In yesterday’s post on the name Albany I mentioned in passing “the ancient Albania in the Caucasus.” The Persian name for the Caucasian Albania is Arran. Today, when I leafed through the NY Times Magazine, I glanced at the serialized fiction in the Funny Pages, which I usually skip (life being too short), and I saw a new serial by Michael Chabon (pronounced, in his words, “Shea as in Shea Stadium, Bon as in Jovi”) called “Gentlemen of the Road” whose first chapter bore the title “On Discord Arising From Excessive Love of a Hat” and whose dateline read “KINGDON OF ARRAN, in the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, A.D. 950.” I was immediately hooked. The first paragraph did not unhook me:
For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in 10 languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve. Engrossed in the study of a small ivory shatranj board with pieces of ebony and horn, and in the stew of chickpeas, carrots, dried lemons and mutton for which the caravansary was renowned, the African held the place nearest the fire, his broad back to the bird, with a view of the doors and the window with its shutters thrown open to the blue dusk. On this temperate autumn evening in the kingdom of Arran in the eastern foothills of the Caucasus, it was only the two natives of burning jungles, the African and the myna, who sought to warm their bones. The precise origin of the African remained a mystery. In his quilted gray bambakion with its frayed hood, worn over a ragged white tunic, there was a hint of former service in the armies of Byzantium, while the brass eyelets on the straps of his buskins suggested a sojourn in the West. No one had hazarded to discover whether the speech of the known empires, khanates, emirates, hordes and kingdoms was intelligible to him. With his skin that was lustrous as the tarnish on a copper kettle, and his eyes womanly as a camel’s, and his shining pate with its ruff of wool whose silver hue implied a seniority attained only by the most hardened men, and above all with the air of stillness that trumpeted his murderous nature to all but the greenest travelers on this minor spur of the Silk Road, the African appeared neither to invite nor to promise to tolerate questions. Among the travelers at the caravansary there was a moment of admiration, therefore, for the bird’s temerity when it seemed to declare, in its excellent Greek, that the African consumed his food in just the carrion-scarfing way one might expect of the bastard offspring of a bald-pated vulture and a Barbary ape.
I have not read anything of Chabon’s before, but I will be reading this, and I figure there are bound to be at least a few of my readers for whom the conjunction of medieval Caucasian kingdoms, birds that spew indecencies in 10 languages, and hats will be as seductive as it was for me, so I am mentioning it here.
Also, my lovely wife pointed out to me a post at The Cassandra Pages that linked to a story by Irwin Block at The Gazette (Montreal) about 86-year-old George Butcher, whose “kitchen, bedrooms and hallways are stacked floor to ceiling with books covering every conceivable subject”—”15,000 is a fair estimate.” I can’t imagine what conceivable relevance this might have to me, but perhaps it will strike a chord with someone else out there, someone addicted to books. I don’t have an addiction, nosirree. I can stop whenever I want. I just haven’t chosen to stop yet.