Monday, May 12, 2014

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

I had a plan for this week of reviews.  I had everything picked out.  There was a theme.  I even almost finished reading all of the books.  Then Peter Matthiessen passed away.  I haven’t read much Matthiessen, just The Snow Leopard, but I liked it enough that I wanted to write about it.  The theme week will still be there waiting for me.  For now, I’ll tell you why The Snow Leopard is worth your time.

In the late 1970s, naturalist George Schaller asked his friend, author Peter Matthiessen, if he wanted to accompany him on a trip to the Himalayas.  Schaller was going to the Tibetan Plateau to study the mating habits of blue sheep and possibly see the rare snow leopard.  Matthiessen agreed to join him and The Snow Leopard is his edited journal of the experience.  After the trip he went through his writing and added backstory and pieced things together to make for a fuller and more cohesive narrative.  The book is not only an account of the two men traveling through the mountains with guides.  It is also a travelogue of the many towns and villages they visited.  It is a nature story written by a noted conservationist.  It is a reflection on the author’s relationship with his ex-wife and their embrace of Zen Buddhism before she died.

Most of all, The Snow Leopard is a well written collection of ideas and observances.  Matthiessen has since won a National Book Award for his fiction writing and, due to a quirk in the world of literary awards, The Snow Leopard won the National Book Award twice in different categories in different years.  I could tell you how skilled a writer Matthiessen was, how his descriptions of the natural landscape put you right on the trail with him, how his excitement at the people and animals he encounters is palpable, or how unflinchingly honest he is about his own shortcomings and mistakes but I would rather leave you with the passage that has stuck with me in the years since I read it.

“A child dragging bent useless legs is crawling up the hill outside the village. Nose to the stones, goat dung, and muddy trickles, she pulls herself along like a broken cricket. We falter, ashamed of our strong step, and noticing this, she gazes up clear eyed, without resentment – it seems much worse that she is pretty. In Bengal, GS says stiffly, beggars will break their children’s knees to achieve this pitiable effect for business purposes: this is his way of expressing his distress. But the child that lies here at our boots is not a beggar;  she is merely a child, staring in curiosity at tall, white strangers. I long to give her something – a new life? – yet am afraid to tamper with such dignity. And so I smile as best I can, and say ‘ Namas-te -  Good Morning !’ How absurd !  And her voice follows as we go away, a small clear smiling voice – ‘ Namas-te ’……….  A Sanskrit word for greeting and parting that means   ‘ I salute you ’.

We are subdued by this reminder of mortality”

For more from Peter Matthiessen, try his posthumously published novel, In Paradise.

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