Saturday, June 23, 2012

Still life at Beauvoisin #2

Back to back reading.

 I started reading Bring up the Bodies while I was on my way to join friends in the south of France. Choosing this much acclaimed follow up to Wolf Hall was a total no-brainer. Hilary Mantel’s previous novel, which also explored the inner and outer lives of Thomas Cromwell, was a total slam dunk. Pitch perfect. I loved it. The opening of her sequel confirmed that I was once again in trusty hands.

Falcons Wiltshire, September 1535
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when he takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws

While still on the train down to Nimes, I finished it, wishing it were even longer, and then immediately started  Eric Enno Tamm’s: The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds. His opening is no less assured than Mantel’s. It opens with the arrival of an unlikely visitor – at least unlikely to me - arriving for the 75th birthday of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim, Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland,

On June 4, 1942, Adolph Hitler’s private plane, a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, dropped out of a stormy sky on its descent to an airstrip in Imatra, a picturesque Finnnish town about two hundred kilometers from Leningrad, where Nazi troops were laying siege to the beleaguered Soviet city

As Tamm recounts, Mannerheim had been given a name during his 1906 trip through Northern China which translates as: The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds. Mannerheim did effectively leap through clouds in misty mountain passes, but straddling the geopolitical divides of his time took much more of his time and attention and is of more consequence. Not that I would have a clue what the Chinese characters for Man Who Is Not What He Seems might be.

In the art of painting, the painter David Milne talks about the dazzle spot, a place that the eye keeps returning to, and in the process of doing so unifies and makes sense of the whole. Mannerheim, in the hands of Tamm, is such a dazzle spot, a place for us to keep returning to as we explore the contested lands that he and Tamm explored, each in their own way and each for their own purposes.

Because I read Mantel and Tamm in such close succession, I found the two books started to talk to each other as I surfed the ups and downs of the aftermath of jet lag. The central characters in the two books could not have been more different in some ways, yet at the same time more similar. Thomas Cromwell, who came to be appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer to King Henry VIII had been born as a son of a blacksmith while Baron Gustaf Mannerheim, who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, held on to the silver but had to continually shape-shift the appearance of who he was depending on the ever shifting intentions of the rulers of Russia, Germany and Finland. In spite of the four centuries that separated these two men, I suspect that they would have recognized each other had they met in the flesh, and each would have had the measure of the other in the wink of an eye.

The phrase The Great Game, popularized by Kipling, was coined to describe the political rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th century but it is an equally apt fit as a description of the political intrigues of Europe in the mid-1500s. Like the falcons of Thomas Cromwell, any game was fair game to the rulers of the day, and like them, although remnants of flesh may have clung to their talons when they returned to their roosts after a day of conquests, a moment’s worth of preening put all to rights.

As for the outcomes of rule by fear described by Tamm, the still unfolding tragedies of the region include not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands but the death of a landscape. A mere hundred years after Mannerheim’s journey, the Silk Road has become so contaminated that Tamm notes that it could more aptly be named The Soot Road.  Not only has the land been so thoughly blackened and blighted, but the rampant unchecked development is messing with the DNA of future generations. 

In comparison, the outcomes of the mercenary acts of Cromwell and his falcon-like henchmen are small beer.Sad, but true.

Read Wolf Hall first, and then read Bring up the Bodies. When you read The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds do check out the accompanying web site for photos maps and much more. SEE:

No comments:

Post a Comment