#380 Road trip with Gilgamesh
First published Sept. 21, 2018.
Provoked by Gilgamesh: The Search for a Way Around Death
by Gilmour Walker
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2018.
$18.95 / 9781553805205
Reviewed by Peter Babiak
Inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh, Victoria’s Gilmour Walker (a pseudonym) tells how, in his forties, he left his seaside home in Nova Scotia on a road trip to explore “the great big questions in life,” a journey that took him to such places as Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the legendary location of the Garden of Eden, in what is now Bahrain.
This “whimsical epistolary novella,” writes reviewer Peter Babiak, grapples with those big questions. “The answer is always in the writing because it’s only there that the ephemeral cosmic dust that we are can be mythologized or at least given the consistency of a work of narrative art.” — Ed.
I recently spent a day rereading my old Penguin Classics copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The 4000-year-old story about the historically real but heavily mythologized Sumerian King of Uruk is widely considered to be the first work of literature in human civilisation, though few people are as familiar with it as they are with the other foundational stories it inspired, like the Garden of Eden story and the account of Noah and the Flood in Genesis or Homer’s secular epics, Iliad and Odyssey.
Etched in cuneiform on clay tablets as five distinct heroic poems around 2100 BCE, the fragments were only compiled as a unified narrative a few hundred years later and then definitively assembled on twelve clay tablets in the extinct Akkadian language by Sin-Leqi-Unninni around 1200 BCE.
They were discovered only in 1853 among the ruins of a library across the Tigris River from the city of Mosul, Iraq, a setting that’s still a fulcrum of mythical violence and epic history, most recently when the US waged their war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, then when ISIS filled the political vacuum the Americans left behind with a Caliphate in 2011 and, finally, last year when the Iraqi army drove out the fanatics.
The Akkadian text, which is the standard edition of Gilgamesh among the many partial versions separated by thousands of years of history and too many linguistic barriers to count, opens with an aphorism that still resonates with any reader who’s experienced bouts of existential dread, irrespective of whether the dread is a generic mid-life crisis or the philosophic angst that comes from reading Nietzsche or Camus: “Sha naqba īmuru,” or in English, “The one who saw the Abyss.”
I’d only read Gilgamesh twice before. The first time when researching Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, the title of which refers to a puzzling line Gilgamesh himself says after the death of his friend, Enkidu: “I will let my hair grown long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.”
The characters in Ondaatje’s novel, like those in the Sumerian epic and pretty much every other serious work of literature, confront the always-timely theme of mortality, like in this dazzling line one of them recites to her lover: “I have taught you that the sky in all its zones is mortal. Let me now re-emphasize the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects.”
The second time I read Gilgamesh was after seeing an episode (1991) of Star Trek the Next Generation when Captain Picard meets an alien and manages to overcome the prohibitive barrier of his entirely metaphorical language by recounting the Gilgamesh story, which happens to parallel the structure of an alien story.
In the last scene, Picard is reading Homer and calls it “one of the root metaphors of our own culture,” which is certainly true, as it is of Gilgamesh, even though both tend to be read as reference texts to help us understand the how some contemporary current in culture shares a deep thrum with ancient myth.
Such is the case with Gilmour Walker’s inspired little book, Provoked by Gilgamesh: the Search for a Way Around Death, which marked the third and — given my age and current life expectancy — probably the last time I’ll reread the epic. A whimsical epistolary novella that meshes a comic road-trip with a witty if somewhat heavily allusive tale of a middle-aged man’s “search for a way around death,” the narrative unfolds in a series of letters Walker had written to Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, a Mesopotamian goddess who at times in the ancient epic helps her son along in his search for everlasting life. Her role in this story isn’t entirely clear, though two possibilities are addressed tongue-in-cheek by the fictional publisher in the “Publisher’s Preface” as either “the whim of an unsettled mind or the device of an inventive raconteur.”
The metafictional commentary forms a layer of self-reflexivity that readers will either love or hate, depending on how they read a seriously allusive text whose story at once derives from and is indebted to the original epic. The same can be said for the author’s decision to write under “as close a pseudonym as he could find to that of his hero,” and the same, too, might be said of the fictional Editor’s “footnotes” subscripted throughout Walker’s novella, though this more frequent breaking of the fourth wall is entertaining simply for the Editor’s caustic criticisms of the author.
Clearly, Walker is sufficiently self-deprecating, which is always a treat in a narrative that is experimental. In any case, the literary playfulness will only bother readers who, taking the separation of fiction from reality too seriously, are frustrated with writers who fiddle with their willing suspensions of disbelief. Which is fair enough, since philosophically-inclined novels aren’t for everybody.
Set aside any ontological thickets in Walker’s novella and you’ll find a story that is, at root, epic in its ordinariness. A “bifocalled and balding” man, martini in hand, experiences a “moment of peace” one late summer evening at his seaside home in Nova Scotia, but this peace is upset by thoughts of death and immortality. And so, after a second martini, Walker’s quest to find a “path around” the “dread of dying” begins. That trip moves him, mostly by Greyhound but also by boat and plane, from the East Coast through Southern Ontario and Detroit all the way across the US to Las Vegas, then on to Death Valley, California, and finally to Bahrain, allegedly near Dilmun, the legendary location of the Garden of Eden that also factors in The Epic of Gilgamesh, before heading back to Nova Scotia.
Unlike the original Gilgamesh, who was two-thirds God and one-third human and whose trip involved a series of supersized metaphysical encounters with Gods and Goddesses, Walker travels “also to read,” having “dragged across the continent a small duffle-bag of Proust, Dostoevsky, Dante, the Old Testament, the unread of my working years.” This is, quite literally, a literary tour de force.
That Walker’s middle-aged journey doubles as a meandering trek into the rabbit holes of his own obviously well-read mind is clear when, at a lull somewhere in the desert after his time at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (where “Fallen sky gods were dealing cards”), he writes this: “Gazing at the splayed and twitching form of a recumbent banded gecko justifies a short lecture on the deploring proliferation of, say, massage parlours.”
It is equally at work when, in his funny coda to his “desert musings on sex and death,” which are supposed to echo Enkidu’s seven nights of civilising sex with the sacred harlot Shamhat in the Sumerian epic, Walker confesses that “I did not achieve the totally transporting orgasmic pleasure until I was over forty” and then goes on to describe the sublimity of the experience as “the pleasure principle at the apex, the pinnacle, penis-wise — as the current syntax would have it — that I almost came to believe in that ecstatic state fools talk about and which I deeply suspect. A happy death.”
I should say that all these spirited words on sex and death — the great two pillars without which there would be no great literature, mythical or contemporary — occurs in a remarkably eloquent letter Walker ends with a logical defence of absurdism, or why, contrary to our wishes, “the present will invariably disappoint,” no moment in life ever being more or less meaningful than all the others.
The road trip has been a convention of fictional plot structures from Moses’ trip out of Egypt to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas because it works. There’s a beginning and an end and, as in life, the metaphorical line from one to the other only goes in one direction, from point A to point B, birth to death. Of course, the most memorable part of any trip involves moving off the well-worn or scheduled path, and there are plenty of random interjections and seemingly arbitrary detours in Walker’s novella.
On more than one occasion the novella reminded me of Sentimental Journey, Laurence Sterne’s satiric novel on the European tour where every narrative detour, no matter how haphazard, leads back to the narrator’s steady theme. But then I also found myself thinking that Walker’s novella is like a more cerebral and less pugilistic riff on perhaps one of the most quotable lines from Palahniuk’s Fight Club: “This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.” Both Sterne and Palahniuk, as different as they are as writers, are good because they craft sentences and structure narratives that exude the glint thoughtfulness. The same goes for Walker.
That thoughtfulness comes out mostly in the excrescences of the text, as it does in all thematic or mythical texts, including the original Epic that provoked Walker’s novella. The answer to their big questions, Gilgamesh and Walker both learn, is that “There is no permanence,” which is so striking in its simplicity, and yet for all that it doesn’t really answer those big questions. The only answer, we might say, is in the account, the narrative, whether it was cuneiform inscriptions on clay or black marks on a white page. The answer is always in the writing because it’s only there that the ephemeral cosmic dust that we are can be mythologized or at least given the consistency of a work of narrative art. “Sometimes,” Walker writes in his final letter, “I think I have done nothing more than to make death my project, writing — and sub-editing — my own obituary. I hope it is more than that.” It is much more than that.
Here is the core reason I enjoyed reading this book. It’s not an easy read. I was confused, and, on too many occasions, I had to reach for my iPhone to Google an allusion that escaped me or to look up a quote that I couldn’t tell was made up or a real reference to another book. It’s not easy, but it’s a challenging read, an intellectual tale that will likely not sustain the interest of readers whose understanding of myth stops or starts with Game of Thrones or American Gods.
It’s tempting to conclude that Walker’s narrative interjections and asides risk alienating readers, and this can always happen with smart books like this one, but I’m more inclined to think that Walker’s sheer playfulness sutures the deathly-heavy mood that will always characterize a person’s quest for the answers to the great big questions in life with the existential laughter of the gods. It’s the solemnity of Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad happily refashioned with Homer Simpson’s prosaic thinking.
Here is Walker, for example, writing to Ninsun from the desert on a poignant Christmas Eve. He is writing to her about the beauty of spending Christmas alone, with no food or gifts but just books, and then transcribes the Table of Contents from an Erica Jong collection of poems: “It will be a sign of my sophistication that I liked the poem until I found that it was the contents page.” Now that’s funny.
Beyond that, there is the simple fact that reading Walker’s book led me to reread The Epic of Gilgamesh. Commenting on the derivative nature of much literature, George Steiner once said that, “unable to create for itself a body of myth, the modern imagination will ransack the treasure house of the classic.” It probably always has. Kids in Iraq used to learn to read and write by copying the Epic, just like European kids learned by reading and writing passages from the Bible. The Epic is a work that is distant to modern readers, but so what? It was important in a civilization that was, before the Roman or the Greek to which we arbitrarily ascribe our origins, a root for our own Western culture, and it’s a good thing to know or to know about, as Walker shows us.
Born and raised in the GTA, Peter Babiak now lives and writes in East Vancouver. He teaches linguistics, composition, and English Lit at Langara College, and writes for subTerrain Magazine. His commentary and creative nonfiction has been nominated for both B.C. and national magazine awards and his collection of essays — Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction, published by Anvil Press in 2016 — was a Montaigne Medal finalist and an Honourable Mention in the Culture Category of the Eric Hoffer Awards. His work was selected for The Best Canadian Essays (Tightrope Books) both in 2017 and 2018. He has two dogs, a garden, and an alluring garage.
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