The Aztec Treasure House: New and Selected Essays
by Evan S Connell
A review by Michael Dirda
Evan S. Connell's The Aztec Treasure House comprising essays from his previous collections The White Lantern (1980) and A Long Desire (1979) along with two new pieces is a book to lay up for gloomy afternoons or rainy evenings. In its pages an amateur scholar and accomplished writer see his best-selling Custer biography, Son of the Morning Star (1984), and his celebrated novel Mrs. Bridge (1959) lures us into eye-widening journeys down the rabbit holes and back alleys of history, legend, and humane learning. Like the Wedding Guest mesmerized by the Ancient Mariner, when Connell starts telling these tales of intellectual and geographical adventure, we cannot choose but hear.
What kind of tales, you ask? The oldest and the best. For instance, Connell explores the origins of sunken Atlantis and of mysterious Mu, tracks the Norse discovery of America (including the possibility of a Viking-Indian battle in Minnesota), and outlines the medieval belief in Prester John, an all-powerful Christian emperor of the East. Other pages describe the quest for El Dorado, chronicle the search for the Missing Link and the reckless determination of Antarctic explorers, summarize the career of the alchemist Paracelsus, and trace the astonishing wanderings around the known world of the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Batuta, who covered at least 75,000 miles in all. Here, too, are mini-accounts of the Rosetta stone and the Children's Crusade and the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.
In short, The Aztec Treasure House is a twenty-part testament to the joy of finding things out. Connell would appear to have read widely around some tantalizing topic, jotted down reams of notes, and then condensed everything he had learned about, say, Etruscan civilization into a genial 7,000 words. His prose is conversational, often addressing the reader directly; his path through a subject is rambling and easygoing. Yet he can evoke suspense with the flick of an adverb: "Present wisdom holds that the last unadulterated Neanderthal died 40,000 years ago. However, one April evening in 1907 some Russian explorers..." He can be unexpectedly touching, too, as in this note on a civilization in the Indus Valley that flourished 4,000 years ago: "In the rubble of a little city called Chanhu-Daro an archaeologist noticed a brick with the print of a cat's paw slightly overlapped by the paw of a dog. These were not symbolic designs but actual prints left by the animals as they raced across a wet brick. And it was clear from the impress of the pads that both had been going full speed, the dog chasing the cat."
Of course, like any virtuoso, Connell sometimes lets out all the rhetorical stops, going for a baroque organ roll of prose poetry: "This was the time of a Dark Age in Greece, between the decay of Mycenaean civilization and the emergence of those wise marble Pericleans against whom we half-consciously measure ourselves. It was a time when that templed colossus, Egypt, was beginning to crumble. Assyrian armor glinted ominously. Phrygian trumpets bellowed. Phoenician traders drove westward, dipping their sails at Carthage and Tartessus. Fresh currents rippled the length of the Mediterranean." But don't worry: such grand flights are rare. Before long Connell is back poking fun at one of his obsessed antiquarians: "Soon he had become not only an expert on Akkadian cuneiform but had partly deciphered the Cypriot syllabary, which sounds just as exciting."
Actually, it does sound exciting. In the middle of some reflections on Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Newton, our storyteller writes, "Many remarkable things may be explained, but why we are so faintly instructed by the past does not seem to be among them." Yes but if we had more books like The Aztec Treasure House, we would doubtless be more understanding of the human circus and more enthusiastic about studying its past. As the old maps used to promise, here be dragons.
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