Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2017

In the Land of the Giants, by Gabi Martinez, translated by Daniel Hahn

It’s taken me ages to read this book, nearly three weeks, and it’s only 390 pages long.  It’s partly because I’m also reading other things as well but it’s also I kept getting distracted by the other issues the book raises. It’s not just a memoir of an eccentric adventurer who was murdered in a remote area of Pakistan, and it’s not just a travel book.  It’s also a book that plays with the conventions of these genres.

Jordi Magraner was an adventurer who fell in love with the Hindu Kush, and, it seems to me, at different times varied his reasons for being there.  He was a student of the natural world, and heard stories about the legendary barmanu – known to most of us as the yeti – and he set off to see if he could find it.  But for quite long periods of time, he got involved in other quests as well…

The author would have his readers believe that the quest for the barmanu/yeti is not as crazy as it seems.

One day in 1949, a doctor of zoology called Bernard Houvelmans opens the Saturday Evening Post and reads an article entitled ‘There May Be Dinosaurs’.  He’s wary when he sees that it’s signed by a writer he trusts.  Then, amid the claims made in the text, he reads the names of researchers he also considers serious, and by the end he has found that he needs to look into the information.

Seven years later, he publishes On the Track of Unknown Animals, introducing a series of animals discovered to date in the twentieth century.  Most of them are pretty big.  There you’ll find the okapi, the coelacanth, the Paraguayan peccary, the pygmy hippopotamus, the Cambodian wild ox, and the Komodo dragon.

Heuvelmans is a scientist, he considers himself a scientist, the animals he writes about exist ‘in reality’, but he has demonstrated that many of them were only located after conversations with indigenous people who gave assurances of their existences by recounting stories, describing them.  Before they were discovered, these animals were no more than legends to westerners, or the victims of extinction.  In which case why should we not believe other stories told about fugitive beings? (p.32)

I was immediately distracted by the thought that in this era of fake news, would we believe it if there were reports of a yeti being found in the mountains of the Hindu Kush?  Perhaps that would depend on where the reports came from.  If trusted sources like the ABC and the BBC reported it, would we believe it?  Or would we think that they were sincere but had been hoodwinked? Would we disbelieve it altogether or would we accept the revelation that the mythical creature had turned out to be real?

How you respond to this idea depends on whether you think we have mapped our world fully or whether you think that just as other species have been found in remote uncharted places, a yeti might possibly exist.

Well, Jordi Magraner did believe it could be real, and with extraordinary determination he set out to harvest the stories, disprove the reports of mysterious groanings that turned out to be the movement of rocks, and to hunt out every bit of evidence he could find.  The difficulties he faced – funding his project, learning the languages and finding trusted translators, living a simple life in the mountains and so on – are the stuff you might expect in a memoir such as this.  But what complicated everything he did was the contemporaneous rise of the Taliban and the distrust of strangers, the paranoia and the religious extremism that arose from that.  Because the area where he was hunting was where the Kalash lived, a people who were not Muslim and who were at risk of having their culture obliterated by the Taliban’s determination to enforce their religious rule.  Over the long period of time that Jordi was on his quest, he vacillated between finding his barmanu and saving the Kalash, a project which got him into trouble in more ways than one.

Amongst other risky things, he took on the care and education of a boy called Shamsur, which led to suspicions about Jordi’s sexuality and possibly predatory behaviour towards the boy.  These were exacerbated when Shamsur rejected study and in adolescence became an ungrateful hash-smoking layabout.  The suspicions hardened when Jordi then took on another young boy as a replacement.  The author, who admired Jordi for his adventurous spirit but is not writing a hagiography, presents conflicting statements from numerous people who knew Jordi, leading to the reader’s conclusion that nobody knows for sure, but that rumours were rife… and under the encroaching rule of the Taliban this was a risky situation indeed.

The story begins with Jordi’s death, which was obviously an execution by a skilled professional.  The book ends with the author’s inconclusive efforts to find out what really happened and why the police investigation went nowhere.  But in between the quest to find a lost paradise gets bogged down in numerous examples of Jordi’s intemperate nature, his impatience with authorities who try to warn him about the dangers of his project, and his financial difficulties which lead to debts – a very risky situation to be in when, after 9/11 tourism dries up and everyone is short of money.

The book also plays with the conventions of life stories by including imagined sequences which offer an intimate insight into Jordi’s thoughts, his conversations and his behaviours.  This is what the author says about that on the last page:

There is a first version of this book in which everything is described exactly as it happened.  In the one you have just read, I preferred to change a few names so as not to injure any sensibilities and, as far as possible, to protect those involved.  Occasionally I have also recreated the unfolding of episodes that had only been conveyed to me in the barest facts.  I put in some details, atmosphere, tension, colour… without ever distorting the ultimate meaning of the message I received.  These minimal recreations are what make this book a non-fiction novel.

I have dedicated nearly three years to a story in which, as you have seen, I ended up risking my own life.  None of my literary ‘interventions’ detract from the ultimate truth of everything I have written here.  I would have been the greatest of fools if I had done anything to jeopardise so much effort, so much reality.  (p. 389)

A non-fiction novel… a semi-fictional memoir… the boundaries are blurred much more than ‘occasionally’, I thought.  It’s definitely a book for our times.

Author: Gabi Martinez
Title: In the Land of the Giants, Hunting Monsters in the Hindu Kush
Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2017, first published in 2011 as Sólo para gigantes
ISBN: 9781925321630
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond: In the Land of Giants: hunting monsters in the Hindu Kush


Responses

  1. What a complex story!

  2. Sounds very intriguing. It’s listed for release here in the summer of 2018 (the first time I’ve seen a Scribe book released here).

    • That’s interesting… Scribe venturing into Canada now!
      There are references in the book to the legend of Big Foot, is that taken at all seriously in your part of the world?

      • Tales of bigfoot or sasquatch have roots in Inidgenous legends of the Pacific northwest (including Canada). They have, of course, been the subject of hoaxes and Hollywood B-movies!

        • *chuckle* I think I might have seen one of those…

  3. Sounds interesting, but I would be bothered by the ‘imagined sequences.’

    • Yes. It’s common now in biography… Judith Armstrong has used this technique too in her biography of Dymphna Clark (wife of the historian Manning Clark) and I’ve seen it in other cases of unsung female heroes where the documentary evidence is slim. I understand why they do it, but I’m not very keen on it.

      • I’ve seen it too, and it annoys me. I read one bio of a Hollywood starlet (older bio) and the fake bits were very subtly pieced in. I have no idea if the author was conscious of it or not. There would be a fact but it would be slightly embellished upon in a way that if you thought about it, you knew that the author had to have imagined it.

        • It’s very much a case of ‘reader beware’ these days, though I suppose some would argue that it was ever thus because in the days of the traditional biography the biographer is also sifting facts and manipulating them to present a particular PoV.

  4. I’m not sure I implicitly trust the ABC anymore, too many particularly overseas stories have sources whose provenance we are unable to judge.

    • Yes, I hesitated over that, but in the absence of anything else that’s trustworthy, the ABC and the BBC are the news sources that come close. What can’t be trusted at the ABC comes from the rollover to the next generation who appear to have been raised on the values of commercial TV, who are not as well-read, or as interested in the wider world beyond Australia, or (because they are ignorant) as ethical as the previous crop of ABC journalists. They are also prone to hyperbole, manufactured conflict and gotcha moments. They report a lot of crime, as if it is news. Some of them think that the ABC’s role is to air one-sided ‘injustice stories’ that prejudice future trials, or to present pseudo-science, climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists in the name of balance. But if these twits are brought to account, and they mostly are by wiser heads upstairs, it usually gets sorted out.
      But yes, we are a very long way from what we used to have in current affairs…. Mark Colvin is a most grievous loss, and so is Kerry O’Brien.

  5. [NB For reasons I don’t understand this comment from Anton was in my email inbox but not in my WordPress comments inbox for approval. So I’ve copy-pasted it here.]

    Hi, Lisa. Interesting review.
    Have you ever read “Seven Years in Tibet,” by Heinrich Harrer? I read it many years ago. Eventually, it was made into a movie.
    AND … more non-fiction …
    You might like, and review, “Once Upon a Yugoslavia, a personal journey” by Surya Green, author of “The Call of the Sun: A Woman’s Journey to the Heart of Wisdom,” which is about her later travels in India and spiritual quests. The Yugo book fills in an interesting period around 1968, from NYC (Malcolm X and Cassius Clay = Mohammed Ali) and Stanford University to Zagreb, Croatia, working in a world-famous animation film studio, with some pretty far-out experiences of life in Yugoslavia under Tito.
    Yours, Anton

    • Hi Anton, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about Tibet (apart from its political issues with China in the media, that is). I wonder if my library has the titles you mention… another quest for me, thanks for your suggestions!


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