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Over six feet tall in a panama hat, sporting a white beard, and with a slightly crumpled demeanour, Don Meredith looks every inch the American writer from a bygone age. The Ernest Hemingway air he exudes, makes it easy to imagine him living out of a battered suitcase while hitching rides on tramp steamers.
I met Don by when he bought an small artwork from Angelica Westerhoff, the artist I share my life with. We ran into each other again later at a social gathering in a nearby pueblo. Walking homewards, Don told me about a manuscript he’d written on the story behind The English Patient, for which he was unable to find a publisher. When I admitted I’d never read Michael Ondaatje’s Booker prize-winning novel, he lent me a dog-eared copy. He’d worn the first one out.
Though not the secondhand paperback he describes buying from a rack outside an Indian shop in Kenya, in his preface to Varieties of Darkness: The World of The English Patient, handling it brought me a fresh sort of pleasure. The pleasure that comes from reading a book some seasoned travel writer has carried from a series of rundown bus stations to series of sleazy hotels.
From the depths of research Don unearths, the original copy must’ve suffered rather more thumbing and weathering than the average paperback is designed to bear. It perished somewhere along the trail. One can only hope it received a decent burial.
The engrossing travelogue, in which he explores the world of The English Patient, might just as well be described as a detective story. In classic Agatha Christie mode it begins with a murder. Then quickly departs from the accepted whodunit genre when the identity of the killer, the brilliant, yet notorious renaissance painter, Caravaggio, is revealed in the third sentence.
Meredith is no ordinary travel writer. He digs into the backgrounds of poetry, novels and their authors with the skill and care of an archaeologist uncovering the Holy Grail.
His main purpose in excavating the The English Patient is not only to lay bare the real identities behind Ondaatje’s characters, as might be supposed. Nor is it to expose the many departures from historical fact the literary masterpiece, based on reality, contains. Critics have already pointed them out. In following the master’s trail Meredith reveals the profundity of Ondaatje’s own knowledge and research to show how he weaves it into his tale.
The mystery Meredith sets out to solve is where fact stops and fiction begins. He primarily concerns himself with hunting down and reviewing the evidence, both forensic, and that based on contemporary witness accounts, where they exist. He is not in the business of reaching a verdict, for Ondaatje’s genius is not on trial – of that Meredith is already convinced. His purpose is to tread the footsteps of both the fictional and real characters Ondaatje employs. He wants to see, and he wants us to see, the seams where reality and fantasy meet, and where they part.
At times, his eagerness gives the impression he is hunting Ondaatje, in the same way he describes the Italian renaissance master, Micheangelo Merisi, or Caravaggio, feels hunted following his killing of Runnuncio Tomassini.
In Varieties of Darkness Meredith shows how the Canadian author of The English Patient, originally from Sri Lanka, is not a slave to fact or fiction in the traditional Western manner, but sees both forms as tools to be used more in an Oriental fashion. In the same way ancient texts created fiction from fact to make history more interesting and easier to digest, Ondaatje uses facts as a base for his fantasies. His literary style shows scant regard for the so-called empirical truth Westerners too often attempt to lay claim on.
The reality is most Western writers of fiction are not so unlike him in this respect. The difference being Ondaatje is far more aware of what he is doing. A significant majority of Western storytellers choose real locations set in real periods of time for their fiction. They use real events and real people as backgrounds. Yet few would feel the need to explain where facts finish and fiction begins. Their purpose in borrowing from reality is solely to lend credence to our suspension of disbelief. Ondaatje just takes the process a whole lot further. The critics who complain just don’t get it.
So who are the most reliable arbiters of truth? In the West we seem to have appointed ourselves. The Occidental obsession with empirical truth is not easily understood in the Orient, where the desire to express truth can often only be achieved through metaphor, using song, poetry and literature. Besides, what is truth? it Experience should teach us, in all families there are always several versions of a single truth, yet only one can be right. Or none at all.
In addition, having settled in Canada, Ondaatje must know how Westerners lie whenever it suits them. It is almost as though he is playing a joke on our, often too superficial, Western sensibilities. Meredith sees this, then proceeds to show us how: through his own experience of living abroad for most of his adult life.
For many years the American writer lived on Lamu Island, just off the coast of Kenya, where Africans, Arabs and Indians have lived side by side since long before the arrival of Europeans. There is little doubt a life of travelling through Europe, Asia and Africa has influenced him greatly.
Meredith’s literary journey in the footsteps of Ondaatje starts in renaissance Italy. He constantly surprises us with the number of small details taken from real locations Ondaatje employs in his work. Travelling here and there, to Rome, Urbino, Florence and Arrezo, he explores the paintings of Michelangelo Mesiri, who was given the name Caravaggio, after the town in Lombardy, where he was born.
In The English Patient the famous painter’s namesake, David Carravaggio, is an Italian from Ondaatje’s adopted home of Toronto. That the author should give the painter’s name to one of his main characters Meredith shows is no coincidence. Coincidence not being something the wily Californian readily accepts.
In more or less reverse order to the way event unfold in Ondaatje’s novel, Meredith takes us on a more chronologically accurate trip from renaissance Italy to contemporary Egypt, as he follows the English patient’s trail. In typical detective story fashion, he works his way from the scene of the crime to wherever it leads.
If only it were that easy. With Meredith at the helm, of what becomes a literary voyage, we set upon a tangential course, zigzagging from one century to another with almost careless abandon. Captives of Meredith’s time machine, we become like passengers aboard Dr Who’s independently-minded Tardis. Enthralled by the trip, we just can’t disembark. Though we never quite know where we’ll end up next, we can be sure it will be exciting, and possibly dangerous. The way is packed with fascinating references to recent, not so recent, and ancient history. Yet the pains he takes over historical detail do not distract from what is basically a journey of adventure.
Divided into two distinct parts, Varieties of Darkness concentrates on the stories of the two characters in The English Patient united by their addiction to morphine.
In part one, Meredith relates the story of Michaelangelo Merisis, who lived during the 16th and 17th centuries, and his world, and after whom the fictional Caravaggio, is named. Like the renaissance painter, the 20th century Caravaggio is a criminal and a master. He is an expert cat burglar, a great master of his art.
Meredith takes us to Italian churches and villas dating from the renaissance to see the murals and paintings of Merisis and some of his contemporaries. At the same time as describing the backdrop to their lives, he plots the ongoing Second World War that serves as a background to The English Patient, while acquainting us with the locations he passes through, and people he observes on the way, as they are today.
In the second part of his investigation, Meredith turns his attention to diagnose one of the other main characters in Ondaatje’s novel, the English patient himself. Remaining unnamed throughout the novel, the English patient turns out not to be English after all. Meredith learns he is based on the larger-than-life Count László Almásy, explorer and adventurer between the 1st and 2nd World Wars. A sort of Hungarian Lawrence of Arabia, Meredith reveals Almásy spied on English troop movements in the Western Desert for Field Marshall Rommel, and may have also worked as a double agent for MI6.
Posing as an English patient in the novel, in the dreamlike state induced by morphine, Almásy recalls his improbable journey from the swimmers’ cave at Zerzura – where he had to leave a dying Katherine Clifton – to Villa San Girolamo in worn-torn Italy. There he ends up a horribly scarred, and bedridden, slave to Morpheus.
Within the confines of the narrative, his confusion between trance and reality has to be taken as read. Added to that, if we want delve further into fictional, narcotic subjectivity, the fact he was spying for the Third Reich could easily account for his reluctance to reveal exact locations. Ondaatje is probably acutely aware of both scenarios, and plays with our Western insatiable hunger for truth once more.
Meredith’s own experiences of searching out Zerzura are seen through one clear eye, the other blinded by glaucoma. His monovision affected slightly by the odd ice-cold Stella, or perhaps his nightly nips of Chivas Regal by the desert campfire, he seems slightly disappointed by Ondaatje’s confusion over the exact location for Zerzura, sensing his fellow writer might never have attempted the difficult trip. But then that might be have been the enigmatic writer’s intention.
Don Meredith’s art lies in the way he brings works of art, fiction and poetry, we don’t necessarily have be acquainted with, to life. It is little wonder his day to day accounts of his travels recorded in Where the Tigers Were earned him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters. The people and locations he visits make us yearn to read more.
In Varieties of Darkness he takes us thousands of years back in time to when The Sea of Sand, a vast desert covering a large part of Western Egypt today, was green with grasses and trees, where lions and giraffes once roamed. He peoples it with swimmers in lakes and pools. By way of the renaissance – and Mussolini’s – Italy, he leads us to the busy streets of modern-day Cairo, and everywhere else in between. Without moving from the warmth and comfort of our fireplaces we climb perilous sand dunes in 4x4s up the Gilf Kebir, or join Iraqi Abbasids as they oust the Arabs from Cairo in 750AD.
Meredith’s scholarly work not only entertains, but serves as valuable guide to literature and art for we armchair adventurers who would rather others did our travelling to potentially hazardous environs for us. Oh, how I remember such writers from my youth.
Copyright © 2012, 2014 Bryan Hemming. No excerpts from this review can be published without the written permission of the author.
Don had just received good news when he lent me his copy of The English Patient. Finally, it had been accepted for publication by Hamilton Books.
Unfortunately, the news came a year too late for his wife, and companion through life, Josie, to share.
From Lamu Island the restless couple had just moved to Atlantic coast of Spain thinking they might settle. But the winters were a little damper and somewhat colder than they remembered. Adding to their woes, after only a few months, Josie was discovered to have a brain tumour. Josie Meredith drifted quietly away on the morning of Tuesday, April 13th 2010 in the Andalucian town of Conil de la Frontera.
Don returned to Lamu to scatter her ashes on the Indian Ocean, as she would’ve wanted, a few weeks later.
Another restless year had the writer travelling between Spain, Lubljana and to Lamu again before he finally decided to return to Kenya where he now lives.
Une fois. Encore.
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