Monday, September 26, 2011

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer

I have bad knees and cannot trek anymore. The announcement at the physiotherapist’s clinic that my hiking days are over, that I had to look at life from a completely different vantage point still aches inside me. From eschewing mountains to avoiding stairs, I have a come a long way down, but reading Jeffrey Archer’s 2009 novel brought back memories of the mid-nineties when armed with enthusiasm and Aachi, I tackled the Sahyadris.

Tavli is marked by a triangle in the guidebook and it was a good thing that, not having read it, I did not realize I was attempting one of the tougher hikes in the Western Ghats. The weak link, I lagged behind Aachi and his friend from Schlum (berger), and after waving them ahead, stopped to admire the parched countryside. I stepped on a makeshift log bridge to cross a dry riverbed, and felt it give a little. The fall could not have been more than five feet and I could have scrambled up and back on the path, albeit through thorny bushes. I chose to find a different route. In thirty minutes, I had climbed up a different hill, found two dead ends, and slipped from a dry ledge which came apart under my feet, missing a fifteen feet fall this time, by holding on to some plants, one of which came off by the roots in my hand. I clambered to relative safety and after dusting myself down called out. I was far away from my trekking partners and I was lost. I had no cell-phone, I have a poor sense of direction but I was calm, maybe because it was noontime and there were no wild people or animals about. I spent about ten minutes twiddling my thumbs and then I heard Aachi calling out- he later said it must have been a wind tunnel that allowed our cries to travel perfectly- and I shouted back and he soon came to the rescue. I remember his words- ‘Respect the mountain. Between man and nature, nature will win,’ all the more because one did not associate Aachi with such grand statements. We reached the Tavli cave through an arduous climb and started back around 230 P.M. The way down was very dangerous - refer–-pilot-trek-to-tavli-fort-with-nature-walk-india/. I probably imperiled those boys as we crawled down a steep incline, scrambling for toeholds and palm holds on the rock face. Paths of Glory brought me face to face with the risks I had taken on that expedition and on our subsequent hikes to Rajmachi and Singhgad when we ran out of water and lost our way and walked through the moonlit countryside to a most delightful inn deep in rural Maharashtra- yes these places exist. Much could have been. Much was.

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer - The mesmeric fascination of a tragedy.

As a child I thrived on simple definitions. Happy endings were comedies, sad endings, tragedies. As I grew up, I picked up on the nuances of the comic genre but tragedies were something else. I did not like them and I did not see the point of them. I suspected that most people were like me, which is why there were not so many tragedies to pick up and peruse, or watch and dissect. The novel form I decided could not create a perfect tragedy, reflecting as it did life- I was optimistic enough or stupid enough if you will, to believe that while life could be a joke, it could not be a tragedy. Well, opinions are made to be changed.

I discover now that tragic stories fascinate me. Devdas, Gatsby, Othello, Hamlet.


‘Paths of Glory’ is the story of George Leigh Mallory who perished while attempting to scale Mount Everest in 1925. It is believed by many people that he succeeded in his mission, but that he did not live to tell the tale. For my part I was hooked from the Prologue.

Personable and chivalrous, and a gentleman bred in the English sense of the word in the days of the Raj, it is not surprising that he caught the romantic imagination of the western world. A passionate climber from the beginning, he was the obvious choice to lead the English sponsored Everest expedition. Mallory was possibly the last man from Europe to conquer uncharted territory and his end and that of Captain Scott in the same decade underscores the risks taken by western man in exploring the world, a risk that has been amply rewarded through world dominance and cultural hegemony. But Mallory did not think like that- he climbed a mountain because “it is there.” And Archer too does not over-analyze the story of Mallory. He seems to tell it like it is, and leaves us free to fill in the blanks, to complete our summations- his strategy in ‘Paths of Glory’ is to hook us with a suspenseful premise, warn us of the impending tragedy and then take over. He gives us a straightforward story, taking care to keep us on the edge, a dropped clue here, a red herring there, the mesmeric fascination of impending doom doing the rest of the work. It is twenty years since I read my last Jeffrey Archer, so I cannot say if his narrative style has become more screenplay-friendly but the book- down to all the conversations- reads like a British movie. Think Chariots of Fire. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily.

The description of the bureaucracy in the selection process for the Everest Committee is outstanding, and resonated with my own experience as an analyst in India for British multinational companies that have not yet shed the vestiges of their imperial past.

If the novel has any drawbacks it is probably in the development of vulnerabilities in Mallory’s character, that could have contributed to his ultimate downfall. He is portrayed as a heroic and a good man, a Fabian whose views should help buttress Archer’s Indian constituency as well as the female readership, but only the first and last chapters bring alive the sheer madness and ignorance of danger that drove Mallory. After all a tragedy owes some of its pull to the inexorable inevitability of it- Hamlet’s indecision, Macbeth’s ambition, Othello’s suspicion, Gatsby’s aspiration. And Mallory’s passion, and his sense that he was running out of time. Remarkably, Archer mentions time and again the mountaineer’s absent-mindedness and habitual lack of punctuality but does not connect that up to the final dénouement, something many members of the mountaineering community have done before. But then again, he does not have to, the story tells itself and we are enthralled. Therein lies Archer’s triumph.


Sonya said...

I liked Paths of Glory but found it a comedown after the grittiness of 'Into Thin Air'
But Mallory's story is fascinating. I heard it again, 2 nights ago, in Sandakphu on the Indo nepal border.
Told by Pemba Sherpa, the grandson of a sherpa who went on the 1924 expedition.
Pemba's grandfather had a dream. In it appeared the Buddha. he warned pemba's Grandfather not to try and summit.If he did he would die soon...Pemba's grandfather woke up in the morning and told Mallory and Irving about the dream. They didnt believe him...Apparently they were last seen 100 metres away from the summit..

K said...

Sonya, did you get goose pimples listening to the story. You know while I was reading the book, I kept thinking of two things- my trekking days and your Himalayan expedition. Tell me all- or better still why don't you put it up as a post?