Archive for March 22nd, 2012

Marvelous Histories

March 22, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

‘Magical realism’ is as much a part of history as of fiction. It could not be otherwise, for history is replete with instances of the ‘marvelous’, at least in the sense of the highly improbable (my favourite instance, which I’ve described at some length in my essay on the Babarnama, is the story of the death of the first Mughal Emperor, Babar).
It is no coincidence, I think, that much of the fiction that is considered ‘magical realist’ is actually about history. Historians too were once deeply interested in wonders and marvels. ‘Tales of wonder’ – or ‘ajâib in Arabic – were staples of historical and geographical scholarship for centuries, in many parts of the world. Today, no historian would want to be called a ‘magical realist’, yet some of the greatest historians of our time do in fact write about marvelous – or at least, highly improbable – situations  and personalities. And of late it has been my singular privilege to participate in events with some of the greatest practitioners of this art. Jonathan Spence is one of them: his Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, The Question of Hu and The Death of Woman Wang are all masterpieces of the genre.
On November 3, 2011 I did an event with Jonathan Spence at the Asia Society in New York (I put up a post about it soon after the event).
A video recording of the event is available here.  Later I was also sent a clip in which Jonathan Spence recommends Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke.
On March 2 this year I did an event, entitled  Storytelling and the Global Past with Natalie Zemon Davis in Cambridge. It was a very special occasion for me, because I have long been a devotee of Natalie’s work, especially The Return of Martin Guerre and Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives (which has a wonderful essay on one of my favourite historical figures of all time, the painter, botanist and traveler Maria Sybilla Merian – a ‘highly improbable’ person if ever there was one). Natalie’s  Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France is another book I very much admire: I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in what I call ‘archival fictions’, a rubric that includes The Aspern Papers, The Name of the Rose, The Da Vinci Code and much else.
It’s not always easy to meet someone whose work you greatly admire, but in this instance Natalie certainly made it so. She is utterly charming, and a terrific speaker besides. One of the revelations of the evening was that she has 41 honorary degrees – that must surely be a record of some kind! A recording of the event is now available here.
The event was conceived and organized by John-Paul Ghobrial, a brilliant young historian who is currently teaching at Cambridge. An Egyptian Copt by origin, John-Paul is a specialist in Eastern Christianity (he has alerted me to some fascinating new work on the medieval connections between Christians in Syria and Kerala; for more on that subject, watch this space). He is now working on the life of Elias of Babylon, a 17th century Christian traveler from Mesopotamia. He describes it as ‘a microhistory about the first Ottoman traveller to South America, ca. 1670.’ He sent me a chapter, which I read with utter fascination: it’s the kind of material no novelist could make up. These paragraphs may explain why.

‘In 1668, a Chaldean priest named Elias, son of John of Mosul, left his home and family in Baghdad for good.  His reasons for leaving are a mystery, nor is it clear whether he intended ever to return home.  What is certain is that by the time of his death, Elias had travelled across Europe and as far away as the Spanish colonies of Latin America—a part of the world, Elias would write years later, that had been ‘unknown even to the great St Augustine’. As he travelled the world over, Elias left traces of himself scattered across archives and chanceries in the Middle East, Europe, and South America.  And while he walked across the world, he also walked across the boundaries between fact and fiction.  For when Elias emerges out of the dust of the archives, long enough for us to see him, he usually does so not under his original name, Ily?s ibn Hanna al-Mawsul?, but rather under that of a new persona.  Sometimes it is ‘Don Elias di San Giovanni’, other times ‘Don Elias de San Juan’, but most often simply ‘Elias de Babilonia’—or Elias of Babylon.

‘It was under this second identity that our Ottoman Columbus made his way across Europe and all the way to the Spanish empire of the Atlantic world.  But if his new name was an act of creativity, when it came to his appearance, Elias did his best to play the part of a character from the ancient world of the East.  When he was spotted in Mexico City in 1685, for example, a Spanish chronicler wrote in his diary that Elias had been dressed ‘like a Turk’ with a magnificent beard, a long black cassock, and the white collar of a priest. This description of Elias was repeated by most of the people he encountered, along with a constant refrain about the objects he carried with him: sacred relics from Jerusalem, an arsenal of medicines and potions from the East, and, most importantly, a letter of recommendation from none other than Pope Clement IX.’

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