I confess: I picked this up in the bookstore because it had “ghosts” in the title. But I didn’t put it down when I saw that it was a book of essays, and I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t familiar with Eliot Weinberger before this, and I’m a better person for having discovered him.

Weinberger ghosts of birds

Eliot Weinberger is an essayist, political commentator, editor, and translator of Latin American and Chinese literature. This particular volume has two parts. The first part “continues his linked serial-essay An Elemental Thing” (note to self: pick up the first part of the serial-essay), and the second part collects various book reviews and essays originally written as introductions to other people’s works. The first part is wondrous. The second part is quite enjoyable, too.

Reading “The Story of Adam and Eve” was a revelation for me. In it, Weinberger reconstructs the story of what happened to Adam and Eve (and later, to Cain) after they were expelled from the Garden, based on several extant versions of the story (Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Georgian, Armenian). Not only is in an interesting tale in itself, but I felt like I had just discovered the ideal that I’ve been striving for in the retellings of folktale and myth that I attempt from time to time on this blog. It’s an ideal that I’ll likely never achieve, but now I have a conscious image in my head of what I’m trying to reach.

And then it gets even better; I have more literary goals to strive for.

“Islands in the Sea” is the Odyssey of Mael Duin of Ireland, who gets lost at sea attempting to avenge his father’s death and takes many years to return. It was a long voyage, and Mael Duin and his crew visit a lot of islands; Weinberger devotes a single paragraph to each.

They came upon a great column rising out of the sea, with no land around it. From the top of the column, somewhere in the clouds, they could hear a man speaking in a language they did not understand.

One paragraph, two sentences. On to the next island. Taken together, the whole thing feels a bit like something Jorge Luis Borges, or maybe Italo Calvino, would have written: fabulous and surreal, abstract and dreamlike.

Weinberger performs a similar feat of distillation with “A Journey to the Colorado River,” where he takes what I have no doubt was a fairly dry mid-nineteenth century travelogue and turns it into an impressionistic chain of pithy, telegraphic paragraphs, verbal snapshots and video snippets of moments on the trip. These are interspersed with fragments of verse and song lyrics. I’m sure I never would have read the original all the way through, but I sailed through this piece like, well, a raft on the Colorado rapids.

The title essay is a paean to the birds of New Zealand, living and extinct (hence, “ghosts”). Other essays are like collages of facts and observations on the topic in question, artfully arranged. Translations of poems, excerpts from Chinese and other ancient literatures. Not all of it is attributed; it could all be made up, some of it is so fantastical it feels made up. I don’t think it is. I almost wish it were, because I love the idea of storytelling this magical. And then I’m glad it’s not, because I love the idea that we live in a world this magical even more. We just sometimes need someone to point it out to us.

The second half of the collection consists mostly of more conventional essays. I’ve written before about how I love reading book reviews, but not to look for books. These are the kind of essay/book reviews I was talking about. There’s Weinberger’s snarky (the back of the book says “notorious”) review of George W. Bush’s autobiography, and a comparative review of several translations of the I Ching. I’m not tempted to go out and buy a copy of the I Ching, but its history was fascinating.

But if book reviews didn’t add anything to my wish list, the book introductions did: Béla Balázs’ The Cloak of Dreams, Herbert Read’s The Green Child , maybe even Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. Balázs was especially interesting, not just the book but the person.

The collection ends with a “Bibliography” and a “Glossary;” we are back in Borges country again, except I assume the books and the words are real. I discovered them both by accident, because I’d wondered if Weinberger gave actual references to the sources of his essays, and so I’d flipped to the back of the book. It took me a few seconds to realize that the “Bibliography” wasn’t the reference section for the collection, but that I’d wandered into the Library of Babel. It was the best kind of prank.

The bibliography includes such gems as the anonymous 4th century The Book of the Dead Maiden (“Instructions for predicting ill-fated marriages”) and the 12th century Diagrams Illustrating the Mystery of the Cultivation of Truth, the Mystery of the Supreme Pole, and the Mystery of Primordial Chaos (just the diagrams, no explanations). The glossary teaches us that ahrnaw is a vampire ghost, and biatai means “a promise; an agreement to copulate; an agreement to pay” in some language, unspecified.

I wondered, as I perused the glossary, where these words came from: some of them feel Southeast Asian to me, others like they come from an indigenous Central American language. Some could be Polynesian. When put all together, these words from (I assume) disparate languages create the image of a single, quite interesting culture, both the mundane and the mystical of it. All without a word of exposition; the reader does the world-building in their heads. It’s a neat trick.

If you enjoy the kinds of things I try to do on this blog, I think that you will love this book. If you are looking for magical literary journeys that teach you something about the world at the same time, I highly recommend The Ghosts of Birds.


Featured image: Three Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), John Gerrard Keulemans (c. 1900). Source: Wikimedia

4 thoughts on “Reading The Ghosts of Birds

  1. This accidental discovery you describe is the best way to find new authors and books. This does, indeed, sound wondrous. I also love his cover as well as the illustration you included.

    1. It’s a wonderful book! He has several books of essays, I will definitely pick up more. The book cover and the illustration that I featured are by the same artist, and the “Ghosts of Birds” essay was written for the catalog to an exhibition of the artist’s paintings. Here’s the section on the huia (which are, alas, extinct):

      The beautiful huia was a celestial bird. It guarded the door to the twelfth heaven; its twelve tail feathers the twelve months and twelve periods of darkness and twelve stages of gestation before a child is born. A single feather could ward off bad luck.

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