Review: “The Immeasurable World” by William Atkins

Book by British writer William Atkins is about seven deserts in five continents, and about desert per se, divine and infernal.

“The Immeasurable World” is William Atkins’s second book. His debut, “The Moor” (also available in the library), was about the vast moorland of England. Now he travels to Oman, Australia, China, Kazakhstan, United States and Egypt.

Author doesn’t visit the desert places on his own, he is accompanied by locals or those who have been here before. Voices from the collected “desert library” come along, too, as does a light sense of a heartache. There is one time when he wanders alone too far away and gets lost for a few panicky hours.

Atkins’s deserts are not empty. They are filled with people, traced with history. They are stained with present-day blood. Not that long ago nuclear bombs were tested in the Great Victoria Desert in Australia, poisoning the Aboriginal land and families. The Sonoran Desert in Arizona is a burning topic about the Mexico and United States border. Even if you manage to trespass into the States, it’s like walking from a frying pan into the fire: you still have to cross the desert. Some dead bodies are being found, covered in toothpaste, desperately trying to hide their skin from sun, when still alive.

There are oasis, too. In Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA, a harsh place for any human soul, author spends a week in the Burning Man festival. Post apocalyptic fun, freedom, kindness, and a couple screwing in a sand storm. All these desert stories will stay like grit between your teeth for longer than you thought they will.

I love what William Atkins does with his sentences. He builds loaded lines and then blows them all away with an added “whatever”. His gaze is sharp, observations filled with humour. At one point he tries to guess the eye colour of a woman, always wearing sunglasses (“Red possibly.”). You laugh but the very next moment have to deal with such undiluted reality check, that you put three dots with your pencil right next to the paragraph, as if gasping for air.

It’s easy to be with the author, and often fun, too, but he will not let you forget, that you are in a desert. Desert is a front line, the devil’s domain, where early Christian hermits, the Desert Fathers, withdrew from society to face demons and seek Christ.

Desert is also beautiful. Silent. Infinite. Describing the vast landscape, it’s impossible not to compare it to the sea. “It was like nothing I had experienced save for being at sea.” But after the Burning Man festival when Atkins rests by the Pacific Ocean, he sees that water is alive. Desert is an ancient seabed, dead for thousands of years. In the chapter about the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, it dries out in front of locals’ eyes.

And yet desert is home for animals that leave footprints at night, and plants that persist; a refined ecosystem, thriving in its own wonderful way. When spending a night in The Empty Quarter in Oman William Atkins drops a date stone in the fire, but his guide, propping on one elbow, reaches into the flames, extracts it and throws into the dark desert. “No offer of life was to be wasted.”

“The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places”, William Atkins, Faber & Faber, 2018

bbbook_atkins copy

Britu rakstnieka Viljama Etkinsa grāmata ir par septiņiem tuksnešiem piecos kontinentos un par tuksnesi kā tādu, dievišķu un ellīgu.

“The Immeasurable World” ir autora otrā grāmata. Pirmo, “The Moor” (arī pieejama bibliotēkā), viņš velta citiem plašumiem – Anglijas tīreļiem. Tuksnesī Etkinss neiet viens, bet vienmēr ar kādu vietējo. Līdzi dodas arī viņa “tuksneša bibliotēkas” grāmatu balsis un tikko nojaušamas sirdssāpes. Vienreiz gan viņš dodas viens un gandrīz apmaldās.

Autors tuksnesim nenoloba nost ne cilvēkus, ne vēsturi, ne mūsdienas. Austrālijas Lielajā Viktorijas tuksnesī vēl salīdzinoši nesen tika izmēģinātas atombumbas, apstarojot aborigēnus un saindējot viņu svēto zemi. Sonoras štata tuksnesis Arizonā, bioloģiski daudzveidīgākais pasaulē, ir joprojām aktuālais stāsts par ASV robežu ar Meksiku. Pat ja izdodas nelegāli iekļūt Savienotajās valstīs, ir vairākas dienas jāšķērso nokaitēta panna. Mirušos mēdz atrast noklātus ar zobu pastu, izmisumā mēģinot slēpt ādu no saules.

Ir arī oāzes. ASV Nevadas štata Blekrokas tuksnesī, kas cilvēkam ir nepanesams, Etkinss nedēļu pavada Burning Man festivālā, kur valda postapokaliptiska luste, brīvdomība, sirsnība, un smilšu vētrā cilvēki uz zemes kniebjas. Grāmatas tuksnešu stāsti vēl ilgi šņirkst starp zobiem.

Man patīk, ko Viljams Etkinss dara ar teikumiem. Viņš uzliek uz lapas nopietnas rindas un blakus pieraksta “whatever”. Viņš sasmīdina ar novērojumiem. Piemēram, mēģinot uzminēt vienmēr saulesbrillēs tērptas sievietes acu krāsu (“visticamāk sarkanas”). Bet tad uzraksta kaut ko tik sīvu, ka tu ar zīmuli piepunkto klāt daudzpunkti, it kā tā varētu ielaist lapās gaisu. Ar autoru būt kopā ir viegli, bieži ļoti jautri, bet viņš ne mirkli neļauj aizmirst to, kur mēs atrodamies.

Tuksnesis ir pārbaudījums. Te radās kristietība, Ēģiptes tuksneša tēviem, pirmajiem kristietības mūkiem, pametot sabiedrību un apmetoties klinšu alās. Tuksnesī tālab, ka tā ir velna valstība.

Tuksnesis ir arī skaists. Kluss. Bezgalīgs. Aprakstot ainavu, Etkinss ļoti bieži min jūru. Ar ko gan vēl tādus plašumus lai salīdzina? Tomēr pēc festivāla atgūstoties pie Klusā okeāna, autors raksta, ka ūdens, atšķirībā no tuksneša, ir dzīvs. Tuksnesis ir pirms tūkstošiem gadu nomirusi jūra. Nodaļā par Arāla jūru Kazahstānā tā izžūst vietējo acu priekšā.

Taču tuksnesis slēpj smalku ekosistēmu ar radībām, kas nopēdo smiltis, un augiem, kas iztur. Nakšņojot Omānas “tukšajā kvartālā”, Etkinss iemet ugunskurā dateles kauliņu. Viņa pavadonis, atspiedies uz elkoņa, izbaksta kauliņu laukā no oglēm un klusēdams iemet to tumsā. “Neviena dzīvības iespēja te netika izšķiesta.”

“The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places”, William Atkins, Faber & Faber, 2018