Shopping for Buddhas – Jeff Greenwald

The book starts in October 1987 with Jeff and his girlfriend caught out by a violent snowstorm in the mountains at Gosainkund in the Langtang national park about 30 miles north of Kathmandu. They eventually make their way down through the deep snow that obscured all the paths along with a German couple and their guides and Jeff decides that to mark the escape he wants a Buddha statue, but not just any Buddha statue it must be the best he can get for a budget of up to $300. Kathmandu and the neighbouring city of Patan are covered in small shops selling Buddhas along with a vast range of Hindu and Buddhist gods of which there are thousands to choose from but the quality varies dramatically and the very best pieces are rarely on the shelves but secreted away for collectors in back rooms.

Ostensibly the book is about Jeff’s search for the perfect Buddha and his frustration with minor, and sometimes major, errors in the proportions or features. To positively identify a figure as Buddha it needs to pass the thirty two significant traits along with eighty less significant ones and he lists seventeen of these to give some idea as to the level of detail he was looking for, such as the wheels marked on the feet and the lotus blossom and conch shell trumpet on the palms. There should be a mole like mark between his eyes known as the urna and the eyes themselves should be centred and slightly downcast. The list goes on and made finding his perfect Buddha extremely difficult. I say ostensibly though because the book is a lot more than an extended shopping expedition over a period of about seven months, we also learn something about the lives of the Nepalese and the corruption, narcotic abuse and police brutality that they are subjected to.

A lot of the narcotic smuggling into the country and artwork and antique smuggling out is blamed on members of the royal family by Greenwald who at the time were untouchable as rulers of the only Hindu kingdom which they ran like medieval monarchs not subject to any aspect of the laws of the country. He speaks to many people to confirm this and is duly warned off by others including a smuggling boss. He also refers to an Amnesty International report of human rights abuses in the country where anyone can be locked up for months at a time without recourse to any legal process and when they are released can be arrested again the next day to be subject to more beatings and torture at the hands of the police and prison authorities. To the outsider Nepal is a paradise, to the locals it could often be a prison and a particularly awful prison at that.

The final chapter in the Lonely Planet edition was written six years after the book had first been published in America in 1990 and deals with the change of the political situation after the king was forced to move towards a more constitutional rather than absolute monarchy in 1990 but even then the power of the monarchy was still overbearing. This would be illustrated by the royal massacre of 2001 when Prince Dipendra used an automatic rifle to murder the King, Queen and seven other members of the royal family at a party before apparently shooting himself. During the three days he survived he was declared King and therefore immune from prosecution before dying and the monarchy passing to his brother Gyanendra. Dipendra and Gyanendra are named in Greenwald’s book as the heads of the smuggling operations in the country. In 2008 the monarchy was deposed and the worlds only Hindu kingdom became a federal republic.

Ten years after Greenwald’s marathon shopping trip, which did result in him buying a Buddha although for considerably more that his original $300 I was also in Kathmandu and whilst I didn’t have the budget that Jeff Greenwald had, after all I was there to go trekking in the Everest region and that cost enough, I was also captivated by the metal casting craftsmanship displayed all over the city. Although like Jeff I also found that there was a lot of dross to pick through before finding the perfect figures made of brass and bronze which are now on the mantelpiece in my bedroom.

The Buddhist gods and goddesses I purchased during my visit to Nepal in April 1997, from left to right;
Kharachheri – A form of Bodhisatwa Avalokiteswara, known as the six syllabled Lokeswara “Om Mani Padme Hum’ which is carved on rock faces and chanted all over Nepal.
Mayadevi – The mother of Siddhartha Gautam
Green Tara – The spiritual consort of the Dhyani Buddha and is incarnated in all good women

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

With the imminent release on Apple TV of a blockbuster adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy it seemed appropriate to reread these books that I haven’t picked up since I was a teenager and I’m going to do one a month rather than block out the rest of September. Fortunately I still have the copies I bought back in 1979 with their wonderful covers by Chris Foss that drew me to them in the first place. Panther Science Fiction used a lot of Foss’s paintings for their Asimov covers and as you will see as the months go on the covers on this trilogy are a little special.

Foundation was first published in book form in 1951 and tells the story of the collapse of the Galactic Federation or more accurately the plan of one man, Hari Seldon, to reduce the impact of that failure from 30,000 years of anarchy to a mere 1,000 years. He has predicted the collapse using a branch of mathematics invented by Asimov called psycho-history which takes statistical analysis of crowd behaviour to the nth degree and allows predictions to be made on populations with a trackable degree of accuracy. Seldon ostensibly formed his Foundation to write an Encyclopedia Galactica which would be a repository of all knowledge with a plan to have copies supplied to all the inhabited worlds of the galaxy and right at the beginning of the book engineers their exile to a planet on the furthest reaches of empire where the rulers consider them away from disturbing the peace with stories of empire collapse but where Seldon knows they will be left alone to further his master plan. Here on Terminus his researchers would form a nucleus of science in the increasing barbarism of the surrounding planetary systems as their understanding of technology melts away.

Seldon never makes it to Terminus himself, after less than thirty pages into the book he is dead and this is going to be the major challenge of any TV adaptation, the cast is going to need to be constantly changing as the centuries roll past, in Foundation alone 155 years pass from the first page to the last with major characters rising and then disappearing into history. Seldon alone can re-appear, as a hologram, but only to confirm that what becomes known as Seldon Crisis’s have been successfully negotiated and these are timed events and only occur twice in the first book of the trilogy so how will they maintain a following audience if the characters are never the same from one episode to another?

The major figure in Foundation is the mayor of Terminus fifty years after the settlement of the planet, Salvor Hardin, and if I was going to be persnickety about the book then having the two biggest names being so similar (Salvor Hardin and Hari Seldon) is the one lack of imagination shown by Asimov in what is otherwise a excellent exercise in world building with a truly believable back story and development of characters and technologies. It isn’t to the depth of Iain M Banks’ Culture series (1987 to 2012) but he was writing over forty years earlier and for a very different audience, teenagers and early twenties who were avid consumers of the science fiction pulp magazines of the day as 80% of the book had been published in Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1944, Asimov added the introductory section for the 1951 book publication. The great historical leaps between the five sections is largely explained by the fact that it is a collection of short stories which were originally published separately but we go from an isolated exile planet to Terminus controlling the surrounding star systems and slowly spreading its technological know how with at each step a problem from aggressive neighbours being solved without using force themselves.

The five short stories that make up the book are as follows:

The Psychohistorians – This was written specifically for the book and serves as an introduction to the series, it is the only part where Hari Seldon is actually alive and tries to explain what psycho-history is so that it makes more sense in the stories that follow.

The Encyclopedists (Originally published in May 1942 as Foundation) – Fifty years after the settlement of Terminus and their first crisis as one of the surrounding star systems tries to take over what is still a planet dedicated to the production of the Encyclopedia Galactica. The aggressors plan is thwarted by the young mayor Salvor Hardin and a hologram of Hari Seldon reveals that all is not what it seems on Terminus.

The Mayors (Originally published in June 1942 as Bridle and Saddle) – Thirty more years have passed and Hardin is still mayor of Terminus and again faces aggression from a neighbouring star system although this time a far more powerful one. The Foundation have used the intervening years however to spread atomic power to the surrounding systems but kept the technical details as to how it works to themselves hiding the methods behind a mystical religious belief system where only the priests have access to the controls.

The Traders (Originally published in October 1944 as The Wedge) – Another 55 years have passed and the religious cult behind atomics has slightly waned as traders have started to take over the spreading of the Foundations power in their corner of the Galaxy. This is a fairly simple tale of one trader going a bit too far but getting away with it and is sort of a fill in tale written after The Big and the Little to explain the leap between that and Bridle and Saddle.

The Merchant Princes (Originally published in August 1944 as The Big and the Little) – Twenty years after The Traders so 155 years after The Psychohistorians this introduces Master Trader Hober Mallow who is sent on a mission to investigate unusually technically advanced equipment in the planetary republic of Korell. It turns out that the Galactic Empire is not quite as dead as expected.

The immense popularity of the books in the 1960’s and 70’s can be gauged by the list of reprints, and remember this is just the UK paperback edition.

I suspect that Asimov is no longer as popular as he was but the Apple TV series should hopefully put that right and bring to the fore a writer who was producing what must now be called Young Adult fiction decades before that term was even invented.

The Clicking of Cuthbert – PG Wodehouse

By way of contrast to the five French works I read throughout August I have chosen the most quintessentially English of writers for the first book of this month P G Wodehouse. I should at this point make it clear that I am not a golf fan so this is a slightly odd choice of book to have on my shelves, but I am definitely a Wodehouse fan and he didn’t let me down. The ten stories collected into this book are definitely all set on the golf course but the gentle humour of Wodehouse pervades the tales not so much about golf but about relationships and especially young love. Men battle it out with clubs and balls to win the hand of the one they love, in two of the stories without the lady herself being aware she was the object of such competition. Always playing the ball where it lies or being regarded as a blackguard, see the cover illustration where Cuthbert Banks plays from the dining table of a house adjacent to the links. It should be noted that although the book is called The Clicking of Cuthbert he only appears in the first story.

Most of the stories are related in the clubhouse by The Oldest Member usually as some younger chap comes to him for advice, not necessarily on golfing matters. He will then relate a tale of some past member with a useful message for the struggling supplicant, in the case of Cuthbert Banks it was how golf finally won him the hand of the lovely Adeline Smethurst a girl who until a fateful evening at a literary soiree thought that only a renowned novelist or poet would be a suitable match. The Oldest Member tells the story to encourage a young man not to give up golf and prove that there is a use for golf.

The Folio Society edition is beautifully illustrated by Paul Cox with 41 inset black and white drawings along with a colour cover, frontispiece and end papers which illustrate the Woodhaven Golf Club where most of the stories are set, see final picture in this blog. Below is the occasion where Celia Tennant had hit her fiancee with her niblick in an attempt to stop his endless chattering on the course from the fifth story in the book, The Salvation of George Mackintosh.

One of the stories concerns the need to always retain a clear head whilst playing golf as illustrated in this quote from Ordeal by Golf.

How few men, says the Oldest Member, possess the proper golfing temperament? How few indeed, judging by the sights I see here on Saturday afternoons possess any qualification at all for golf, except a pair of baggy knickerbockers and enough money to enable them to pay for the drinks st the end of the round. The ideal golfer never loses his temper. When I played I never lost my temper. Sometimes, it is true, I may, after missing a shot, have broken my club across my knees, but I did it in a clam and judicial spirit, because the club was obviously no good and I was going to get another one anyway.

As the stories in this book date from 1919 to 1922, it was first published in book form in 1922, the club names are the traditional ones from the then almost exclusively Scottish makers. Clubs weren’t numbered until the Americans got involved in manufacturing in the 1930’s it therefore helps to know that a Brassie is a 3 wood, a Mashie a five iron, a Niblick is a nine iron and by inference a Mashie-niblick is a 7 iron. Other clubs referred to in the book are a Spoon (5 wood), a Rut niblick (wedge) and a Cleek (either a 1 or 2 iron). Bring back the old names, they give a definite beauty to the game.

In the end paper illustration Paul Cox has clearly studied the stories in the book as the holes are recognisable from the descriptions given with the various hazards such as the lake on hole 2 clearly visible.

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun – Cyrano de Bergerac

For a long time I believed that the author of this book wasn’t a real person but had been made up in some obscure French novel and that the character had lived on beyond the original work, so to find that Cyrano de Bergerac was not only real but an author as well as the famous soldier and duellist was a pleasant surprise. His life is however poorly documented, but this work can be dated reasonably well as it mentions the death of the philosopher Descartes, which happened in 1650 and de Bergerac himself died in 1654. My copy is the Folio Society edition published in 2018, illustrated by Quentin Blake and rounds off my selection of works translated from French that I have been reading throughout August. The illustrations to this blog were taken from the Folio Society web site entry on the book.

The book is in three sections so I’ll review it in the same way:

Journey to The Moon

The time that de Bergerac was writing in was a period of considerable scientific advancement as people moved away from the ancient Greek science towards the start of physics as we know it but there was much that was still up for debate such as if the Earth was the centre of the universe with everything else revolving around it. It is clear right from the start that de Bergerac had moved on from this notion and he understood that the Earth rotated, that the Moon orbited the Earth and that together they orbited the Sun. Journey to the Moon starts with the hero trying to reach the Moon by means of dew collected in jam jars. The reasoning is fair, dew rises in the morning so if you could collect enough of it and attach it to your body then it should take you with it, this he duly does and rises up into the air from Paris one morning. After a few hours he decides to land, releases the dew and is surprised to find it is still morning and he is in Canada as the Earth has rotated underneath him, de Bergerac didn’t consider that the atmosphere also rotates with the land beneath. Later he builds another machine this time powered by fireworks which does lift him to the Moon, leaving from Quebec.

The Moon he arrives at is however unrecognisable from the one we know as he finds the Garden of Eden there along with several old testament prophets and here the book starts to fail as he indulges in pages of theological arguments which drag the pace so much that I almost gave up at this point and began searching for another book to read, however I’m glad I persevered. Ultimately he leaves religion behind and goes on a fantastical exploration of his version of the Moon before returning to Earth by catching hold of the Devil on his way to deposit an inhabitant of the Moon to Hell and of course he has to pass the Earth on the way.

Journey to The Sun

For a long time it looked as if Journey to the Sun wasn’t actually going to get there, for the first twenty five pages it covers being persuaded to write up and publish Journey to the Moon and his subsequent denouncement as a sorcerer. Which leads to him being jailed, escaping and undertaking a very funny chase sequence which results in him accidentally running full circle and seeking shelter from his pursuers through the back door of the very jail he had escaped from. Eventually he builds a contraption which uses the power of sunlight via lenses to build up lift so that he can escape again, however he misjudges the power of his invention and instead of just rising and then landing again he is drawn all the way to the Sun and aims to land on a sun spot which he takes to be an area of land floating on the sun’s surface. The Sun in the book is not the flaming ball of gas that we understand but simply a larger globe that it is perfectly possible to traverse.

Eventually he meets a tiny king who with his subjects can transform themselves into anything they wish either singly or as a group to make something as large as a tree and in this tree is a Nightingale who leads him to the Kingdom of the Birds.

Story of the Birds

On arrival in the Kingdom of the Birds he is arrested and put on trial for the heinous crime of being a man and therefore a destroyer and killer of birds. Here de Bergerac demonstrates his ecological credentials and tries our hero for the damage mankind has done to the Earth and the wanton killing of bird life. He is ultimately sentenced to be eaten to death by insects but is reprieved when a parrot that he once set free from its cage speaks up in his defence.

Various adventures follow his release as he travels towards the Kingdom of Philosophers, although again de Bergerac gets distracted and spends pages retelling Greek myths without progressing with the story. Eventually this rather tedious section finishes and the hero continues on his way, meeting people from the Kingdom of Truth and the Kingdom of Lovers before the book suddenly finishes mid paragraph.

Overall I enjoyed the book but the large sections of ‘philosophising’ I could definitely have done without.