Once you walk into the airport “you’ve already begun to be someone else,” writes Kevin Oderman in his collection of deeply felt meditations on the art of travel (Cannot Stay: Etruscan Press, 2015).
In prose that shows labor limae et mora, the long, slow work of paring and polishing, he registers the jolts and quivers to his consciousness arising from his brushes with the weird, the recondite, the revolting, and the sublime in his trips around the globe. These shocks and mutations, invariably unforeseen, often occur when he finds “the contemporary and the archaic pressed side by side”—a dominant theme of his collection. Usually, he is walking alone when jarred; he has restless feet and prefers “ground truthing.” Neither guided tours nor the predictable enthusiasms of Baedekers hold any interest for him. There is no substitute for presence, for mulling over the marks left by lived lives. In the curve of a street in Vilnius, the color of old stones in Corsica, or the smile of an ancient Balinese woman in a traditional sarong he finds more to relish than the “must-see” places of guidebooks. Emily Dickinson said, “There is no frigate like a book,” an old saw that Oderman’s journeys seriously qualify. Only rarely does he take the well-traveled road, when he visits, for example, Angor Wat in Cambodia. He discourses a bit on the “severely symmetrical” architecture of the massive temples, but then turns his attention to the “sinuosity” of the trees surrounding them, kapocs and strangler figs:
The incursions of the great figs at Ta Prohm are often called romantic, but the effect is stronger than that, otherworldly. Under a green canopy, the pale roots have run riot, as if the trees were monstrous tallow tapers that had streamed rivulets of wax over the ruins, many of the roots broad as a large man and twenty or thirty feet long. The stones of these temples are clutched, smothered by the roots’ too-tight embrace. Hence the name strangler fig, I imagine, but then how unsettling, even unseemly, that its Latin name should be ficus religiosa, and that the bo tree the determined Siddhartha sat down to meditate under, once long ago in India, was just such a tree.
Eschewing guide books, he is nevertheless well-read in ancient and modern literature, history and cultural anthropology, and can recount the doings of the mazzeri, a venerable Corsican hunting cult or divination sect that hunts at night in the maquis, or shrub lands. The men use guns, the women cudgels, killing the first beast that they see—sometimes a wild boar, sometimes a domestic animal. “When they’ve killed the animal they roll it on its back, and then they recognize in its face someone belonging to their village. The next morning they tell what they have done, and the person they name always dies within a year.” Some say that the hunting takes place while sleepwalking; others that it is done on foot in packs; still others that it all transpires in a dream. Nevertheless, the dead beast’s visage is always there to be read. Oderman reads widely, travels far, and then walks and talks to locals, sometimes gently insinuating himself into their lives. In one instance, he convinces a traditional architect in Bali to measure out a house for him using the same method in play for centuries: the dimensions of dwellings and the surrounding enclosures are determined by measuring the body of the dweller—the length and width of the foot, thickness of the fist, span from elbow to fingertip, and so on. When constructed along these corporal lines, the resulting pavilions “are thought of as alive and treated with respect.” Because the house is the body and vice versa, the owner always feels at home.
In dozens of places Oderman riffs on the eternal sameness of humanity and how lives are shaped by time, place and circumstance. “Who and what we become is wildly dependent on that when and where.” He looks with a clear, diligent eye at circumstantiality, all the little nudges given to our personalities by place and weather and war, the various settings of our stories. Shift a birth by a few years or across a river and the life lived may be wildly different; moving a person’s home over a mountain to another village can result in a different religion, better wine, an earlier death; living through a war can also mark one, as we well know from the miseries of the current refugees. “Do we walk in a crowd of ghosts,” he asks, “our unrealized lives, their whispering a murmur just out of hearing?”
He writes: “The modern is ever more homogenous, and homogeneity leeches out the reason for travel.” So he seeks the roughhewn, the cracked and faded, the banal and the outré. Nothing archaic is alien, and it need not be grand or massive like Angor Wat. The wayworn (a favorite word) and half-effaced draws him close. Years ago, when my wife and I were visiting our son in Albania where he was on a Peace Corps assignment, we toured the ancient, nearly forgotten city of Butrint, now empty and overtaken by vegetation. We came upon a large cistern behind a waist-high granite wall and in the wall was a slot made by the ropes used to haul water by the succeeding cultures that had lived there—after the Greeks came the Romans, the Byzantines, Bulgarians, Angevins and then the Venetians. The stone slot, made with ropes of hemp and what-have-you, was six inches deep and an inch wide. Oderman would savor this made-made cleft and conjure the millions of bucket splashes and the grunts made up-hauling the water. And the line of water bearers gossiping and complaining in five languages over a millennium as they waited their turn at the communal cistern. He’s probably been there already.
Here are some of the places he has been: The Baltic cities of Vilnius, Tallinn and Riga; Louang Phabang in Laos; Danang, Hoi An, and Hanoi in Vietnam; Florence (where he ruminates brilliantly on Botticelli’s small masterpiece, Judith’s Return to Bethulia—in the Old Testament, Judith the Jewess severed the head of Holofernes, the invading Assyrian king); Mandalay, Burma; Bali, one of 18,000 islands in Indonesia (where he is part of a huge crowd attending a cremation—one of his great set pieces); Izmir, Turkey; Eleusis, Greece (home of the ancient religious site, a cave where the priests of Demeter presided over the initiation of believers into the Eleusinian mysteries; Oderman retells with great verve the story of Hades, Demeter, and her abducted daughter Persephone); Sartѐne and Bonifacio, Corsica (where the limestone crypts “still [have] berths available , roughhewn into the raw walls”); Siem Reap, Cambodia; Toledo, Spain (where, after seeing the paintings by Goya, he felt “like a man missing a stair, falling into glossy blackness”); Lahore, Pakistan; Bangkok, Thailand; and Kathmandu, Nepal.
The last essay, a kind of epilogue about untaken journeys, is dated 2013. The earliest harkens back to 1972 when Oderman, then a recent college grad, moves from Europe to Asia, seeking to isolate himself and find transcendence. In a sense, the entire volume takes place under the long overhang of the Vietnam War, the American bombing of Cambodia and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, although these events are not discussed at any length. Like Hemingway’s iceberg, the horrors are nine-tenths unseen, but felt.
Oderman says that as a young man, he “wanted to be split open, like firewood opened by an axe. Riven.” Only someone exquisitely sensitive to his changing surroundings, and to the presence of the past imbued in them could have written and artfully sequenced this sheaf of essays. Few could have peered down at the old Balinese woman with a gap-toothed smile (“the years had their way with her”), and after she touched his hand, concluded: “Looking at her, I thought we all die in a past world, and that is as it should be, and acceptable.” This is an absolutely astonishing book.
Rating: 5 of 5 stars