In Sardinia: An Unexpected Journey by Jeff Biggers

Melville House

Review by Linda Lappin

Sardinia’s landscapes captivate visitors: pink granite cliffs whipped into weird shapes,  massive  basalt boulders, tawny hills where tiny wild horses roam,  dunes of sparkling quartz dwindling down to a turquoise sea. Everywhere you look are stones:  menhirs, dolmens, giant tombs, towers, earthworks. In this megalithic open air museum, monuments of incalculable age stand stark against a hot blue sky, immersed in an ocean of cicadas.  Unlike the Greek landscape whose gods have seeded our psyches for millennia with their myths, Sardinia is an enigma, and the gods of these stones are mostly unknown –except to the Sardinians themselves. Although the ancient people who made these monuments left no written record, traces of their language and their stories may live on today in the Sardinian language and its more recondite oral traditions, such as the “Brebus”– secret words of power.

Into this enchanted geographical and linguistic terrain ventures historian and playwright Jeff Biggers in his new book In Sardinia: An Unexpected Journey. If the title makes you blink, reminding you of something – it’s supposed to. The title proper In Sardinia – offers homage to Bruce Chatwin’s fragmented masterpiece: In Patagonia, a collage of anecdotes, myths, diary entries, historical research and personal obsessions in which Patagonia is as much a metaphor for a life without limits as a place on the map. Unexpected Journey is the subtitle of Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit, suggesting to the reader a quest through a magical land.  Borrowing Chatwin’s meandering method, Biggers leads us on an exploration of the island, its history, and his own personal obsession:  nuraghi, the huge conical stone towers, unique to Sardinia, scattered across the territory.

Neither a guidebook nor a travel memoir,  In Sardinia combines attributes of both, and enriches the mix with erudite research into the Sardinian language and culture, along with an historical overview of travel literature about Sardinia. Biggers claims that previous writers have gravely misrepresented the place: the greatest culprit being D.H. Lawrence, whose Sea and Sardinia has been for a century the most famous book in English about the island. Admittedly, Sea and Sardinia sometimes seems to be more about Lawrence than Sardinia, still his text occasionally delights with epiphanies, insights and haiku-like descriptions of landscape. However, Lawrence, so attentive to ancient monuments in other contexts – Etruscan, Mexican – seems not to have noticed a single standing stone or nuraghe on his trip, which lasted but a few days. One wonders how he managed to overlook them.

Biggers had a whole sabbatical year to explore Sardinia, and was based in Alghero, one of Europe’s most beautiful and little-known coastal towns. His book is also quest – unfolding on site  and back home in books, searching for the essence of Sardità: the essence of being Sardinian.  For as Lawrence Durrell, and before him Henry James, affirmed “People are an expression of their landscape.” Biggers interweaves stories of his road trips, mountain treks, culinary experiences, folk festival attendances, and personal encounters with brief bios of Sardinia’s cultural heroes, historic and contemporary. The result is a compendium of the Sardinian ethos, celebrating artists, writers, entrepreneurs,  craftsmen,  designers, intellectuals, musicians, storytellers, farmers, historians, politicians, soldiers, and most especially poets.  What all these individuals share is a strong sense of their “Sardità.”  It is a powerful, shared identity forged through millennia of resistance against colonizers and invaders, deeply rooted in the land and language of Sardinia, and in its stones. The icon of Sardinian identity today remains the nuraghe – cyclopic structures artfully built stone on stone, without mortar, and still standing after thousands of years.

Biggers has created a fascinating portrait of Sardinia departing from its literary traditions and is perhaps the first writer in English to investigate so thoroughly Sardinian poetry – both oral and written. But there are many aspects of the culture mentioned only  briefly in his text that readers might like to know more about: for example, the pozzi sacri, prehistoric holy wells of Nuragic culture, among Sardinia’s most extraordinary architectural achievements, and their ongoing use as places of religious pilgrimage. While he often mentions the marvelous meals and wines he has enjoyed in Sardinia, a more detailed discussion about Sardinian agricultural products and cuisine would be a welcome addition, as well as more details about its excellent craft traditions, another of the diverse ways in which “Sardità” finds expression.

From his recent IG posts, it would seem Biggers has returned to Sardinia – hopefully a sequel with more discoveries will follow. And despite his disapproval of Lawrence’s book, I am sure he would agree with the British novelist that “ There is an uncaptured Sardinia, still.”