Sunday, October 24, 2010

Umnak Island, 1 October 1944, letter 2

My darling…

John Hersey, whose writing I liked in “Into the Valley” but whose hyper-simplicity annoyed you, has pulled a Steinbeck stunt in “A Bell for Adano,” which I am reading now. Here it is:
Tomasino’s wife came in from the kitchen with a platter of torrone and saved the day. She must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. When she put the candy down she raised her two arms, turned to the Major and shouted: ‘My God! My God!’ She pronounced it as though it were spelled G-u-d, and all her fatness shook with laughing. Everyone else except Tomasino had to laugh at her. Giuseppe jumped to his feet and introduced the Major to Tomasino’s wife. Her name was Rosa.
I have almost finished the book – it is only a three hour stint to go through it and while it is very good, I think Hersey is a better reporter than a novelist. His extreme simplicity, effective as it seems to me to be in conveying information, tends a bit toward monotony in presenting a picture of ideas and the story of a way of life. 

Yesterday I finished reading Harold Lamb’s life of Genghis Khan. It is strange how the books I have picked up since coming to the Aleutians have all, in some way, been linked to each other. And with our past. I took out Genghis Kahn because I wanted to find out more about the early days in Siberia, having become interested in them through Langyel’s book and the story of the Czech Eskimo. I found out much of what I wanted, but also picked up background on the Columbus voyages (which I had read about last month) and, most interesting, the migrations of the early Slavs and Mongols into Turkey and the Danube delta.
Almost without realizing what I was reading I came to this paragraph about the Mongol drive in Hungary:

Meanwhile Bela (the Hungarian king) began to cross the Danube with his host—Magyars, Croats and Germans, with the French Templars who had been posted in Hungary. A hundred thousand in all. The Mongols retreated slowly before them at a hand pace. The invasion leaders, Batu, Subotai, Mangu—conquerer of Kiev—had left the army and were inspecting the site chosen for the battle. This was the plain of Mohi, hemmed in on four sides, by the river Sayo, by the vine-clad hills of Tokay, by dark woods and the great hills of Lomnitz.
Battle of Mohacs: The Europeans looked good, but they lost
The battle was stubborn and unbroken until near midday. Then Subotai finished his flank movement, and appeared behind Bela’s array. The Mongols charged in, broke the Hungarians. Like the Teutonic Knights at Liegnitz, the Templars died to a man on the field.
Reading it I thought first only of the parallels to the current war, of the radio which was even as I read announcing that the Russian army had broken over the Danube north and south of the Iron Gates. But then I thought of the plain of Mohi…”on the plain of Mohi” and remembered: Mohacs,  hot in the afternoon sun, the white buildings blank-eyed with grey shutters drawn, the long wait for officials to return our deposition on the kayak, the walk uptown after ice cream and the policeman’s objection to your sunsuit, the little store by the landing where I bought a poor knife for a nickel, the other faltbooters on their way to Turkey and the hard, hot paddle after them to steal a tow from the river barge, the little man who had the book he wanted me to translate for him, and the muddy landing at the Yugoslav customs, the bad moment while the Romur [all of Murray and Rosa’s succession of kayaks were named Romur] rocked crazily and the other canoes flipped, one by one. The camp on the shore. And the paddle on, alone, which ended in the thunderstorm and the dash for shelter in the little farmhouse and the strange, electric night on the porch floor with lightning lacing the river and the roomer shifting from foot to foot on the chair above us. 

There was a monument to that battle in Mohacs. I don’t remember it well—it seems to me it was an obelisk—but I remember looking at it and thinking how incongruous was the idea of war and such a pleasant, sleepy, do-nothing river town.
                                              …a summary of the life of Genghis Khan…

There is very little to write about, my sweet, except my reading. I stayed up late this morning, reading and listening to the football games from home and thinking about Seattle and football weather.

Our weather is footballish now, though much more like late November than early October. The wind comes strong and cold and gusty, and the sky is much overcast. There is less rain than I had expected, and our mountain, which a week ago was traced with snow and looked like a steel etching, is black again. Except that the wind is so strong that it makes walking very tiring, the weather is not disagreeable. 

Our four boys left today, and the hut is extremely quiet. Tim was asleep when the word came he was to be ready to take off in twenty minutes and –you won’t believe this—he complained bitterly about being rushed all the time he was dressing. And his final words as he staggered out of the hut carrying his barracks bag which has been packed for six days now was, “You’d think they’d give a guy a little notice.”

That does it, my sweet. I’m drained dry of news and can’t even think of anything more to plagiarize. I’ll go back to working on my screwy short story which at present seems unfunny to me. I should finish it within a day. If you get a chance, go to one of the football games at the Stadium for me. 
 M

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