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I-me-my. Oh, and something about the spectrum, too.
on September 24, 2011
Man, oh, man, did I want to love "Color," but it's bogged down by two major problems. The first is that it wants to be not only a) a history of dyes and pigments but also to some extent b) a history of various colors' cultural associations and c) a travelogue, and there just isn't room in this town for all three of those goals. Each chapter ricochets between the histories of several different types of dyeing materials, their cultural histories in their countries of origin, and author Victoria Finlay's modern-day adventures in those locales. Though the book is organized by the spectrum, with each color (plus black, white, and the first dye, ochre) receiving its own chapter, chasing Finlay's competing agendas makes the book overlong and trying to follow. The author just loses the thread too often.
The second is Finlay herself, who makes for a very trying narrator. She has an aggravating tendency to invent elaborate fantasies when facts fail her and expect us to invest in them throughout the chapter, when we just want her to get back to fact. She swears like Mark Twain thought all women did. Her scientific knowledge is lacking and apparently escaped fact-checking (her explanation of why the sky is red at sunset is wrong). Worst, however, is her unabashed colonialism; her globe-hopping quest for color often doubles as a tour of Britain's erstwhile empire, and there's a patronizing quality in Finlay's distanced view of these cultures that suggests a tyranny of low expectations.
Take the chapter on blue, which is in a way the book's strongest because it has a single long-term focus (a journey to a famed lapis lazuli quarry in Afghanistan) but is also one of the most amoral passages I've encountered in nonfiction. Finlay reacts with nothing but annoyed confusion when Britain won't assist her in getting a visa (what do you mean, you don't recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government? What did they ever do to YOU?). Ultimately, she has to hitch a ride with a humanitarian organization that distributes clothes and stable currency dearly needed by Afghanistan's citizens; "irritated," Finlay expresses "fervent" hope that "[my ride] was not the cash van." A local professor is whipped by the Taliban for aiding her quest, but she cheerfully shrugs the incident off. She passes a girl's "school" devoid of books with students shrouded in burqas and praises it as "part of an idle dream"; burqas, after all, only "increase flirting." She then muses that the Taliban did the world a favor by blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan - they "reminded so many people in so many countries that nothing lasts forever." Because, y'know, Buddhism is all about impermanence, so why you gotta be so ungrateful, Buddhists?
Finlay wants us to think her journey daring and romantic, but I found it revoltingly vain and ignorant and just couldn't sign on to her idea that's it's OK - charmingly quaint, even - for Afghans to suffer abuse, because, you know, that's just what those people _do._ In her trips to Britain's former possessions, Finlay resembles an overbearing parent who insists on infantilizing her adult children; she visits to give her magnaminous blessing, unaware that they're grown up and don't need Mom (and, indeed, never needed "Mom" in the first place).
Chronicling a primal force greater than mankind with a universal sweep calls for a certain humility that's outside Finlay's wheelhouse; she wants to make it about the cars she drove, the mochaccinos she drank - her succulent, wild escapades with the wacky ol' Taliban. There's good in "Color" (a trek through an increasingly desolate outback for Aboriginal ochre; a quest for a legendary shade of green used in Chinese imperial pottery that has an odd payoff), but to access it, you have to approach the book in a different way that the author intended. Instead of as a definitive history of the development of the Western spectrum, see it as sort of a gestalt, a succession of smaller stories from around the world about certain uses of color that paint a larger picture (like Roger Deakin's excellent "Wildwood," if you've ever read that).
You also have to overcome the narrator's formidable obnoxiousness, and if that proves impossible for you, you have my sympathy.
(Note: A bit has been made of Finlay supposedly solving the mystery of the origins of Indian yellow, previously thought to have been derived from cattle urine but of dubious provenance. I have my doubts; Finlay lost her translator and went into India's state of Bihar alone, completely unable to speak the language and able to ask about the origins of the dye only in the most rudimentary terms. What I'm saying is: scientific breakthroughs are rarely made by those whose only means of communication are pissing noises.)