Review – Hannibal Fogg and the Supreme Secret of Man by Tahir Shah
I am and have long been very positively disposed to Tahir Shah and more broadly to the members of his extended family and will continue to be so. But I am quite sure his father, for whom I have great respect, would not approve were I simply to echo the routinely five star sycophantic adulation of the ratings, so far, of this book (some of them appearing to come from sources that look a bit dodgy, to put it as kindly as I can). This is a very interesting book and very much worth reading. But it is also a book, in my admittedly not very humble opinion, that could (and should) have been much better than it is, given its long gestation period.
Though not everyone will immediately understand what I mean by saying so, I will say that this book (among other things) is one of the most interesting ‘fictional autobiographies’ yet written. Like Tahir Shah, Will Fogg engages the really quite daunting task of having to work out, in his own life, what it means to have been born into a quite extraordinary family with a history of some quite extraordinary accomplishments – the method, meaning, and significance of which is not necessarily any more immediately understandable (let alone reproducible) by virtue of having been born into that family than it might be to some random but interested external observer. The Fogg family, like the Shah family and other families with similar ‘qualities’, imposes a rather heavy burden on each new generation that comes along – a heritage that some might (and some certainly do) envy but that can sometimes be at least as much of a curse as it is a blessing for the folks involved.
This book is, again among other things, a very interesting example of how one might go about trying to make the best of it. Especially since, as the Magi guy puts it to his colleagues “on the island of Praslin in the Seychelles archipelago” on page 347: “There is surely no need to remind either of you of the danger we face. Should the Bloodchild succeed, organised faith as we know it will be doomed. The very thought of it . . . mankind in direct communication with God. It is preposterous even to contemplate it.” To which the horrified Magi woman replies: “Immense wealth accrued over centuries will evaporate. Our communal lands, our treasures, our influence . . . all will be lost in the blink of an eye.” Doggone!
A second observation is that, at least as far as this book goes, Tahir seems to me to do much better at starting it than at finishing it. The first half of the book is a delightful read inviting a willing suspension of disbelief to enjoy what begin as very fresh and inventive exercises in 1001 Nights imaginative devices. The second half, however, not only gets a bit repetitive as these devices are used, and overused, and overused again, but in effect it turns the ‘deus ex machina’ (ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός) literary device into a stellar plurality of deities, rather like chopping up the moon into a bunch of less bright stars, in which, as it were, every Djinn must have its day.
The lesser deities flow/and or drive forth, etc. in a plethora of Ian Fleming style characterizations of booze, guns, cars, clothes and such: “borrowed yellow Rolls-Royce Tourer”; “The vehicle was dominated by a V-12, 1.4-liter Falcon aviation engine, built at Rolls-Royce’s fighter aircraft factory”; “removed a revolver, a Russian-made Nagant M1895“; “a tray of flutes filled with chilled Ruinart“, “a glass of chilled Bollinger 1886″; “he tasted Cristal Roederer“; “The Baroness motioned to the sommelier, requesting that he serve yet more Taittinger“; “washed down with a glass or two of Chateau Latour 1883″; and so forth. No wonder Will prefers Bud Light!
The deities at the next level up manifest themselves as a series of incredibly dangerous situations from which it is certainly impossible to escape and even more incredibly impossible devices by which an escape is made. The long trek through the seven missing components of the Alexander Machine bears more than a little resemblance to the couples’ ‘quests’ and ‘challenges’ on the Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid” ‘reality’ TV series (though Will and Emma not only remain chaste vis-a-vis one another but also remain – at least most of the time with only an exception or two – fully clothed). And the final apotheosis which in the end reunites Will with grandpa Hannibal is about as satisfying a resolution as that of Don Juan and his apprentices jumping off the cliff at the end of Carlos Castaneda’s “The Active Side of Infinity” but absent the epilogue. One suspects, however, there just might be a sequel out there somewhere at the end of the rainbow.
Having said all that, I nevertheless heartily recommend the book as a good read and look forward to Tahir’s next book – whether a sequel to this one or or not.