Monday, 18 July 2011

Book of the Year winner proves illusion will nourish, even if it won't feed us

‘Don Quixote,’ John Harrison says in his Book of the Year winner Cloud Road, A Journey Through the Inca Heartland, ‘is usually portrayed as an old man who… leaves his home and steps into the world of his delusions…. I discovered in the first few pages that the old fool was close to fifty: same as me.’ DQ accompanied Harrison along a five-month hike on the 1500-mile Inca Camino Real running through the Andes between Quito in Ecuador to Cuzco in Peru.

Considering the weight of Harrison’s pack (carried mostly by donkey Dapple to save his crumbling spine) Don Quixote does well to evade being among the items jettisoned (toiletries), stolen (fleece, at the altitude of the Matterhorn) or lost (his partner Elaine’s patience). But the Don earns his place: as the A-Z of Menopausal Man.

It may consider be ill advised to spend nights in an icy tent watching your breastbone emerge from underfed flesh. And suffer diversions caused by mistranslation or malicious misdirection, rabid dogs, and a recalcitrant donkey with the top speed of a tortoise.

But Harrison’s philosophy, borrowed from Cervantes and Gabriel García Marquez, that ‘while illusion won’t feed us, it will nourish us’, won over this sceptic of the epic. First up at village dances; game, when teenage girls lead Dapple across a packed football stadium at kick-off, his exuberance is catching. Reflections on poverty, charity and political treachery, are compassionate. And Cloud Road is a saddleful of laughs. The ass is the butt of many jokes, not least because, despite being cojone-less, ‘she [suddenly] use[s] a large grey penis to pee’ upstream from where the couple are washing. Surely Harrison’s humour must have given Elaine pause before she exiled him to the spare room on his return?

And yet this is not just a comic author. He guides us elegantly through the politics of the Inca, Moche and Cañari peoples, enlivening figures such as the great Inca king Atahualpa and his nemesis, Spaniard Franciso Pizarro.

Harrison knows his genre and lifts above it, for instance in his hilarious riff on the Travel Books with Animals niche, which ends, ‘I want to say that I shall hate that little bastard [Dapple] until the end of time.’

Arresting imagery gives us inroads into an alien landscape and culture. Rainy puddles have ‘surfaces like cloth drawn up by rising needles’; a prisoner is skinned and stuffed to beat his own belly’s drum. And an Incan oracle to out-humbug the Wizard of Oz: the Lanzón Chamber at Chavín, Peru, pierced by a fifteen-foot granite lance carved with a fanged deity which once wept blood and roared in stereo. Cloud Road reveals how it was done, circa 1500 BC.

This was first published in Gwen's Saturday books column, The Insider, in the Western Mail, 16 July 2011

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