Lesley Blanch (1904-2007), a Londoner by birth, spent the greater part of her life travelling about those remote areas her books record so vividly. She was an astute observer of places and people; their quirks, habits and passions. This article about Istanbul in Turkey, which she loved, was found among her papers. It was written some time in 1954-5.
Spain is a ‘place apart’ from Italy, France and the other Latin countries, with a very individual character, only partly explained by her language and history. The language contains many Arabic words; the Moors left much of their character in Spain after their defeat; Moorish mosques were converted into Catholic cathedrals; Romany lore is present in the flamenco songs of love which are always sad. But there is also a mystery — in the inhabitants’ pride, dignity and aloofness, and it is this inexplicable element that makes them so fascinating.
A traveller might start their journey into Spain by crossing the French frontier at Le Perthus, after which the first major town would be Gerona, standing out on the hillside, showing the coveted site for which it was so often besieged. Inside the old part of the town the streets are chasms too narrow for the sun to reach. The stranger feels compelled to stroll there, drawn into the core of a city where the Middle Ages seem to live on. “City of a thousand sieges”, it was called, from Iberian and Roman times until later, when its people organised several battalions against Napoleon, including one entirely of women.
Arkhan Valley Our Toyota 4×4 lurched and dodged between the trees. Nyam Bileg seemed to be winning at an Olympian task. At one point he drove at a perilous angle along the edge of a dry gully.
When I’d arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Oyuna handed me a blue dael – the traditional three-quarter length cotton, silk or wool gown worn by men and women. Serving as a coat, robe or a dress, for every day or ceremonial occasions, it buttons beneath the right arm and at the right shoulder to a high, round collar. It is convenient for riding, travel and extremes of temperature. When cinched at the waist, a pocket of material is formed for carrying personal items. She told me I would find it useful. Now I was beginning to understand why. It offered a handy way of being private when peeing out in the wilds.
One last stop and we’d be home and dry, or so I thought, as I closed my dael and wound my way back to the 4×4 through cow parsley and gorse bushes. A large puddle turned out to be a stream flooding across the forest track. The front wheels jammed in tight, and the back wheels spun deep into the mud. We watched Oyuntsetseg, Ider Od and their companions disappear down the hill in their resilient little Russian-built UAZ van. Their driver, Tulga, was a Dayan Deerkh man, so he knew the lie of the land. Some 3 hours later, the Toyota was pulled out by a tractor.
The Call of the Wild When the Siberian and Chinese tectonic plates pushed up against each other, Mongolia was formed: a great landlocked highland plateau − sandwiched between Russia and China. No wonder the fierce warriors of the 13th and 14th century Mongol Empire who were masters at the art of war are still the stuff of legend.
I was told that sections of the Great Wall of China were built to keep the Mongolians out. This toughness, combined with an equally powerful shamanic spirituality dating back to Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Hordes – intertwined later with Buddhism from Tibet – and a continued adherence to centuries-old customs and traditions, are a seductive combination.
Mongolians live in two worlds: that of the senses, the observable, the scientific; and on a metaphysical and spiritual level − the unseen world of spirits and magic.
“‘We few, we happy few, are gathered here, the descendants of Chinggis Khan’s golden lineage. We, the scions of his personal guard, the Hishigten Army . . . ‘ Shaman Dulaan Boshgot paused, his granite-like eyes narrowing as he looked into the distance towards the ruins of Kharakorum, the once great capital lying in the vast Orkhon Valley of Central Mongolia. A sea of green velvety grassland was bathed in the golden rays of the rising sun. A smell of earth and horse sweat enveloped him. Behind him, he could hear his white stallion pawing at the stony steppe.”
So begins The Green-Eyed Lama: Love and Betrayal in Mongolia by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt. It is an epic work of historical fiction which brings alive the nomadic Mongol way of life.
Born in France, Pierre Loti loved the East. No one could understand his desire to exchange the greyness of France for ‘the far horizons of a sailor’s life’ better than Lesley Blanch, author of such celebrated evocations of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Russia as The WilderShores of Love, The Sabres of Paradise and Journey into the Mind’s Eye. In this haunting biography she shows herself a sympathetic historian, consulting manuscript letters and diaries as well as Loti’s innumerable publications. Her book is a labour of love, an enquiry into a very complex man, as well as one brilliant escapist writing about another. Who, then, was Pierre Loti?
Loti was born in 1850 as Julien Viaud, son of a respectable Protestant family living in the port of Rochefort on the Atlantic Ocean. His father was an official in the Mairie. In 1867 he entered the French navy, in which he would continue to serve until 1910. This extremely unconventional man proved a good officer. Most of his superiors appreciated his ‘agreeable character, very good education’, and later his literary fame, though some fellow officers noticed a cold manner.
The French navy was sufficiently broad-minded to employ an officer who wore rouge, dyed his hair and adopted disguises. More unsettling even than dressing as an acrobat, a Turk or a Bedu, Loti often wore the uniform of a rating rather than an officer. Moreover his friendships with handsome sailors, (Julien, Leo, Samuel, many others}, which such clothes facilitated, were no secret. As his daughter-in-law told Lesley Blanch: ‘Loti loved both men and women passionately and if there had been a third sex he would have loved that too.’
As a lobbyist for translation, I occasionally write reader’s reports giving an opinion on French books that have been submitted to a publishing company for consideration. Translations of good non fiction are rare compared to fiction, and fewer grants are available. As its the indies who tend to take risks on new writers-new translations, they have less funds and back up than the majors. So good books often get nowhere — very much the case for Bilal sur la route des clandestins by Fabrizio Gatti which I was commissioned to report on back in 2011. A university press with an endowment could be a possibility? Hence this post . . . The book would need updating of course, easily done. For now it is available in Italian and French so if you can read those languages — buy it!
BILAL SUR LA ROUTE DES CLANDESTINS by Fabrizio Gatti (478pp Liana Levi 2008) Winner of the premio Terzani in 2008
Fabrizio Gatti is a reporter for the Italian weekly, L’Espresso. Human rights defender and campaigner against organised crime, he has undertaken numerous undercover investigations. Ryszard Kapuscinski believed that news is all about political struggle and the search for truth, not profits and ratings as is invariably the case today. Gatti is a kindred spirit. He follows in Kapuscinski’s footsteps with this humane and heartbreaking book. Bilal, on the road with illegal immigrants is literary reportage at its best; an odyssey into the heart of darkness. Gatti is not only an excellent and courageous investigative journalist, but a real writer.
Writing is a tiring business requiring energy and sustaining snacks. Chekhov had a weakness for oysters, Proust knocked back espressos, Sartre went nuts for halva and H. P. Lovecraft relished spaghetti bolognese smothered in parmesan cheese.
In a postcard sent to Cecil Beaton some time during the 1970s, Lesley Blanch describes her daily life as she is writing the biography of Pierre Loti: “I get up at 7, go on all day til dusk − hardly an eye for the birds, yelling to be fed. I’ve disconnected the telephone, such bliss − don’t go out or see anyone, don’t ever get dressed. Some days restful sluttishness prevails. Djellaba over a nightgown is the only way to work, for me − and no hairdressers + all that tra-la-la. But the appearance suffers − so does the figure. I sit, sit, sit, + eat delicious brown bread with tidal waves of butter.”