November 18, 2001
There can’t be many American writers more versatile than Evan Connell. He’s written several novels, at least two of them (“Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge”) masterly, several volumes of short stories, and a couple more of poetry. His most recent novel, “Deus Lo Volt,” is a retelling, in medieval idiom, of the Crusades. “Son of the Morning Star,” his best-selling biography of General George Custer, is a panoramic history of the American Conquest in its 19th-century phase (formerly known as the Indian Wars). His two previous essay collections, greatly admired but long out of print, have now been reissued along with a few new pieces as “The Aztec Treasure House.”
It’s a well-chosen title, conveying hints of the ancient and exotic and of a quest for fabulous riches. The experience of reading these essays has all those elements. They are mostly narratives of one or another kind of exploration: physical or intellectual; geographical, archaeological, historical, or scientific. And along the way lie innumerable nuggets of rare and choice lore. They’re faraway-adventure stories, as the title suggests, but they’re true and for grownups.
Connell ranges very widely. Some of the essays are about places, real and mythical: Atlantis, El Dorado, Mesa Verde, the Seven Cities of the New World. Some are about historical figures or legends: Columbus, Paracelsus, Prester John; or unfamiliar civilizations: the Etruscans and the Olmecs; or curious episodes: the medieval Children’s Crusades and the tragicomic descent straight to the bottom of Stockholm harbor by the grand flagship of the 17th-century Royal Swedish Navy as soon as it was launched, occasioning a scandal of Challenger-space-shuttle proportions. Some are about explorers and journeys: the Norse voyages to Greenland and North America, the centuries-long search for the Northwest Passage, the very proper Victorian lady Mary Kingsley in West Africa, Scott and Amundsen in the Antarctic. My favorite kind are essays about the history of disciplines: astronomy, paleontology, and a long one on philology that wanders from Akkadian to Egyptian hieroglyphics to Old Persian cuneiform to Harappan (the lost language of the Indus Valley) to Minoan Linear B to Old Mayan to Kohau-rongo-rongo (the language of Easter Island).
The last-mentioned essay, “Syllables Here and There,” is, like many of the others, crowded with obscure, eccentric characters brought briefly and vividly to life. Henry Creswicke Rawlinson is one, a British Army officer and amateur linguist who scaled a cliff wall in order to copy the inscription on a bas-relief celebrating a great victory of Emperor Darius the Persian. This exploit prompts Connell to remark, wonderingly and affectionately, about some of the other characters in his book: “Visualizing Rawlinson at the top of a rickety ladder propped on a rock ledge 300 feet above the ground, with a notebook in one hand, meticulously copying some little wedge-shaped marks – seeing him one is reminded of other nineteenth-century English men and women: Mawson and Shackleton at the South Pole, Franklin in the Arctic, Fanny Bullock Workman in the Himalayas, “Chinese Gordon” in Egypt, Mary Kingsley having tea with cannibals, Lady Hester Stanhope costumed as a Bedouin riding in triumph through the ruined streets of Palmyra. Faced with such people, one can’t help thinking that the nineteenth-century English must have been utterly bonkers."
Sixteenth-century Spaniards also appear to have been utterly bonkers, though less endearingly so. One of them, Bishop Diego de Landa, who appears in “Syllables Here and There,” burned all the Mayan books he could find because they were full of “superstitions and lies of the devil.” According to Connell, these books were “almost unbearably beautiful. They were made from hammered plant fibers sized with lime, they unfolded like a Chinese screen and were exquisitely illustrated in various colors: orange, blue, red, black, yellow, white, blue-green. Many of them were bound in wood or leather inlaid with semiprecious stones, so that they resembled those sumptuous European books from the Middle Ages.” Thanks to Bishop Landa’s holy zeal, only three survive. In another essay, “Gold! Gold! Gold!”, Connell records that Emperor Charles V ordered all the treasures his conquistadors had plundered from Peru melted down: “Replicas of Indian corn, each gold ear sheathed in silver, with tassels of silver thread. Innumerable gold goblets. Sculpted gold spiders, gold beetles, gold lobsters, gold lizards. A gold fountain that emitted a sparkling jet of gold while gold animals and gold birds played around it. Twelve splendid representations of women, all in fine gold, as lovely and complete as though they were alive.” The painter Albrecht Durer had seen the collection and marvelled: “In all the days of my life, I have seen nothing which so rejoiced my heart as these things.”
Every essay if full of fascinating details like these, plucked from Connell’s wide, idiosyncratic reading of histories, biographies, journals, and ancient chronicles and strung together as skillfully as fine beadwork. The writing is droll as often as it is lyrical. In “Various Tourists,” a series of sketches of famous travelers, he records a story about Hsuan-tsang, a 7th-century Buddhist monk. “While sailing down the Ganges he was captured by river pirates who decided to sacrifice him to Durga. Hsuan-tsang requested a period of meditation before being sacrificed in order that he might enter Nirvana with a calm and joyous mind. The pirates did not find this unreasonable, but while they sat around waiting for him to conclude his meditations a storm blew up, smashing trees and sinking boats. The terrified pirates fell at his feet begging forgiveness.” In “Abracadastra,” a brief history of astronomy, he quotes a German’s explanation of the supernova of 1572: “the ascension from Earth of human sins and wickedness, making a sort of gas which was then set on fire by the anger of God” and which drifted back to earth, causing “all kinds of unpleasant phenomena such as diseases, sudden death, bad weather, and Frenchmen.”
Armchair travel has rarely been so rewarding. “The Aztec Treasure House” proves that truth, when recounted by an intellectually adventurous novelist, can be at least as entertaining as fiction.