Saturday, May 3, 2014

Journey Back in Time to "Timbuctoo"

I love treasure hunts!  Growing up, my sisters and I would hide the "treasure" (a bottle of soda, a candy bar, a favorite toy, etc.) and then create a series of riddles and clues to lead the "hunter" to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Anytime there was a Jacques Cousteau special on TV, my eyes were glued to it.  To this day I devour articles on sunken ships and the treasures waiting to be discovered.  The Titanic exhibit at the St. Petersburg museum was fascinating in its horrifying sadness (but don't ask me what I thought of the stupid movie - oops).

Some of my favorite movies involve that 'X marks the spot' moment: Indiana Jones, National Treasure (I'm dying for them to finish the script for #3) etc.  Even though Fools Gold was rather idiotic, I still liked the hunt overall.  The element of mystery and intrigue makes the culmination of a treasure hunt story that much more pleasurable when character efforts produce results, especially when the story is wrapped around elements of real-life history.

So when presented with the opportunity to review Tahir Shah's Timbuctoo, I couldn't wait!

Book Blurb:
For centuries, the greatest explorers of their age were dispatched from the power-houses of Europe — London, Paris and Berlin — on a quest unlike any other: To be the first white Christian to visit, and then to sack, the fabled metropolis of Timbuctoo.

Most of them never returned alive.

At the height of the Timbuctoo Mania, two hundred years ago, it was widely believed that the elusive Saharan city was fashioned in entirety from the purest gold — everything from the buildings to the cobble-stones, from the buckets to the bedsteads were said to be made from it.

One winter night in 1815, a young illiterate American seaman named Robert Adams was discovered half-naked and starving on the snow-bound streets of London. His skin seared from years in the African desert, he claimed to have been a guest of the King of Timbuctoo.

At a time when anything American was less than popular, the loss of the colony still fresh in British minds, the thought of an American claiming anything — let alone the greatest prize in exploration — was abhorrent in the extreme.

Closing ranks against their unwelcome American guest, the British Establishment lampooned his tale, and began a campaign of discrediting him, one that continues even today.

An astonishing tale based on true-life endurance, Timbuctoo brilliantly recreates the obsessions of the time, as a backdrop for one of the greatest love stories ever told.

My Review:
Timbuctoo is written in the tradition and carries the tone and address of the classics such as Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.  Many characters are presented throughout.  Seemingly unconnected events are touted on the pages.  It requires your brain to retain scads of information and trust that the author has a point where all will be laid bare.

I love it when a novel engages my gray matter!

Sir Geoffrey Caldecott, a blithering bull and chairman of the Royal African Committee, has sent Major Peddie on a quest to discover the African El Dorado, the purported city of gold known as Timbuctoo.  The committee seeks investors to finance the expedition and is not discerning in the least who wishes to invest - ridiculously wealthy or those of the lowly working class.  He'll take it all - in gold please - and will do with it as he pleases.  After all, they'll soon be swimming in more precious metal than can be measured.

Or will they?

Viscount Richard Fortescue rushes home on one of the bitterest evenings London has seen for so early in the season.  When the driver sharply brakes the carriage, Fortescue confronts the vagrant, only to discover the man is no ordinary panhandler when he is addressed in the Arabic tongue - all wrapped around an American accent.  The Consul at Mogador, Joseph Dupuis, had written only a month prior to inform him of a Mr. Robert Adams who had accomplished what none other had in recent memory.

Reached and returned alive from the depths of the Sahara - and the golden city of Timbuctoo.

Thus Mr. Adams is thrust into the care of the Royal African Committee's secretary, Simon Cochran, to transcribe the entirety of the tale.  The daily verbal delivery soon becomes the talk of London, who flock to the committee's library to listen in rapt attention to Mr. Adams' woes and triumphs - first only a trickle, then by the hundreds jockeying for a seat like it was a sold-out theatre production.

But something notorious is at play - and Caldecott is not about to let the attention on Timbuctoo wane as his coffers fill to bursting.  What is the true purpose of the chairman's schemes?  And to what level will he stoop to attain said purpose?

There are so many layers to Timbuctoo it would take me a book to explain (ha!).  I found the weaving of the tale to be thoroughly enjoyable in that it reminded me of the writings of yesteryear.  I really do love the classics.  

However, in today's world there will probably be many who would not wish to or be able to stick with the story to it's final culmination.  It requires full engagement of your faculties - one which modern novels typically do not require of modern readers, which I find sad.  I believe the educational system should require more of Dickens, Austen, and yes, Shah.  But who am I that they should listen?

The story is rich in history and vast in scope.  Characters and their motivations become clear the further into the novel you read - and at well over five hundred pages, that's going to take a major investment of a reader's time.  Great latitude is taken in constructing side stories around an actual, historical account.  Being a history buff, I was afraid that would bother me (like the aforementioned Titanic anyone?) but found the veil between reality and fiction so expertly blurred that I became immersed in the story, seeing it mostly in a fictional context.

Chapters were very short, which helped tremendously in moving the story along and avoided bogging down with any particular character situation.  However, at the beginning of each "act" there was a very brief description of the story details coming in the following section.  I did not like this, as it gave away all of the key points of what I had yet to read.  Didn't like that at all and subsequently I avoided reading those pages when I would come upon them.

Point-of-view periodically jumped around within a scene, which is always a bit off-putting to me.  But considering the manner in which this story is written, POV follows along the same constructs as classic literature.  As a reader of classic literature, once I wrapped my mind around treating Timbuctoo as such, this became a minor annoyance.

If you have a mind for the classics, you will find Timbuctoo to be a solid addition to your collection.  I give it four stars.

Purchase at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and all other major eReader outlets. 

Author Bio: 
Tahir Shah is the author of fifteen books, many of which chronicle a wide range of outlandish journeys through Africa, Asia and the Americas. For him, there's nothing so important as deciphering the hidden underbelly of the lands through which he travels. Shunning well-trodden tourist paths, he avoids celebrated landmarks, preferring instead to position himself on a busy street corner or in a dusty cafe and observe life go by. Insisting that we can all be explorers, he says there's wonderment to be found wherever we are - it's just a matter of seeing the world with fresh eyes.
Shah's forthcoming novel, TIMBUCTOO, is inspired by a true life tale from two centuries ago. The story of the first Christian to venture to Timbuctoo and back - a young illiterate American sailor - it has been an obsession since Shah discovered it in the bowels of the London Library twenty years ago.

He recently published a collection of his entitled TRAVELS WITH MYSELF, a body of work as varied and as any, with reportage pieces as diverse as the women on America's Death Row, to the trials and tribulations of his encounter in a Pakistani torture jail.

Another recent work, IN ARABIAN NIGHTS, looks at how stories are used in cultures such as Morocco, as a matrix by which information, values and ideas are passed on from one generation to the next. That book follows on the heels of the celebrated CALIPH'S HOUSE: A Year in Casablanca, lauded as one of Time Magazine's Top 10 Books of the year.

His other works include an epic quest through Peru's cloud forest for the greatest lost city of the Incas (HOUSE OF THE TIGER KING), as well as a journey through Ethiopia in search of the source of King Solomon's gold (IN SEARCH OF KING SOLOMON'S MINES). Previous to that, Shah published an account of a journey through the Amazon on the trail of the Birdmen of the Amazon (TRAIL OF FEATHERS), as well as a book of his experiences in India, as a godman's pupil (SORCERER'S APPRENTICE).

Tahir Shah's books have appeared in thirty languages and in more than seventy editions. They are celebrated for their original viewpoint, and for combining hardship with vivid description.

He also makes documentary films, which are shown worldwide on National Geographical Television, and The History Channel. The latest, LOST TREASURE OF AFGHANISTAN, has been screened on British TV and shown worldwide. While researching the programme Shah was arrested along with his film crew and incarcerated in a Pakistani torture jail, where they spent sixteen terrifying days and nights.

His other documentaries include: HOUSE OF THE TIGER KING, SEARCH FOR THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, and THE SEARCH FOR KING SOLOMON'S MINES. And, in addition to documentaries, Shah writes for the big screen. His best known work in this genre is the award-winning Imax feature JOURNEY TO MECCA, telling the tale of the fourteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta's first pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tahir Shah lives at Dar Khalifa, a sprawling mansion set squarely in the middle of a Casablanca Shantytown.  He's married to the graphic designer, Rachana Shah, and has two children, Ariane and Timur.  His father was the Sufi writer, Idries Shah.

Visit his website at 

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