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This report is taken from PN Review 160, Volume 31 Number 2, November - December 2004.

'Moonlight and Vodka' Marius Kociejowski

I have been reading The Journal of Friar William of Rubruck, a thirteenth-century account of travels among the Tartars, which is remarkable for its powers of observation or, rather, for the contemporary feel it evokes. The author had an eye unclouded by the religiose and so fresh is his narrative style, so uncluttered his prose, one can just about smell the horse manure. I am particularly grateful for the description of men skimming over ice, on skates fashioned from animal bones and tied to the bottoms of their shoes. One senses here, to employ an already hackneyed phrase, the shock of the new. Also, as if one didn't know already, the book serves to illustrate what a fearsome bunch those Tartars were. The punishments for seemingly mild transgressions, such as approaching a master's chair from the wrong side, were severe while murder was often looked upon with indulgence. It is the minutiae of their lives, though, that especially intrigue me, the fact, for example, that Tartars never went back by the same road they came. It was also considered bad luck to pass by an abandoned encampment where the fires had not fully burned down. I wonder if these strictures might not be applied to the writing of prose.

I started reading the book in Moscow, appropriately enough, where I think I spotted quite a few Tartar faces. If the manner of my approach is somewhat tangential the challenge, perhaps, is to make it more so. Que ...

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