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Review of The Aztec Treasure House by Evan S. Connell

by Thomas Wiloch
The Aztec Treasure House: New and Selected Essays by Evan S. Connell, Counterpoint. [First published in Rain Taxi Review of Books, winter, 2001/2002.]

Evan S. Connell is best known for such historical novels as Son of the Morning Star, an account of General Custer's last stand at Little Bighorn, and Deus Lo Volt!, set during the Crusades. The 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, a domestic drama of an upper-class WASP family starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, is based on two of his novels. The versatile Connell has also published short stories, poems, and essays.

The Aztec Treasure House exhibits Connell's longstanding interest in historical subjects, gathering together twenty of his essays, three previously unpublished, which focus on the often monumental efforts required to move human knowledge a small step forward. In these brilliant, lucid, and ironic essays, Connell looks at the explorers, linguists, historians, archeologists, dreamers, obsessives, and just plain geniuses who have persevered against great odds to make beneficial discoveries or useful scientific advances. While some essays focus on a particular individual, Connell often tells of the many individuals, both failures and successes, whose myriad contributions led to our understanding of a particular subject.

In "The White Lantern," for example, Connell outlines the history of Antarctic exploration, beginning with a Polynesian legend of a great land of ice and snow far to the South once visited by a member of their tribe. That explorer's description kept his people away for centuries; it was left to such unlikely adventurers as Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Robert Scott's expedition, to explore this desolate realm. Cherry-Garrard's assignment was to find specimens of penguin eggs. Along with two other men, he set out across the treacherous wasteland. In his memoir of the outing, entitled The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry-Garrard recounted how the small party suffered from hunger, snow blindness, and frostbite. He told of how, at night, the men had to enclose themselves in their sleeping bags to stay warm, their breath freezing on the inner lining so that as time went on, the bags became completely airtight and the air more foul and difficult to breathe. The men finally did succeed in finding three penguin eggs and returning to camp, an event which startled the rest of the expedition, who assumed they had died. And the eggs ended up at London's Natural History Museum where they created "no particular excitement," Connell notes. So much for success.

A similar fate was enjoyed by Sir Douglas Mawson, who attempted and failed to map an area of Antarctica near Wilkes Island. Mawson, two companions, 18 dogs, and three sledges headed out one November day in 1912. After traveling some 300 miles, Mawson lost one of his companions when the sledge the man was riding fell into a deep crevasse. The sledge also held much needed food. As things got worse for the party, the remaining men were reduced to eating their dogs, one by one, and trudging along snowblinded. When Mawson's second companion died, he continued on alone. After falling into a crevasse himself, and dangling at the end of his 14-foot rope over an icy abyss, Mawson was inspired by the words of a Robert Service poem (!) to claw his way out to safety. When his feet began to deteriorate from the intense cold, Mawson tied the loose soles into place so he could keep walking. Connell speculates that had Mawson "found his way blocked by a polar bear it seems likely he would have torn the beast apart with his hands, swallowed it, and marched on."

Less harrowing quests for knowledge are recounted in essays on the scholarly search for possible Viking explorations in North America, for the origins of the Etruscans, and for evidence of human evolution. In these selections, Connell's scholarly heroes face only the dangers of looking foolish if they advance a theory that proves to be wrong. Here, too, we are shown the sometimes tenuous nature of what we believe to be true, the surprisingly thin evidence for certain theories, and the random ways that breakthroughs can occur. In "Vinland Vinland," for example, Connell traces the history of our knowledge of Viking explorations in North America, including the saga stories of journeys to unknown lands, the historical records of Viking settlements to the west of Greenland, alleged artifacts found (including the famous Kensington rune stone of Minnesota and an 11th-century Norse penny found in Maine), and even old Indian legends about bearded white men who sailed from the east. Connell's usual approach is to mention an intriguing find–old Viking mooring holes found along the coast of Cape Cod, say--then lean over to his bookshelf to locate a passage from another scholar who proves this find to be nothing more than blasting holes made by Colonial settlers. Along the way, this approach delivers all the hits and misses and intriguing maybes that form a part of the ongoing scholarly investigation.

Connell also writes of those who sought mythical places, such as Atlantis, Eldorado, or the Northwest Passage, and whose efforts led to nothing. From these adventurers, too, Connell draws lessons. Many of these misguided Quixotes share the same attributes–courage, persistence, dedication--found in their more successful brethren and are, on that basis alone, worthy of some respect. And sometimes searching for the imaginary can accidently lead one to find a bit of useful reality. Those searching for the Northwest Passage, for example, mapped an awful lot of terrain. Perhaps no quest is ultimately worthless.

In all of these essays, Connell includes ironic asides, wanders off into intriguing historical sidetracks, and offers his own thoughtful speculations. Written from the viewpoint of an amateur who has read widely on each subject in question, these essays are entertaining, informative, and even humorous. Keep this treasure house close to hand for those long gloomy winter evenings.