History and Voyages from Sicily.(BOOKS)(TRAVEL)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

History and Voyages from Sicily.(BOOKS)(TRAVEL)


Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Early in Danish photographer Carsten Jensen's amibitous, finely wrought book, I Have Seen the World Begin: Travels through China, Cambodia, and Vietnam (Harcourt, $28, 337 pages, maps), the author writes that "there is no greater lie than to think that one travels alone." A poetic sentiment perhaps but a truthful one, especially for travellers with open minds and eyes wide enough to encompass the reactions of people who are in turn observing the traveler.

The first-person title may be unfortunate in that respect, since Mr. Jensen, who is an experienced writer as well as a professional photographer, clearly wants to submerge us in the worlds he explores beyond his home boundaries. He uses his skills brilliantly and his angle of vision, acutely attuned to humanity's vicissitudes, is stimulating. It's unusual to "see" a narrative journey through a photographer's eye in quite this fashion.

Wisely, Mr. Jensen foregoes any actual photographs except for the scene on the cover - an anonymous urban blur. Instead, we are given three simply drawn maps of the lands and roads he takes on what is something of a leisurely journey among three of some of the most politically-charged countries of our era. He begins by taking the Trans-Siberian railway in a defensive off-putting posture. "I would allow nothing to get close to me, not even impressions," he writes. That's not much of an invitation for a reader to join his company. But he softens as he makes his way across some less familiar landscapes that he brings alive through encounters with the locals and with fellow travellers.

"As a traveller it is not that you are invisible, rather that you become visible in a particular way," he reflects near the end of his stay in Vietnam. His professional - or maybe it's a Nordic - sensibility finally has been breached. He is touched and he allows himself to touch, at last. Such emotional and philosophical musings are far less arresting than descriptions of the places he visits and the people who draw him out of his shell.

* * *

Moving westward to the Mediterranean, we are travellers in the ancient classical world and its mysteries. The subtitle of Kenneth Lapatin's Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (Houghton Mifflin, $24, 274 pages, illus.) tells all. Who can resist an archeological detective story, especially when the main characters are eminences in the profession brought down by some good old-fashioned scholarly sleuthing? Mr. Lapatin's investigation of an age-old controversy surrounding the origins of the Snake Goddess sculpture is riveting.

Supposedly a prime example of the art of Minoan civilisation, the Goddess and her tale are symbolic of the cleverness - and deviousness - of a very profit-making trade. Personal pride and a need to preserve reputations at any cost are motives as old as the the famous, and famously discredited, statues once thought to date back to the second millennium B.C. Sir Arthur Evans, associated with the great ruins at Knossos, is the very embodiment of Empire in his myth-making abilities.

"It was Evans's synthetic vision - the product of great energy, industry, and inspiration - that fundamentally shaped modern views of Minoan culture and art," writes Mr. Lapatin, whose handsome book jacket describes as president of the Boston society of the Archeological Institute of America. The slim volume of 188 narrative pages is supplemented by 60 pages at the end giving a valuable "cast of characters," a list of "Some Unprovenienced Cretan Statuettes" and technical information as well as a hefty bibliography, credits and notes. …

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