A Turtle's Tale

Reviewed by James Sallis
Sunday, April 9, 2006


Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile

By Verlyn Klinkenborg

Knopf. 177 pp. $16.95

We are each of us, all of us, shipwrecked and abandoned -- landlocked prisoners inside our own minds. Of all our enterprises, it is the arts, with their attempt to pry open momentary windows into other heads, that most seek to ease this solitude. And of all our arts it is fantastic fiction that, tapping into shadowlands of dream and myth, most clearly strives not only to represent our lives in fullest blossom, thorns and all, but also to place a frame around mankind's place in the universe.

Imaginative force , I tell my student writers, noting that this is what I miss in so much contemporary fiction.

It is difficult to imagine a greater exercise of such force than Timothy , in which Verlyn Klinkenborg imagines himself squarely into the blunt head and watchful mind of an aged tortoise.

Shanghaied from home on the Turkish coast, stuffed first into a bag, later into the hold of a ship, Timothy ended up in the garden of the 18th-century parson and amateur naturalist Gilbert White, whose The Natural History of Selborne chronicled, among much else, the 13 years of their parallel lives. This is Timothy's own chronicle of the years during which the naturalist and his kind -- little suspecting that they, too, might be exotic and peculiar -- were being observed in turn.

Here, the story begins with Timothy's recapture after a brief jaunt out of the garden, gone for a week before being found, before the "great warm . . . stilt-gaited" beasts undo Timothy's whole week's progress with "two-score of their strides":

"Ground breaks away. May wind shivers in my ears. My legs churn the sky on their own. I look down on bean-tops. Down on the blunt ends of sheep-bitten grasses. Over one field, into the next, into the hop-garden beyond. Past thatch and tiles, past maypole, past gilded cock on the church tower. All in my eye, all at once. So far to see."

For 53 years, Timothy passes from sack to ship's hold, from garden to garden, from hibernation to hibernation, puzzling at these odd creatures who, stalked day and night by disorder, stalk it back, making Timothy as subject to their neglect and most trivial intentions as to their malice -- "As vulnerable to their wonder as their loathing." So do we get Timothy's story, charged with a quality of language and an associative imagery more common to poetry. Here, for instance, is Timothy's hibernation:

"My blood creeps along a dark endless track. On quiet feet. Circles round and round as though it had lost its way but always finding its way again. No counting the circuits it makes under the compass-rose of my carapace."

And, here, a sampling of Timothy's observations of those stilt-gaited beasts towering above, in whom instinct is a relic and reason a will-o'-the-wisp:

"But if a cabbage were human, it would aspire to become a lettuce. Pull up roots and go up to town to see what's doing in the artichoke way. Such a restless tribe."

And: "He forgets how discomfiting the incandescence of mammals feels to a reptile. Their abruptness. The velocity of their existence. To live such long lives at such terrible speed. And to get no further than if they had lived more slowly."

Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the editorial board of the New York Times and the author of Making Hay , The Rural Life and The Last Fine Time . With Timothy, he has written an extraordinary book that, like all good art, rescues us from dailyness -- from, as Timothy would say, our terrible speed -- and makes our world again large and wondrous, a book that swings from funny to wise to sad often in a single sentence or phrase and puts profoundly into question humanity's apostasy from the greater world about it.

I once had other expectations , Timothy tells us early on. Then again, well over a hundred pages later and near chronicle's end: "I had other expectations once. They come upon me sometimes as I dig my hybernaculum. In the rust of autumn." One more winter, Timothy feels. One more winter, one more entering and leaving of the ground before joining it forever, here in this strange and beautiful and terrifying, familiar England. So far from home.

So very far from home. ยท

James Sallis is the author of the novels "Cripple Creek" and "Drive."

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