Monday, January 28, 2008

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar | Scriptorium

Welcome to the Scriptorium!
One corner of my hovel in the howling wilderness of Zaisan Tolgoi is devoted to my Scriptorium. New Additions to the Scriptorium are made on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis.
One section of my Scriptorium
Just this week there have been four new additions, three fiction and one non-fiction. The first fiction title is Michael Chabon's Gentleman of the Road. I had read Chabon’s first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which was interesting only because I myself had once lived in Pittsburgh, in the Shadyside District where much of the action takes place, but I had not read anything by him since. But Gentlemen of the Road takes place in 10th-century Khazaria, the Jewish kingdom which then existed on the Steppes Along the Volga River north of the Caspian Sea, and who could resist a setting like that? Later, in the seventeenth century, several tribes of the Oirat, or Western Mongols, including the Torguts and Dörböts, would migrate to this same area north of the Caspian Sea and become known as the Kalymks. The infamous Ja Lama was a Dörbot Kalmyk from this area. The main characters in Chabon’s book are two swindlers and con men, a Jew from Regensburg, in what is now Germany, and a gigantic black Abyssinian from Africa—the title’s Gentlemen of the Road—who get caught up in a scheme to place a Khazar prince on the Khazarian throne. But then it turns out that the Khazar prince is actually a princess! The Gentlemen of the Road should have been tipped off to this when the prince/princess refused to urinate in their presence. Like many con men they could not believe they were being conned. Who could resist a story like this?

Ever since reading The Miniaturist, a tale about a miniature painter in the Indian court of Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (جلال الدین محمد اکبر), also known as Akbar the Great (1542 –1605), a distant descendant of Chingis Khan, I have been a big fan of Kunal Basu.

Thus I could hardly resist his book The Opium Clerk, a tale about a Indian clerk working for the East India Company in the late 1800s. Lots of interesting details about the production of opium in India, and some of the action takes place in Canton, where the East India Company unloaded a lot of their opium. On a contemporary note some might say it’s payback time for the Opium Wars, which opened up China to foreign opium, resulting in the addiction of tens of millions of Chinese. Like, who now owns a sizable chunk of Merrill, Lynch and Citibank?

I am also a big fan of Yasmina Khadra, already having read his The Swallows of Kabul, plus The Attack and The Sirens of Baghdad. Yes, I said “his” books, since despite his female pen name the author is a man. Yasmina Khadra (Arabic:ياسمينة خضراء) is the pen name of the Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul (born January 10, 1955). Moulessehoul, who was an officer in the Algerian army when he first starting writing, adopted a woman's pseudonym to avoid military censorship. He revealed his true identity in 2001 and now lives in exile in France. So I sprung for one more of his books, In the Name of God, a story about how villagers in Algeria got caught up in fanatical Islamic fundamentalism. Just reading this one—review to follow.

The one non-fiction title added to the Scriptorium this week was The Turks in World History. I stopped by the Silk Road Restaurant the other day and was paging through this book while I had a cup of coffee. On page 12 was an illustration entitled “Nomadic Camp Scene.” The original was done in the fifteenth or sixteenth century somewhere between Herat and Tabriz in what is now Iran. Glancing up from the book I was startled to see a copy of this exact same painting on the wall in front of me. This is just one of the numerous Silk Road-themed reproductions on display at the Silk Road Restaurant. There are also reproductions of the Uighur Princes and Uighur Princesses from the Bezeklik Caves, near Turpan in Xinjiang, China. By the way, the originals of these paintings are now in the Indian Art Museum in Dalhem, on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. Then on page 42 there is a photo of the Tonyukuk Monuments near Nalaikh, not far from Ulaan Baatar. All and all, this looks to be quite an interesting book. There does seem to be one glaring omission: there is no mention of the Turk Gunj.