"No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude...",
This review is from: The Snow Leopard (Hardcover)
At the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (Scribner Classics) there is an epigraph that states that the Masai call the western summit of this mountain the "House of God." Moreover, Hemingway says that the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard was found there, and concluded with the subject line. I first read this work of Hemingway's in the `60's, which commenced a fascination with that mountain. And when Peter Matthiessen's book on leopards whose normal habitation is at such altitudes came out in the late `70's, it was an obligatory read.
Matthiessen linked up with the noted naturalist and author, George Schaller, whose works include The Year of the Gorilla and The Last Panda The year was 1973, a remote area of Nepal, the Dolpo area, which is actually part of the Tibetan plateau, had just opened to foreigners for exploration and trekking, and so the two commenced a journey which, in part, was to find this most elusive creature of the book's title. So, the book is definitely a travelogue into a unique region along the "roof of the world," long before one could make all the arrangements "on-line." Matthiessen writes well, and can instill an essential sense of "AWE," in a reader for sights and experiences he has never seen or felt. And with the ever observant Schaller along, it is a journey in good company.
But the book is much more than that, as the sub-title indicates: "It is a spiritual odyssey of a man in search of himself," with motivations perhaps not much different that Hemingway's leopard. So, the majority of the book is Matthiessen's ruminations on why we live, and what our place is in the greater scheme of things, as the expression has it. As an example: "Perhaps this dread of transience explains our greed for the few gobbets of raw experience in modern life, why violence is libidinous, why lust devours us, why soldiers choose not to forget their days of horror: we cling to such extreme moments, in which we seem to die, yet are reborn. In sexual abandon as in danger we are impelled, however briefly, into that vital present in which we do not stand apart from life, we are life, our being fills us; in ecstasy with another being loneliness falls away into eternity. But in other days, such union was attainable through simple awe."
Matthiessen is a Buddhist, and became one long before flirtations with eastern religions came into vogue. Although there are some notable exceptions in its practice (like the Burmese generals, for example), of all the major religions of the world, Buddhism is the most gentle in its practice, and so it is an odyssey that I can at least tag along on. But at some point, for me, it turns into embracing uncritically some other person's "mumbo-jumbo." A big red flag arose when the author discussed the work of "mystic-philosopher" George Gurdjieff, famous for Meetings with Remarkable Men: All and everything. 2nd Series and others, and whom I consider to be the quintessential purveyor of new age hocus-pocus.
As for that ever elusive snow leopard, and its motivations, Schaller covers gorillas and pandas in far more detail in his other works. You also have a wonderful travelogue into an area at the "beginning of (travel) time." As for the spiritual odyssey, a leavening of skepticism towards the purported wisdom of the east is much more in order. 4-stars.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on February 14, 2011)