‘Xanadu, A Journey is a book of 200 pages written by Hasnat Abdul Hye, published by Pen and Ink and distributed by the University Press Limited. The book in the main records intimate travel diary of the author from Beijing to inner Mongolia, the cold barren country from where the Mongol hordes of the world’s most famous barbarian, Gengis Khan, rode out on horseback to conquer and rule the biggest empire of the old world of Asia and Europe. Essentially, however, the book represents an aesthetic inspiration, that of the author’s literary memory of the highly imaginative poem ‘Kubla Khan’ or a vision in a dream, by the eighteenth century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in turn inspired by a travel anthology Pilgrimage by Samuel Purchas. In his concluding chapter, the author describes the original inspiration of Coleridge as follows: ‘Coleridge, in his poem “Kubla Khan”, immortalised Xanadu…the poem casts a magic spell in painting a landscape of fantasy.’
In 1797, Coleridge went to a solitary farmhouse in Somerset to recuperate. It is said that as part of the medical regimen he took opium one day and soon fell asleep in his chair…the line (from Pilgrimage) that he was reading before slipping into a stupor is said to be. ‘He (Kubla Khan) ordered the erection of a palace with royal gardens encircled by walls within an area of ten square miles?’ According to the poet himself, the poem was woven in a drowsy dream. Images shaped themselves in the subconscious. ‘The author later adds from his own travel experience and relevant research. The extant ruins of Xanadu at present do not provide any basis for comparison with Coleridge’s poem. The monumental gate of the palace, soaring towers and surrounding gardens with fragrant trees are nowhere to be seen; in their place there is vast grassland with almost invisible remains of broken and discontinuous walls. Only the river Alph flows, looking serene in its almost transparent blue, meandering over golden steppes with great speed. It is needless to point out that Coleridge never saw Xanadu in its pristine state….All accounts of Xanadu in its fill glory were based on Marco Polo’s The Travels and (on) hearsay… In 1927 John Livingstone Lowes, an American critic, wrote ‘The road to Xanadu’ analysing the techniques and sources used in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ … According to Lowes, there were more sources used for the poem than mentioned by Coleridge. Thus it is implied that ‘Kubla Khan’ was the inevitable result of the mixture of opium dream and eclectic reading’
May I add that Hasnat Abdul Hye’s own narrative of his adventure and fact-finding in Xanadu and from reference books (a list of which he appended at the end of his writings) has followed suit with an admirable mixture of poetic’ imagination and scientific information that cover the blank spaces of a virtually defaced destination of an eventless journey that he cheered up by mental soliloquies like minimal effects in abstract painting? The author’s enthralling obsession with Xanadu seeking a sur-realistic aesthetic experience, persists through the narrative, amply supplemented in the book with a route map from Beijing to Xanadu (drawn by Liu Aiping, the Chinese lady-gude who accompanied the author), a sketch of Xanadu palace and gardens from an American Geographical Society publication 1925, a picture of Kubla Khan from, Mousell Collection reproduced in Everyman’s Encyclopedia, 1978, an illustration of Kubla Khan on his throne on the backs of elephants going to battle, from the life and times of Marco Polo by James Brown, 1994, another illustration of Marco Polo with his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo offering papal letters to Kubla Khan on their return to China in 1271, from a 14th century manuscript reproduced in Chambers Encyclopaedia, 1987, the map of the Mongol Empire as it appeared around 1300, from Encyclopedia Britannica, 1966, and a host of sight-seeing photographs from his own tour. I can honestly say his Xanadu-phile inspiration combined with the wealth of information communicates through the narrative to impress on the reader with a vision of Coleridge’s drowsy dream decreed by Kubla Khan ‘where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea’ whereupon ‘twice five miles of fertile ground with walls and towers were girdled round and there were gardens bright with sinuous fills, where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree: and here were forests ancient as the hills, enfolding sunny spots of greenery.’ In the course of his travel story, the writer also prepares the reader adequately for the anti-climax of ‘ The Waste Land’ of T.S. Eliot that Xanadu now represents. To add colour to his narrative, the author ‘nativised’ his Bangla-English expressions by jocular loud thinking, Bengali style. Had he been a little more than mildly impolite even if far short ot the level Salman Rushdie preferred by his English rendering of commonplace Urdu-Hindi obscenities in his Midnight Children, the impact could have been patently entertaining. But perhaps the author did not want that and limited his digressions to the level of dry humour that do not obscure his Xanadu-phile mood. The dramatis personae of his travel diary thereby acquired a conformity of character that represented more the mood of the author than their diverse traits.
The book is hard-bound, with a pretty jacket cover designed by the author himself with some symbolic cut-outs of castles, horse-riders and mounted elephants in collage, and a photograph of the author beside the river Alph taken by Liu Aiping in the backside.
The meticulous care taken by the author in the production of the book complete with appendices and indices is eminently praise-worthy.
The Independent, January 2000.