16th January 2000
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In his grandpa's footsteps

ADB man on a voyage of re-discovery

In the 1850s, a proud Russian nobleman, Antonio Lassoto de Lassotovitch, was finding it increasingly difficult to countenance the corruption of the Czarist regime. He had come from the aristocracy of Poland, to the Ukraine. His son, Alexander, was born in Moscow in 1859.

From Russia, the family moved to the USA, then to England and finally settled in Verona, Italy, in the late 1870s. Life on the move for the young Alexander made him somewhat of an adventurer. His father, Antonio, encouraged the lad and this is how Alexander, barely in his twenties, made two voyages - one to Egypt, and the other to Ceylon. 

As Antonio put it, "My son... wrote a number of letters to me in our native Russian. He wrote in a familiar style straight from the heart, to send me news from the countries he was visiting. When he returned to his family, I encouraged him to publish a detailed account of his voyages, filling in what he had not been able to describe in the letters; but neither my words nor my prayers could persuade him to do it."

Antonio said he was "convinced that in these letters there could be something interesting for our friends. I decided to publish them myself. I hoped later on my son would give up his excessive modesty and embellish his account with more detail." 

It was no easy task for the proud old Antonio. He had settled in Italy and had only spent a few years there. Alexander wrote in Russian and his father had the task of translating the letters into Italian. 

As he remarked, "The two languages share no common philology" and there are "differences in their means of interpreting and expressing concepts."

Yet, he persevered and in 1881, the book 'Ricordi de Viaggi a Ceylan ed in Eggitto' was published by the Stabilimento Tipografico di G. Civelli of Verona.

What appealed were the exquisite water colours, for our Alexander was a fine artist and the pictures were all executed in the course of his voyages.

In 1998, Antonio's great-granddaughter, Sandra Watson Butzow gave us the first English version of this old book. She undertook the task in her home in Maryland, USA and sent copies to her maternal cousins, one being Marco Gotti, a Programmes Officer in the Asian Development Bank in the Philippines. Today, a photoprint of the 'Ceylon Voyage' of Alexander is in my possession, simply because the writer's grandson, Marco, brought it to me. 

He received his copy, he said, just before he left the Philippines with his family for a Millennium visit to Sri Lanka ("We saw in the Millennium at the Mahaweli Reach Hotel.") After a quick read, he decided it would be simply wonderful to visit the places his grandfather had written about. "The book fascinated me," he said.

I'd like you to picture Alexander - young, artistic, an eye for the girls (one of the things that makes any artist feel as young as he wishes to be) and appreciative of the youthful beauty of this country. This is what he has written: "From whatever direction one approaches this island, there is a spectacle of unbelievable beauty. 

"One's eye travels from the sea to the delightful beach, and then goes sweeping to the dense growths of cocoa-palm and the almost impenetrable forests which shade the valleys and cover the tops of the mountains. The sky there is always smiling, the climate temperate and humid, the trade winds sigh constantly."

He made his observations too:

"The women were tall, slender and very pretty." "In Europe it is the buyer who goes to look for the vendor, while in Ceylon it is the vendor who goes looking for the buyer. The black merchants throw themselves on the voyager like vultures on their prey. First, they stay a little while at the door, but slowly advance to the middle of the room to show their wares... Finally it becomes annoying and the only way of liberating oneself is to use a stick to menace them."

"The vegetation of the island of Ceylon is so inebriating and seductive that one seems constantly to be in a terrestrial paradise."

Arriving in Kandy, Alexander took lodging at the Kandy Club. (Gatti said he visited the Club, asked if he could consult the registers and archives. "I hoped to find the record of my grandfather's stay, but I was told that only members could examine the old registers or consult the archives. I was very disappointed")

The section on Ceylon is just 34 pages, but in it, Alexander crammed a lot - Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Avissawella (where he went boar hunting with the Chief Magistrate, Mr. Byrd), the Gulf of Mannar and its pearl fishery, the northern village of Arippu, Adam's Peak and Colombo. Finally, he says:

"After a wonderful month's stay on this enchanting island, I again took an English steamer to return to Italy, my beloved adopted country. If Italy can be called the garden of Europe, Ceylon should be called an earthly paradise."

Marco Gotti came here with his wife and little son. "Kandy reminds me, in spots, of the interior of Bali," he said, "and I found the wood carvings of Dambulla very fine indeed. Just like the intricate work done in Bali."

After serving with the State Oil Company of France, Elf Aquitane for six years, Marco joined the ADB. "I have always wanted to live and travel around Asia," he said. His country of ADB programming is China and he makes several visits there to assess the nature of China's development needs.

But what is important is the book he now has - the first ever English translation of Alexander Lassoto de Lassotovich's 'Voyages to Ceylon and Egypt'. 

True, it is a 1998 rendering, but it remains the first such English translation of the original Italian edition of 1881.

Perhaps the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and even our Universities would be interested in a special Sri Lanka facsimile print.

Marco Gotti has left for the Philippines but should there be a need to contact him, towards adding this book to our 'cultural list' I give you his address.

Marco Gotti - Programmes Officer - Asian Development Bank,
6, ADB Avenue, Mandaluyong, Metro Manila, 
PO Box: 789, 0980 Manila, Philippines. 

Tel: (63-2) 632-5094/6224 and Fax (63-2) 636-2381

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