Ararat by Frank Westerman, translated by Sam Garrett
Who was Noah? The Bible tells us little. He was the flood hero of course, but what else? A drunken viniculturist who lived to the age of 950; who was 600 at the time of the flood and 500 when he fathered Shem, Ham and Japheth. His wrinkled bottom was ogled by his 100-year-old sons when he passed out from drunkeness in his tent one night. But was he not also an ‘upright man’ and a man who ‘walked with God’?
Each year hundreds of pilgrims, known as ‘Arkeologists’ make their way to Mount Ararat (where the Turkish, Armenian and Iranian borders meet) hoping to find clues and relics. Some return home with splints of wood, others only with soft memories of mystic vision. Arkeologists are simple folk, of whom the late Apollo astronaut, James Irwin, was one. They ignore the fact that in Genesis, Noah’s ship came to rest ‘in the mountains of Ararat’, which is not the same as ‘on Mount Ararat’. Never mind, they say, and never mind that the modern ‘Mount Ararat’ is situated outside the old Kingdom of Ararat and is not therefore among the ‘Mountains of Ararat’. Why should Arkeologists care if their mountain only got its name from Marco Polo in the 13th century? The Turks always called it Agri Dagi (Mountain of Pain), the Armenians, Masis (Mother Mountain), and the Kurds, Ciyaye Agiri (Fiery Mountain). If you start with an unbudgeable faith in Ararat you don’t give a fig that the Qu’ran claims that the Ark came to rest on al-Judi, a mountain miles to the south; that the 2nd-century BC Book of Jubilees says it was Mount Lubar, that Nicholas of Damascus says it was an Armenian peak called Baris.In the Babylonian account, the oldest extant Deluge story, from which the Genesis authors undoubtedly snitched their plot, the Ark lands on the top of Mount Nizir.
Enter Frank Westerman, a clever, talented 43-year-old Dutchman of Puritan stock. His grandfather and mother were Creationists. He was baptised and, brought up in rigid Protestant faith, ‘permeated with Christianity’, but from his early twenties he ceased to pray. At university he studied tropical agriculture, then he became a journalist, reporting from war-torn Bosnia and later from Moscow. His books have won important literary prizes. He first saw Ararat, the great mountain-volcano, from the Soviet side. It seemed to pull him. ‘I wanted,’ he says, ‘to test my resolve as a non-believer … to see whether faith could touch me or not.’ Soon he had forged a plan: to climb to its summit and to write a book about ‘belief and knowledge, religion and science, with Ararat as its focal point’. So he decided to leave his young wife and daughter and to scale the 17,000-footer on his own. When Westerman outlined this scheme to his publisher he was abruptly warned: ‘Promise me one thing: that halfway through the manuscript you won’t start writing he with a capital H.’ ‘And if I do?’ he asked. ‘Then I won’t publish it.’
God does appear as a ‘Him’ halfway through, but his publisher either failed to notice or decided that Westerman was far too good an author to reprimand. The result of his labours is a short book of stupendous richness and complexity, a cornucopia of jumbled facts about geology, history and science, woven into a personal memoir and travelogue that combines stories about the lives of his teachers with information about Dutch mining, family sentiment, religious belief, academic rivalry, portraits of fellow travellers, mountaineering history, politics, personalities and an abundance of lesser, uncategorisable side-detail. All this diverse material is held together by a thread of tension as to whether Westerman will find faith halfway up the mountain. When the air is thin, the climber exhausted, the cold starts to bite and the sweeping views turn to an icy blur, will our hero and guide suddenly behold the Arkeologists’ light? Will he start digging for shards of the patriarch’s wine glasses under the rubble of the Ahora Gorge, or fall prostrate before an outcrop of rock known as the ‘Ararat Anomaly’ that some believe to be the fossilised remains of the Ark?
At timed intervals Westerman taunts his readers with this possibility. If faith could come to the astronaut, he argues, maybe it will also come to him. The book (a fine translation from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) is unquestionably eccentric, but written with enough knowledge, craft and competence to keep the drowsiest of readers wide awake from first to last. The answer to the author’s most pressing question is tucked neatly behind a glancing metaphor right at the end.