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Susan Daitch: The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir
The title of this book sounds as though it might be an Indiana Jones type novel. While it certainly has Indiana Jones elements, as it is written by Susan Daitch, it is much more than that. Perhaps it could be described as the thinking person’s post-modernist Indiana Jones, as it is a highly intelligent and very well-written novel.
Smart people will notice straight away that the lost city referred to – Suolucidir – is, of course the word ridiculous backwards. This is important as Daitch refers to numerous real archaeological finds and places, and seems to have an extensive knowledge of the subject. Suolucidir is located near the very real Taftan a volcano in South-East Iran which destroyed the city some two thousand or more years ago. It is also near Shahr-e Sukhteh, also known as The Burnt City, which also suddenly disappeared some two thousand years ago and may have been part of an unknown civilisation, of which Suolucidir is one of the cities. It has also been suggested that this civilisation was Aratta or, alternatively, Jiroft civilisation. (The YouTube links on the Wikipedia site do not work but you can see videos about the Burnt City here and here.) In the opening chapter of this book, we briefly see Suolucidir on its last day of existence before being buried in the sand.
The story is narrated mainly by Ariel Bokser, though he quotes extensively from the notebooks of others. He had met his future wife, Ruth, on top of a Mexican pyramid. Ruth, a very energetic woman, is very keen on the archaeology of sites in modern-day Latin America. They are, in many cases, well-known and their civilisations well documented. In short, there is a certainty about them. Ariel was the son of a mineralogist who had spent much time in South Asia and had brought back the notebook of Sidonie Nieumacher, wife of Bruno. The pair were Russian émigrés and had been the second group of Western archaeologists to explore Suolucidir. (The first were Hilliard and Congreaves, two British archaeologists.) Sidonie had kept detailed notes (mainly in Yiddish, which Ariel could read). He had discovered the notebook only after his father’s death and just managed to save it from destruction by his stepmother. The notebook, which goes on to have an Indiana Jones-style lively if chequered history, being stolen more than once in this novel, inspires him to look for Suolucidir. Ruth is having none of it, not least because there is no clear evidence that it exists or existed. She heads off to Mexico with another man, while Ariel heads off to Iran.
As we have seen, others had tried to find Suolucidir. Not only had they not been successful, they had often ended up at best in prison or, at worst, dead. The Nieumachers had apparently found a scroll, currently in an Iranian archaeological institute and that is Ariel’s first stop but his contact there no longer works there. As this is Iran under the Shah, this does not bode well. No-one else can or will help him. However, stepping into Indiana Jones territory, Ariel manages to get some help, dodge Savak agents and unsuccessfully explore the desert area where Suolucidir might be located. He is about it give up when he falls down a hole and finds the city. However, it all goes wrong, as the Shah is driven out and Ayatollah takes over. The Ayatollah and his supporters do not welcome Americans digging in Iran and Ariel just manages to escape with his life (and little else) back to the United States. Indeed, firm existence of the existence of Suolucidir has a strange habit of being destroyed, confiscated or simply disappearing.
He does spend time reading Sidonie’s notebook and he shares this with us. We follow the adventures of the Nieumachers, from Berlin and Kristallnacht to Marseilles and onto to Iran. Russian spies, bumbling British officials and daring escapes from fast-moving police cars are all part of their exciting adventures, as they set off on what they call the Franco-Soviet Friendship Dig. Yes, they do find… something but is it Suolucidir?
Daitch has written what can definitely be seen as a post-modern send-up of the traditional lost city/adventure/Indiana Jones-type novel. Many of the major characters disappear in mysterious circumstances. Some die. However, in most if not all cases, there is considerable doubt about both their disappearance and deaths. Have they really died? Are they masquerading as somebody else? There is also doubt about the identity of many of them. Are they who they say they are? Quite a few appear early in the novel only to turn up later in the novel (either chronologically later than their first appearance or earlier than their first appearance, as the novel is, more or less, written in reverse chronological order), often in a somewhat different guise. In addition, the chance encounters, finds and son, which keep the trail alive, are the stuff of Hollywood. And, of course, does Suolucidir really exist? Its name should give us a clue to that. Several characters, including in particular, Ariel Bokser, claim to have visited it but have they really visited it? Have they visited somewhere else? Or are they unreliable narrators and simply made it up? Daitch is obviously not going to tell us. The key may well be the last paragraph of the book:
One or two things I know about Suolucidir: the lost city is the object that always recedes just out of reach, and at the same time mirrors its excavators whether they recognize their reflections in its pools and canals or, momentarily blinded, catch sight of only unfamiliar phantoms beckoning with riches, escape hatches, trunks full of anything you think you desire.
This really is an excellent read, with an extremely complex adventure story made the more interesting because it is difficult to know what if any is accurate and which if any of the characters is who s/he says s/he is. Moreover, Daitch never lets up. There is always something happening, something just happened and/or something about to happen. No-one takes the time to smell the roses or ruminate on life. Apart, briefly, from one couple, no-one wastes time on their relationship. Everything and everyone is focussed one way or another on finding their goal, which generally, though not certainly not always, is finding Suolucidir. Of course, as the quote above shows, Suolucidir cannot be found.
First published 2016 by City Lights Books