Barbarian in the Garden by Zbigniew Herbert

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Barbarian in the Garden by Zbigniew Herbert

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A travelogue and a collection of essays about history and art of Italy and France by one of the foremost Polish poets of the last 50 years. Evocative, wise, wonderfully written & highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 180 Date: April 1986
Publisher: Harvest Books
ISBN: 978-0156106818

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The garden of this book is Italy and France; those places dear to the heart of every poet, writer and cultural snob from the parochial fringes of Europe. The barbarian of the title is a young Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert. Be careful, though. The garden is not exactly a Paradise and the barbarian comes across as more erudite and understanding than a lot of the Garden's natives. Herbert is known for his subtle and not so subtle irony and this book also shows it.

Barbarian in the Garden is a journey, journey through places but also through books that relate to them, from fat 19th-century scholarly tomes to philosophy, poetry and fiction. It doesn't assume the reader will know the references, but it doesn't provide much direct explanation either. Somehow; however, a supreme clarity is maintained. Despite constant references to names and authors I have hardly heard of or have never known existed, the flow of the prose is smooth and a reader doesn't get lost in it.

It is incredibly dense prose, and the combination of its sheer information load, its beauty and the depth of reflection that it manages to achieve on a few pages (the whole book is 180 pages long) leaves me speechless. This density is what allows the Barbarian to be read and re-read, dipped into and savoured as there is no way the totality of it can be absorbed in one reading unless the reader is as erudite as the author and knows all the locations and works he writes about.

The journey is essentially a historical one, the present and the recent history serve only as a backdrop, sharp contrast or a launching pad for Herbert's exploration of the old. That is one of the reasons why a book written almost 50 years ago can be still easily enjoyed today.

It is not, like the title suggests, a book about an invasion nor one about a visitation of a provincial cousin. It is more a story of homecoming, but one of an exile who has experienced a lot and thus whose eyes are open to hidden realities behind the most sublime art - even in awe at the holiest of the holies of Greek temples Herbert remembers the blood and tears shed over the materials of Greek art.

The essays can be all read separately though there is a pleasure in reading them in their original sequence which is chronological in terms of histories referred to rather than following the route of the journey(s) the author was making.

He starts at the very beginning indeed: he starts in Lascaux. All signature elements of the whole collection are present in the first essay and I would say that if you don't like this one it's very unlikely that you will like many of the others. Herbert jumps from vivid, powerful description to scholarly interpretation of what could the pictures mean to their authors to lyrically philosophical musings on early man's connection to nature to technical information on how the ochre paint was prepared to chronology of prehistoric painting. Piltdown skull and Altamira are mentioned in passing.

Perhaps my favourite text in the collection is the one entitled Albigensians, Inquisitors and Troubadours which chronicles the story of the crusade against the Southern French Duchy of Toulouse and the Manichean heresy of the Albigensians. This was a very severe faith, condemning all things carnal but it managed to coexist with a flourishing civilisation of the langue d'Oc poetry and the sophisticated courts. From the failed attempts of St Domenic at peaceful persuasion to the stakes of Montsegur, the events that formed the basis for the creation of the Inquisition are chronicled - and one cannot help but see a connection between the AD1244 stakes from which nauseating smoke descends into the valleys and spreads through the history and the smoke coming up from the Auschwitz chimneys.

The same connection with the modern is even more clear in the next essay which, presented in the apocryphal form of the trial lawyer speech tells another story of persecution, propaganda and torture - this time against the Knights Templars - whose persecutors' methods enriched the repertoire of power. That is why we cannot leave this distant affair under the pale fingers of the archivist.

I will end this review in a post-modern rather than classical fashion, and it will end at the beginning: I returned from Lascaux by the same road I arrived. Though I stared into the abyss of history, I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction. I am a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans, but of almost the whole infinity.

The book was faithfully as well as beautifully translated by Michael March and Jaroslaw Anders. The cadence and structure of the original prose are maintained very well, perhaps even to the minimal detriment of the English version which might seem a bit artificial in places - but it shouldn't detract from the enjoyment of it.

John Ray's Rosetta Stone links the most famous artefact of ancient Egypt with the modern culture of the last 200 years and might appeal to those interested in cultural analysis. For another barbarian, try Barbarians by Tim Glencross.

Booklists.jpg Barbarian in the Garden by Zbigniew Herbert is in the Top Ten Books Not Originally Written In English.

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