Friday, June 5, 2009

Taking a Camel

In keeping with my current life goal to move to Greece and amble around Turkey on camel, I read the Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, now one of my top ten and forever on my Highly Recommended list.

Written in 1957, in a semi-autobiographical book quirky, comic, and tragic, a woman travels through Turkey (by camel and jeep) with her adventurous zealous Aunt Dot who, enabled by the Anglican Missions society, has a vision of emancipating Turkish women from their Muslim enslavement by tempting them with the freedoms of the Modern West and the Anglican church (hats, tea parties, education etc.) They are joined by the septuagenarian Father Chantry-Pigg, who dreams of converting Muslim heathens to the warm bosom of Christianity with his High Church relics and simultaneously discovering those long lost Byzantines (Greek; Christian) in the heart of the new secular state of Turkey (Muslim usurpers of Byzantium). And of course, the Church of England missionaries find exasperating opposition by being preceded by hordes of even-more-zealous American missionaries of the Billy Graham flavor.

The novel begins with its famously engaging first line: “Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” A funny and bitterly sweet novel, Towers of Trebizond is a rollicking adventure story which deals honestly with painful matters of the heart, doubt, and faith, but also contains raunchy camels, Russian spies, plagiarized manuscripts (writing books about Turkey are the “thing” to do in 1957), and exotic settings (my favorite). In contrast to the faith of aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg, Laurie looks lukewarm in her casual half-hearted participation in missionary matters. Instead, she is confronting her religious inheritance in moments of poignant doubt and authentic engagement. The narrator is unable to escape her connection with the church but she is unable to throw herself into it, either. Instead, she sees the church, like the city of Trebizond, at a distance and knows regretfully that she cannot approach it in all conscience, nor abandon it.

In one of my favorite paragraphs, she thinks:

“And this failure of the Christian Church, of every branch of it in every country, is one of the saddest things that has happened in all the world. But it is what happens when a magnificent idea has to be worked out by human beings who do not understand much of it but interpret it in their own way and think they are guided by God, whom they have not yet grasped. And yet they have grasped something, so that the Church has always had great magnificence and much courage, and people have died for it in agony, which is supposed to balance all the other people who have had to die in agony because they did not accept it, and it has flowered up in learning and culture and beauty and art, to set against darkness and incivility and obscurantism and barbarity and nonsense, and it has produced saints and martyrs and kindness and goodness, though these have also occurred freely outside it, and it is a wonderful and most extraordinary pageant of contradictions, and I, at least, want to be inside it, though it is foolishness to most of my friends.”

Ultimately, this painful contradiction may prove to be too costly. The adventure, magic and glamour of the east, the theological disputes between Anglo-Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, and the history and myth that pervade the novel weave together to form a book one can read over and over again, and I have a feeling that I will.


Ian Woolcott said...

Such a good book. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Merenia said...

A very retrospective comment, as I have only recently found your excellent blog... Towers of Trebizond is so brilliant isn't it? It is one of my very favourite novels. I love the quote you chose - it is of CS Lewis profundity.