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Book Review December 26, 2001
The mongols of Ulster
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Book cover

In the Empire of Genghis Khan: A Journey among Nomads

by Stanley Stewart
Flamingo Books 2001
7.99 pounds UK

Everybody loves the Mongols these days. Everybody wishes they'd pass through again, only a little more thoroughly this time. Make the Earth quiet and safe for quadrapeds again, clean off the biped infestation which is making the place so ugly and dull.

Cavafy voiced our longing for the Mongol horde a century ago, in his poem "Waiting for the Barbarians." After the anticipated nomadic invaders fail to show, the poet complains:

Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?

Those people were a kind of solution.

Cavafy's longing for the Mongols has taken a long time to filter into the stolid English-speaking world. The first time I ever heard anyone admit it was when Nico showed up unannounced at the Mab and sang I song I'll never forget. It was a list of slaughtering nomad hordes, Timurlane and Genghis...and the chorus went, "You know you're on their secret side."

Perhaps if Punk had not been smothered by the Clash, the DKs and all the other sheep in wolves' clothing, we would have been able to appreciate the Mongols sooner. But in a world divided between hippies and suits, no one would speak for the dying nomad cultures. It's only now -- now that Afghanistan, legendary homeland of chaos and galloping hordes, has proved to be no more impregnible than a screen door -- that mainstream writers in the Victorian consensus can admit they love the city-killing hordes. After all, what harm in that? They're an endangered species, no more dangerous than the Siberian Tiger or the Asian Lion.

Once a culture reaches the verge of extinction, it becomes cute. The Highlanders after 1745, the Irish after the Famine, the Sioux after Wounded Knee; once we kill'em off, we love'em to death. And the Mongols have been pushed so far toward extinction that they're fair game for our author, one Stanley Stewart, who admits in a moment of candor that "[the Mongols] have the archaic appeal of Amazonian tribes with their blowpipes or Lapps chasing after reindeer. The fact that they had once been powerful only adds to their melancholy charm."

So Stewart, a rightwing British journalist, decides to ride horseback across Central Asia to Mongolia, retracing some of the routes the Mongol armies took as they pursued their thirteenth-century planet-scrubbing work. It's the sort of Sentimental Journey Western reactionaries have been making for two hundred years, and the formula is well set by the time Stewart mounts his first Mongol pony. Stewart is not shy about underlining the Tory agenda of his trip; one of the reasons he seeks out the Mongols is that, for him and his readers in the Spectator and Telegraph, the nomads are the ultimate conservatives: "Like all nomads, Mongolians are politically conservative," he notes approvingly.

Not a very pleasant figure, this Stewart. As he moves through Central Asia, he reveals himself as an ungrateful guest, a vendor of cliches (eg "He was not a happy camper") and a bigot, with all the prejudices of his Ulster childhood not merely intact but proudly burnished and on display. Still, he does tell a decent story. Most bigots do, for that matter; it's their best tactic. And he does a decent job of keeping the jokes and the local colour going as he meanders across Asia, dishing out anecdotes according to the recipe Redmond O'Hanlon perfected in Into the Heart of Borneo: take a wacky Brit and shove him into the jungle...or tundra...or, in this case, the steppes...and watch the slapstick begin.

The recipe calls for generous helpings of what is called "self-deprecating" comedy. But there are always plenty of hints that the traveler, for all his comic ignorance of savage ways, is actually a chip off the good old Imperial block, well able to take anything the local vermin can dish out and retain his Britannic majesty.

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