a dark cave crowded with incomprehensible images, or a hazy aura surrounding a better sun. The advocates (in ‘Tlön’) of a fourth philosophy maintain that time has run its course and that this life is no more than a fading refection of an event beyond recall. We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may have already gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains.“ (Emphasis added).
What has destroyed all that the author reminds us of, as the gravity of Jupiter has destroyed its former satellites, is, I believe, the Second World War. He was a German boy during the war, and later a life-long resident of England.
And, the destroyer is also time, assuming it exists beyond the conceit of man.
Similarly, in Thesiger, a biography of the renown mid-20th century explorer Wilfrid Thesiger, the book ends with several quoted observations of the subject:
There is nothing to be cheerful about. Everything is wrong…There can be no future. It’s inconceivable that there could be any human beings on the planet in a hundred years’ time … Not only transport but the interference with nature, you’ve got pollution and the threat to the ozone belt which means the heating up of the earth and the melting of the poles and half the world going under water.
Thesiger was born in Ethiopia in 1910.His father served there in the British diplomatic corps. Thesiger returned to Ethiopia as a young man to explore and hunt, and then traveled extensively in many parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and also in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thesiger was given to hyperbole with native English speakers, spending most of his life having lived among and traveling with, by foot and camel, the native peoples of the mostly “untouched” lands he preferred to “civilization”.
A hundred years ago there were no cars…Well in a hundred years what are we going to have? It won’t be long before the Chinese will be demanding cars─you can’t put all that pollution into the air and get away with it…I don’t think development can be checked and that’s why I think we’re heading for disaster─it’s just a matter of guessing whether it’s fifty years or 100 years. I see absolutely no hope for the human species.
As with his predecessor T.E. Lawrence, whom Thesiger admired, he eschewed the intimate company of women, and sex altogether. He did like the company of young men who traveled with him as a sort of tribe, as did Lawrence. Thesiger’s biographer interviewed him and followed in his footsteps to talk with many of the people Thesiger had traveled with, lending great credibility to Asher’s portrait of the great explorer.
Thesiger saw civilization and, more precisely, its mechanization and industries, as the ruin of natural man, epitomized by the Bedu of the desert.
I cannot stand the lush green of the English countryside…Green should be a patch of cultivation, perhaps just a fig-tree, in contrast to an expanse of desert; then it becomes valuable.
Thesiger was the last person to travel to theretofore inaccessible places by foot and animal transport. He mourned the advent of the automobile. Wilfrid Thesiger died in 2003 at age 93 in England, having been forced to live there the last few years of his life because of ill health. He heart was, undoubtedly, in northern Kenya where he had last lived for many years, quite simply, among the native peoples there.
The Search for Sana
This is a complicated onion of a book. Just as you think you see the story whole, another layer peels off and you re-think what you may already have concluded about its trajectory. There are passages where you are not sure the characters are who they present themselves to be, and, in some cases, they aren’t. It would be a disservice to the author and to your enjoyment of the book for me to reveal too much more, specifically, about it.
How, then, to tie it in to the theme of this blog?
It will not spoil your reading of the book for me to say the core of the story resides in a town in what is now Israel, where both Arabs and Jews live, although the action takes place in many places around the world: first, Australia, then, not in order, Brazil, Italy, England, New York and other places.
The main characters (other than the narrator who appears to be the author himself) are two girls, one an Arab and one a Jew, who are soul-sisters growing up in a small place in Israel. The trajectory of their lives, together and apart, provide the basis for the story.
Overlying the rest of the story is the constant theme of conflict between Arab and Jew, between Palestinian and Israeli, within and without the territory of Palestine/Israel.
This conflict, without editorializing by the author/narrator except through the different viewpoints of his characters, is destroying the land and its peoples and generally poisoning the social and political atmosphere of the earth. This may seem a commonplace and non-extraordinary thing to say, but it is presented pungently by the author and, I feel, ties in to the theme of this article.
These three books are presenting the inevitability of decay, enhanced (I paraphrase Thesiger) by too many humans occupying too little space.
Perhaps it is a simple matter of seeing entropy in action through what these books present. But this concept is insufficient. What these books present, each in its own way, is man’s role in his and his world’s undoing.