Review: Ararat: In Search of the Mythical Mountain

Sunday Telegraph/UK
by Frank Westerman
31/08/2008



Jeremy Seal follows one man and his Noah complex up Mount Ararat

A perilous ducking, though not quite of the biblical proportions his
title suggests, opens Frank Westerman's memorably enquiring but wayward
memoir-cum-travelogue. Westerman recalls a July day in 1976 when melt
waters released from a dam in the Austrian Alps engulfed the 'wadeable
stream' where he was playing. That famously dry summer thus proved
torrential for the holidaying Dutch boy, if only temporarily. Washing
up unharmed in the back eddy of an inlet, he sensed Deliverance and so
thanked 'God the Father for having heard my cry above the roaring
waters'. It is this Noah complex, as it might be called, and the
scientific values he comes to espouse in its place that Westerman's
highly personal, occasionally brilliant narrative sets out to explore.

The adult Westerman sees science as 'a vaccine against believing'. He
has given up prayer and resigned his membership of the Dutch Reformed
Church. He wonders at his own grandfather holding the creationist line
that the Earth is 6,000 years old - roughly a millionth, incidentally,
of current scientific estimates. Even so, he never forgets the story of
Noah and how the Ark was left on top of Mount Ararat when the flood
receded, nor that the tale transfixed him back in the days of Sunday
school. After a visit to Armenia in 1999, he decides 'to climb biblical
Ararat and walk its highest ice fields'.

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The Armenian holy mountain just inside Eastern Turkey thus looms large
as Westerman's spiritual and physical object, though it is less clear
what the author expects from the experience of climbing it. He talks of
putting 'to the test my own resolve as a non-believer', as if exposing
himself to holy places might still stir him to faith, but goes on to
dismiss the explanation as naive. While waiting for a clearer motive to
come along, Westerman focuses on a mountain richer in devotional,
scientific, geo-political and cultural significance than perhaps any
other.

Westerman takes in the Armenian church, a potted history of Ararat
mountaineering, and fundamentalist 'Arkeologists' (Ark searchers) such
as the former astronaut Jim Irwin. Sorties into the realms of
vulcanology and seismology (Ararat is highly earthquake-prone) entail
visits to, among others, a former geology professor, an exiled Armenian
academic and even the author's atheist publisher. Westerman proves a
perceptive, passionate writer, with a line in memorable observations.
He describes the current rise of religion and the fear of modern-day
parents that they might lose children to it, 'the way our parents 25
years ago could lose us to the squatters' or punk scene'.

He also pens excellent discursive sections, notably on the 19th-century
discovery of Assyrian flood accounts which were inscribed on clay
tablets several centuries before the Old Testament was written, a fact
that causes him to dismiss the Bible as 'one long act of plagiarism'.
There is a fine description of a low-tide walk on the Wadden shallows,
a kind of Dutch Morecambe Bay which Westerman presents as physical
preparation for the mountain climb.

It is characteristic of his narrative voice, candid to the point of
transparency, that he should allow his actual, symbolic intentions to
show through. 'You want to defy the water. For your story,' his wife
tells him.

Westerman clearly likes to range widely; the problem is his book's
200-odd pages can feel uncomfortably crowded. Mount Ararat jostles for
space with the various memoir strands, including a whimsical one that
concerns Westerman's young daughter. His journey to the base of the
mountain brings in the Armenian genocide, Ataturk, the Kurdish
insurgency and Orhan Pamuk (Westerman passes through the gloomy town of
Kars where the Turkish author's Nobel-Prize winning novel Snow is set).
Less excusable are a number of dull inclusions, not least an ongoing
account of the bureaucracy entailed in securing a climbing visa, which
only add to the impression of a book so swollen with uneven content as
to burst its narrative banks.

The further surprise, given what gets in, is what stays out of Ararat.
Fans of mountaineering accounts should be advised that Westerman's
actual climb occupies only the last 15 pages. Nor does Westerman do
more than touch upon resonant fears of the floods which rising sea
levels may cause. From a Dutchman, this feels like an omission.