Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fascists in Central Asia

This came to my mind when I was writing about Maraini's book: many of the explorers of Central Asia, Tibet especially, had Fascist connections, or were at least accused of such.

Is it just that Fascism was on the rise in Europe at the same time as the amount of travellers to the area grew? Sven Hedin, Giuseppe Tucci, Heinrich Harrer and many others active in the region between the world wars were accused of supporting Fascist ideology.

Whatever the motivation of individuals in Central Asia, it is a fact that some of the masterminds of pre-WWII Nazi ideology had a personal interest in Tibet and financed expeditions to the area in the hopes of finding evidence to support the crackpot racial theories of the day.

Heather Pringle has written a meticulously researched popular book, that also deals with Asian exploration by the Nazis: The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (2006)

It's an interesting and scary read into history, but also shows what kind of compromises the scientist were willing to make in their morals and integrity to get funding for research and gain acceptance from the elite.

Maraini, Fosco; 1952: Secret Tibet (Orig. Segreto Tibet)

This book pretty much started my interest in older books about Asia, so I wanted to start the whole blog with this post. Since I was just reading Wrede's Siberian trip,  that got to be the first after all.

My copy is a hardcover Finnish translation from 1953; Salaperäinen Tiibet, that I found by accident in my great-aunt's library that my parents had inherited. It amazes me how much interesting literature got translated so early. I can't imagine that the market for such books was huge in Finland.

Fosco Maraini 1912-2004, was an Italian photographer, ethnographer and mountaineer who followed the famous Professor and Tibetologist (and likely a closet-Buddhist) Giuseppe Tucci on two expeditions to the Roof of the World in 1938 and 1948. Secret Tibet is a synthesis of his experiences during these two trips.

Sikkimese princess Pema Chöki by Maraini
It's been some years since I read the book, so I can't delve too deep into the actual content right now. It has some cool photography (Maraini had an eye for female beauty too) from Tibet and gives a glimpse of life in the Himalayan kingdom before the Chinese "liberation".

The book is excellent on many levels. You can read it as a travelogue; Maraini does a good job on describing people in the expedition and who he meets on the way. It succeeds as an ethnographic record as well, describing arts and customs of the Himalayas. The author explains Buddhist concepts in the book to some depth. He has ample chance to gain insight with all the practitioners around and an Italian Buddhist professor as a tutor. Whatever your personal interests are, this book is entertaining.

Shortly:  Excellent and highly readable!

Henrik Wrede: On a River Boat and Tarantass - a Travelogue from Siberia 100 Years Ago

This book was originally published 1918 in Swedish under the name I Sibirien 30 År Sedan, I read the second Finnish edition of 1985 (Jokilaivalla ja tarantassissa - matkakuvaus Siperiasta 100 vuoden takaa), borrowed from the excellent Turku library.

Henrik Wrede was a Baron from Finland who in the 1880's travelled in Siberia, as far as Yakutsk to distribute Bibles as an agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society. At that time Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian empire and Wrede as a Russian subject had access to this hinterland of convicts and native peoples. In his foreword Wrede tells that he originally did not want to write about his experiences in Siberia and only did so 30 years later after being persuaded by a friend. His original concern had been that people mentioned in the story may be hurt but after such a long time they would not be affected by his writing.

As you may have guessed from his occupation, Wrede was a deeply religious man and this is one of the key elements in the book. Wrede's decision to leave home is preceded by a prophetic dream which convinces him of the divine nature of his task. He casts his doubts aside and puts his life into the hands of God, setting off into the unknown and dangerous East. In 1883, 29 years old, he travels to Nizhnyi-Novgorod through Moscow and St. Petersburg. From Novgorod he continues by river boat to Perm on the Volga and Kama rivers. Wrede notes the Fenno-Ugrian peoples populating the Kama region. From Perm the young man continues by train to Ekaterinburg, where he changes to that most Siberian of transport; the tarantass.

A horse cart used to cover vast distances in Russia, the horses of the tarantass were changed at regular intervals and allowed for rapid progress of one's journey - if your kidneys could take it. The cart had no suspension and various early Siberian travel writers curse the vehicle for its lack of comfort. Wrede survives this leg of the journey and finally reaches Irkutsk, his base for the following years.

Wrede sets up his Bible depot and shop in town. He tells the stories behind many of the exiled people making up a big part of the population. Wrede paints a  grim picture of life in Irkutsk in the late 1800s. The city is dangerous and the surrounding wilderness is infested with robbers. The young man survives several attempts on his life, being shot at by natives and almost poisoned by his servant. Wrede braves it all with the help of God.

Even worse are the different government bureaucrats, often exiles themselves in Siberia. Wrede tells of terrible corruption of various police chiefs, governors and other civil servants. He gets to travel widely around Irkutsk, all the way to Mongolia and Yakutsk and makes interesting observations of different peoples.

After 3 years in Siberia, wearing fur and leather he returns back to civilization and his beloved family. Wrede continued in Finland to work with convicts together with his sister.


So, did I like this book and would I recommend it? If you can filter out the religious stuff, the book's not too bad a read. The author is too occupied saving souls to be very interested in worldly life. The book was written 30 years after Wrede's actual Siberian experience, so many things seem to be coloured by memory and are probably exaggerated.

However, Wrede was quite a sharp observer and even though he is convinced of the superiority of his faith, he seems to have genuine compassion and understanding of people of various backgrounds and ethnicity. As a glimpse to the life in Siberia the book serves its purpose, but it does not delve deeply into the lifestyles of Siberian peoples.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A new start...

This blog is about books that I have read that deal with Asia. It will include mostly non-fiction, since that's what I read most. However there will be some content on novels and short stories that I consider good, or at least interesting (Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck for example, if you haven't read it yet, get your hands on it!).

I have another blog; Bibliography of Asia Explorers. I'm reading a book about Chinese history at the moment, which has little to do with explorers. I have something to say about the book and realized that the topic of that blog may be too confining, hence this one with a broader scope. "Bibliography of Asia", a tad on the grand side as blog names go.

I assume only one of these blogs will survive, let's see which one wins. The content will be partly the same.