Saturday, October 22, 1988

Eric Ambler: An Interview

I met Ambler (1909 - 1998) in spring 1989; I wrote up our meeting for East-West. I'd already interviewed Anthony Powell; I hadn't yet done Thesiger or Pritchett. Had I bagged Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark, who were still alive at the time, I'd have had most of the writers who mattered in that British generation. (When I offered Ambler outtakes to the Paris Review, they sniffed, "Not literary enough." They must have been too busy admiring their own reflections in a mirror to read him.) I dined with Ambler at Wheeler's, an old London haunt near his townhouse flat, to which we walked very slowly and gingerly after lunch. It was a pleasure to read all his books.

His old friend Graham Greene named him “our greatest thriller writer”; a French critic claimed that “because of him, espionage isn’t a dirty profession, but a literary genre.” Even James Bond, in From Russia With Love, carefully unlocked his attaché case “and took out The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler....”

For more than a half-century, Eric Ambler has set the standard for other writers in his field. His eighteen novels are all in print. His concentrated realism, penetrating investigation into character, open-eyed political savvy have shaped the modern thriller.  Beneath his persuasive, transparent prose lie an exactitude of language and a seemingly effortless ability to grip the complex truths and deep history of a situation, a character, a country. As with all pioneers, a sense of danger hovers about his work. He established his fictional territory early on, and it remains his.

Though classified as “thrillers,” Ambler’s books lack the standard escapist contraptions of the genre. His settings are never romantic decor, his women are never mannequins, his pawn-takes-pawn plots never become conundrums. There is never any melodramatic hardware or gunplay, no political or personal judgments are passed. Though he is well-known for his power to keep a reader breathless, his books remain in memory as character portraits, and he was the first thriller writer whose entire œuvre (as one critic puts it) can be read as literature. In Ambler there is always a calm underlying the storm of events: the writer relentlessly and purposefully trying to get at the subtler truth.

Born in London in 1909, in his twenties Ambler studied engineering, toured briefly as a vaudeville comedian, then wrote copy at a London ad agency while trying to write plays. Soon he turned to novels, and quickly achieved critical and popular success. According to one critic, Ambler “infused warmth and political color into the spy story by using it to express a Left-Wing point of view....” To his early readers, used to thrillers set in a WWI atmosphere of derring-do, Ambler’s books were of another, subtler, more sober world. He increasingly became fond of the first-person voice, sometimes using multiple, contradictory narrators. To Ambler this technical feat seemed only “the better way to tell the story.”

By the beginning of the war he was recognized in Britain and America as the master of the genre. During the war he was made a lieutenant colonel in the British Army, in charge of all military training, morale, and education films. He worked with Carol Reed, Peter Ustinov, and David Niven in England, and with John Huston in Italy under fire. After the war, while going back to novels, Ambler was under contract as a screenwriter for the Rank Organization, writing films like A Night to Remember and The Cruel Sea.

His work divides easily into three periods. A desert-island collection might include Cause For Alarm and The Mask of Dimitrios (U.S. title: A Coffin for Dimitrios) from the first era, before the war, when he made his reputation; Judgment on Deltchev (’51), Passage of Arms (’59), The Night Comers (in the U.S.A., State of Siege) and A Kind of Anger (’64) from the second era, when he was also working as a screenwriter (he has written almost as many screenplays as novels); The Levanter (’72) and Doctor Frigo (’74) from the last period.

His settings are diverse, from the French Caribbean to East Africa, the Middle East to Malaysia, Italy to Indonesia, Germany to Turkey and the Balkans. He has, like every other writer, perpetual concerns: the uncertain, poor country in crisis; the traveller obsessed with frontiers, passports, permissions; the nervous lives and dangerous movements of refugees; the hunger for reputation.

These days, after many years in Switzerland, Ambler lives with his wife in London. Hard at work on a follow-up to a first volume of autobiography, Here Lies, he suggested we meet for a rare interview at a quiet French restaurant near his flat, not far from Harrod’s. He spoke with great pleasure of his half-century routine of “getting up and going straight to work in the next room—not a bad life.” What most came through was delight in his craft, a radiating intelligence, and the portly good humor of one who enjoys making dangerous remarks over a lunch of Dover sole.

AW    You said in Here Lies that after playwriting didn't work out, you were casting around. And the books you disliked most were thrillers. At that time you hadn't read Maugham’s Ashenden stories?

EA   Oh, yes, I read Ashenden. I read everything I could lay my hands on. I was really in touch.  I knew every new thought that came into anybody's mind. I worked at an advertising agency, so I didn't even have to buy. Every sort of journal or paper came into the office. I just used to raid it.

AW   When you were reading these thrillers in the early '30s, did you have a clear idea what you could do with the medium?

EA   No, I didn't. The first book I wrote, The Dark Frontier, started out as a parody. A parody of the sort of blood-and-thunder thriller. The “With one gigantic leap” plotting. It was done from several points of view. My attitude was: I despised William Le Queux’s stuff. Therefore I ought to be able, if I'm entitled to despise it, actually to create something better. But let me show you how I despise it first. I'm not going to condemn myself as a thriller writer, so I'll show you how funny I can be at the expense.

AW   In fact, it was the very first novel about the atomic bomb, written back in 1935. Did you realize this at the time?

EA   It didn't seem especially sensational. I regarded it (the bomb) in the same way as Hitchcock used to regard his Macguffins. He used to call them Macguffins. This secret plan, that imponderable—

AW  In the final version, does The Dark Frontier read as parody?

EA   It doesn't, because I changed my mind halfway through, and began to think, “Oh, you know this is not bad." (laughs) Those were the days before I could afford to rewrite a book. I was doing it at weekends and in between ads for Kellogg's Corn Flakes.

AW   You must've been conscious at some point that you were doing something quite new with this kind of book.

EA   That's the thing, you see. Nobody was saying you were doing something new, because nobody else was reading it. I thought I was. This is why I insist strongly on the importance of the word “author.” Because authorship is that sort of confidence—the confidence to waste your time. You may be wasting your time. And it's no good saying, "I've devoted my life!” To hell with that, nobody wants to read it. But if you want to do anything, if this is the way you want to earn a living, you’ve got to do something better. The better mouse trap. Nobody's paying you to do it. And there's nobody to blame if it doesn't work out. You're trying to enter a market. And if you can't, okay. Forget it.

AW   Let's talk about one of your most famous books, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939). Did the form, a masterful structure of succeeding flashbacks, come easily?

EA   I had great difficulty, I had to go back and do it over several times to get the loose ends to match. I went to America that January really to get away from Dimitrios, because I didn't know how to finish it. I’d never stopped in the middle of a book before, and thought. I'd always written them straight through, seven days a week, for months. I'd been scared of not delivering the next on time. Still a bad way.

AW   Your books don't appear once a year, they appear once every three years. You refer to yourself as an obsessional rewriter. When the point came when you could afford to, you wrote and rewrote and rewrote your books. What's this many, many drafts?

EA   Five or six. It takes time. This isn’t mot juste stuff. It’s: “Is any of it worthwhile? Are we just getting the book in shape? What’s new?”

AW   The really new things you brought to the “thriller”—besides settings like Istanbul, Belgrade, and the use of several narrators—were a whole new tone and world view. Part of this sense of reality in your books, even the early ones, comes because there are characters of every level culpability as in the Shakespeare play, but there's never any moral judgment or blame exerted by the author. Were you very aware that you were doing this or is this simply you by nature?

EA   It was me by cultivation. I was very careful not to make judgments, I was careful not to become pretentious. The mess that we have inherited—I'm talking about the Thirties. There was going to be another war. We knew it. Nobody was going to be to blame. Of course you could always blame the old men, but that was easy. We'd destroyed the Germans, so you couldn't reasonably blame them. We'd killed them at the Treaty of Versailles. Who could blame them? Indeed, Italy seemed much more menacing. The war had started for me when the Spanish Civil War started in 1936. I didn't go to Spanish Civil War, but later I always felt guilty about it. I thought I should have gone and died like Cornford or got a lousy disease like Orwell. That I should've suffered in some way.

AW   After the war, while writing film scripts, you waited a long time before writing Judgment on Deltchev.  I got the impression from your autobiography that the postwar world felt so different, you had to accustom yourself to it before writing another novel.

EA   There'd always been a war somewhere, war coming, war already started. I’d had World War One as a boy, and it seemed a more normal state to me than peace.  War simplifies the options. And also I'd been a fellow-traveler. But I felt that the god had failed. I came to that conclusion simply because I'd been through war and I'd seen, especially in southern Italy, how little relation far left ideals have for dealing with people at their ultimate stretch. People dying.

Italy at war had moved me very much. I detested fascism, or thought I did. It sounds very simplistic, I'm afraid, or very easy, but when I saw the railroad lines twisted about.... Germans had machines for twisting them up, just as they had machines for pulling down power lines. They had machines for making roads impassable. I'm talking about the Mezzo Giorno, southern Italy. The fascists, you see had done an enormous amount. The railroads and electric power had been taken to places that were still living in the early Middle Ages. All this had been destroyed for a thrupence. And they were being ravaged by French-Canadian troops.  Goons. This seemed to me to make nonsense of going around asking people if any of them was a communist. It was likely to make him mad. How stupid can politics get.

AW   I heard somewhere that S. J. Perelman spoke of knowing you.

EA   He was originally from New York, but I knew him in London. A lot of American writers came here after the war. Really, they came because the atmosphere was more congenial than under McCarthy. My first wife was an American, she had children by her first husband. I think if it hadn't been for McCarthy, we'd have gone to America. I was dead set on becoming an American citizen.

AW   You didn't like living in England?

EA   The Labour Government after the war was such a disaster, such a grubby thing, it almost made the war worth losing. The party was too much to take. You see, I’d been in the propaganda front line.  I’d made movies about America for British troops.

AW   It’s quite a stretch, to describe your books as "thrillers" or "spy stories." That doesn't really cover it.

EA   This has always been a great difficulty with my publishers. I say publishers—plural—because I've had a lot of English publishers, and different ones in other languages. The German language publisher, who’s in Zürich, is the most sensitive to this lack of category. They're not spy stories. I mean, that's just a load of crap.

AW   I don't know if another book exists like Judgment on Deltchev, about a Balkan trial, or like The Intercom Conspiracy, about how one of the principal ways by which covert information is really passed on is a network of small journals that make the daily newspapers seem ludicrous. Or Passage of Arms, about the smuggling of some guns in Malaysia, all the way from ambushed revolutionaries to the final transaction, told via the people who handle them. Did these stories come to you so neatly?

EA   No, never. They came to me as ideas, as notions. There are some people in America, and a German director named Schlondorff, who’ve been trying for two years now to get a script of Passage of Arms. They’re eager to update it. Really, you don’t need to update it, because the situation’s exactly the same. You don’t even have to change the names very much. The last word I had from them was would I give them extra option time because of the Writers’ Strike. My reply was that it was a mistake on their part to suggest to a fully paid-up and indeed pensioned member of the Writers' Guild that he should scab. I was on the WG council at the time of the first strike in ’60. My agent in London was written a long lecture from a New York lawyer talking about how unfortunate it was that writers of my stature took adversarial positions. Adversarial! There’s the sweets trolley.

AW    How do you steep yourself so deeply in your books’ locations, and in your characters’ backgrounds? For example, with The Levanter, did you travel a lot in the Middle East?

EA   A little. Syria, no. Cyprus yes, when it was British, but briefly. Unavoidable transit difficulties. I went to Israel, just after the ’67 war. Under the publisher George Weidenfeld’s auspices, which was not a good thing to do. Because you get the high-level treatment. And the thing not to do is to get the high-level treatment. No one is going to talk to you, except in p.r. platitude terms. The best thing that happened to me in Israel was that Weidenfeld’s representative there, a very striking young man, contested the whole idea that I should be looking at Israel—me, a goy—with the idea of writing about it. He put me on the tours. I went everywhere in Israel by bus with American tourists, all excited Jewish people, all with an absolute belief—except they didn’t want to live there. I was probably the only non-Zionist on the bus. I’m still convinced the Israelis were really sending out the buses in the hope that the PLO would throw grenades at them.

AW   You must’ve done an extraordinary amount of research.

EA   Oh, yes. But you can read it all, if you know where to look, and what you want to read about. It’s really finding out what the questions are.

AW   You’ve been a great user of libraries.

EA   You bet. But also a great user of bars. In the Hotel Intercontinental that spring, on the Mount of Olives, I must have been the only non-Jew in the hotel as a guest; the whole staff was Palestinian Arab. They’d come to my room and say, ‘Would you please when it’s dark come to my village?’ I was handed a bundle of letters of introduction to Beirut. I could’ve stayed for months. Beautiful city, before it was messed about.

AW   You’re writing a second volume of autobiography?

EA   There’s very little about me in it. The main theme is that film—sound film, not television—has had its pretensions exploded. It’s a vehicle only, rather like opera. It’s still not a novel. You can say more on paper, simultaneously, in a shorter space, by flicks of words. Look, the day someone decides to make a movie of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, I’ll believe it then.

AW   Actually, someone tried, but it didn’t work very well.

EA   Of course it wouldn’t work.  Have you seen David Lean’s A Passage to India? David’s been fighting this battle all the time. He really believes that film is better than words. Did you notice the credits on the film? I can tell you what they are. They’re: “A David Lean Production, from the novel by E.M. Forster, produced by David Lean, edited and directed by David Lean, adapted by David Lean, screenplay by David Lean.” I mean, he can’t leave out E.M. Forster. But what he’s done is try and do what he did with the murder of Nancy in his version of Oliver Twist. He’s made images. Like the penis-like object coming up out of the lake. I don’t know what it means. Very confusing. And the scene in the cave when you really don’t know what the hell’s going on.

AW   Do you think movies should avoid great books?

EA   I’m not saying that, I’m simply saying that if you’re going to do A Passage to India—it was done very well on the stage, where these things are understood. When people said, “She’s imagining things,” they didn’t try to show her imagining things. The relationships were clearer. They’re clearest of all in the book. I think the thing that David’s done best was Lawrence of Arabia. Big screen. Vistas. Akkaba. O’Toole camping about in flowing robes, in blowing sand dunes. Okay. But it adds nothing. It’s like a book with pictures. Illustrated comics.

AW   Why are there so few good thriller movies? Why as a genre doesn’t it seem to translate well?

EA   Because it starts off as a thriller, doesn’t it, so what’s film got to add? It’s only got to add the cover illustration. You’re providing the lurid jacket for it. The images connected with thrillers are so cliché, they’re all cliché, every one. And many thrillers now are feeding off film. It’s a kind of feedback.

AW   The film Topkapi was adapted from your book The Light of Day, and Journey Into Fear was filmed in ’42, starring Orson Welles. And of course The Mask of Dimitrios was filmed about the same time. You’ve never expressed much satisfaction with films made from your books. Are there any books of yours that you felt could’ve been made into good movies?

EA   No. My regret is that I sold Dimitrios for so little. $3,000. Now—(laughs) My fault. I was in the army. I thought Warner Brothers were crazy to make it in the beginning. It was made on standing sets for $600,000, which was peanuts. Every one of the actors was under contract at Warner Brothers, and doing nothing else. The script was by a man named Frank Gruber, a writer of second-feature cowboy pictures. I’m surprised anything came out at all. I thought Sidney Greenstreet was very good, but then he was always very good. He was Irish. Real Irish from Ireland.

AW   Which of your screenplays were you most happy with?

EA   Oh, I suppose, The Purple Plain. The Cruel Sea mainly because I got an Academy Award nomination, which warms the cockles.

AW   You lived in California for ten years. Did you like it out there?

EA   I didn’t mind. I had a house burn down almost immediately. An interesting experience. My wife Joan was part of the Hitchcock outfit.

AW   I’ve heard that most of Hitchcock’s writers were amanuenses. You never worked with him—I take it you wouldn’t have made a good amanuensis.

EA   Oh, no. An amanuensis isn’t an arguer. The dreadful thing is you can be quite wrong, and yet be convinced.

AW   And you don’t find out until you see it on the screen?

EA   Well, you do. You know there’s something wrong in the script, and it’s possible that nobody sees it because you’ve got to start on the picture or forget the whole thing. Or you’ve got to start simply because the actor is there. And you’re contracted. You still know there’s something wrong. You may not know how to fix it. A picture may go ahead. The terrible thing is, the thing that you knew was wrong will only appear in the rough cut. And the first person to say it was wrong will be whoever it was before who denied it existed. Now you see it on the screen and there’s something the matter. It’s not totally unacceptable, but it’s wrong.

AW  Do you keep up with what goes on in the thriller field?

EA   I read reviews. I read one book about submarine warfare that I was told was very good indeed. But I can’t remember. I find it very difficult to read Jeffrey Archer. There comes to mind a remark of Oscar Levant’s about Doris Day: “Ha! I knew her before she was a virgin.” I feel that I knew Jeffrey Archer’s work was bad before everybody knew it was bad.

AW   Word came not too long ago of the passing of Kim Philby. Did you ever know him?

EA   I’m surprised the old boy lasted so long. He must have had terrible liver trouble. In his wife’s book, The Spy I Married or whatever it was, she quotes one of his letters, saying he’d read the new Ambler. At the time, that was A Kind of Anger. And he liked it. So I was on his reading list. That was our only acquaintance. I didn’t know any of those people. You see, I didn’t go to their schools or their universities. Wrong class.

AW   You once wrote a piece about “spy-spotting.” You mentioned Tangier, Istanbul, etc. Where should one go now to see spies?

EA   I suppose Bangkok—you can get into real danger there.

AW   After your autobiography, will you write another novel?

EA  I doubt it. I think I’m pretty much blown. Once you start to write about what you believe to be reality, you’re really on the skids.

Sunday, May 8, 1988


I wrote this for Travel & Leisure magazine in spring 1988, shortly after my mother's death. They published it a year later, as "Temples of Doom." Most of the photographs were by Macduff Everton, who later published his own excellent book on the Maya and became a good friend. We worked together on many assignments, in India, Mexico, Georgia, and Antigua (Guatemala). 

The past is never so remote as one imagines. The journey there was easy enough: a plane about my own age took me north from Guatemala City, deep into jungle to a town that was once a week’s trek from the ruins, beside a vast and oppressive lake. From there it was only an hour on a dilapidated schoolbus to a thatched lodge and a path. Soon I was walking slowly and sweatily through a complicated tropical forest. Above me monkeys went tumbling and tossing through the twined limbs of immortal trees; black-and-white toucans creaked in surprise, nodding their yellow beaks. Once there were gods in these jungles; once there were the Maya.

People come to Tikal, in the Peten of northern Guatemala, for different reasons. The Dutchman had come to pose sociological questions. The young American couple had seen all the Mexican ruins of the Yucatán Maya, as had the aging hippie, but he had spent two decades on them and the couple were spending two weeks. The German students wanted to climb the temples and stay up there all day, meditating out loud. The ornithologists from around the world had come because the ruins were a metropolis of rare jungle birds—not so different from Tikal’s original function as a central, sacred city. And the Belgian had come to complain; he had complained his way through the rest of Guatemala, undoubtedly he had complained all the way down Mexico, and seated in the shade, sweating and blinking at the remnants of one of the great mysterious civilizations of man, he complained about the food at his hotel on the lake. When its roof caught fire he stopped complaining.

Later the next day the group flew back to Guatemala City and the Dutchman Franz and I had Tikal nearly to ourselves, except for a few naturalists who camped out. Always the local workers were there, keeping the jungle from encroaching again or repairing a step pyramid. Their ancestors had built this place—a direct link which no modern Greek or Egyptian can claim. (Today probably 2 million identifiable Maya Indians inhabit the same territory of the Mexican Yucatán and northern Guatemala as always—one-fifth the Mayan population at its height.) And Tikal must be considered along with Pompeii, Palmyra, Machu Picchu, Pagan and Angkor Wat, as one of the great ruins of the world—the Maya’s greatest city.

To our distant eye the Maya seem deeply paradoxical. They had the axle and wheel but made use of them only in toys; the circle was sacred. Nor had they invented metals. Yet they had a complex system of hieroglyphs, they were historically-minded, they had books, a game with a rubber ball, efficient reservoirs and probably sweat baths and chocolate as well; they used vaulted ceilings and created pottery, jade ornaments, cartoony paintings and sculpted bas-reliefs of great delicacy and vibrant color. Their sense of scale was enormous. And their calendar was nearly as accurate as ours, though each day had its omens and portentous meanings. Their cycles of the year (260 days and 365 days) are still in use throughout Central America. They were great observers and interpreters of the planets. Their pantheon included figures like the Fat God and the Nine Lords of the Night. Their gods might be human, or animal, or a combination—like a snake-footed god who rules a royal family. The Maya believed the world would end every 52 years, and their lives and ideas were shaped by this central perception of time as an expression of pure force.

From time’s inevitability and power they developed a culture of pain that included frequent human sacrifices, ritualized self-mutilation, and cannibalism. (The priests themselves went through tests of pain to attain and symbolize their rank.) The victim, often honored, was spread-eagled on a round stone table before the temple and his heart cut out or his head cut off with a stone knife. Blood was smeared on the standing stelae tablets as an offering. The choicest parts of his body, now blessed by the presence of a god, were distributed to the priests, the lesser parts to the witnessing nobles and rich—for the common masses never entered the sacred centers of a Maya city except as servants. Indeed, it is a privilege to enter what we think of as Tikal, for immediately one has seen more of it than most of its “inhabitants” ever did. Incense was burned daily to purify the atmosphere from the smell of blood and decomposing bodies.

There was no united Maya kingdom; only warlike city-states. Their languages were related but mutually incomprehensible. What we call the Classic Era lasted from about 250 to 900 A.D. During this Golden Age of trade, learning, and building they were one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. But an advanced astronomy and calculation of time was put constantly at the service of superstition. The Maya never went beyond this conception of the universe as a vessel of violence, with only sacrifice as a way to offset its inevitable destruction. When the world didn’t end the long wait began again, with frequent appeasements of the gods.

The Spanish destroyed all they could of the Maya culture, burning virtually all their written history, but it was already a fallen and shattered civilization long before the conquistadores arrived. And the Maya downfall—the great Maya question—continues to exert itself. We know little, really; it is hardly surprising that so many barnacles have fastened on these people to support bizarre theories. (Even today the Mormons fund archaeological projects at several Maya sites in hopes of proving the Maya were wandering Israelites.) All across Maya Mesoamerica, it happens at the same moment; the cities are abandoned one by one, all in a single century, about a thousand years ago and following five hundred years of high civilization. For some unknown reason or combination of reasons, the culture falls, the beliefs fail.

What seems likely is that the fertility of the people rose as the fertility of the overworked soil around the cities declined; famine, a high death rate, then, and a movement away from the cities. Possibly there were massacres of the nobility and priesthood. No records survive. The cities were abandoned (hundreds still lie buried beneath Peten and Yucatán forests). They had been built to glorify and defy the gods. In the end they lasted longer than the beliefs that built them—though the gods survive in transmuted form in the Indian religions of the territory, the sacred figures of jaguars or rain gods or a celestial serpent.

In the Central Acropolis I wandered through raised courtyard after raised courtyard, with massive fragmented stairways rising off into either air or other courts and “palaces” whose function is unclear. Often these ran to several rooms, often with sapodilla-wood beams firmly in place, narrow chambers that seemed to me more in character as administrative or public offices rather than apartments of priests or the wealthy. And then, along on a high open passage, I came out over the glory of the Plaza Mayor.

It is this first view of the plaza that imprints itself so strongly on the imagination. A breeze; before you, rising, the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, (Temple 1); opening, an enormous grassy plaza, a ball court, another massive temple pyramid rising steeply on your left, (Temple 2); facing, another complicated acropolis, all with stelae and sacrificial altars before them. The complexity, the restless many levels, the sheer power of the stone, the stairs and smaller pyramids ascending and descending in all directions, the vastness of contained space and time, is fantastic and overwhelming and, finally, rather empty.

It stuns because it amounts to a smidgeon. Within the six mapped miles of Tikal, the largest Mayan site yet discovered, are more than 3000 individual buildings—from the skyscraper temples right down to the thatched huts that housed most of the farming labor. At its height Tikal’s population might’ve been 40,000. Thus the Plaza Mayor is as if Rockefeller Center were all that remained of NY after our civilization fell.

I never made it all the way up Temple 1. There was a sign at the bottom saying in Spanish and English, “You climb at your own risk,” but as Franz pointed out, “I didn’t need to be told this.” (I should mention that I was about the only sissy.) Until very recently there was a chain set in the steps and running all the way up as a handgrip, but it was damaging the stone so it was taken out. I missed, naturally, the ornately carved lintel over the doorway of the ceremonial room at the top—a favorite spot for people to sit and watch the sunset over the ruins. The Temple is similar to the Egyptian pyramids in having held the tomb of an important warrior (Lord Cacao?) and two children sacrificed to accompany his death in battle.

Temple 2 was a good beginner’s temple with wide even steps and several levels of arrival. The sense of command from on high was extraordinary, and it was easy to imagine the priests intoning the rituals that involved the sense of each day’s individual destiny, good or bad, for the city and the people. What staggers is the insignificance of human life before the labor that built this, refusing to use the wheel. Tikal has a heaviness about it that is wearying. More even than the Egyptian monuments, it makes one feel small before the gods, and its lines smack constantly of ritual.

In late afternoon the Plaza Mayor became a fine and private place. The day cooled; the spider-monkeys began to screech and whimper from the nearby trees; the birds began to swoop possessively among the ruins, which took on a graininess as the bare sunlight calmed down. The acoustics were amazing—two people atop Temples 1 and 2 can have a conversation as if face to face and anyone below can hear them perfectly. It amplifies the monkey calls into great simian wars; no wonder the priests could address so easily the masses of believers below. Without the surrounding forest, their voices might have carried all the way down to the fields and farms of the common multitudes—and what a sight the jaguar priests must have been from far away, atop temples that were brightly painted in reds and blues and yellows.

And stone faces were everywhere. On the complex of the North Acropolis, shaded by little thatch huts erected by workmen, were two great grimacing masks. More astonishing was another mask at the end of a subterranean passage that you could only see with a flashlight and that the guides didn’t bother with. After two days I realized that a great wall by a stairway was in fact an even huger mask, but I had to see it from a distance. At one time most of the pyramids and temples had giant masks the size of two men in plastered and painted stucco. Then the city must have seemed a sequence of many faces, rulers and gods, watching always.

The guidebooks and maps were misleading in places. The East Plaza, so grandly described, is (save for a temple) mostly indecipherable forest now. The enormous South Acropolis is a massive hill in the jungle—a mezzanine of trees. When I walked around it I ran into several Guatemalan workers trying to bring down one peripheral tree with machetes.

But there was no disappointment about the Plaza of the Seven Temples, which rises majestically from thick jungle. The surfaces of the walls are surprisingly intact, for this plaza goes back centuries before Christ—one of Tikal’s earliest. The plaza itself was enormous, shaded by palm trees, with a triple ball court. Nearby rose two enormous pyramids, one with four staircases framed by remnants of huge masks, and together they made another plaza as impressive as the Plaza Mayor, but more serene and subtle.

When the Maya had built these gigantic constructions, they began with a core to which they simply added and added, using a kind of volunteer slave labor. Temple 4, the highest, is 250,000 cubic yards of building material, and took at least forty years to build. Heavily overgrown, wooden ladders have been laid end to end up its side, which isn’t very steep. As with all the temples, at the level before the true summit there is a kind of mini-plaza, with steps to an anteroom and small ceremonial chamber. At one time there were immense stone carvings around the doors and walls, but either the jungle or the early explorers have done away with these now, as on most of the temples.

The final stretch of Temple 4 was a naked metal ladder on the side of the pinnacle. (Those who don’t feel up to the ladder can content themselves that the view really isn’t much different.) The top was still spacious, with more steps and the stone wall rising ever higher; birds darted around its peak. The sense of giddiness was unnerving. Before me, past the lip of stone, the surrounding jungle stretched for miles into the lowland hills and mists. The soft light of afternoon lay on the pillars of Temples 1 and 2, thrusting above the trees like withered bookends, and on Temple 5, all alone. I was at the summit of the Mayan world—the highest man-made point in the hemisphere until the tall office buildings of the late 19th century. And 1000 years ago the jungle wasn’t here, enveloping the world—there were cultivated fields. Like lone skyscrapers these temples must have towered over the people who’d built them. They were a massive achievement designed to sate the gods and keep the commoners in their place far below.

More than anything, being up here reminded me what obsessed heros the early explorers were who hacked through the jungle, lived in Mayan ruins in great discomfort, cleared, studied, dug, sketched, and brought back as much as they could. Though Tikal was never really “discovered” because it was never really lost, the first Westerner to visit was a Swiss in 1877, who took the lintels from Temples 1 and 4 back to Basel. The great initial exploration was done by a young Britisher, Alfred Percival Maudslay, looking for adventure, and his photographs and maps of the early 1880s are one of the signal achievements in Mayan exploration. Though Maudslay’s men cleared away much of Tikal, the jungle inevitably grew back after he left, and until the U. of Pennsylvania’s massive project (1956-67) every archaeologist had to deal with the jungle anew. And even now the jungle continuously tries to take back Tikal.

Eaten by vegetation, Temple 5, (700 A.D.) has no helpful ladders or restored stairway. To me it was the easiest climb. I am traumatized by heights, and an honest hillside with plenty of roots and trees to hang onto is preferable to a steep uncertain staircase.

Temple 3 was the most difficult ascent, with precarious footholds and handholds of dry branches. It wasn’t dangerous, only steep, but there were moments it was necessary simply to stop, hang by the fingernails, and try to chart a farther few feet up. (An unusual and pleasant surprise was how easy it was to come down.) On top I was so staggered by having made it that I missed the faint but treasured carving on the wood lintel over the doorway.

Day after day I came back to that high view of the Plaza Mayor, to confirm its strength. For in the end one doesn’t know quite what to make of Tikal. Its titanic mass and territorial splendor, its grace of pure force, are balanced by the great absence one feels everywhere—like a theater after the actors have all gone home. Here one is less impressed by the supposed fragility of human things—for Tikal still stands—than by the actual fragility of entire cultures. Our temples, our pyramids outlast the beliefs that build them. Emptied of that living belief, they seem like a sport of nature—a joke that the jungle has left standing. For the great shock of Tikal is that the Maya have gone, and there is no one there but you.

Monday, February 1, 1988

Wilfred Thesiger: Visions of a Nomad

I met Wilfred Thesiger (1910 - 2003) on one of his rare visits to London. The 1987 meeting was arranged by Ralph Izzard, a friend from Bahrain. We met at Thesiger's bachelor flat on Tite Street. The profile was written for Conde-Nast Traveler for March 1988. I remember the date clearly because I first saw the magazine in a grocery store the week my mother died (February 1, 1988). Who'd have guessed that one of the century's greatest explorers was also one of its greatest prose stylists? In appearance he reminded me of Sherlock Holmes. When he died, one of his Arabian traveling companions from the desert remembered him thus: "He was loyal, and generous, and afraid of nothing."

At seventy-seven, Wilfred Thesiger wasn’t going to be in London for very long. Having just published an autobiography, The Life of My Choice, that covers his early years in Abyssinia, he was on his way back to northern Kenya, where he lives with the Samburu tribe. Elusive as ever, he spends as little time as possible in London; he has never felt the great cities of Europe had much to offer him. Very tall, in whipcord condition, with a creased craggy face like a greyhound, he looks indestructible, yet his journeys have left the mark of great gentleness and peace on him: this is the man who wandered the Empty Quarter of Arabia with the bedu for five years (as no other outsider before or since) and lived with the reed-dwellers of the Iraqi marshes for nine. He has the penetrating gaze of a man who always found people “more important to me than places,” journeying perpetually in search of “stillness, the stillness of a world that never heard an engine.”

Thesiger has enjoyed and endured one of the most extraordinary, original lives of our century, largely spent travelling through difficult, beautiful terrain among little-known and often dangerous tribes. He is a standard against which all travellers and explorers must measure themselves. No man has dared more, seen more, or so completely opened himself to experiences outside his culture. What Thesiger saw was mostly unknown before him and vanished afterward, sometimes from war, usually from the intrusion of the modern world upon that stillness. His few books, written only after great pressure from publishers who knew of his journeys, stand well outside and above the body of “travel literature.” For along with their profound knowledge of alien peoples and lands, they must be read as great creative journeys of the soul. No other man could have made them.

Thesiger's childhood uniquely prepared him for such a life. He was born in 1910 in Addis Ababa, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) where his father was the chief representative of the British government. His family was political and military; his uncle was Viceroy of India at the time. At the age of six he witnessed the rebellion culminating in the victory of Ras Tafari, later to become Haile Selassie, and saw a blood-drenched army pour in on horse and on foot after battle, resplendent in lion-mane headdresses and cloaks and shirts of velvet and silk, carrying spears, shields, swords, rifles, and waving banners of red, gold and green in a triumphant procession.

“Few other Europeans have seen the like,” he wrote in The Life of My Choice. “I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendor, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and that it gave me a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands, and a distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world.”

When he was nine, Thesiger’s family returned to England. He was sent to a boarding school in Sussex; inevitably he had little in common with his schoolmates. He fared better at Eton, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read history and excelled at boxing. His childhood of hunting and treks had bred an innate toughness. He dreamed incessantly of returning to Abyssinia.

He had gone back only once since his father’s death, at the invitation of Haile Selassie for the 1930 Coronation. Having finished Oxford, Thesiger in 1933 planned an expedition into Danakil country to find the end of the Awash River. All previous expeditions had failed or been wiped out by the Danakil. “All that mattered to these people,” Thesiger recalls, “was to kill; how they did so had little significance. Among the Danakil a man’s standing in his tribe depended to a very large extent on the number of men or boys, however young, that he had killed and castrated. In time I learnt to tell at a glance, from the decorations he wore, how often a man had killed.”

Thesiger’s expedition did not lose a man. He secured tribesmen from village to village who could ensure safe passage. His meeting with the ruthless Sultan in a moonlit forest glade, surrounded by 400 loin-clothed warriors, was another epiphany that would make a “normal” life impossible. Thesiger was just learning, however, the comradeship that would prove so important on his later Arabian journeys, “the very differences between us binding me more closely to them.” On this expedition, “I still had a sense of racial superiority, acquired in my childhood, which set me apart from the men who followed me.”

The six years before the war Thesiger spent with the Political Service in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, where he served in a remote province under an exceptional District Commissioner, Guy Moore. In the Sudan he grew proficient in Arabic, learned to love riding camels and the hardships of desert travel, and became an expert shot. On leave he journeyed extensively in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, Libya, and the nearly unknown Tibesti region of French Equatorial Africa; he got to know tribes like the Nuba, the Tibbu, the Nuer, the Bani Hussain, the Dinka, the Zaghawa, the Bedayi. Moore, recalls Thesiger, “taught me to travel light and to regard not as servants but as companions the men who accompanied me.”

In the war Thesiger fought with special British forces in North Africa and the Middle East. He was longing for his old way of life: “I was in the desert but insulated from it by the jeep in which I travelled.” When the war ended he was offered a job with the Desert Locust Unit; they were looking for someone to collect information about the possibility of an outbreak along the Empty Quarter of Arabia. They needed a desert traveller more than an entomologist. Thesiger saw this as a great opportunity, his chance at “the ultimate challenge of Arabian exploration.” It would occupy his next five years.

The Empty Quarter, the Rub al’ Khali, is a half million square miles of desert within the greater Arabian desert. At that time it was probably the most unknown territory on earth. Lying partially within Saudi Arabia and mainly within Oman (then ruled by a xenophobic sultan) it was known only to the bedu who chose to wander its unmappable dunes. No plane had ever flown over it; not even its fringes were approachable by jeep. It could be traversed only by camel. Only two Europeans had ever crossed it, Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby in the early 1930s.

It couldn’t possibly be done alone. “Many tribes lived around the Empty Quarter. Only the Rashid and the Awamir... were at home in the Sands.” Thesiger’s companions, the Rashid, “were small deft men, alert and watchful. Their bodies were lean and hard, tempered in the furnace of the desert and trained to unbelievable endurance.” Among them were two young men, bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, who stayed with Thesiger for all his journeys.

Each year between 1945 and 1950 Thesiger wandered with the Rashid in the Empty Quarter; twice they crossed it completely. On these journeys of extraordinary hardship—coaxing unwilling camels up steep ranges of streaming dunes, trying to find the way through an undulating landscape—water was severely rationed. “It was continuous thirst,” remembers Thesiger. “Sometimes it was twelve days from one well to the next. Sometimes there was no food for several days. You had a little coffee before you started in the morning, then all day you got thirstier and thirstier in the heat, a continuous nagging craving that burned. In the evening you were given your pint of water, that was all.”

Thesiger was determined to measure up to the life these Rashid led. In his classic record of those years, Arabian Sands (1959), he wrote, “Anxious to prove their equal, I wanted no concessions and was irritated when pressed to ride while they still walked, or when they suggested I was thirsty and needed a drink. Because I was their companion on the road they would fight even against their own tribesman in my defence, and would expect me to do the same.”

In Arabian Sands Thesiger describes unforgettably his years in that harsh land: the unbroken chains of dunes, the starvation, the thirst, the gossip of the bedu, their skill at reading the sparsest of tracks or shifting landmarks, the continuous threat of other tribes that would take offence at Thesiger’s infidel presence. It is a book of overwhelming beauty, and deep love for his comrades. “I shall always remember how often I was humbled by my illiterate companions, who possessed in so much greater measure generosity, courage, endurance, patience, good temper and light-hearted gallantry. Among no other people have I felt the same sense of personal inferiority.”

The friendships with bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, whom he watched grow from boys into men, were among the very closest of his life. When pressure from different tribes and governments (including the British) prevented further journeys, that era of his life was over. “I knew how it felt to go into exile.” The traditional life he had seen, disrupted by oil and oil money, was soon to disappear forever into what he has since called “The Arabian Nightmare.”

He says today, “The bedu had such self-respect and nobility because of the hardness and the harshness of their lives. No one would describe the British as a ‘noble race’—you’ve only got to read the papers. The same is true of Americans. But among the bedu the standard was extemely high, because of the pressure of public opinion. If a Rashid, for example, did something that was deplorable, a year later you’d hear about it on the Omani border. The desert was a sounding-board.”

Seeking somewhere else to travel, almost by chance Thesiger visited the marshes of southern Iraq. They were to be his home for much of the next eight years. “A delightful and unexpected world,” he wrote in The Marsh Arabs (1964):  “narrow waterways winding through the tufted reeds, duck circling above still lagoons, the crying of geese, a village of reed houses clustered on the water, a hum of voices, and the incessant passage of canoes; dark dripping buffaloes, the sun crimson through the smoke of burning reed-beds, a boy’s voice singing in the dark....” It was a stillness, a world of water rather than sand, that could follow the Empty Quarter.

Living in the Marshes, Thesiger was on the move almost constantly, poled along in a canoe by a team of young men. Throughout the marsh villages Thesiger acted as an impromptu doctor, bringing the latest antibiotics each year from London, for the Madan tribesmen were riddled with innumerable diseases that were the easy result of living on water.

His life in the Marshes ended abruptly with the Civil War of 1959. (The present war with Iran has devastated the Marshes irrevocably.) Then he began to visit Kenya. “I’d have gone on in the desert,” he says today, in the Chelsea flat that has been London headquarters since 1942. “I’d have liked to go on living in the Marshes. But these places closed off and I went looking for somewhere else.” One by one, the places Thesiger knew so well—Arabia, the Marshes, Persia, the Sudan, Afghanistan—have been closed off or ruined by “the chaos of the world.” For him, the greatest tragedy has been the Marxist state of Ethiopia.

In the Iraq years, to avoid the oppressive summer heat, Thesiger travelled extensively in Persia, in Morocco’s High Atlas, in Iraqi Kurdistan; he explored little-known Nuristan, Hazarajat, Swat, Chitral, and Hunza regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan; later he travelled by donkey through Masai country and fought with Royalist forces in the Yemen.

To Thesiger, travel by car is like taking a plane. “All the journeys of importance to me have been done in the local manner: on camels, on foot with porters, or mules, or horses, whatever, to have close contact with the people. Today if you wanted to explore the Sahara, it would be idiotic to go on a camel. A camel journey today is a stunt—you can perfectly well go in a Land Rover. I can foresee a time when you won’t require porters on Everest because there’ll be helicopters to lower you to the tents and tea shops. There’s nowhere I really want to go now, at my age. If I were a young man I’d feel very frustrated. The life I’ve described in my books absolutely no longer exists. I think I realized back when I was fourteen that the car and the aeroplane were going to wreck my world, make it smaller and destroy its diversity. You can hardly find a village in Kenya today without tourists carrying cameras.”

Thesiger owns nothing in Kenya. Earlier he lived among the Turkhana; now he lives alternately with several Samburu families whose houses he helped build, and with a young Samburu whom Thesiger regards as his son. But there will be no Kenya book. “Plenty’s been written about Kenya,” he says. Instead there will be a large book of his photographs, Visions of a Nomad. (In 1979 he published Desert, Marsh and Mountain which contained many photographs, excerpts from the two books on Arabia, and accounts of his mountain travels. This was entitled in the States, against Thesiger’s wishes, The Last Nomad.)

“I never anticipated being a writer,” he says. “I never kept a journal with the view to writing anything but papers for the Geographical Society. To write Arabian Sands I went to Denmark. I didn’t know anyone there, that was the whole point. I took a bedsitter for a winter and wrote it, ten years after the journeys.”

He denies the legends that have sprung up around him—eating dirt to prepare for difficult journeys, etc. “Sheer rubbish. I’ve always simply eaten what the locals eat. I’ve never dropped sterilized tablets in water, if the water that came to hand was filthy I drank it through a straw. I was fortunate never to get ill.”

He still travels light. “I used to find a great satisfaction when I was with the bedu in the desert or on trek in the Sudan to own nothing that wouldn’t go in my saddlebags. It gave me a freedom which otherwise I wouldn’t have possessed. Inevitably as you acquire more and more possessions you lose your freedom. There’s very little in this flat I’ve collected while I’ve been abroad. I’ve got a fairly valuable library, I suppose. This is the other side of my nature. I’ve lived easily in two worlds. In London I could put on my dark suit and go off to the Travellers’ Club and I was leading the life here. In Mukalla, in Oman, staying with the District Commissioner, I could put on Arab robes in the morning and go off with the bedu. I don’t think the lives really conflicted with each other. I tried to keep them apart. At first when I came back here from Arabia I used to feel a shadowy figure at my side, it could’ve been bin Kabina or bin Ghabaisha, watching all that was going on with a good deal of disapproval. I have no feeling that the two worlds relate. The lessons learnt in one aren’t translatable to the other. After all, how much relationship, living in London, does one have with one’s neighbors, with the people in the street? None. In Arabia or Kenya you’d have close contact with all of them. They’re just different worlds with different skills.”

No brief essay can do justice to Thesiger’s life, nor excerpts to the stark beauty of his prose. He counts as his achievements to have won his companions’ confidence, “and, in so many of my travels, to have been there just in time.” His flat could belong to a well-to-do bachelor lawyer with a reading interest in the East. The only mementos a visitor spies hang hidden by a hall bookcase: the silver khanjah dagger that is the mark of manhood in Oman, the leather back support worn when riding a camel.

The rest is visible in his open gaze, which never wavers: the look of a man who has constantly challenged himself, friendly because there is no hint of disguise. As he once wrote of Arabia’s Empty Quarter, “No man can live there and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him, weak or insistent according to his nature, the yearning to return. For that cruel land can cast a spell no temperate clime can match.”