Monday, November 23, 2009

Non-Random Book, Non-Random Passage #1

Have I mentioned how much I love having my books all shelved and at hand? Yes. The random was fun (for me) but I'm itching to flip through some faves. Of course, it's Kim Stanley Robinson to start. The Gold Coast maintains a special place in my heart, even though The Years of Rice and Salt is currently my favorite of his novels. I've got a Hardback 1st and a paperback TGC -- liked it so much I bought it twice. Plus, I received a J'ai Lu edition en Fran├žais as a gift.

There's a bit that's always stuck with me, something I'd done, and I'm sure most folks have at one point or another where you count back generations to try to fit history in your head, make the scale of it intelligible. In the novel, the gang of friends need to get out of Dodge while some trouble blows over, so they jet off to Europe, hit some of the big tourist destinations, then decide to see the Pyramids in Egypt (and are underwhelmed), then Jim, our protagonist, suggests checking out Greece and getting off the beaten path to do some camping. They find some ruins and with the help of a few lines off the back of a map launch themselves into history:
"Well, the back of the map has a few sentences about it, and that's all I know, really. It began as a Minoan town, around 2500 B.C. Then it was occupied by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Under the Greeks it was an independent city-state and coined its own money. It was abandoned around either 900 A.D. or 1500 A.D., because of earthquakes."

"Only six hundred years' difference," Sandy says, "My Lord, the time scales!"

"Immense," Jim says. "We can't imagine them. Especially not Californians."

Sandy takes this as a challenge. "Can too!"


"Can too!"

About five reps of that, and Sandy says, "Okay, try this. We'll go backwards from now, generation by generation. Thirty-three years per generation. You tell us what they were doing, I'll keep count."

"Okay, let's try it."

"Last generation?"

"Part of Greece."

Sandy makes a mark in the dirt between flagstones. "Before that?"


Five generations go by like that. Jim has his eyes squeezed shut, he's concentrating, trying to recall Cretan history from the guidebooks, his history texts back home. "Okay, this guy saw Crete deeded over from Turkey to Greece. Before him, under the Turks."

"And his parents?"

"Under the Turks." They repeat these two sentences over and over, slowly, as if completing some ritual, so that Jim can keep track of the years. Sixteen times! "That's one big Thanksgiving," Humphrey mutters.

"What's that?"

"Lot's of Turkey."

Then Jim says, "Okay, now the Venetians."

So the response changes. "And their parent?" "Venetian." Ten times. At which point Jim adds, "We've just no reached the end of Itanos, by the way. The end of this city."

They laugh at that. And move to the Byzantines. Seven times Jim answers with that. Then: "The Arabs. Saracen Arabs, from Spain. Bloody times." Four generations under the Arabs. Then it's back to the Byzantines, to the time when the church before them was functioning, holding services, having its doorsill scraped by the door's locking post, again and again. Fifteen times Jim answers "Byzantine," eyes screwed shut.

"And their parents?"

"In Itanos. Independent city-state, Greek in nature."

"Call it Itanos. And their parents?"


Twenty-six times they repeat the litany, Sandy keeping the pace slow and measured. At this point none of them can really believe it.

"Dorian Greeks." After a few more: "Mycenean Greeks. Time of the Trojan War."

"So this generation could have gone to Troy?"

"Yes." And on it goes, for eight generations. Sandy's shifting to get some fresh dirt to scratch. Then: "Earthquakes brought down the Minoan palaces for the last time. This generation felt them."

"Minoans! And their parents?"

"Minoan." And here they fall into a slow singsong, they know they've caught the rhythm of something deep, something fundamental. Forty times Sandy asks "And their parents?", and Jim answers "Minoan," until their voices creak with the repetition.

And finally Jim opens his eyes, looks around as if seeing it all for the first time. "This generation, it was a group of friends, and they came here in boats. There was nothing here. They were probably fishermen, and stopped here on fishing trips. This hill was probably fifty feet inland, behind a wide beach. Their homes down near the palace at Zakros were getting crowded, they probably lived with their parents, and they were always up here fishing anyway, so they decided to take the wives and kids and move up here together. A group of friends, they all knew each other, they were having a good time all on their own, with their kids, and this whole valley for the taking. They built lean-tos at first, then started cutting the soft stone." Jim runs his hand over th eporous Minoan block he is leaning against. Looks at Sandy curiously. "Well?"

Sandy nods, says softly, "So we can imagine it."

"I guess so."

Sandy counts his marks. "One hundred thirty-seven generations."

They sit. The moon rises. Low broken clouds scud in from the west, fly under the moon, dash its light here and there. Broken walls, tumbled blocks. A history as long as that, and now the land, empty again.

At this point, some headlights break the characters' reverie and they are back in the present day. Whew, long passage to transcribe. I love it. Humphrey's Thanksgiving quip falls flat, unacknowledged once explained. The generations in the recounting wash up on empty land like a wave, then recede. The sand they are scratching in, the rocks that were scraped and cut, they abide. The repetition and ritualism, expanding their imagination of history. Jim's eyes are screwed shut until he reaches the first settlers. When he opens his eyes, I feel like I'm seeing the landscape the way he is.

And so we should, imagine backwards, then look at where we are. Where are we going next? How are we living in times that are like the times of our ancestors? How are things different? Then, of course, we need to think about what comes next, right? How to live now so when future generations count back, they don't say "bloody times."
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