Author Valerio Massimo Manfredi takes time off from his promotional tour to engage Shonali Muthalaly in a fascinating chat about his life and work

Think of him as a modern day Indiana Jones. A professor of classical archaeology at Luigi Bocconi University in Milan, he undertakes dramatic archaeological expeditions to uncover the past.

The ‘Anabasi' expeditions, for example, covering 18,000 km, reconstructing the itinerary of the Ten Thousand's retreat. (The Ten Thousand were mercenary units, mainly Greek, put together to capture the throne of the Persian Empire around 400 BC.) From here, sprang a story. L'armata Perduta (The Lost Army): A tale of Abira, a Syrian girl, who decides to follow Zeno, a Greek warrior. This is where Valerio Massimo Manfredi parts ways with Indiana Jones. He's also a storyteller.

On a promotional tour in India, hosted by Landmark and Pan Macmillan India, Manfredi is getting set for an interactive session with Tamil film producer Ramkumar Ganesan. But before that, he settles down for a chat with MetroPlus at Vivanta by Taj Connemara.

Awards galore

Manfredi has published more than 60 scientific papers and academic books, mainly on military and trade routes and explorations in the ancient world. You probably know him as the author of the “Alexander Trilogy”, translated into 24 languages in 38 countries. Granted a Knighthood of the Italian Republic in 2003, he's received various awards, including the Hemingway Award, the Rhegium Julii Award for fiction and the Magna Grecia Award.

“I study the topography of the ancient world,” he says, discussing his specialisation. “It's important to reconstruct the landscape of antiquity. Not just the geography, but urbanisation, trade routes, sea routes, military expeditions…” He talks of how what's left behind tells a story of who we were. “In 3000 years, archaeologists will collect caps of CocaCola!”

Archaeological expeditions throw up various surprises, not all historical. “I've been on five camps in the desert. These were extreme environmental conditions — a 40-degree difference between day and night temperatures. Once we had rain, hail and snow — all in one night. At night, the wind uprooted the tents. Every half-an-hour we had to run out with hammers to try and keep the pegs down.”

Growing up in a small town in northern Italy, Manfredi says he always had a taste for adventure. “At University, we used to travel the whole summer. We would buy a wreck and spend months fixing it. Then we would drive it everywhere — we travelled to North Africa, Europe, the Balkans, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan… We looked down on our friends who spent the summer on the beach, going to the discotheque every night. We were roaming the deserts, exploring rivers and mountains. We felt privileged. It was tough, of course,” he chuckles. “We lost five, six, seven kilos. Because we didn't have much money for food. Or we didn't like the food. In the Middle East, it was mutton everywhere — and I can't stand it!”

Great material for a book? Well, he did make an attempt. “When I was 20, I tried to write a book. Like everyone tries at that age. I still have those pages. I found them recently in a file, labelled ‘Literary Tentatives'. I only got to page 16; then stopped because I just couldn't go any further.”

Literary expression

Today, he's the author of 14 books, which he hates labelling as ‘fiction.' “Fiction is a limited expression. It can be a terrible thing, or a piece of art. I prefer the term ‘literary expression.' Of course, that too can be top, medium or low level. I'm not saying I'm a genius.”

Storytelling, for him, seems to be a liberating way to deal with history. “In scientific exploration you have the burden of proof. Every single thing you say has to be backed up. With storytelling you write as if you are the only surviving witness of what you're writing. The surroundings and environment must be accurate, of course. You have to respect what is known. I might be inventing but it must be believable. That's why I don't like the term fiction. There is no fiction. Even fantasy is real. It's a tool of my mind, and my mind is real.”

It all comes down to making an emotional connect. “Life without emotion is not worth living. Epics, theatre, opera… they exist because we need them to experience other lives. Lives different from the ones we live everyday.”

He adds, “Some of us have great lives. I have a fantastic life. I was in Chicago a few days ago, I'm in India now, and next week, I'll be in Kenya. But think of a person who does the same thing for his whole life. His work is exhausting and hopeless. He could be a genius, a great writer, an artist. He could be like Alexander the Great, but nobody will ever know. This man has a mind. He needs different lives.”

Storytellers have the privilege of creating these lives, irrespective of who they are, or where they are based. “Imagine a traveller telling stories in a village teahouse. For that moment, he's like a Homer or Vyasa to those villagers. That is the magic of storytelling.”

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