The rings of Saturn

"The Rings of Saturn" was written by the German author W. G. Sebald late last century, recalling a tramp through East Anglia in England in both space and time, visiting the quiet, faded places along that east coast, and remembering passed lives, of which only a few relics remind. A miniature railway built for an emperor in China leads to a discursion on the TaiPing rebellion and the occupation and Western involvement in China. Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement are mentioned, connected by the exploitation of the Congo in the late 19th century. The poets Chateaubriand and Swinburne make an appearance, as do the herring and silk industries, which had by then sunk into oblivion, much like the port city of Dunwich, consumed over the centuries by the North Sea.

This is the obvious theme of the book, the passing of things, destruction, but perhaps also with some hope for renewal, like the tree which grows again from the place where its branches touch the ground, thus forming loops around the countryside. The book is made wholly of digressions into the past, and these digressions are all based on this theme of loss. The metaphors and language are tied to it as well, and an atmosphere of melancholy pervades the experience. Even the photographs which punctuate the chapters are of things in decay. Despite this somberness, the anecdotes are fascinating, entertaining, and humorous, but it is when the book is finished and reflected upon, that is when I realised something was jarring, and very wrong.

The theme of destruction is too obvious, its frequency stifling. The two threads which run through the entire book, Thomas Gray and silkworms, are just too tenuous, too forced. The picture in chapter three of the herring when Sebald discusses the herring industry is actually a picture of a cod! Can we trust any of the other anecdotes? Can we trust Sebald's memory? Our memory? Was the book a literary joke? It certainly seems that way, given the beauty of the prose and the apparent emptiness of meaning. Did Sebald actually make this walking tour, or is the book completely fiction? Does the voice on the spacecraft Voyager II, which will greet possible aliens, really belong to a former member of the Nazi party and a staff officer in Bosnia during the Second World War? Did Gagarin actually take three things with him to space, one of which was a battle standard of a unit from the Paris commune?


LiBai (李白) is one of the most famous of the Chinese poets from the Tang Dynasty. I remember having to memorise one of his poems when I was in pre-school in ShangHai, back when I was five years old! It is called "夜思",

床前明月光, By my bed the moon's light,
疑是地上霜。 Is it a ground of frost?
举头望明月, Eye's raised the moon so bright,
低头思故乡。 Head bent I think of home.

The surname "李" is very common in China, and it can also mean "plum". "白" means "white", so you could translate his name as "Pierre Blanc" or "Barry White"! ("Barry" is pretty common in Australia!)

Last year I travelled to China to see my family for Christmas, taking the trans-Siberian railway. I stopped for a few days in Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia, to rest and to see Lake Baikal, which in ancient times was known as the "North Sea" by the Chinese. It was already winter, so the air was crisp and the ground and roofs of the wooden houses covered by a layer of white snow. The sky was that mixture of grey and orange you sometimes get in the north, and as I took the bus away from the city to the lake, which was about an hour away, the snow gradually acquired a tinge of blue.

After a few days I continued on my way and when I reached WuHan, the city of my birth, a week or so later, I told my dad that I had been to Irkutsk and had seen Lake Baikal.

"Lake Baikal!", he exclaimed. "Did you know that LiBai, the most famous of the Chinese poets, was born on its shores?"

This took me completely by surprise, and for a moment I was transfixed by this wondrous idea, that one of the most renowned of the Tang dynasty poets, whose name was "White", came from the snows of Baikal, far outside the borders of the empire. A quick check in Wikipedia soon discredited this fabulous story, but nevertheless to this day the thought of LiBai being born in Siberia has stayed in the memory.

We can hardly trust our own memories. Who knows how they change when we call upon them again, and dredge them up from the depths. Even fresh experiences can hardly be grasped, they seem to sometimes float away as soon as they happen, like waking up from a dream. The most wonderful stories have an element of truth, just like the most impressionable histories and facts are embellished with a bit of spice, and whilst losing some of their real and factual basis, ironically become more memorable.


The Roche limit is a distance from a planet where its gravitational field is so strong that satellites can be pulled apart and destroyed by the planet's tidal forces. One theory about Saturn is that a moon had wandered too close, inside the Roche limit, and had been completed destroyed, its fragments forming the rings which encircle its host. I first saw the rings of Saturn around 2003 or 2004, through a reflecting telescope I had bought at Dick Smith Electronics. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.

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