BOOK: "Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things," by Gary Geddes (Sterling, $24.95)
TARGET AUDIENCE: Readers who like foreign travel seasoned with conspiracy theory.
Proposition: Long before Columbus's voyages, the Americas were discovered from the other direction. By a Buddhist monk. From Kabul.
Canadian poet Geddes follows what might be the path of Huishen, a 5th-century scholar and explorer, by traveling through Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, then across the Pacific to the Canadian coast and down to Mexico and Guatemala, where ardent researchers have seen influences of Buddhism among Olmec and other artifacts.
But readers expecting definitive proof will be disappointed. Huishen's name turns up missing from ancient rosters; Geddes fails to anticipate office holidays and thus finds potentially helpful sources unavailable; rival scholars explain away purported evidence of "pre-Columbian Asian contact." The account is nonetheless rewarding, made so by the poet's eye that Geddes brings to his observations. Kabul is magical, "as if the idea of light originated here." An old Mexican taxi is "a triumph of faith over technology," and a container ship's cargo groans like "the bellow of the last surviving mammoth."
--Jerry V. Haines