Monday, June 23, 2008

The Seven Who Fled

One night in Mallorca, in November 1935, I had a wonderful dream. I stood in the middle of a desert and the mountains in the distance suddenly burst into flames, and then they hardened into a row of luminous pearls. I awoke in a fever of joy and stepped out on the veranda. The Bay of Alcudia was as black as the fur of a yak, and on the horizon seven fishing boats lay in the sea with their seven torches.
I haven't read this book for many long years but as I look back on it from what seems like an enormous distance, I see seven fishing boats with their torches floating on a sea which is black as the fur of a Tibetan yak.

--Frederic Prokosch, from the 1983 Introduction to The Seven Who Fled

I'm reading this on the recommendation of Harlan Ellison in one of his interviews. Prokosch was apparently a hugely popular writer in the 1930's with at least two bestsellers, but is now almost completely forgotten. I'd certainly never heard of him before. The book is embedded with these sort of jewel-like decriptions of the landscape, coupled with set of characterizations that are pre-modern, in the sense that the characterizations we see in silent movies are pre-modern: where the heroine is beautiful and yet overly curvaceous, where the hero's long blond hair comes loose and hides his face when he runs awkwardly (to our eyes, guided by college athletics and ergonomic shoes). The people dislike each other for reasons that don't quite match up with their actions. Their character is described a little to closely by race or nationality. Distant lands are described in terms that are currently reserved for other planets. In short, certain things are described in a shorthand that can't be read any longer, while other things for which we, in 2008, don't need to say are spelled out explicitly. It is for that reason and in that spirit that the book should be read, and read slowly, as Michael Ondaatje's English Patient said of Kipling, because it was written slowly, by hand.

What had happened was this.

There had recently been, all over Sinkiang, considerable disturbances. General Ma's army had swept bloodthirstily through the desert; the Tungans were still waging a truculent guerilla warfare against the provincial government; the Soviet government in the north had sent down its agent to Urumchi and Kashgar to support the Governor's forces. The cities, the towns, the tent-sprinkled plains, all rustled with distrust and detestation.

One day the Amban at Kashgar, a timorous, sedentary man, had petulantly issued orders that all Europeans leave the city. Meaning by that, of course, all Europeans whose motives appeared to him uncertain or unfamiliar. The officials made inquiries; the soldiers behaved impudently; the Amban wearily explained that orders from the Governor at Urumchi had to be obeyed. The atmosphere in the city grew hostile, full of glances, full of suspicious little whispers.

And so early one morning seven Europeans gathered at the il-smelling serai outside the poplar-lined walls of the old city and joined a small caravan that was starting eastward on a long journey toward Aqsu...

And what follows is the story of the disasters that befall them, singly or in pairs.

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