Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Kind Of Book Report

My layover routine in the past couple of years has focussed on taking longer and longer walks. I've always walked a lot, but after taking off a few pounds a couple years ago I found myself going further and further. In the last six months I've begun doing regular outings of 25-30 miles and more. This distance, at roughly 17:15 per mile pace, amounts to eight or nine hours on the hoof. Many of these walks have been in Cologne, where I take the train to a nearby town--Düsseldorf to the North or Bonn to the South--and walk back into Cologne. I'm pretty much moving non-stop for the duration, stopping momentarily at the little kiosks and street vendors along the way for snacks and drinks, and I usually end up at a favorite pub by our layover hotel back in Cologne for the aforementioned "Flammkuchen" (or Tarte flambée). But I've done them in a variety of places.

Part of my routine also involves having a good book to listen to, and with listening sessions of this length one goes through an audiobook quickly. So I've gravitated to some longer works. The last couple of months I've been working on Jean M. Auel's "Clan of the Cave Bear" series--also called the Earth's Children series. There are six books in the series, beginning with 1980's Clan of the Cave Bear, and each book in audio form is 20 hours or so in length.

I knew nothing about this book series, even thinking at first that the name was a metaphor for something. But no, it's just what it says: a tale of prehistoric humans, specifically about a single Cro-Magnon girl whose family is killed in an earthquake. The five-year-old girl, near death, is found by a group of Neanderthals who nurse her back to health and raise her as part of their own tribe. This setup is perfect for telling the Ultimate Story of Racism, with the Neanderthals fearing the Cro-Magnons as violent and incomprehensible and the Cro-Magnons thinking the Neanderthals to be little more than animals. Our heroine, Ayla, must bridge the two civilizations.

The story is of course entirely speculative. While there seems to be some evidence that Neanderthals and the anatomically-modern Cro-Magnon humans existed at the same time--approximately 30,000 years ago--I think the notion that they interacted is as yet pure invention. But it's an intriguing idea, and Auel has taken some pains to stick mostly to informed speculation. The Neanderthals are given a distinct culture and, though not physically equipped for speech (a detail currently disputed), they are here given the ability to deftly communicate among themselves with gestures, a kind of sign language punctuated by limited sounds. Here too Auel tries to flesh out this idea, giving many examples without giving any actual details as to how it would work. She implies that this form of communication is as nuanced and broad as spoken language; personally, I can't quite see it, but the story relies on the detail and we just have to take her word for it.

And that's not the most unlikely idea she puts forth. Her Neanderthal "Clan" people are able to pass memories on genetically, a detail justified by the different shape of their brains from ours. This skill allows, for example, a medicine woman of the Clan to pass her hard-won information about plants and animals on to her children without direct communication (Lamarckism, anyone?). Kids thus pre-loaded need only be "reminded" to find they already know things. Given the kinds of knowledge that ARE passed on genetically in the animal kingdom (I think of a bee hive or the migrating behavior of birds or little marsupials climbing up their mothers' abdomens looking for their pouch), this is perhaps not a complete absurdity. But it does seem a leap.

What I did NOT know--honest!--is that the series is known for a certain moist-and-meaty depiction of sexuality, earning it a legendary titter-worthiness among teens and young adults. I spent some time looking at series reviews after I had finished three of the six books (trying to decide after the rather irritating third book whether I should bother to continue), and at least one reviewer reminded us that the sex scenes are not too big a part of the whole story, not least because you have to wade through some 900 pages before you even get to the first of them. But then Auel has left her mark on the world of sex writing, having apparently invented such terms as "throbbing manhood" and "warm, moist folds" and many other seeming-staples of soft-core porn. The first time these scenes flash before us it is in the service of the story, but then they become a bit distracting and superfluous.

Or so it seems to my superannuated self. I find myself skipping tracks that seem to have been inserted, like a drop-in addendum, from the last encounter and the one before that and so on. (The skeevy vibe is not helped by the narrator, one Sandra Burr, sounding very like one's grandma reading the Penthouse Forum aloud to you.)

However cloying and repetitive, this remains a pretty small part of the narrative. What IS fascinating, and what I think many people would find resonating, is the close-up look at what life is like when there is nothing to do with our time but to LIVE. The business of procuring food and shelter in this setting, especially when traveling, is a full-time job and something very far removed from modern life. And Auel has done a good job of showing us what skills are needed and how one might excel at things I've never even thought about. Ayla is given a great problem-solving brain, and we are shown the kinds of dilemmas a pre-historic person might have faced and shown how we might have solved these issues. I've done almost no camping--none whatsoever in over 35 years--so this survivalism is probably further from my daily consciousness than it is for some. But the idea of wandering a vast, virgin continent and foraging and hunting and finding uses for its resources has a distinct appeal.

Auel spends a fair bit of time talking about both Clan and Cro-Magnon interaction with "the spirit world," another detail that is perhaps supported by archeological artifacts. But all the talk of "totems" and the homages paid to the "Earth Mother" and such naturally make one wonder. It's hard for me to wrap my head around what advantage would have been gained in the ancestral environment to ascribe meaning and intent to things that did not have that meaning. How does believing something that's simply not true help the organism? Indeed, I'm probably spring-loaded to see this as a detriment, a diversion that takes resources away from survival, and Auel takes no pains to explain how these beliefs might have aided survival. But to the extent that Auel's depictions are true, they must have aided survival. It seems like survival for early humans was much more a razor's-edge proposition than it is in modern times, and anything that posed a burden may have meant the difference between survival and extinction. The fact that we're here to speculate about it makes me think my instincts are wrong, but I can't see how. Anyway, it's another thing to chew on.

Even apart from the groan-worthy depictions of sexuality, I can see why teens and young adults might be drawn to the books. They are written in a very simplistic and straightforward style. Everything moves at a glacial pace and the plotting seems wooden and stale. (In between the last book and the current one, I listened to William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms and was shocked at its comparative sophistication. I hope the brain cells are not permanently lost.) But the grand sweep of the adventure overcomes this. We come to identify with the feisty, extraordinary woman and I find myself eager to follow her ongoing adventures--even as I skip over the tawdry with an eye roll.

I'm currently about halfway through the fourth book, and my sense is that she has spoken her piece at this point. Now we're just muddling along with standard plotting. But having invested some 70 hours in the story to this point, it'll take some real bungling to keep me from seeing it through.  Stay tuned.


Karlo said...

I'm impressed by your blog writing these days. This is all great stuff. I also plan on getting out for longer walks. I consistently walk at least an hour per days and several hours on weekends, but if I walked all day, I could get all the way over to the coast (I live in Sapporo). If you get over this way, look me up!

William Stachour said...

Howdy! I don't know how I missed this comment. (I usually get an email when a comment comes in.) Didn't mean to ignore you!

Thanks for the visit.

Sapporo... as in Japan?

That would be fun walking for me! Alas, my airplane does not stop anywhere except for a thru-stop in Osaka (I got an overnight there a few years back when we had a mechanical problem. So I can say I HAVE set foot on Japanese soil; I just haven't seen anything! Tokyo is high on my list of places to see!)

Karlo said...

Yep. I'm up here in the north, across from Russia. We even get ocean ice in the winter, believe it or not. If you get a chance, definitely see Kyoto and the areas around it (for example, Nara).