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Ararat, by Frank Westerman trans. Sam Garrett

Up the mystic mountain in a flight from faith

In their unceasing efforts to convince the rest of us that every single line of the Good Book is literally true, Bible fundamentalists have long been fond of undertaking treks to "prove" that some landmark events of the Old Testament did take place. So Mount Ararat, in present-day Turkey, has been trawled for signs that Noah's Ark did end up, as Genesis 8:4 claims, beached on its peak once the flood receded. Fragments of old wood have been claimed as sections of the rudder of the ark, and rock formations highlighted as evidence of the skid marks where the prow of the zoo ship came to rest.

Frank Westerman touches briefly on several such escapades in Ararat, but his approach to scaling this iconic mountain is altogether different – and more intriguing. His climb is an assault on his own loss of belief in God and an exploration of the current abyss that exists between religion and science. As he circles the foothills of Ararat, Westerman also travels back to his high school and university teachers in search of ballast as the rational explanations of science that seemed so watertight to him begin to spring leaks.

His questioning throws him back on childhood memories – not just of being spoon-fed a traditional Christianity, but of a brush, through his father's involvement with the oil industry in his native Netherlands, with the destruction of a drilling rig in Drenthe in 1965. Unexplained events ultimately caused the earth to erupt and swallow the rig whole. Nature apparently defeated scientific progress.

Part memoir, part philosophical tome, part travelogue, Ararat is an ambitious and attractive book. Its tone is learned, thoughtful and usually intimate, for which part of the credit must go to the translator, Sam Garrett.

Fundamentalists are fond of finding answers to every earthly dilemma, but those expecting either trite platitudes or the dodgy archaeological theories that make for headline-grabbing bestsellers will be disappointed. Westerman's pilgrimage doesn't have a happy or neat ending.

Once he has negotiated the politics that surround Ararat – standing on disputed land between Armenia, Turkey and Iran – his climb becomes an ordeal. Cold, sore and forced to make his ascent with less than congenial Czech companions, he finds himself wondering if he has set out with the wrong idea.

At one point he describes his whole project as "Job in reverse". Just as Job is made to test his faith by Satan, acting as the chief prosecutor in God's heavenly court, Westerman is testing his own unbelief. It is a finely balanced and well-told experiment that will echo with many readers.



Peter Stanford's latest book is 'Teach Yourself Catholicism'

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