Sam Jordison finds a tale of exploration that tickles his sense of wonder.
Here’s a theory: Science fiction — and particularly its proclivity for the exploration of outer-space — took off in the 20th century because so many of the world’s mysteries had apparently been solved. There were no more dark places on the map (to borrow from Heart Of Darkness). As far as Western Civilisation was concerned, the round earth had been explored and catalogued. Those hoping to write about the unknown, about mysteries beyond human experience, had to blast off in new directions. Where once they might have looked — say — to the closed off regions of the New World for inspiration, or somewhere beyond the Seven Seas, they now started to look to the stars.
It was reading Rendezvous With Rama that gave me the idea. the theory floated into my head while I was in the bath. Surely the sense of awe Clarke was trying to inspire was very similar to the wonder old travellers expected to greet them when they brought back tales of headless men, endless riches and flying golden birds? Similar to the sense of pushing beyond the known horizon that is so strong in The Odyssey? Similar to the sense of the strange and — yes — alien one still gets from reading Marco Polo or Tacitus’ Agricola?
Perhaps the theory holds far less water than my bath. Even as I thought of it, I realised that I wouldn’t want to fight anyone claiming that the filling in of the map was less important than new technology as an influence on the 20th Century SF boom. I also quickly decided that I wouldn’t want to deny that there was plenty of good star-seeking fiction before the mid-twentieth century boom, and before Conrad wrote about the scarcity of dark places. Yet I was still very keen to be at least partly right. I was enjoying Rama so much that I wanted more of the same. I knew I wasn’t going to get it from any of the actual sequels (I made the mistake of reading Rama II when I was a naive teenager), but I hoped that a book of exploration might push a few of the same buttons. And that’s why, as soon as I closed the cover on Rama, I pulled Eric Newby’s A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush [Purchase] off the shelf.
A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush describes:
The Carless-Newby expedition, consisting of a man from the dress trade and a career diplomat, who were setting off to visit the Ramgul Katirs in Nuristan for no other reason than to satisfy their curiosity.
Nuristan is the remotest part of the remote Hindu Kush in infamously remote Afghanistan. When Carless and Newby went there in 1956, it was one of the last unmapped regions of the earth. Hardly any Europeans had been that way and no one at all, as far as anyone knew, had scaled the peak they intended to climb, the fearsome Mir Samir, a mountain “resembling a crouching lion; its head the summit, a long plume of smoke the mane” an object of “almost mocking beauty”.
There’s no doubt that the numinous feeling, that sense of huge scale and awe that is so appealing in Rama is written all over A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush.
The view was colossal. Below us on every side mountains stretched away it seemed forever; we looked down on glaciers and snow-covered peaks that perhaps no one has ever seen before, except from the air…
Here on the Arayu, one of the lonely places of the earth with all the winds of Asia droning over it, where the mountains seemed like the bones of the world breaking through, I had the sensation of emerging from a country that would continue to exist more or less unchanged whatever disasters overtook the rest of mankind.
Newby also occasionally generates a similar sense of bemusement and intrigue to that felt by Captain Norton and his fellow astronauts when faced with alien technology and building. Here he is on the village of Tirpul: “a small hamlet with strange wind machines revolving on mud towers, with an encampment of black nomad tents on the outskirts and a great square caravanserai deserted on a nearby hill.”
There’s also the displacement every explorer or astronaut must feel:
The sun was setting behind the Khawak Pass. At this time I should have been leaving Grosvenor Street after a day under the chandeliers. Instead we were cooking up some rather nasty tinned steak over a fire that was producing more smoke than heat. The smell of burning dung, the moaning of the wind, the restless horses, the thought of Abdul Ghiyas saying his prayers, dedicating his ice-axe, and above all the mountain itself with its summit now covered in swirling black cloud, all combined to remind me that this was Central Asia. I had wanted it and I had got it.
There’s even the melancholy and strangeness of abandonment that plays such a big part in Rama:
The Parq Otel was terribly sad. In the spacious modernistic entrance hall, built in the 1930s and designed to hold a worldly, chattering throng, there was no one. Against the walls sofas of chromium tubing, upholstered in sultry red uncut moquette, alternated with rigid looking chairs, enough for an influx of guests, who after thirty years, had still not arrived. On the untenanted reception desk a telephone that never rang stood next to a letter rack with no letters in it. A large glass showcase contained half a dozen sticky little pools that had once been sweets, some dead flies and a coat hanger.
That last quote is a description of a hotel in Afghanistan where Newby and Carless see no other guests beyond some Russians in down-at-heel carpet slippers. “They had gone to pieces — who could blame them?”
And there lies a final point of comparison with Rama. It isn’t just the variously spectacular and intriguing backdrops that are so interesting, it’s the humans set against them. Newby is an expert at evoking how tiny two men like himself and Carless can seem against the vastness of nature — and how hard the task they face must therefore be. To that extent, with that long journey across unfamiliar, potentially hostile landscapes, the book might also be said to hit some of the same targets as The Left Hand Of Darkness, The Lord Of The Rings and Ringworld.
I’ve stretched the comparisons with genre books far enough. There are definitely sections of A Short Walk In A Hindu Kush that appeal in the same way as the novels I’ve mentioned. It did effectively answer the call of the weird that Rama had sounded. But in plenty of other ways Newby’s book is a very different… I was going to write beast, but that’s just the wrong word for such a genteel exponent of amusing English understatement. The most notable thing about A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush, after all is how very funny it all is. Not something you could ever say about dear old Arthur C Clarke, no matter how endearing his awful jokes may be.
The main source of this comedy is Newby and Carless’ losing battle against hostile conditions. As Newby said in an interview in 2000 (when he was a sprightly 80) he successfully manages to “capitalize on being an idiot and not doing things right.” Every inch of their long journey is a struggle. In fact, they’re in trouble even before they set off since they have so little experience of serious mountaineering. Newby does say he’s done a few scrambles in the Dolomites with his wife, “but nowhere had we failed to encounter ladies twice our age armed with umbrellas”. He also quotes Hugh Carless explaining: “We really do know damn all.”
The first part of the book (after two hilarious chapters about Newby’s misadventures in the dress trade which prompt him to send Carless the wonderfully to-the-point telegram: “CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?”) describes the two would-be explorers’ attempts to learn the basics of mountain climbing in Wales. It isn’t a promising start for a duo hoping to conquer one of the most isolated peaks in a fearsomely tough mountain range — but it does set the tone for a glorious series of accidents, failures, and struggles with bad food and dysentery. Think Withnail and I, “we’ve gone on holiday by mistake”:
and turn it up to 11.
The quality of the one-liners are as good as those in Withnail and I too. Most have to be read in context to work, but the following gives an idea:
‘Abdul Ghiyas says that we should post sentries for the night,’ said Hugh when it grew dark.
‘Do you want to be a sentry?’
‘No. I’d rather be murdered in bed.’
‘So would I.’
‘Abdul Ghiyas! No sentries!’
Newby may claim to be an idiot, and he may do a very convincing impression of one at times, but I challenge you to finish the book without feeling immense admiration for him and Carless. Their achievements are prodigious. It isn’t just the physical fact of walking such a long way in seriously difficult territory and breaking new ground. A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush also provides an extraordinary (if at times gleefully unreliable) historical record.
Newby meets people who maintained a “medieval” existence, in ancient clothes, untroubled by modern technology, plying ancient trades such as the numerous butter carriers who walk for days by foot carrying great loads of dairy products strapped to their backs on primitive wooden framed backpacks. And if Newby and Carless think the Ramgul Katirs are strange, they more than return the compliment. They insist, for instance, that Newby and Hugh must be Russians — Britain, they simply haven’t heard of.
One of the astonishing stories Newby tells is how Kafiristan (the land of the unbelievers) came to be Nuristan (the land of light — that’s to say, the light of Islam).
In 1895 the happy existence of the Kafirs as robbers, murderers of Muslims, drinkers of prodigious quantities of wine, keepers of slaves, worshippers of Imra the Creator, Moni the Prophet, Gish the War God and the whole Kafir pantheon with its sixteen principal deities, came to an end…
Emir Abdur Rahman Kahn converted the people in the region to Islam — with British connivance — at sword-point. As Newby says, this was one of the last mass forced conversions in history. It was also a bloody, cruel affair. Nobody knows how many were killed, but it was clearly horrifically large. Ancient temples, artworks and the intricate wood-carvings which used to be a regional speciality were also burned. Newby spoke to some the last living people to remember the massacres — and the time before them.
We used to make wine and hunt bear,” says one. “There was much killing in those days and I was a great swimmer but I do not remember that time with much pleasure. No there is no longer any wine made,” he said rather wistfully. The coming of Islam to Kafiristan seemed to have had the same deadly effect as Knox and the Reformation on Scotland.
Those last words can’t but resonate today, considering the Taliban’s strength in Nuristan. The moments when humour drains away from the book nearly all concern mullahs who (in stark contrast to most of the other people they meet — and with one noble exception) are laughter free, unfriendly, occasionally downright hostile and always bossing their own people about. More than fifty years ago Newby was already observing the zealotry that would become one of the major themes of our century. He was also writing a book that shows why only damn fools would launch a military campaign in territory so tough, so isolated, so alien and inimical to Westerners, so governed by fanatics. Enter George W Bush, Tony Blair and the current state of tourism in Nuristan. The sad fact is that Newby is telling us about a place that is even more cut off in 2011 than it was in 1956. We have more chance of walking on the Moon — or indeed a giant spaceship like Rama — than getting through Nuristan unscathed. So A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush remains a book that tells us of mysteries and distant wonders. All the more reason to be glad that it does so in such exquisite style.