No announcement yet.

Review: Ararat: In Search of the Mythical Mountain

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • Review: Ararat: In Search of the Mythical Mountain

    Review: Ararat: In Search of the Mythical Mountain

    Sunday Telegraph/UK
    by Frank Westerman

    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'.

    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

    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.