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.


  1. Damn, I’d read that book if it weren’t for the stupid hat.

  2. Good thing you live in a house instead of small apt.

  3. Of course the connection is the Arran sweater, knitted lovingly by the womenfolk of the Caucasian hill-tribes, to keep their men warm when they braved long nights and winter snows in their mountain ventures. If such man were to fall down a ravine, it is said that he could be identified by the pattern his wife had knitted into the sweater.

  4. The connection with the historical kingdom of Alba, I mean. Damn.

  5. Yes, it DOES sound good… and no, I don’t have a book addiction either, although I do live in a smallish Moscow apartment and am running out of walls for book shelves. But if I build in shelves in the entry hall, I can definitely get another 8 shelves, and then there’s that space in the dining room…

  6. If you’ve never read Chabon, you’re in for a treat. It seems possible (though unlikely) that you’ve never read Umberto Eco’s
    Baudolino ?

  7. I have not. I loved Name of the Rose, though, so I should give it a try.

  8. Some terms I looked up, mostly in Wikipedia, while reading this:-
    shatranj: an early form of chess.
    bambakion (βαμβάκιον): “A padded leather or cotton under-garment, worn under the cuirass” by Byzantine infantry.
    buskin: a laced, open-toed knee- or calf-length boot.
    Tiflis: modern Tbilisi.
    Svan: member of an ethnic group, from the Svaneti region in Georgia.
    Mehr: the seventh month of the Persian calendar, corresponding to late September/early October.
    Rhages: Ray, a city in northern Persia, now a suburb of Tehran.
    tarpan: the Eurasian wild horse, now extinct.

  9. LH,
    – your lovely wife reads Cassandra Pages? Guess it’s yet another case of my being very…er…opaque at comprehending people.
    I have told you about Baudolino. Decades ago. You’re falling back on your required reading!
    – I have nothing to read. To the point that I went to the mid-Manhattan library and left unburdened, sans a single book: who are all those people on the shelves? I don’t know them and don’t want to. The whole thing looks like a pulp lit warehouse. Give me some recommendations, pls, I’m dying of book starvation.
    MAB: have you considered unreclaimed space above the doors/door openings?

  10. I have told you about Baudolino. Decades ago. You’re falling back on your required reading!
    I know, I know!

  11. Tat,
    may I humbly suggest Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy?

  12. Done, during my summer vacations while in high school.
    But maybe you’re right and I should reread it…на безрыбьи.

  13. Tatyana,
    I have a copy of “Ogniem i mieczem” on my nightstand, that’s why it popped up.
    Let’s see what else we have here… A lot of Mór Jókai, some Daniel Katz, “Den femte kvinnan” by Henning Mankell, the latest novel by Eco, Milorad Pavić’s “Dictionary of the Khazars” and selection of poems by Faridaddin Attar. Anything you think you’d like?

  14. Eco – maybe, Pavich – bla, Mor Jokai – have to investigate further, poems – you gotta be kidding.
    Katz – although David McDuff’ translation is a big “pro”, the plot sounds..erm..designed for “contemporary lit” seminars. No, seriously: “a beautiful seductive Bosnian, ganged-raped in the war, married to elderly Finnish peacekeeper-colonel”? Think how much more exposure Katz would gain if he only had a hindsight to make her a Muslim l*sbian?
    [really, LH, l*sbian is not a curse word!]

  15. Mr. Hat is very prudish indeed.
    The Finnish peacekeepers have a marching band. Finland played a role in Namibian independence, and many Namibians were named after the Finnish President of that time.

  16. Relevant, as usual.

  17. MAB: have you considered unreclaimed space above the doors/door openings?
    Yes, don’t laugh, but actually I have. Because Russian apartments have no built-in closets, residents have figured out how to put in mini-storage spaces above doors called antresol’. I’ve got two planned…
    Tat, have you already read Orhan Pamuk? Or The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak?

  18. I wasn’t laughing at the least. As soon as you said “small Moscow apartment” I immediately recalled my great-aunt’s antresols.
    Shortage of space in an urban environment is a chronic problem, so you can expect other people already came up with number of solutions, and not only in Moscow. Look up apartmenttherapy-dot-com, I’m sure you can find ‘bookshelves’ in their archived “open threads”.
    Pamuk: *Snow was good, his early work I couldn’t get thru. I’ll look up Shafak, tnx.

  19. Tat: Even My Name is Red and the White Castle? I had a hard time with the Black Book and the New Life, but I think because of the translation. The Black Book is being retranslated, if I’m not mistaken. Shafak also has a new novel out called the Bastard of Istanbul, which looks quite interesting.
    If you are someone from this part of the world, Pamuk is interesting, particularly My Name is Red. I keep saying that it’s like Pamuk packed up all the cursed questions and themes of Russian life and moved them to Turkey. Of course, that’s not right — Turkey, between East and West, once an empire, a country with an authoritarian past, ethnic groups it can’t deal with, and a modernization campaign that cut off people from their cultural past — is in many ways similar to Russia. Not surprisingly, Pamuk has a big readership here.
    Sorry this got off topic…

  20. I too recommend Pamuk, and there’s no such thing as “getting off topic” here at LH—the world is our topic!

  21. modernization campaign that cut off people from their cultural past ?
    Oh no, MAB, I have a different reason for reading Pamuk. It’s like a pathologist’s diary, a description of a decease spreading, a cure horribly botched by practitioners. Illustration to why barbarians will never become civilized. Fascinating record.
    I think it was either Black Book or the New Life..the one nauseating babble about a guy in search of a magic Book, who travels pointlessly around Turkey on buses. Terribly irritating.

  22. an enjoyable extract, some tantalizing words – but ‘caravansary’? the suffix ‘-serai’ better promotes correct pronunciation and is the one i am familiar with in UK English translations.
    buskins are my favourite item of clothing which sound as though you could eat ’em 🙂

  23. Caravansery is an old spelling he presumably finds more colorful (1712 ADDISON Spect. No. 289 {page}9 A house that changes its inhabitants so often, and receives such a perpetual succession of guests, is not a Palace but a Caravansary. 1801 SOUTHEY Thalaba V. viii, Not in sumptuous Caravansery).

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