East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Robert Crisp’s Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance

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9781448215225Robert Crisp’s Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance, soon to be published by Bloomsbury Books, is a strange affair.

A sportsman and a war hero, with a long track record of poor discipline and even worse business sense, in December 1966 Bob Crisp abandoned his wife and two sons and, with 65 pounds in his pocket, made himself scarce.
He moved to a small hut in Greece, where he lived alone, communing with nature, on his ten pounds war veteran pension.

He also had an agreement with a newspaper, and he published a diary of sorts, in installments, under an alias.

Zen… is a collection of those newspaper columns, edited and arranged by Crisp’s somewhat estranged son. The pieces cover Crisp’s experiences both in Greece and during his donkey-assisted travel on foot around the island of Crete.

And it is, this book, a strange affair because it feels like three narratives rolled into one.
On one side, we have the story of a man alone, cutting down on his needs and comforts to get closer to the sea, the hills and the rocks of Greece. The pages offer us everyday wisdom, a practical philosophy, and some acute observations on the natural world.
In this, some passages reminded me of that other great book about a man alone in the wilderness, Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire.
On the opposite side, there is a lingering air of Englishman abroad to the narrative, as Crisp ironically observes his Greek neighbors and offers tongue in cheek comments on the lifestyle and culture of the Greek.
And again, one is reminded of another classic, Peter Mayle‘s A Year in Provence.

Between these two narratives, a third thread emerges – and it is one that is less than pleasant.
For all his manliness and his self-deprecation, Crisp often appears as a self-centered, empathy-impaired freeloader.
His supreme indifference to the plight of the country in which he is living – Crisp arrived in Greece just in time for the military coup that led the so called Colonels Regime to seize the power – grates unpleasantly when compared to the pages devoted to the observation of his dog or his cat.
Both animals that are offered a strange mix of affection and indifference.

In the end, Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance is a fine book, an amusing and often illuminating read about the adventures of a man that was probably not as nice as we would have liked.


Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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