Saturday, March 3, 2012

Describing the indescribable


I’ve started rereading one of my favorite books in the world, Robert Harris’s Pompeii. I’m reading it for the third time partly because I have a terrible memory, so it reads fresh like the first time. But also, Pompeii ticks all the usual boxes for what makes a great read. It’s escapism to a faraway place in space and time (in this case, to a sweltering and sulphuric Roman town in August 79 A.D), where you get to experience life from someone else’s perspective (here, an engineer in charge of the aqueduct) while living through the real-life suspense of an impending disaster, in this case a volcanic eruption which would bury the seaside town and its inhabitants for nearly two thousand years.

Now that’s what I call a book.

Of course, I’m a bit biased because I lived next door to Pompeii for over a decade. But the book still wouldn’t knock my or anyone else’s socks off if it weren’t brilliantly written. That box is non-negotiable. Pompeii has perfect tempo, characterization, scene setting, dialogue, etc. But it also has those beautiful moments that make your heart do a little leap, followed by a sigh of relief as you think, “Ah, yes, that’s exactly what such and such is like! I’m so glad someone has finally put it into words.”

Here’s a simple example from the dog-eared page in front of me, part of a description of the sound water makes as it is channelled through pipes into a vast underground reservoir: it sounds like “subterranean thunder” or a “hammering lullaby”. Yes, that’s it! And to think that all these years I have been yearning for these exact words, and I didn’t even know it. Before I was poor, and now I am rich.

For innately metaphorical beings like us humans, somehow our experience of the world is only truly made real, and therefore consciously felt and remembered, if we can put a name to it. Naming is the salt of life, without which everything is bland and forgettable.

Naturally, as a wannabe writer, naming is my main mission. That was the challenge I set for myself when writing my Neapolitan memoir a few years back: to describe an experience that felt indescribable, in its beauty and its pain. So I asked myself, What does life in a Neapolitan ghetto look like, feel like, smell like and sound like? What is it like to live under the shadow of one of the world’s most unpredictable volcanoes? What does a first kiss really feel like? What does it feel like when your lover tells you for the first time that he loves you? What does it feel like when your heart is about to break?

I no longer have the luxury of time like I did when I wrote my memoir, before having a kid. So tonight I will limit myself to the simple challenge of trying to describe a taste for you, so that you can nod and say, “Yes, that’s it!” or perhaps just so that you too may endure it along with me.

Chinese herbs. They’re good for you.

If you’re lucky, your prescribed herbs will come compressed into a pill form and you won’t taste anything as they go down. But it’s more likely that you’ll have to boil the mixture of ginseng, turtle shell, orchid roots, cow gallstones and peony bark for an hour, or revive the dehydrated version with hot water. In either case, imagine digging deep as you bring to your lips a bubbling cauldron of black sludge.

Tastes and smells are notoriously difficult to describe, but here I go. My recent Chinese brew – in its dehydrated powder form – smells like an innocuous concoction of dried fruit, tobacco and bitter chocolate, with a hint of gravel dust billowing up under your feet on a hot and dry day, the kind that mysteriously works its way into the back of your mouth. However, resurrected with hot water and sculled down at record-breaking speed, this herbal formula tastes like the bottom of an ashtray mixed with organic disinfectant.

Another brew, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting, smells a bit like yeast rising in a sweetgrass basket being carried along the same gravel road on a hot and dry day.

Nothing compared to my most traumatic Chinese herb experience ever. This medicine required boiling for twenty minutes, which leached a disturbing steam throughout the kitchen. Sniffing its unsettling creamy odor with a hint of slimy mushroom, I was prepared for the worst. But I was not prepared for the brew to taste exactly like buffalo dung. Don’t ask me how I know this, since I’ve never eaten buffalo dung. I just know.

Afterwards I drank water, apple juice, stuffed my face with broken saltines, brushed my teeth twice. I scrubbed the contaminated cup and pan without daring to inhale. Even in the middle of the night I woke up in a sweat, my nostrils assailed by the stench of buffalo dung. It took me a moment to realize I was safe, that I’d just been having a nightmare.

Later, not knowing the actual name of this foul brew, I described its appearance and smell to my knowledgeable mom, who instantly said, “Oh, yes! That’s Dong Quai [pronounced Don-kee] Dung, it’s a traditional formula.”

Here, it turns out that my stoicism in drinking Don-kee Dung was far greater than my ability to describe the indescribable. You see, it was dung after all. But I got the animal all wrong.


  1. You really made me giggle with your dung story! But is it possible your mom got it wrong somehow? Or that she was pulling your leg? Because I've never heard of Dong Quai Dung, I only know Dong Quai (which sometimes is transliterated as Dung Quai), better known as female ginseng for, well, womanly ailments. And what courage you had! I can't even get myself to swallow perfectly average drugs as soon as I smell chemicals (and drugs being made of chemicals, I'm not good at drug-swallowing at all). All I'm ever asking for is a simple pill, be it as huge as an ostrich's egg. You wash it down with some water, and that's that. But powders or syraps? No, thanks, I prefer to be ill...

    Btw, your donkey-dung story made me think of that shiitake-sketch on The Catherine-Tate-Show ( I just really laughed my ass off (as with your story) when they get to the point where they say "Shit-ake mushrooms… You don't want that in soup..."

    Hugs 'n' kisses from D.

  2. Dear Dieter, you are knowledgeable about Chinese herbs too?! You're incredible AND right: the wording is a bit wrong! But as I was writing it was too late to call and check with my mom. She had said something like "Dong Quai Doo" but I wasn't able to find this on the internet: but yes it should be some formula with dong quai as the main ingredient. Yum, yum.

    I'll have to check out the shitake link...our beautiful monosyllabic English does lend itself to so many puns, doesn't it? Many more than in Italian, that's for sure.

    Stay well, winter is nearly over...hopefully there will be no need for any pill-popping for you :) h.