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Tsankawi is an ancient Native American site containing unexcavated ruins dating from the 1400s. Within its scruffy surrounding landscape, there are immense views, foot-worn trails, cave-dwellings and petroglyphs.
Located several miles north of the entrance to the main reaches of Bandelier National Monument, Tsankawi is a remote and detached section of the monument, easily missed on a first or second visit to the area.
Apart from its natural beauty and its lofty ramparts atop a plateau that guards the entry into Los Alamos, Tsankawi is famous for having been immortalized in literature by the celebrated 20th Century English novelist John Fowles.
A chapter entitled “Tsankawi” which was placed both literally and figuratively at the center of Fowles 1977 novel, “Daniel Martin,” has been the subject of intense interest by literary critics and devotees of the author of “The Collector,” “The Magus" and "The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” among other works.
The concept of the novel is expressed in it’s first line: “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.” Simply put, it’s a book about a writer who is struggling to see things whole, at a time in human history and culture when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” as one of the epigrams for the book suggests.
“I will never quite understand why some places exert this deep personal attraction, why at them one’s past seems in some mysterious way to meet one’s future, one was somehow always to be there as well as being there in reality,” Fowles’ title character, Dan, pondered, as he began to reconstruct a memorable visit to Tsankawi with Jenny, an actress with whom he was having an affair.
On a day trip to Tsankawi during a film production in Santa Fe, their relationship reaches a subtle and poignant critical pass, and in that sense, the swirl of memory and the layers of their physical, emotional and intellectual responses to the setting are also stripped down and pulled apart. They are deconstructed as well.
“In some way the mesa transcended all place and frontier; it had the haunting and mysterious personal familiarity I mentioned just now, but simply human familiarity as well, belonging not just to some obscure and forgotton Indian tribe, but to all similar moments of supreme harmony in human culture,” Dan thinks, breathing in the rich evocations of a place that might almost seem the opposite.
“The tiny first seed of what this book is trying to be dropped into my mind that day…,” Daniel Martin writes, as the fictional stand-in, in many respects, for the author Fowles.
The chapter includes a few moments of deeply meaningful conversation, with allusions to the course of western civilization, a few intertwined memories, a seemingly ordinary encounter with another couple of tourists, and a harsh yet barely expressed disagreement between the couple – all in a transformational landscape that seems to heighten every word and gesture.
What can the visitor hope to find, compared to this complex vision by a master storyteller trying to tell the whole story for of himself and his time once and for all?
That depends. The canvas is there, no question about that, whether the book or the chapter has been read or not. The portal is wide open for every kind of imagination. Enjoy.