North Point Press has done a valuable service in reissuing this remarkable book, originally published by Knopf in 1973 and no doubt long out of print. Not an epic, although it is rather long and contains history, it is, like the much earlier "Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel" (also reprinted by North Point), a poetic meditation on the vast, savage history of the human race, ranging from the neolithic to the nearly contemporary, rummaging restlessly through mountains of facts, events, rumors, hypotheses, nonsense and curious lore. There is no hero, little of the heroic; the poem, spoken by an almost anonymous consciousness which seems to have read and seen everything, is animated by a profound revulsion at the endless spectacle of our cruelty and stupidity, and by profound wonderment at the universe of thought and speculation. At one moment, he repeats the assertion of Talmudic scholars that Adam fondled beasts before Eve was created; at another, he guides us into the hell of Vietnam and names the responsible names--Bundy, Rostow, Nixon, Laird, etc.
It is not an easy book to describe or classify. He himself characterizes it as "a private testament/ made of odd details," as "a quantity of thoughts and events/ worth classification." One might detect in such descriptions a faint admission that the structure is pretty loose, and such is the case. What does serve to unify the composition is, first, the insistent theme of unchanging human ignorance and barbarity and, second, the voice of the speaker--by turns anguished, pedantic, amused, curt, disgusted, serene, but always vivid and charged with serious moral passion. One simple device that gives sporadic shape to this somewhat shapeless mass of material is the repetition of certain items, interspersed among the tales and speculations: For instance, every so often the name of a concentration camp with the number of its victims ("Ravensbruck: 92,000"); now and then, an excerpt from the log of some journey ("Lat. 61.13 N.; Long. 30.08 W./ Currents flow, the needle turns north").