‘”Your guide will probably tell you,” Ezekiel said, “that the name Kilimanjaro comes from kilima, the Swahili word for ‘mountain’ and jaro, the Maasai word for ‘snow-capped.’ But that’s just for the tourists. We Chagga people who have always lived here, we believe the name comes from our own language: kilema-kyaro, which means ‘Impossible to Climb.’”’
So begins Buddhist writer Tim Ward’s latest book, ‘Zombies on Kilimanjaro,’ an intriguingly and perhaps misleadingly titled memoir about climbing the highest freestanding mountain in the world with his 20-year-old son, Josh.
It’s a good beginning, plunging the reader straight into the ‘plot’ of this gentle travel narrative. Will father and son reach the top and will they reach it together? This question is both literal and metaphorical. Following Ward’s divorce from Josh’s mother, father and son have had a troubled relationship.
Ward’s description of the climb is very interesting. We travel in the company of guides and helpers, and meet some other climbers, some of whom reappear later on. Ward writes very well about the dramatic scenery and the physical effects of the climb on the body. He tells us something about climate change and its effect on the mountain.
There are also some wonderful reflections about his own father, and Ward is honest enough to show how he has inherited some of his father’s most difficult traits, and how these have affected his relationship with his own son.
So far, so good. But although the opening chapters of the book are gripping, a fatal flaw soon appears: a tendency to relay in direct dialogue things that would be better shown in the book’s action, or perhaps even omitted altogether.
Ward talks at length to Josh as they climb the mountain. What he says is interesting enough. He explains memes and makes some extremely courageous self-disclosures.
But the long, direct conversations come at a price. While they are taking place, the mountain disappears, Josh disappears and, ironically enough, the father-son relationship itself disappears. We are being told about events in the past instead of being allowed to witness how those events have informed the present and the living, breathing relationship between father and son now. Josh, largely relegated to the role of listener, becomes a shadowy figure. In contrast, I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and how the father-son relationship is so strongly established despite minimal dialogue.
But there is certainly much to enjoy in this well-meaning and heartfelt memoir. A week after reading it, what remains with me is the compelling description of the final ascent to and descent from the peak, when there was no time or energy for conversation.
Tim Ward is the author of several well-regarded books on Buddhism and other subjects including the cult classic ‘What the Buddha Never Taught,’ an account of his experiences as a Theravadin monk in Thailand.