Fact and Fiction, Salt and Swing

And another thing all readers know about reading but we hardly ever mention about reading is how sometimes you have to be ready for a book’s salt and swing, you have to be prepared likewise for it to speak to you, and if you read it at the wrong time, too early or too late, the book just seems clogged and dense and self indulgent and mannered and foolish, and you just don’t get it at all, and privately you conclude that your friends who mooed with delight over it have lost their little tiny tadpole brains, but you can’t say that aloud, much, so when they ask anxiously what did you think? you have to lie and say you were about to start it when suddenly you found you only understood Basque or were arrested for impersonating a cockatoo or something like that. You know what I mean.”

What a starter! Brian Doyle wrote it. I like his notion of seeking a book’s “salt and swing...” In his longer essay, Brian asks: “When are readers ready for the books they read?” So, I ask: “When are writers ready for the books they write?” I recently drew up a list of troublesome books written about Nepal, whose authors seem to have been ill-prepared to write, or who simply neglected to check the facts or tell the truth. One is the 1970 novel And Not to Yield by James Ramsey Ullman. It was begun in Kathmandu’s old Royal Hotel while Ullman was working on Americans on Everest, the official account of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition. Ullman’s novel is about a young American climber who falls in love with a mountain and with a Sherpa girl. His passion draws him to Solu-Khumbu, to the girl’s village, and there, in reciprocity for her love and Sherpa hospitality, he introduces toilets to the hapless folks. Toilets, no less!

Unfortunately for Ullman, the notion of introducing outhouses to Sherpas is akin to introducing dal-bhat to the Nepalese. Introducing outhouses to Sherpas is the book’s fatal flaw. Because he didn’t accompany the expedition to Solu-Khumbu (due to ill health), Ullman didn’t know the facts – that there are toilets attached to virtually every Sherpa house, already. Sherpa toilets are the source of valuable ‘night soil’ to spread on the potato fields. Ullman wove the plot around a defective notion. Was he ready to write this book? Are his readers ready to know the truth? Another kind of flaw occurs in Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna, the classic account of the 1950 French Expedition to Annapurna-I. The French were the first to summit an 8,000 meter peak. (There are 14 “eight-thousanders” in the world, all in the Himalayas; Annapurna-I is 8,091 meters high.)

Conquering Annapurna was a victorious ‘first,’ although Herzog lost his fingers and toes from frostbite and his summit companion Louis Lachenal lost all his toes. And to save those two men’s lives, the follow-up summit party (Lionel Terray and Gaston Rébuffat) lost their chance for the top. Back in France, Herzog became a national hero and a powerful person in the mountaineering world, including a stint as Minister for Youth and Sport in the government of Charles de Gaulle.

Annapurna was an instant classic, a tragic thriller, and a disappointment. Revelations by another mountaineer-writer, David Roberts, have exposed the untruths in Herzog’s account. In True Summit (2000) Roberts describes Herzog’s incredible hubris and a long list of self-serving omissions, inventions and half-truths. In fact, he says, the Annapurna expedition was torn by dissent and severely undermined by its leader’s egoistic determination and grandiloquence. And, when other members of the expedition attempted to publish their own but different versions of the expedition, Herzog successfully suppressed them. The biases written into Annapurna are the “salt and swing” revelations in True Summit, subtitled ‘What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna’. Are you ready to read all the sordid details?

Good reading!

The starting quote is from a Brian Doyle essay entitled ‘A note on finally being ready to tackle certain books’ published in the The Sunday Oregonian, Portland, Oregon (USA), on January 23, 2010. You can read the whole essay at www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2011/01/a_note_on_finally_being_ready.html.

Don Messerschmidt, a contributing editor to ‘ECS Nepal’, can be reached at don.editor@gmail.com.