THE SNOW LEOPARD by Peter Matthiessen
Can words send you up a mountain? To a place where “snow, silence, wind and blue” reign? A friend categorically said they couldn’t; but I begged to disagree — after all, I was cradling in my hands, an old copy of The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s journey to the Crystal Mountain.
Travelling over the Himalayas from South to North, Matthiessen, along with his friend, zoologist George Schaller, go in search of the snow leopard and the blue sheep. And when they get to Shey Gompa (the highest inhabited land in the world), after 35 arduous days of trekking, they stay in a humble clay-topped dwelling, illuminated by a single beam of sunlight, as in a “medieval painting” and watch wolves chase blue sheep down vertiginous slopes.
Matthiessen brings that mist-cloaked land alive with his curious and utterly compelling imagery; he writes of “moving about like shadows in a dark canyon”, the “scratch and whisper of sere leaves”, and the “rhythmic soft sweet grunts” of two girls striking corn with a wooden pestle…
It works because…
It’s an extraordinary journey, told with ordinary words (as Matthiessen writes); and the effect is exquisite. When he starts off, Matthiessen is full of anxieties; memories from another place and time (of his wife, who had recently died of cancer, his little son waiting back home for his return) crowd his thoughts. But with every passing peak, glacier and cloud-kissed mountain, his worries melt like snow in the sun.
And since the book is but a journal reproduced, you see, clearly, the calming changes, the quietness that steals up on him. However, to be honest, there were times when the introspections seemed long-winded; and I simply flipped ahead to the next riveting bit, which made me wonder — all over again — if the people who lived in the high mountains had tamed the rocks and ravines, or if the neck-deep snows and swift rivers had domesticated them.
For, the land that Matthiessen walks is really that fierce; the first couple of pages of the book are given over to maps and you see the Himalayas as a confusing whorl of crinkled peaks.
And yet, with his words — simple, yet expertly strung together — Matthiessen takes you places, where snow blinds, wind slaps, ledges two feet across connect mountain tops, where cone-shaped peaks thrust into the clear, blue sky and “ribbon waterfalls… turns to mist before striking the earth”. And my muscles ached with sympathetic pain; I had walked a mountain on words.
And this one stays with you…
“In the clearness of this Himalayan air, mountains draw near, and in such splendour, tears come quietly to my eyes and cool on my sunburned cheeks. This is not mere soft-mindedness, nor am I all that silly with the attitude. My head has cleared in these weeks free of intrusions — mail, telephones, people and their needs — and I respond to things spontaneously, without defensive or self-conscious screens. Still, all this feeling is astonishing: not so long ago I could say truthfully that I had not shed a tear in twenty years.”