CULTURE

Jean Auel: Queen of the prehistoric novel

“Look at all these islands! They must have been mountain tops once,» said Jean Auel, casting her eyes on the Greek landscape. For a woman who has taught herself to study the earth and man’s presence on it based on prehistoric periods, it is hardly surprising that she felt that Greece was a «young, ancient country.» Auel, on the other hand, lives in «even younger» Portland, Oregon. Queen of prehistory, Auel leaves no doubt that she is in complete control of her subject, allowing herself little luxury of modesty. At an evening organized in her honor by Bell Publishers in Athens last week, the author met her Greek audience for the first time. So far, Auel’s «Earth’s Children» cycle – including the fifth and last installment, «The Shelters of Stone» – have sold more than 140,000 copies in this country alone. The stories in Auel’s big books go back 25,000 to 35,000 years, to a time when Europe had no forests but rich grass and thick-haired animals as man’s prey. «I write about a period where everything seems so familiar, yet so different,» said Auel. «The difference lies in geography not in humankind.» Based on the power of her imagination and her scientific knowledge (she earned a post-graduate degree at the age of 40), Auel offers her characters the power of love and the experience of loss. «The difference is simply cultural; the basics are the same,» she said. A mother of five, grandmother of 15 and great-grandmother of two, the author celebrated her golden wedding anniversary in Greece. Behind her glasses, Auel’s green eyes reflected the self-confidence of a woman who has constructed two expansive «houses,» a family and her books. When one is on the rise, the other one withdraws and vice versa. This is how the author explains the silent literary periods as well as the fact that, right now, she has gone back to writing – with a vengeance. «I’m writing my sixth novel and I think I have enough material for a seventh one,» she said. Is it yet another novel in prehistoric mode? «Yes. But I’m also thinking of moving on to the Neolithic period. All my stories are about the age when man was a hunter. At the time when two human species coexisted: the Neanderthal and man as we know him. Both considered the other different, as strangers. I’m increasingly intrigued by the next phase, however, when man sowed the land and tamed the animals.» At one point during the interview, Auel felt the need to confide: «I didn’t vote for George Bush,» she said, though no such question had been raised. How did she end up talking about the American president while discussing Neanderthals? Her prehistoric sagas – featuring lead character Ayla, who is constantly challenged both mentally and physically – is another way for the author to talk about tolerance. «Mankind’s diversity is very valuable. As is the tolerance it should be met with. During the time man was just the hunter, we have no indication of fighting, just contentions. War broke out when the hunter turned into the owner. War is not part of man’s nature. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Today the world is torn apart by the velocity of all kinds of changes, yet we never stop to think that behind all the cultural differences, man will always be in love and in pain. He has not changed.» Auel is satisfied that she alone (and the first one to do so) opened up the dark tunnel of prehistory to the general public. Always in control, she smiled coquettishly when told that she has repaired a misunderstanding. «Indeed, for the average man, prehistory is an icy period of silence. I have always been tormented by questions: why, how, when? Having read so much, at one point I mastered this period and was able to shed light onto it right away. Even today, I haven’t stopped. I want to find out more. What is really going on in man’s soul?» The interview was translated from the Greek text.