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"... the unsummable totality of human perspectives upon them which is my real subject.",
This review is from: Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (Paperback)
Tim Robinson published this account of the largest of the three islands that sit at the entrance to Galway Bay, "Arainn" in the island's own speech, in 1986. He had gone to live there in 1972, and this book is the remarkable distillation of his experience, as well as his exploration of its past. The islands are the last stronghold of the Gaelic language. The particular island that is the topic of this book is roughly 8 miles long by 2 miles wide. The humans that have chosen to live here have made significant adaptations to their environment. I know of only one other book that I could compare it too, one that also examines a Celtic heritage, a bit further south, in France's Brittany. It is Eleanor Clark's "The Oysters of Locmariequer." Like Robinson, Clark examines a very small place, and reports on the "unsummable totality of human perspectives" to use Robinson's phrase in his first chapter.
This book does not exhaust by any means what Robinson has to report about the island. There is a companion volume, Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (New York Review Books Classics) "Pilgrimage" takes the format of a walk around the island's circumference; "Labyrinth" is an exploration of the interior. For sure, there are plenty of diversions along the way. The author immediately draws you in, particularly for Americans suffering from "intelligent design" and "creationism" with a discourse on a timescape without signpost, the cosmology of the universe, with a nod to that famous date some folks think the story all began, 4004 BC.
Robinson's approach to that "unsummable totality" as well as his own erudition are dazzling. He is not one to have gotten trapped into the "how many angels on a pinhead" arguments of a cramped and narrow intellectual discipline. He ranges over disciplines as varied as cosmology, geology, botany, sociology, history, linguists, economics, anthropology and literature. For example he describes with remarkable prose the types of gulls that inhabit the cliffs around Aran, and then goes on to describe the death-defying techniques that the "Cliff men" evolved to hunt them. Then he launched into true pyrotechnics of prose with: "...let the ocean dance in it, and the cliffs above step back in wide balconies to accommodate the thousands who will come to marvel at this kinetic-conceptualist, megalominimalist, unrepeatable and ever-repeated, sublime and absurd show of the Atlantic's extraction of Aran's square root!"
In other chapters he examines the mythology, and actuality of the settlement of these islands. Robert Flaherty's 1932 movie, "Man of Aran," is a valuable referral source for Robinson, and he repeatedly references it in his book. In terms of the economics of the island, it was always a struggle, particularly agriculture, which was supplemented with fishing, particularly of sharks, for their oil. Kelp played a major role in the islands history, from it use as a source of iodine, as well as it being the principal source of fertilizer, which made possible the growth of crops in this stony soil.
Religion is also an integral part of the island's history and present, with a pithy observation by Robinson: "Priests of course have always protected their retail monopoly of supernatural benefits by maligning even the pettiest rival outlets; the coins probably found their way into the Church's pocket and the poor peasant was told to have no further dealings with the Devil...". Meanwhile, the author seems to have a Faulknerian view of history: "I am no disinterested historian; I study the past only to amplify my greedy awareness of the present." As for reality: "The correct way of contacting the depths of reality are just two: either to throw yourself over the cliff into your choice of mysticisms, or to do your time in one of the cultural armies, scientific or artistic."
A couple reviewers said the book could not be categorized. In some ways the observation is correct, but I would demure. There is at least one fit: it is a masterpiece.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 12, 2009)