Friday, 16 December 2016

No Picnic on Mount Kenya: Review

I picked this book up a couple of months ago after reading the blub and thinking it sounded interesting. After starting it I quickly discovered that it was possibly the perfect story for me, as it involved both real, historical events and mountain climbing. The fact that it was something I knew very little about all added to the enjoyment.

Here is the blub that first enticed me:

"When the clouds covering Mount Kenya part one morning in May, 1942, to reveal the towering peaks for the first time, Felice Benuzzi is transfixed. The tedium of life in P.O.W Camp 354 is broken by the beginnings of a sudden idea - an outrageous, dangerous, brilliant scheme.
     Few people would break out of a prisoner-of-war camp, trek for days across perilous terrain before climbing the north face of Mount Kenya with improvised equipment, meagre rations, and a picture of the mountain on a tin of beef among their more accurate guides. Fewer still would break back in to the camp on their return."

First, for those who don't know (I didn't before beginning the book) Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa, with the upmost peak at more than 17,000 feet. It also happens to sit right on the equator and is covered in dense forest. At this point in time (January, 1943) probably not more than 20 people had climbed to the very top (which requires ropes and crampons) and they had been excellent mountaineers, well equipped, with plenty of food and assistants. For three, undernourished prisoners, with food collected over months and equipment made from any scraps they could find it seems an impossibility.

More amazing than all this, however - and the story is gripping, tense and exhilarating - is the reason for their journey. Benuzzi begins his story with many fascinating tales of prison camp life and the hateful, dreariness of it. How people can be driven mad, simply by having nothing to do and having life bound by barbed wire. The journey of how they pushed themselves to achieve goals, break boundaries and revel in adventure is a true testament to the human spirit and what we have been created to do. Benuzzi, in beautiful language, takes the reader on the journey, both physically up the mountain, gazing at the wonders around him, but also from captivity to freedom, in body and mind.
     He also puts wonderfully, feelings I have also had, gazing in wonder at the majesty of mountains, albeit smaller ones than Kenya.

"At the foot of one of the branches of the glacier there were two little tarns, one a delicate azure, the other green-gold, the colours pure as jewels. So unexpected was this sight amid the savage scenery of Batian, that I could not help thinking, it is too beautiful, do I deserve to experience it?
     It did not occur to me to exclaim: "Those two tarns are worth so many days in the cells," because spiritual wealth such as we were storing in our memories could have no price at all. Having enjoyed the wonders of the forest by moonlight, by day and by the fire of our bivouacs, having listened to the music of the heath and having seen the ice-bound northern ramparts of Batian at sunrise and sunset, were we really worthy of this further display of beauty?
     If ever since our escape from barbed wire we had utterly forgotten that there existed in this world hatred, war and captivity, we did so at this moment."

As well as the beauty of the language and the sensation of the story, this book has also made me consider our lives.
     Is life something like a prison-of-war, in which we wait for an unknown end and work with whatever skills we have, or don't as the case may be, and are, in the mean time, entertained by the smallest arguments and pieces of  meaningless gossip, usually over exaggerated? When just outside the fence there is a mountain waiting to be climbed, from the top of which a new perspective is gained, a new world discovered, new wonders revealed, which we can hardly imagine. All we need to reach these is hope, something in very short supply in a prison camp, and yet there to be found.

As you may expect, I heartily recommend this novel, even if you know nothing about mountaineering or prison camps. It is one of the best books I have read in a long time.

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