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  Authors and Book Reviews  

March 23 - 29, 2012

 

 Coastweek   Kenya


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Varieties Of Darkness - The
World Of The English Patient

Don Meredith and his late wife, Josie lived in
Lamu for eight years.

Beach walks below Shela’s minimalist saurian dunes,
were routine - perhaps Don was subconsciously studying
'desertscape' during those constitutionals

Varieties of Darkness published by Hamilton Books.
Pp226 Available on Amazon: H/b: ksh5,000/-: Softback 2,500/-.

BOOK REVIEW BY ERROL TRZEBINSKI
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Coastweek -- Those who enjoyed Michael Ondaatji’s novel, The English Patient, Booker prize winner and equally successful film, now have the pleasure of retake in Varieties of Darkness:The World of The English Patient, an absorbing new book by Don Meredith, published last month.

Meredith’s collection of stories, Wing Walking, won the George Garrett Fiction Prize in 1999.

Where the Tigers Were: His compendium, Where the Tigers Were -Travels Through Literary Landscapes was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction

Now the deftness of this American travel writer, plumbing the depths of the Canadian novelist Ondaatji, are deployed.

Readers of either may feast upon Varieties of Darkness - as many layered as a 15 C gateau mille-feuille - ‘cake of a thousand sheets’ prepared by Varenne or Careme, without budging from a favourite armchair.

Where the Tiger’s Were, cited luminaries "especially attuned to a sense of place" such as Dylan Thomas, Marguerite Duras, Thomas Mann, Graham Green, Karen Blixen and T.E. Lawrence.

His marshalling of Arab forces and the raising of a rebellion in the First World War, was the deceptive, perilous responsibility in 1917 making Seven Pillars of Wisdom synonymous with Lawrence of Arabia.

Don Meredith and his late wife, Josie lived in Lamu for eight years.

Beach walks below Shela’s minimalist saurian dunes, were routine; perhaps Don was subconsciously studying "desertscape" during those constitutionals.

His understanding of what wind can do to sand amounts almost to groundwork for Varieties of Darkness.

Meredith is multi-lingual; interviewing witnesses, switching as necessary is second nature during an odyssey to unearth the phenomenon of truth into legend, through fiction, melding back into travelogue.

Yet he never fails to salute Ondaatji’s transcendental skills.

This is no mean achievement.

Varieties of Darkness has two sections.

In the first, readers are coaxed into sharing what Meredith seeks for himself.

On the opening page, an Italian, Runnuncio Thomasini is slain in a duel.

His killer is none other than the Renaissance painter, Michaelangelo Merisi.

Better known as "Caravaggio" named for the town in Lombardy where he was born, a price is put on his head.

Like all murderers who get away, Caravaggio’s destiny is life on the run.

Using antique and modern facts, paragraph by paragraph, leap frogging continents and centuries, Meredith matches Odaatji’s ability to do the same for fiction.

Meredith’s sleuthing, unearthing witnesses in Italy or Cairo is as compelling as any modern detective story, seasoned by forensic detail.

Crossing piazzas, entering basilicas or pausing at cafes – wherever the trail leads, the twists and turns are dazzling.

In a rare, pause in "this sprawling wasteland, enjoying the sunset from the Temple Amun-Ra sinking over the lost Siwa Oasis to reach Ondaatje’s "Cave of Swimmers" at Zezura, struggling with companions to ascend escarpments Meredith reintroduces Ondaatji’s fictitious tale.

In the second section, Meredith enters the Villa San Giralamo.

In Mussolini’s Italy plagued by undetonated bombs, this hideout is where Ondaatji’s four picaresque characters, are flung together by the fortunes of war;

one is a nurse;

her charge is ‘the English Patient’ too badly burned to speak;

the third, a spy and adroit cat burglar.

As namesake of the painter, Caravaggio, he too relies on morphine, in the name of healing and administered by the nurse.

The fourth, is turbaned Singh, whose role is to defuse the bombs.

In all likelihood, Ondaatji’s charred specimen was modeled on the enigmatic zigane, Count László Ede Almásy.

His activities spanned the Great War and the Second World War and was regarded as homosexual.

In the novel, he and a married woman conduct an affair.

Geoffrey Clifton, cuckolded husband of Catherine is, also a pilot; he crashes the plane over the desert near the lost oasis of Zezura near the ‘Cave of Swimmers.’

Clifton dies.

Had he intended to kill himself, his wife and her lover?

No-one will ever know; all proof is lost as Catherine dies.

Almásy cannot speak.

His one remaining possession is a much annotated copy of Herodotus.

Bedouins deliver the immolated stranger to hospital where he is as bandaged, becoming as anonymous as any Egyptian mummy.

In Ondaatji’s gem of a novel he writes:

"Here … he was alone, his own invention.

"He knew during these times how the mirage worked, the fata morgana for he was within it."

On a raft of morphine, the patient talks non-stop, confirming his notes on the pages of Herodotus, from former explorations.

He claims forgetfulness, using lies also to protect his true identity - stock in trade for all agents in the field.

Was Almasy reporting to Field Marshall Rommel on English troop movements?

Or a was he double agent for Britain?

Could he have graduated from SOE's Cairo’s base (the crčme de la crčme)?

Should who the real man was, really matter?

Novelists must entertain.

Odaatji’s oblique eastern approach transmuting fact into fantasy, does not escape Meredith’s notice.

Fiction owes little to honesty but location is necessary for credence.

What then, is the truth?

Family legend is notorious, always has and always will proffer the same dilemma of variations of a single truth.

[Great Uncle Arthur went to war in … Killed at ... Lost an arm at … Died from … Nothing was heard again after he went to war.]

None are necessarily lies.

Only one can be right.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, omitted from Meredith’s Bibliography typifies but one calamity that can beset non-fiction writers.

Like the elephant in the room, T.E. Lawrence was overlooked when obviously the tome was essential baggage.

Not that this matters a jot.

Meredith takes his readers so firmly by the hand that they may even feel compelled to get out of the sitting position to help push a vehicle out of another difficulty but they will return to the armchair soon to reread The English Patient once more and Varieties of Darkness too.

 

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