- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2002

Early in Danish photographer Carsten Jensen's amibitous, finely wrought book, I Have Seen the World Begin: Travels through China, Cambodia, and Vietnam (Harcourt, $28, 337 pages, maps), the author writes that "there is no greater lie than to think that one travels alone." A poetic sentiment perhaps but a truthful one, especially for travellers with open minds and eyes wide enough to encompass the reactions of people who are in turn observing the traveler.
The first-person title may be unfortunate in that respect, since Mr. Jensen, who is an experienced writer as well as a professional photographer, clearly wants to submerge us in the worlds he explores beyond his home boundaries. He uses his skills brilliantly and his angle of vision, acutely attuned to humanity's vicissitudes, is stimulating. It's unusual to "see" a narrative journey through a photographer's eye in quite this fashion.
Wisely, Mr. Jensen foregoes any actual photographs except for the scene on the cover an anonymous urban blur. Instead, we are given three simply drawn maps of the lands and roads he takes on what is something of a leisurely journey among three of some of the most politically-charged countries of our era. He begins by taking the Trans-Siberian railway in a defensive off-putting posture. "I would allow nothing to get close to me, not even impressions," he writes. That's not much of an invitation for a reader to join his company. But he softens as he makes his way across some less familiar landscapes that he brings alive through encounters with the locals and with fellow travellers.
"As a traveller it is not that you are invisible, rather that you become visible in a particular way," he reflects near the end of his stay in Vietnam. His professional or maybe it's a Nordic sensibility finally has been breached. He is touched and he allows himself to touch, at last. Such emotional and philosophical musings are far less arresting than descriptions of the places he visits and the people who draw him out of his shell.

Moving westward to the Mediterranean, we are travellers in the ancient classical world and its mysteries. The subtitle of Kenneth Lapatin's Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (Houghton Mifflin, $24, 274 pages, illus.) tells all. Who can resist an archeological detective story, especially when the main characters are eminences in the profession brought down by some good old-fashioned scholarly sleuthing? Mr. Lapatin's investigation of an age-old controversy surrounding the origins of the Snake Goddess sculpture is riveting.
Supposedly a prime example of the art of Minoan civilisation, the Goddess and her tale are symbolic of the cleverness and deviousness of a very profit-making trade. Personal pride and a need to preserve reputations at any cost are motives as old as the the famous, and famously discredited, statues once thought to date back to the second millennium B.C. Sir Arthur Evans, associated with the great ruins at Knossos, is the very embodiment of Empire in his myth-making abilities.
"It was Evans's synthetic vision the product of great energy, industry, and inspiration that fundamentally shaped modern views of Minoan culture and art," writes Mr. Lapatin, whose handsome book jacket describes as president of the Boston society of the Archeological Institute of America. The slim volume of 188 narrative pages is supplemented by 60 pages at the end giving a valuable "cast of characters," a list of "Some Unprovenienced Cretan Statuettes" and technical information as well as a hefty bibliography, credits and notes.
Everything, indeed, this young scholar needs to make his case and inform us along the way about many other matters such as the power of snake imagery in ancient and modern societies and the fascination of prehistoric female figures.

Another mystery of sorts is contained in The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (Walker & Co., $23, 195 pages, illus.), the slender volume by well known Oxford historian Barry Cunliffe, who undertakes to entice our imagination with the voyage back in 300 B.C. of a Greek man from what is now the French port of Marseille to as far north as Iceland and back. Although the Greek text has been lost, Pytheas is known to have written a book about the trip called "On the Ocean."
Anyone voyaging around the Atlantic sea lanes of Western Europe this summer might benefit from a look at this clever reconstruction of a journey that would have been a phenomenon of the traveler's age. Classical references abound. This is intellectual geography at its finest. Simply surviving such an adventure would have been an amazing feat. Pytheas returned with new knowledge of the world beyond and laid the ground for future travels of such people as Julius Caesar and his troops 300 years later. Mr. Cunliffe tells us Pytheas' story as well as how historians such as himself decipher the evidence and present their conclusions.

For pure pleasure after sojourning among able and academic minds, turn to Theresa Maggio's The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily (Perseus, $25, 236 pages.). Each chapter of this moving account of a New Jersey writer's immersion into the world of her Sicilian grandparents is a short true story. The seldom explored villages of "hidden Sicily" are, she writes, "the smallest mountain towns" that she calls "the secret spring of Sicilian endurance." She wandered freely, making several visits, and immersing herself in the lives of people who have stayed the course.
The result is an engaging overview of Sicilian culture beyond the cliche picture of a Mafiosi-drenched island. The prose is delightful, the names of the towns pure music: Polizzi Generosa (a town of 4000 in the Madonie Mountains in north central Sicily); Santa Margherita where her grandparaents lived; Geraci Siculo, where she says "the most beautiful houses have walls of blue stones pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, left exposed and unadorned."
As passionate as Miss Maggio is about her ancestor's homeland, this isn't a romantic or sentimental book by any means. The title hints at her devotion to the land a "boudoir" of her own making, an intimate retreat where women especially feel at home talking about their lives. "The stones live long, slow lives," she says in one poetic passage. We learn of the myths that sustain an Old World lifestyle, and the reasons why the author kept returning to her family's past. The struggles of present-day Sicily are presented, too, complete with an account of the impact of Mount Etna on a rampaging path through the villages on its flanks.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide