Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
So Disney is filming a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, actually casting an Asian woman in the role of an Asian woman (because you never know with Hollywood).
This news prompts me to revisit the ancient source of the story of Mulan. Certain aspects of the source material now seem surprising in light of departures made in the Disney version, and I don’t just mean the little dragon Mushu that works as a cartoon character but in fact does not exist in the original.
The 1998 film sets the action during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the invading enemies are said to be the Huns. The Han Dynasty did fight protracted wars against the Huns. But these battles took place centuries before the figure of Mulan first appeared in Chinese literature.
Facts are stranger than fiction.
The last couple of weeks I was in “California,” or rather “the Californias,” moving from the Mexican state of Baja California (Lower California) to the modern U.S. state of California. Originally the name applied to both of these as well as Baja California Sur (South Lower California) and parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Spanish conquistadors affixed the name to this vast territory in the early 16th century, when they knew hardly anything about it. In fact they thought it was an island and drew early maps accordingly.
Hemingway lived in a hotel for seven years. That’s something that, now that I have been traveling nonstop for nearly two years, I can identify with.
Ernest Hemingway came to the Ambos Mundos (“Both Worlds”) Hotel in 1932 and moved into room 511 on the fifth floor, only one floor below the balcony bar — it’s no spoiler to say that following Hemingway’s footsteps means stopping in a number of bars. He continued to rent the room until 1939. And he only moved out because his soon-to-be third wife, Martha Gellhorn, declared that she could not live in a hotel room.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Easter Island. The southeastern tentpole of the massive portion of the Pacific Ocean that is Polynesia, Easter Island is as removed from other landmasses as it looms large in the popular imagination. In fact it is over 2,000 miles away from the country of which it is legally a part, Chile. But the local language is similar to Maori in New Zealand, where I grew up, giving the island an unexpected feeling of familiarity.
With Netflix’s no good, very bad, culturally appropriating “Iron Fist,” Hollywood is again dipping into the martial arts genre that comes out of China, known in Chinese as “wuxia.”
I assume that the makers of “Iron Fist” had no idea that the genre in which they were working arose from a 10th century short story. Indeed, I assume that hardly anyone knows this to be true. The wuxia genre, in its cinematic incarnation, especially in those old Hong Kong films with low budgets and visible wireworks and obvious fight choreography, can seem risibly silly. But the fact is that wuxia is a venerable literary tradition.
And just as, according to Dostoevsky, all of Russian fiction came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” all of wuxia derives from a single story of under 2,000 words written in the late-9th or early-10th century by a Taoist priest.
In the old town of Lviv, the charming and very European center of western Ukraine, stands a bronze statue commemorating one of the city’s most famous, or infamous, sons, the novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
It’s not surprising that Lviv would be very European, as opposed to Eastern Slavic like cities in Russia or even Kiev, just a few hours away. After serving as the capital of the Slavic Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia in the Middle Ages, Lviv fell under Polish domination in 1349. When Russia, Austria, and Prussia partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772, Lviv became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was renamed by its German appellation, Lemberg. Not until the 20th century did Lviv rejoin the rest of Ukraine.
It’s a well-known story in Russia. But I assume that most non-Russians haven’t heard it. And in this age of ours when Russia appears to be instigating white supremacist movements abroad, maybe even Russians need a reminder.
Abram Hannibal was a black man born in today’s Cameroon in 1696. At the age of seven he was kidnapped by Ottoman Turks before being presented to the court of Peter the Great as a gift. In Russia he came to be known as Abram Petrovich Gannibal (the Russian language has a way of changing Hs to Gs, so much so that “Harry Potter” in Russian is “Garry Potter”). Peter took a liking to the young African boy and took him into his household. He faithfully served the Tsar and later his daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, first as a valet and eventually as a general in the Russian army.
Fast forward a hundred years to Abram’s great-grandson Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. Like so many Russian aristocrats of his day, as a child Pushkin knew French better than he knew Russian, a defect he would remedy soon enough. By the age of fifteen he had published his first poem and gained a literary reputation. But his politics were far too liberal for the Tsarist autocracy, and he got himself exiled to the Crimea, Moldova, and the Caucasus, that romantic part of Russian imperial territory where I am as of this writing, a place that would inspire other Russian writers as well, like Mikhail Lermontov.
In this peculiar age of ours, when Neo-Nazis are apparently getting a new and sympathetic hearing, it’s worth remembering those remarkable individuals, even national icons, who were not the race we typically think of them. There will be more posts like this one coming up.
Let’s begin with Alexandre Dumas, pere, the most popular French novelist of his time and author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and father of Alexandre Dumas, fils, the great French writer and playwright.
He was black.
There was good reason that the BBC once described Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.” Last week I wrote about Robert Byron, the father of modern travel writing. But Leigh Fermor, or Paddy, as everyone called him, was the archetype that a thinking man tried to model himself after.
Born in 1915 to a father in distant India and a mother who joined her husband shortly after giving birth to her son, Paddy grew up brilliant but unruly. Finally he got expelled from boarding school for fraternizing all too successfully with local girls. But that never stopped Paddy, the quintessential autodidact, from teaching himself.
At the age of 18, Paddy decided to walk across Europe from the Netherlands to Istanbul. The journey would take him over two years to complete, after which he kept traveling in Europe. And as fate would have it, he walked into Germany in December 1933, less than a year after Hitler came to power.
In the last few days I have had to consider, more deeply than I ever thought necessary, the utility and meaning of travel writing. What's it all good for anyway? Hopefully not just armchair tourism. Because if that's all it is, then in these troubled times, we may as well all pack up and go home.
Then I remembered Robert Byron, the founding father of modern travel writing. Travel writers until his time, including his contemporary Peter Fleming (brother of Ian, the creator of James Bond), had written in a serious and imperial tone. After all, many earlier travelers such as Alexander Burnes literally traveled while on Her Majesty’s secret service, for the good and the sake of the British Empire.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."