Sunday, August 1, 2010

An Age Undreamed Of

Some days ago I procured a postal scale with the zealous intention of weighing the objects I intend to carry with me overseas. The experiment has been, on the whole, successful and illuminating. One does not usually consider the mass of one’s entire kit down to the last woolen sock until it is far too late to do anything about it save for slipping away in the dead of night, leaving the dead weight behind piecemeal—a pair of trousers or an off-colored shirt conveniently forgotten and left for one’s erstwhile host to dispense with.

At first, I was pleased by the apparent thrift and economy of space within my backpack as evidenced by the slender weight of 12 kilograms. This self-satisfaction soon turned against itself as I reached deep into the bag’s maw and began to pull forth neat stacks of bound manuscripts, their pages harboring the comforting scent of library ink. Books, it seems, will be the death of me to say nothing of their contents.

I am very particular about the care and condition of my books, as anyone who has borrowed from me will attest. While it pains me to subject my library to the rigors of travel, it is an inevitable by-product of overland travel and the long spells of effortless motion in a train carriage. The neat stack that tipped the scales in front of me at 5 kilograms was well-balanced and representative of my genre tastes: Cryptonomicon, War and Peace, a Thomas Cook timetable and the redoubtable Conan of Cimmeria. It was readily apparent that one or many of these volumes must be left behind for the benefit of my lower lumbar, but which had the least merit for a book-weary traveler?

There were certain biases to consider. The English timetable I could not easily do without for obvious reasons, as I cannot read Mandarin or Cyrillic script. Moreover, Cryptonomicon contains precisely 1168 pages while fitting ergonomically into the palm of my hand, providing unmatched physical comfort and sustained reading over a long period of time, both of which together grant it a reprieve from the shelf at home. There only remained, then, Conan and Tolstoy to consider.

They began on equal footing with one another. Both works are considered (by me, at least) to be classic literature and highly significant within their own particular niche—be that 19th century Russian literature or 1930’s American pulp fiction. Both also have a long rap sheet, War and Peace for being lengthy and impenetrable and the very character of Conan for being portrayed on screen by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Tolstoy certainly flexes a literary muscle that the legendary barbarian cannot hope to match, but I hope you will not despair of my literary tastes when I tell you of my final decision in favor of Conan.

It was not an easy decision. War and Peace, of course, is one of the great literary works in Russian or indeed any language and is also regionally appropriate. I have read it before, but at an age when I could not fully appreciate its crafted relationships and the dramatic journey undertaken by each of Tolstoy’s characters, both across the colossal expanse of Russia as I plan to do but also through a national psyche torn and tested by war. Yet the novel’s physical journeys are marginalized by the characters’ inward development and self-discovery—all 580 of them. The novel itself is a memorable canvas of upon which the themes human rationality and personal meaning underlie a gleaming fa├žade of Russian aristocracy in the early 19th century. 

Alternately, Conan of Cimmeria is a collection of short stories centered around the titular character, himself a traveling exile (and yes, a barbarian, not to put too fine a point on it). Where Tolstoy’s prose is subtle and deep as the Siberian tundra, Conan’s creator Robert Howard (a hard-up Texan pugilist) beats words into fanciful arrangements as if they were gold leaf adorning a statue: gleaming, unmistakable and occasionally in poor taste.

Conan is confronted by concrete problems and adversaries such as the Stygian necromancer, Thoth-Amon and other villains like Khostral Khel, the iron demon of Xapur whilst being adored by voluptuous women and lured ever onward by dreams of riches and conquest in the antediluvian Hyborean Age, a mythical era millions of years before the Earth was encased in glacial ice. These are tales of places and environs rather than characters. Such temporal motifs serve to further the overarching theme of the Conan stories: the duality between civilization and savagery in human society. The further theme of barbarism as a form of social freedom provides a strong counterpoint to the authoritarian societies with which Conan interacted as an outsider. Frequently, Conan’s egalitarian personality conflicted with the hierarchical decadence and human slavery frequently encountered within “civilized” lands. In an ironic twist, the supposed barbarian is proved to be ethically superior to his aristocratic betters.

Conan’s character is familiar to travelers, wrapped in lush prose and fanciful imagery as he embodies the wanderer’s desire to walk freely and meld in and out of foreign cultures as if they were shadows while still retaining certain strength derived from a far-away homeland. He is a discoverer in the Columbian sense, finding that which was rumored and thought to exist but exotic and hidden from the outside world. He is a traveler’s traveler, abroad without purpose save for self-enrichment. Never mind the fact that I’m not hunting temple idols or lost jewels—Conan and I are much the same in our determination to walk outside the confines of our everyday life and participate with the world at large. Thus, for this consonance and the emphasis on rich setting rather than rich characterization Conan has fought his way by guile rather than brawn into my traveling pack, a decision I am likely to revisit but one I am eminently pleased with.


  1. well, now I am curious about this
    cryptonomicon. I am going to look it up.
    happy trails.

  2. Great post... I think Tolstoy would have opted for Conan too : )

  3. It's OK Dan, you don't have to justify anything to us. You just prefer cheeky action novels to literature written by badass Russian anarchists.

    -Nick Romy-