How long would you wait for your lover, if you knew not whether they were alive, and you yourself had changed almost beyond recognition?
This is a beaHow long would you wait for your lover, if you knew not whether they were alive, and you yourself had changed almost beyond recognition?
This is a beautiful, understated, unsentimental Odyssey of quiet longing, endurance, and transformation.
"This journey will be the axle of my life." Inman's journey is across hundreds of dangerous miles, fleeing war and trying to get to where his love lives, four years after they parted.
"She had made her way to a place where an entirely other order prevailed from what she had always known." Ada's journey takes place within a few miles of her home.
It's no coincidence that Inman's treasured book is a travel book (whereas Ruby "held a deep distrust of travel", even to the shops).
Times are tough, but at least Ada and Inman have confidence in who and what it is they yearn for.
Most of the novel alternates between Ada’s and Inman's separate struggles to survive, with backstory gradually provided by their reminiscences. Each of Inman's chapters involves a dramatic encounter, good or bad, that sheds light on his character, as well as the trials of war and wilderness. Ada is 26, orphaned, nearly destitute, and trying to cope with a little land, but no staff or skill. The varying tempo works well.
Both Inman and Ada cultivate the art of really seeing: Inman is ever watchful, noticing every little sign in nature or people's behaviour that may signal danger (a shadow behind leaves, a blade hidden in a hairdo); Ada learns to see the signs of seasons, weather, harvest, birds, and animals.
The language is sometimes a little archaic, as it should be. Quotation marks are not used, but I didn't really feel their absence: dialog is usually prefaced with a long dash.
Although the backdrop is the American civil war, I didn't feel hampered by my relative lack of knowledge of US history. There was enough background detail to picture daily life, but the politics and the war were external to the characters, and hence to me as a reader.
Right and Wrong; Revenge and Forgiveness
Inman is a deserter: badly injured, but a deserter none-the-less. He was never a natural killer, is haunted by what he's seen (and done), and doesn't believe in the cause anyway, if he ever did. There are gangs wanting bounty for finding deserters, and desperate men who will kill for any reason and none. Coupled with his inherently peaceful and forgiving nature, repeatedly put to the test, the risks are great.
Pondering the story of a man born blind, Inman asks himself "What would be the cost of not having an enemy? Who could you strike for retribution other than yourself?"
But retribution isn't really his mindset; he's almost too good to be true, given the hardships and dangers he faces, such as stealing food, but leaving more money than it's worth, putting himself in grave danger to help strangers,and avoiding and preventing violence, even when it's not really his responsibility and would be easier to walk away. He's certainly more forgiving than the disgraced preacher, Veasey.
The Sustenance of Literature - and Music
An unexpected pleasure was the underlying thread of the solace to be found in books.
On the very first page, Inman is in military hospital "settling his mind" with a treasured copy of Travels of William Bartram. Throughout the story, he returns to this book, in small snippets, at times of need. (view spoiler)[When he's reunited with Ada, he reads her an extract. (hide spoiler)]
Ada's relationship with books fluctuates: at her lowest point "the characters seemed to lead fuller lives than she did", and when she's first dragooned into hard labour to make the land viable, she drops the habit of keeping a book in her pocket. However, at the end of the day, reading aloud is a pleasure and a bonding experience for her and Ruby. We glimpse the privilege of opening someone's eyes to the joys of powerful stories.
Another, seemingly irredeemable, character finds salvation in music, starting off with a handful of standard fiddle tunes, but making his own instruments and composing a large repertoire of moving pieces. "The grouping of sounds... said something comforting to him about the rule of creation,... a powerful argument against the notion that things just happen."
At least as important as the relationship between Ada and Inman, and possibly more interesting, is that between Ada (educated, city girl, now alone in the country) and Ruby (an illiterate who was an almost feral child). She comes to help Ada, not quite as a servant, not - initially - as a friend, let alone equal, but Ruby takes charge of instructing in the sense of educating Ada and even telling her what, when, and how to do. "To Ada, Ruby's monologues seemed composed mainly of verbs, all of them tiring" and "Ruby made a point of refusing to tackle all the unpleasant tasks herself." Ada puts up with this because she realises that "Ruby would not let her fail", whereas a hired hand might just walk away.
There are moments when (view spoiler)[you wonder how far Ada and Ruby's friendship will go: when Ruby puts Ada's bracelet on her own wrist - but then puts it back again; when Ada slips a ring on Ruby's finger - which Ruby takes off. The latter is just after Inman has returned, and Ruby has said "We can do without him... There's not a thing we can't do ourselves." But when she realises Ada loves Inman, she backtracks completely, and tactfully contrives to leave them alone. (hide spoiler)].
Inman draws strength from his devotion to and memories of Ada. He occasionally looks at other women (water is a recurring theme), but it's all very chaste. (view spoiler)[Even when the young widow who's just lost her child, asks him to share her bed without touching, nothing happened nor did he really want it to. (hide spoiler)]
Then there's Ruby's estranged, good-for-nothing father, Stobrod, and Ada's role in handling and healing their relationship.
There is mythical power in names. Ada's education was academic and theoretical: she knows the names of almost none of the plants and animals, and that is part of her helplessness in her new situation. In contrast, Ruby has an encyclopaedic knowledge of such things, and thus she takes the lead in survival.
Ruby is also guided by signs that Ada's preacher father, Monroe, would have dismissed as superstition. Ada "chose to view the signs as metaphoric... a way of being alert" so that "she could honor them". But a hundred pages later, she writes to her cousin in Charleston about how field work has changed her, "Should a crow fly over I mark it in all its details, but I do not seek analogy for its blackness... I suspect it is somehow akin to contentment." It's worth noting that the first chapter is titled "the shadow of a crow" and the last "spirits of crows, dancing".
The Ending and the Epilogue
Twenty pages from the end, it was so tender and understated and perfect that I had to pause. I was sure it would end badly, and I couldn't bear it.
(view spoiler)[The reunion of Ada and Inman is wonderfully, but unsentimentally, done. He finds her, dressed like a man, hunting turkeys, rather than in the fine skirts he'd remembered. She doesn't recognise him, so he apologies and walks away. When she does recognise him (by his voice), there are no dramas, just tentative steps towards an unknown present and even less certain future. "No previous formula of etiquette seemed to apply." Even when left alone, they're unsure what to do - so Inman reads a passage from Bartram... and then does the washing up! But eventually they talk, "to rewrite even a shard of the past" as lover do "before they can move forward paired". Eventually, "The world was such a lonely place, and to lie down beside him, skin to skin, seemed the only cure."
Then they plan their future. "Their whole lives stretched ahead of them" but also "youth was about over for them and what lay ahead was another country entirely, wherein the possibilities narrowed down moment by moment." It's all too good to be last. Inman is shot by Teague's gang. Ada gets to him in time to hold him as he dies.
This is a horrible symmetry with much earlier mention of what happened to Ada's own parents, who met and loved when young, were separated for years, and joyfully reunited, but only very briefly, before one of them died.
The epilogue compensates for the tragedy of Inman's death by showing Ada and her daughter living happily with Ruby, Ruby's husband, their children, and Ruby's reformed father. However, without that, the final scene would be touching and, slightly ambiguous, which I think I prefer. (hide spoiler)]
Reminds me Of
(The links are to my reviews of these books.)
The quiet stoicism, solace in literature, and connection to the soil, reminded me of one of my two favourite books, Stoner.
The harsh beauty of the mountains, coupled with love and longing, reminded me a little of Brokeback Mountain. The similarity of title may be a factor, too.
* "The first smear of foggy dawn and [he] waited for the world to begin shaping outside."
* "Nature... sometimes calls attention to its specific features and recommends them for interpretation."
* "Educated beyond the point considered wise for females" but "impractically for the demands of an exposed life".
* "Though not a childless couple, they had retained an air of romance in their marriage, as the barren often do."
* "The foul country... was vague and ominous in the moonlight."
* "He would like to love the world as it was... Hate took no effort other than to look about."
* "When it became too dark to read and the air turned blue and started to congeal with mist."
* "Celebration had been a lacking feature of her life since survival had such a sharp way of focusing one's attention elsewhere."
* "She had lived so long as to have achieved a state of near transparency."
* Gypsies had "a fine honesty in their predatory relationship with the rest of mankind." I know what he means, but...
* "Dying there seemed easier than not... Inman had seen so much death it had come to seem a random thing... it no longer seemed dark and mysterious. He feared... he might never make a civilian."
* "The easement of maiden, spinster, widow", though if your knowledge of anatomy is "to a degree hypothetical", your fantasies may focus on fingers, wrists and forearms.
* A path "so coiled and knotted he could not say what its general tendency was... He felt fuddled and wayless."
* "Marrying a woman for her beauty makes no more sense than eating a bird for its singing."
* "The pain settled to a distant noise, like living by a river."
* In a dead man's clothes "he felt he had donned the husk of another life... as a ghost must, occupying the shape of the past to little effect."
* "A suggestion of trees as in a quick sketch, a casual gesture toward the form of trees... as if there were no such thing as landscape."
* "The sentimentality of finding poignancy in the fall of leaves, of seeing it as the conclusion to the year and therefore metaphoric."
UPDATE re the Film
If you love this book, or think you may read and love it in the future, avoid the the 2003 film starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger.
It's not that it's an awful film (though the acting, accents, and very fake-looking snow and scenery are pretty poor), and it's not the many (very many) tweaks they made to the plot (some are inevitable with any adaptation from one medium to another).
No, the problem is that it seems to miss the entire point and atmosphere of the book. By a long, long way. There are some gory battle scenes, but in general, it's a sunny romance. The sun is shining far too much of the time, even in Inman's dangerous travels, most of the hardship is soft-focus, the power of the landscape is mostly missing, and the power of books is sidelined. Inman's Bartram is important, but only because, in the film, it was Ada's parting gift, so it's a memento from a lover, rather than something separate, but more profound.
Delightful whimsy. A humorous illustrated story of fantastical derring-do, by a writer and artist who loved children, pirates, islands and adventure.Delightful whimsy. A humorous illustrated story of fantastical derring-do, by a writer and artist who loved children, pirates, islands and adventure. It reminds me a little of Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas. My one regret is that I did not come to Peake when my son was the perfect age for this.
As the title declares, it's the illustrated letters of "one of the greatest explorers the world has never known" to his long-lost nephew. He introduces himself, but says "It won't be easy to draw myself as I can't remember my face very well" and casually mentions polishing his "leg-spike" long before explaining it (it came from a sword-fish). The drawings are for his own pleasure; the writing because he needs to tell his story so that his nephew can pass all the information to the Natural History Museum. Later though, "I'm beginning to enjoy writing to you. I didn't like you much at first."
He relishes suspense: "I'm longing to tell you about my Project, but the time is not quite ripe" and "I'm sure you must be tantalized into a tantrum".
The uncle, and his retainer Jackson (a turtle dog), are on a quest to find the White Lion, who is the Emperor of the Snows and indeed, "the only Lion to thrive in Arctic zones", although they've previously explored the tropics. Anyway, the letters are mainly about ingenuity and peril in the ice: hitching a ride with vultures across a chasm by playing dead; a snow vortex; tickling to escape being hugged to death by a polar bear; a magical ice cathedral; warm snow (fear not: it's white), and eventually... The White Lion (who reminds me a little of The Lamb in Boy in Darkness).
There's a sudden, bizarre twist at the end, but it's the continual smattering of casual weirdness I especially like: "smoking a pipe I carved out of the leg of my wife's favourite arm chair"; taking a lifeboat oar to use with a raft made of a table, rather than taking the lifeboat; using "blubber" as a swear word.
* The Aurora Borealis is "Hairy-Bleary-Alice".
* "A forest of trees that had been frozen into skeletons that never put forth leaves."
* "A great wind galloped out of the mountains of clanging ice... until the cold trees roared."
* "Steered my raft among the coughing waves."
* "My heart began to knock like a bandit's gong."
A couple of pages to give you a flavour of the book:
More of a geeky joke than a story, but neat. And the word Aleph reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges, which is always good. And this is my 31st word... HEMore of a geeky joke than a story, but neat. And the word Aleph reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges, which is always good. And this is my 31st word... HERE.
“Blindness is not darkness; it is a form of solitude.”
I have the Collected Fictions, but am splitting my review of that into its components. Those rev“Blindness is not darkness; it is a form of solitude.”
I have the Collected Fictions, but am splitting my review of that into its components. Those reviews are listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews.
These four stories were published three years before JLB died (but are also often included in The Book of Sand). He went out on a high. What a wonderful writer.
August 25, 1983 6*
August 25, 1897 is the key date in "Avelino Arredondo", a story in The Book of Sand. However, this is really a variant of “The Other” (in The Book of Sand) and also “Borges and I” in Dreamtigers. “Who is dreaming whom?”
Once again, JLB meets himself (aged 61 and 83), and once again, he uses this opportunity to criticise his works: “In 1979 you will see that your supposed career has been nothing but a series of drafts… and you will give in to the vain and superstitious temptation to write your great book.” But which is that? He rattles off his recurring themes and demonstrates a couple he doesn’t mention (nested realities and Don Quixote) by claiming to have written under a pseudonym, but was “taken for a clumsy imitator”.
“My words, which are now your present, will one day be but the vaguest memory of a dream.”
“Blindness is not darkness; it is a form of solitude.”
Blue Tigers 6*
What do tigers mean? To William Blake, they were “the eternal archetype of Evil”; to GK Chesterton, they had “terrible elegance”; to JLB, they were mesmerising and magical.
A Scottish teacher of logic, has a very illogical experience when he seeks mythical blue tigers in remote mountains of India. The villagers are secretive, and what he finds leaves him fearing for his sanity. Really, this is about what happens when your most fundamental beliefs are demonstrably untrue.
(view spoiler)[He finds shape-shifting blue pebbles in the cracks of a taboo mountain. Their number changes constantly, too. “If three plus one can be two or fourteen, then reason is madness.” He embarks on a manic, futile quest to “seek some order” and ends up praying for release at the mosque. As he makes his ablutions, a blind beggar asks for alms, seemingly aware of the curse of the blue pebbles, but it’s “the only gift I am permitted to receive, .I have sinned.” The narrator is free – even though he is presumably a sinner as well. (hide spoiler)]
“Their color is the blue that we are permitted to see only in our dreams.”
The Rose of Paraclesus 6*
What are the boundaries of science and magic, of faith and proof? Does proof strengthen faith or remove the need for it? If you know the truth, how strong is your desire to prove it to others?
Paraclesus was a true Renaissance man: he was a scientist who stressed the importance of observational evidence, and pioneered toxicology, but he also dabbled in alchemy. In this story, he is praying for a disciple when one turns up at his door. He brings gold (redundant for an alchemist) and a rose, which leaves Paraclesus “troubled”. In return, he wants proof of the rumour that Paraclesus can burn up and restore a rose.
(view spoiler)[Paraclesus is angered, “You are credulous… I demand belief” (what’s the difference?), but the traveller says, understandably, that it’s because he’s NOT credulous that he wants proof. Paraclesus asserts that “The miracle would not bring you the belief you seek”, so the traveller tosses the rose on the fire and departs, thinking Paraclesus a fraud. When he’s gone, Paraclesus conjures a rose from the ashes. (hide spoiler)]
Shakespeare’s Memory 6*
Are good memories always a blessing, or can they be a curse? How much of our identity is bound up in our memories, whether they be true or false? What is memory anyway? A palimpsest, as de Quincy says?
A German expert in Shakespeare, who now has “partial blindness” (JLB’s was almost total by this time) has an extraordinary story that sheds light on these questions.
(view spoiler)[He is given a magical transfer of Shakespeare’s memory; it’s a gradual process. “What I possess… are still two memories – my own personal memory and the memory of that Shakespeare that I partially am. Or rather, two memories possess me. There’s a place where they merge.” And that is where problems begin. Joy turns to “terror and oppression” as he becomes obsessed (shades of Gollum and “his Precious”), loses his sense of self, and fears for his sanity. So, of course, he passes it on to someone else. (hide spoiler)]
“A man’s memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities”, rather as “A man who acquires an encyclopaedia… acquires the possibility of becoming familiar” with its contents.
Want to Discuss JLB Further?
The group On Paths Unknown will be reading and discussing JLB stories, starting on 1st September 2015.
This short story was published in The Book of Sand, but my review of that is too long, so this one is separate.
This has echoes of JLB’s The Library ofThis short story was published in The Book of Sand, but my review of that is too long, so this one is separate.
This has echoes of JLB’s The Library of Babel - and also Fight Club! There are interesting variations on familiar ideas, but it doesn’t hang together quite as well. I think I must have missed something more profound. (Suggestions welcome.)
An old man reminisces, thinking along Platonic lines (also cited in The Night of the Gifts, which is also in The Book of Sand) that knowing is really just recognising: being old “I find novelty neither interesting nor surprising… it’s little more than timid variations on what’s already been.”
(view spoiler)[He recalls being drawn into the mysterious and secretive Congress of the World, when he was a naïve young man from a poor background. As the only surviving member, he now feels able to tell his story.
Delegates do not ask questions, and are expected to discover the goals of the Congress “gradually, and without haste”. The apparent chairman, don Alejandro, might not really be. In the afterword, JLB mentions parallels with Kafka.
“All mankind are delegates”, but most never know. Even among those who do, they should represent everyone, but how to categorise when each person can represent several groups? One man might simultaneously be a rancher, a Uruguayan, a red-bearded man and a man sitting in an arm-chair. We’re into set theory. And that extends to the inevitable library the Congress will need, which must not be limited to reference, but should include “classics of every land and language”. Will this be an infinite library, like the one of Babel? It certainly grows – indiscriminately, perhaps in echo of Pliny’s theory “that there was no book so bad that it doesn’t contain some good”.
Don Alejandro builds an amphitheatre at his ranch, for Congress to use for meetings. The library is there, too. A guest room at his ranch has a dirt floor, but a silver basin. He reads the Bible to his uncomprehending workers, just as in The Gospel According to Mark (in Brodie's Report). What does this have to do with anything?
And what language should the Congress use? “That infinite language, English”, Esperanto, Latin, or something else? The narrator goes to research in England and someone else to Paris. In the British Library Reading Room, he meets Beatrice. They become lovers, but he doesn’t leave a forwarding address because he wants “to avoid the anguish of waiting for her letters”. It doesn’t really fit with the rest of the plot.
The narrator returns, and don Alejandro sells the ranch, disbands Congress and burns all the books!
“The Congress of the World began the instant the world itself began… There is no place it is not… We no longer need the Congress, but this last night we shall all go out to contemplate the Congress.” (hide spoiler)]
There is passing reference to a new library director, “a literary gentleman who has devoted himself to the study of antique languages, as though the languages of today were not sufficiently primitive, and to the demagogical glorification of an imaginary Buenos Aires of knife fighters.”
2. Hunting is not what it's really about (probably like Moby Dick?).
3. It was a good follow-on from Cold Mountain: two totally different US landscape-based stories, set only a few years apart.
What This Is - and Is Not
• This is a road movie - without the road, the car, or the film cameras.
• It's a Western - without cows, cowboys or indians.
• It's a character-based story - but the main characters don't speak or move (because they’re the landscape and weather).
• It's about big beasts, big wilderness, big ambitions, some big characters - but it often focuses on the minutest details of how things looks, sound, and feel (see quotes near the end).
• It’s about quests and dreams (of meaning for one; of wealth for another); aspects have a mythical air – but harsh reality dominates, and it's not the standard "American Dream" of wealth (success, fame, power).
• It's a coming-of-age story or bildungsroman (thanks, Dolors) - except that the end of the journey seems more like the beginning of Will's growing up.
• It's about life (finding purpose in it, as well as basic survival) - but there's bloody death and butchery.
“He believed there was a subtle magnetism in nature, which if he unconsciously yielded to it, would direct him aright.”
I often seek quiet landscapes for solace, thinking, escape (preferably woodland). I like to listen and touch. I’m not brave or reckless enough to go anywhere really wild, and although I eat meat, I’m no hunter. Nevertheless, I can relate to underlying theme of this story more than I expected.
Will Andrews heads west, not to make his fortune, but to find meaning in his life. The landscape quickly has a profound effect, though it doesn’t really clarify things for him. He longs for the distant mountains but “did not know precisely what hunger or thirst they would assuage”. How many of us long vaguely for something, without being sure how or if it will fix things?
After only a month away from Boston, he barely remembers home, which seems “in a very distant time… The image would not stay with him. Unreal, it thinned like brown fog.” He quickly feels at home in the tiny settlement of Butcher’s Crossing, but yearns to go further, into the wilderness: in “a hint of the distant horizon” he sees “his own undiscovered nature”.
As he travels, he comes to identify with his surroundings, “He felt himself to be like the land, without identity or shape”. He has “the feeling that he was being absorbed” and “promised… a richness and a fulfilment for which he had no name”. After only a few weeks, “He had been here in the high valley for all of that part of his life that mattered… He could not think of himself outside of where he was”. Is this peace or an unhealthy form of disassociation?
But what’s it all for? When they eventually leave the valley, after much hardship, Will “felt vaguely that he would be leaving something behind, something that might have been precious to him, had he been able to know what it was.”
This thwarting of uncertain ambitions, this lack of resolution, reminded me of Stoner.
Faith, Religion, Ritual
Does everyone need faith in something? I’m not sure (I don’t think I have faith in anything much), but that’s the suggestion here.
Charley Hoge, the waggon driver, has a simple but profound faith in the words of his dog-eared Bible, and a fair amount of faith in Miller, the experienced buffalo hunter. Miller’s faith is also in Miller: his vast experience of the beasts and their environment. Schneider, the skinner, has faith in his own experience, so it’s no surprise that he and Miller don’t always agree. McDonald, the hide trader, has hope of future prosperity when the railroad comes through town.
Will is the faithless one: the son of a preacher who pressed Emerson more than God on his son. That is surely why Will now seeks answers in the wilderness, and why “the reality of their journey lay in the routine detail… a ritual, more and more meaningless as it was repeated, but a ritual which nevertheless gave his life the only shape it now had”.
There is also a ritualistic aspect to the hunting, killing, and skinning: “a rhythm in Miller’s slaughter… Like a dance, a thunderous minuet created by the wildness that surrounded it”. Does that make it somehow sacred, or profane and greedy?
If my Biblical knowledge were closer to Charley’s than Will’s, I’d probably spot more, but wilderness is significant in the Christian story, and just as Genesis has a six-day creation, Miller’s preparation for the journey is six days, as it the first leg of it (after which, they are literally off the beaten track).
I’m not sure if it’s the author’s intention, but you could easily sermonise along the lines of the perils of chasing material gain, versus the importance of searching for deeper truth.
From the most ancient myths and stories, physical journeys have paralleled personal journeys of transformation. That is true here – not just of Will, but even the characters who are used to venturing out for weeks on end.
There are the obvious physical transformations from weeks in the saddle, then the hard labour of hunting and skinning etc, but the psychological changes are greatest, and most profound. As things get tougher, each man has to wrestle his own demons, as well as the other men, and the conditions in which they’re living, travelling and, hopefully, surviving - physically and mentally.
“He thought at times that he as moving into a new body, or into a real body that had lain hidden beneath unreal layers of softness and whiteness and smoothness.” Later, these feelings are echoed when he loses his virginity.
If you like survival stories, there’s plenty here. They travel in uncharted territory, where only one of them has been before, and that was ten years earlier. They have supplies, but need to make them last, and can’t ever go too far from water. The terrain and weather are always a risk, as is the greed of trying to get just a few more hides.
Seeing this Through Other Eyes
Some books are so deep or strange, they inspire hugely varied and very creative reviews. This is, in some ways, a very simple story, but I was struck by the variety of my friends' reviews: they are almost all 4* or 5*, but the themes and ideas the pick out are remarkably diverse. I think that indicates how much depth there is beneath the surface.
I think this could make a wonderful film - but only in the rights hands. It needs to focus on careful shots of the landscape, rather than wild west clichés: enormous vistas, as well as careful light, highlighting details close-up. Stephen Poliakoff would be perfect, though in 2010, Sam Mendes was reported to be adapting it. He's made some excellent films, but I'm not sure I'd want to see his version of this.
Descriptions of Minute Details
• “He became aware that his hands were tightly clenched; the tips of his fingers slipped in the moisture of his palms.
• “Flat lines of sweat ran through the glinting beads of moisture that stood out on his forehead, and ran into his tangled eyebrows.”
• “He noticed the minute beads of sweat that stood out distinctly above her full lip and caught the sunlight like tiny crystals.”
• “The rich buffalo grass… changed its color throughout the day; in the morning, in the pinkish rays of the early sun, it was nearly gray; in the yellow light of the midmorning sun, it was a brilliant green; at noon it took on a bluish cast; in the afternoon, in the intensity of the sun, at a distance, the blades lost their individual character and through the green showed a distinct cast of yellow, so that when a light breeze whipped across, a living color seemed to run through the grass, to disappear and reappear from moment to moment. In the evening after the sun had gone down, the grass took on a purplish hue as if it absorbed all the light from the sky and would not give it back.”
• “When he inserted the rod into the breech of the barrel the hot metal hissed, and the drops of water that got on the outside of the barrel danced for a moment on the blued metal and disappeared.”
• “He heard nothing save the soft whistling of the wind around his ears, which were beginning to tingle from the coolness. The southern reaches of the valley were softening in a faint mist that was coming down from the mountains… the sunlit white vapor twisted and coiled upon itself before a thrusting wind that was not felt on the ground here in the valley.”
• “The mountainside was a riot of varied shade and hue… He thought that if he listened he could hear the sound of growth… the fragrant air, spiced with the odor of crushed pine needles and musty from the slow decay that worked upward from the earth.”
• “It was a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous. What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source.”
• “She was a presence which assuaged a need in him that he barely knew he had, until the need was met.”
• “Caught in the ugliness of sleep… defenceless… in the innocence of sleep” he “had never seen a part of her that he was seeing now.”
• “It wasn’t you, it was me.” (Published in 1960!)
The enchantment of the title is apt, as there is an almost magical feel about the power of a beautiful landscape.
This is a cEnchanting Transformation
The enchantment of the title is apt, as there is an almost magical feel about the power of a beautiful landscape.
This is a carefully observed story of characters and transformation. It constantly juxtaposes light with underlying sadness and hope. It’s about finding the courage to shake off undeserved guilt, rattle convention, and be true to yourself – and thus to others in your life. “Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap in rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy. She was naked of goodness, and was rejoicing in being naked.”
Everyone has some unspoken gap or sadness in their lives, despite outward ordinariness or even success. But inertia, fear, societal pressure keep them in their place. This is the story of what happens when each character takes a small, uncharacteristic step away from the quotidian, leading to more significant steps. Everyone is changed, some more quickly and dramatically than others.
It sounds sentimental, and at times feels a little so (especially near the end), and yet it is delightful. It's also a little unbelievable - but if the enchantment works for you, you'll forgive that.
This section is not a spoiler, and says little more than the blurb on the book itself. The real plot is the character development.
Mrs Wilkins is “running her listless eye down the Agony Column” when she spots an advert to rent an Italian castle for a month. It’s way beyond her means, but the mention of its wisteria is a draw, especially when she “stared out at the dripping street”. Wisteria has many mentions in the book, along with other flowers, but really, it’s the people who are flowering: in a new environment, they are liberated in ways that did not seem possible back in England in 1922.
Mrs Wilkins asks Mrs Arbuthnot, who she knows by sight from church, to come with her. They then advertise for two other women to join them and share the cost.
As soon as they arrive in Italy, despite a bad journey, “the whole inflamed sore dreariness, had faded to the dimness of a dream”. The weather was not initially welcoming, “But it was Italy. Nothing it did could be bad. The very rain was different— straight rain, falling properly on to one's umbrella; not that violently blowing English stuff that got in everywhere”.
The four women differ in age, outlook, social position, relationship status and more. Inevitably, men are added to the picture.
Humour comes from attempts to nab the best room, the etiquette of who is hostess (the one who initiated it, the most senior by age or rank; it certainly confuses the Italian staff), a dodgy boiler, and later, somewhat farcical aspects of mistaken assumptions and who is partnered with who.
It was only when I was half way through, I realised how apposite the timing was. It’s about four strangers who rent an Italian castle in April. I read it in August, finishing the day before I headed to France and Italy, for a trip that included staying in a villa with a group that included friends and strangers. I wasn’t as transformed as the characters here, but I think I unfurled a little.
This is the heart of the book.
She is a quiet, introverted woman in her mid 30s who seems older and more humble than she is. She thinks of herself as poor and still has a clothing allowance from her father – yet she’s married to a solicitor, lives in Hampstead and has a club.
“She was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties. Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible.”
But she is also impulsive: she takes the initiative with the castle and she has a tendency to say what she thinks – not in a rude way, but it can seem a little improper or presumptive to others, particularly when saying what and why she thinks they are feeling.
She justifies the extravagance of the holiday in the expectation that she will return a nicer person. Her first night alone in five years feels strange, but there is joy and power in “her room bought with her own savings, the fruit of her careful denials, whose door she could bolt if she wanted to, and nobody had the right to come in”.
She is almost instantly transformed by the heavenly setting, relaxing and gaining confidence. In Rose’s eyes, Lotty was “impetuously becoming a saint. Could one really attain goodness so violently?” (view spoiler)[In the spirit of bliss, she invites her husband to join her – without consulting the others. He notices there is “not a shred of fear of him left in her” and there is a virtuous circle of her happiness and his warm response. (hide spoiler)]
Lotty’s husband is thrifty with everything, except for food – even words, thus “producing the impression of keeping copies of everything he said”. He’s an ambitious networker, and unlike his wife, he “gave a party, merely by coming to it, a great air.”
At home, he’s colder. Wanting to escape “the persistent vileness of the weather”, he proposes a holiday, and “as it would cause comment if he did not take his wife, take her he must—besides, she would be useful… for holding things, for waiting with the luggage”! (That holiday didn’t happen.)
(view spoiler)[At the castle, as more people arrive and there are shades of bedroom farce, he relishes – and cultivates - the possibility of legal advice arising from the apparently complex web of relationships. He is grudgingly grateful to Lotty for this opportunity - not that he says so to her. Lady Caroline warms to him, because he’s not predatory like other men; in fact he’s just as predatory, but not in a sexual sense. (hide spoiler)]
Her life is governed by “God, Husband, Home, Duty”. “The very way Mrs Arbuthnot parted her hair suggested a great calm that could only proceed from wisdom.” She’s a pillar of the church, leading good works and giving to the poor, in part to appease her guilt at her husband’s new – and profitable – career of writing salacious fictitious memoirs of kings’ mistresses and their ilk: “Her very nest egg was the fruit, posthumously ripened, of ancient sin”. She feels guilty about the extravagance of her holiday, despite her husband’s generosity.
She’s 33 and has been married for 13 years, and mourns “This separate life, this freezing loneliness”. Their only baby died. (view spoiler)[When she goes to Italy, she doesn’t tell her husband beforehand, but merely leaves him a note that doesn’t even say where she’s gone. She avoids talking about him and is happy for Mrs Fisher to assume her a widow.
Rose’s transformation is slower and more painful than Lotty’s. Previously, “Her scheduled life in the parish had prevented memories and desires from intruding on her.” She now has time to think, but finds it hard to pray. “San Salvatore had taken her carefully built-up semblance of happiness away from her, and given her nothing in exchange.” She’s more aware of her love for her husband and the loss of their baby. “How passionately she longed to be important to somebody again… privately important, just to one other person.”
Nevertheless, seeing Lotty’s happiness, she eventually invites Frederick, despite her perpetual fear she’ll bore him. He arrives oddly quickly. (hide spoiler)]
Rose’s writer husband is rarely at home, but “he never went out of the house without her blessing going with him too, hovering, like a little echo of finished love.” He’s hurt by her disapproval of his writing, her reluctance to spend his money, and the way she has drifted away from him. (view spoiler)[He’s 40 and moves in social circles as the author of titillating potboilers. His life bristles with complications, but he’s quick-witted and laid back. (hide spoiler)]
Lady Caroline Dester, aka Scrap
She’s a beautiful, rich, “extravagantly slender”, young flapper, tired of the social whirl. She sees herself as “a spoilt, a sour, a suspicious, and a selfish spinster”, though no one else does.
She is “wholly taken up by one great longing, a longing to get away from everybody she had ever known”, including those she’s sharing the castle with. Her success is limited in part by an odd inability to seem nasty or cross. For example, “what felt to her an indignant stare appeared to Mrs. Fisher as really charming docility”.
She has “the deep and melancholy fatigue, of the too much” which turns out to mean being constantly “grabbed” by men, “it was just as if she didn't belong to herself, wasn't her own at all, but was regarded as a universal thing, a sort of beauty-of-all-work”. The only man she loved and would have married had died in the war. “She was afraid of nothing in life except love” and “Nothing bored her so much as people who insisted on being original”.
A rather stuffy, proper widow of 65. Some of her lines are reminiscent of Lady Bracknell. She’s living on memories not of her husband, but the great literary figures she knew as a child, always name-dropping, even in her own thoughts: Ruskin, Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, as well as the President of the Royal Academy, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Governor of the Bank of England. She’s well off, but rather parsimonious. Her house was inherited and “Death had furnished it for her”. Her husband had “behaved very much like maccaroni. He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified”, though we’re spared details.
(view spoiler)[Eventually, inevitably, Mrs Fisher has “a ridiculous feeling as if she were presently going to burgeon. Sternly she tried to frown the unseemly sensation down. Burgeon, indeed. She had heard of dried staffs, pieces of mere dead wood, suddenly putting forth fresh leaves, but only in legend. She was not in legend… Dignity demanded that she should have nothing to do with fresh leaves at her age; and yet there it was—the feeling that presently, that at any moment now, she might crop out all green.” (hide spoiler)]
He’s the owner, in his early 30s. (view spoiler)[He’s keen to settle down and have a family. He’s the human manifestation of the transformative power of the castle itself.
Lotty and Rose met him in London prior to renting the house. He assumed them to be widows and took a fancy to Rose, so he decides to visit. “The more Mr Briggs thought Rose charming the more charming she became.” He, an orphan, affects childless Mrs Fisher, too, “blossoming out into real amiability the moment some one came along who was charming to her”. Then he sees Lady Caroline… And of course she assumes he’s just another grabber. (hide spoiler)]
A writer who fancies Lady Caroline, and tracks her down in the castle, via her mother.
(view spoiler)[He’s actually Frederick Arbuthnot in Hampstead and Ferdinand Arundel in town, rather like Jack/Earnest in The Importance of Being Earnest. (hide spoiler)]
• A “prolonged quarrel… conducted with dignified silence on one side and earnest apology on the other.”
• “To be missed, to be needed… was… better than the complete loneliness of not being missed or needed at all.”
• “Incredible as it may seem, seeing how they get into everything, Mrs. Wilkins had never come across any members of the aristocracy.”
• “All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.”
• “Up to now she had had to take what beauty she could as she went along, snatching at little bits of it when she came across it… She had never been in definitely, completely beautiful places.”
• “This was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.”
• “She was having a violent reaction against beautiful clothes and the slavery they impose on one… gave one no peace till they had been everywhere and been seen by everybody. You didn't take your clothes to parties; they took you.”
• “Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers… They stood looking at this crowd of loveliness, this happy jumble, in silence.”
• “How and where husbands slept should be known only to their wives. Sometimes it was not known to them, and then the marriage had less happy moments; but these moments were not talked about either.” Shades of Lady Bracknell.
• Her face “became elaborately uninterested”.
• “There were many things she disliked more than anything else.”
• “It is true she liked him most when he wasn't there, but then she usually liked everybody most when they weren't there.”
• “Inheritance was more respectable than acquisition. It did indicate fathers; and in an age where most people appeared neither to have them nor to want them she liked this too.”
• “He certainly looked exactly like a husband, not at all like one of those people who go about abroad pretending they are husbands.”
• “The marvelous night stole in through all one's chinks, and brought in with it… enormous feelings—feelings one couldn't manage.”
WARNING ABOUT THIS EDITION (Watchmaker Publishing)
I don’t know if this was transcribed from audio, or badly scanned, or even if it’s been this way for nearly a century, but my copy has a lot of odd typos. (American spelling was also a surprise.)
• “I wonder got which is best."
• “they each hand over a reasonable sun every week”
• “When Lady Caroline wants is one dose”
• “a hurried scribble, showing how much bored he was at doing it”
• “"You se," Mrs. Wilkins said”
• “they each out to have somebody happy inside them”
• “if any one was shaken of it was she herself”
• “He had not hear her.”
"Middle age: an urge to destroy because you cannot create any more."
"It was as if he hadn't really wanted freedom, only to assert his right to be free"Middle age: an urge to destroy because you cannot create any more."
"It was as if he hadn't really wanted freedom, only to assert his right to be free if he chose." Said of an escaped horse, but just as applicable to some of the human characters. And maybe to me, too.
I suppose this is historical fiction, albeit of a very recent kind, given that it's set before and around the time I was born. I have a casual fondness for English novels set in that period, usually among the slightly struggling, introspective middle class intelligentsia (Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Lynne Reid Banks, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym). It's only just occurred to me that perhaps I'm trying to glimpse something of my parents' past (they're both still alive). I certainly see parallels in some of these novels. The really good ones still speak truth today.
This shows its age in a few ways. Some are rather charming, such as a metaphor on the first page, "other people are under-developed negatives, snapshots" and saying, with embarrassment, that an unmarried couple "were lovers". Others are more discomforting: gender roles in general, attitudes to casual domestic violence, a friend who fears her Jewish heritage may be discovered, and phrases like "Sometimes I dreamed of dark rapists in romantic situations". The ending would be improbable nowadays, too.
The History of a Marriage
This is the story of Richard and Elizabeth's travels in Morocco: a week or two in the mid 1960s. It's interspersed with backstory of their childhoods and the course of their marriage of nearly 20 years, including two sons. She's around 38, but describes herself as middle aged. They seem comfortable with low-level discomfort in their relationship. Settled. Settled for second-best, perhaps.
"Our feelings for each other rattle around like cards in a spinning tombola... we draw out a card, not always appropriate, for each occasion."
"When we were first married, we argued with vain, angry faces, insisting that we should be understood... Now we don't want to be understood. The truth is too painful."
Inevitably, their past, present and future turn out to be more troubling and complex than is initially apparent: deaths, betrayals, and disappointments all lurk, waiting for the triggers: travel, heat, friends new and old. Some of the consequences are a little predictable, others much less so. The overall effect is plausible (mostly), dramatic, traumatic.
Elizabeth is the narrator - to the reader and to herself: she sometimes thinks of herself in the third person, imagining how others describe her, as "a way of giving myself some kind of shape. Or helping me to see myself." She was raised by two strong women (aunts), in a fiercely political home (Labour), got into Oxford, but dropped out to marry, and has lacked confidence ever since.
For all her self-analysis, she isn't always honest to herself, which makes her situation all the more poignant: "Nothing moved in me. Apart from a superficial, tactile pleasantness, I felt nothing at all." But not always: "I had only pretended I didn't know... a shabby mischance had... knocked down the precarious walls of my prison."
At times, she's trying to be someone she's not, but she doesn't even know quite who that is. I can relate to that.
We all need escape at times. a hobby, a holiday, friendships, an affair. There are no answers here, unfortunately.
Some of these are agonising:
* "You know other people only as witnesses to your own situation: when they reflect your own fears and desires."
* Looking in the mirror, "I remain, as I did then [when younger] cloudy, fading, sadly out of focus. I do not know myself, only my own situation."
* "I put out my hand. He took it and, after a second, handed it back to me like a discarded handkerchief."
* "Richard has great charm when he chooses to exert it... He bestowed his charm upon them [her aunts] like a beautiful and unexpected present: since they were old, the giving of it flattered him, not them."
* A younger partner was "too young to be a discarded husband... too old to be a son".
* We "sat silent, smoking to comfort our inferiority".
* "I shrank from his perfection... grateful for the darkness."
* "He discussed his symptoms with the self-absorbed vehemence of a young man to whom pain is a single, shocking insult, not feared as a forerunner of something worse."
* "I fell into deceit quite easily... The change was not so much in him, as in the way I saw him."
* "a gloomily devoted mother."
* "This is what a marriage should be... two people comforting each other in the dark. There's no need for love in the daylight."
* "Duty is a much easier conception" than love.
* "He began to cry. It seemed like a strategy." contrasted with "I wanted to weep but I felt nothing."
“The encounter was real, but the other man spoke to me in a dream.”
How often have you wondered what you would tell your younger self, if you had the chance? Would your younger self take any notice? What else would you talk about? More importantly, would you give them a glimpse of “my past, which is now the future that awaits you”, and if you did, would you be constraining that future by doing so?
So many of JLB’s stories have semi-fictionalised aspects of himself, or a person meeting another version of themselves; this has both. (See also “August 25, 1983”, below, and “Borges and I” in Dreamtigers.) But although it is described in pleasant terms, JLB says it was “almost horrific while it lasted” and mentions “elemental fear” and the “sleepless nights that followed”.
(view spoiler)[They talk about literature, of course (and family). Young JLB has recently read Dostoyevsky’s The Double, which is apt. It’s awkward, though: “We were too different, yet too alike. We could not deceive each other and that made conversation hard. Each of us was almost a caricature of the other.”
JLB realises “There was no point in giving advice,,, because the young man’s fate was to be the man that I am now.” He concludes that the meeting was real for him, but merely a dream for his younger self. (hide spoiler)]
This story is also an opportunity for JLB, by then in his mid-seventies, to appraise his life, work and influence. He’s quite harsh, saying he “wrote too many” books, including “poetry that will give you a pleasure that others will not fully share, and stories of a fantastical turn”.
A rarity in JLB’s writings: this features a woman – and as the subject of intense and sudden love and desire.
Ulrikke is a Norwegian with an air of “calm mystery”, staying in York, where she meets the narrator, “a celibate middle-aged man” who is a professor visiting from Columbia.
(view spoiler)[The tender one-night stand that ensues is idealised and ethereal but with signs of looming death. The bedroom is dark, with “a vague glass” and then “no more furniture, no more mirrors… Like sand, time sifted away. Ancient in the dimness flowed love, and for the first and last time, I possessed the image of Ulrikke”. As so often with JLB, the reader is left unsure how much of this is real, and if not, what it means: is Ulrikke the perfect woman or the yin to JLB’s yang, or something else altogether? (hide spoiler)]
The Congress 5*
This has a separate review because I ran out of words here: The Congress.
There are More Things 6*
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." – Hamlet.
One of the homilies drummed into us at school was “Send postcards to people when they’re alive, not flowers when they’re dead”. In this, a man visits the former house of the dead uncle who taught him philosophy and “felt what we always feel when someone dies – the sad awareness, now futile, of how little it would have cost us to be more loving”. But this isn’t straightforward remembrance.
The house was auctioned and bought by a secretive foreigner for twice as much as anyone else offered. The purchaser dumped all the books and furniture, and tried (and failed) to get the original architect to remodel it. Others were brought in to do the work, which was completed in two weeks, overnight, and the owner was never seen again. It’s having dark fairytale qualities now.
The nephew is curious. In fact his curiosity has previously led him to “marriage to a woman utterly unlike myself… trying laudanum… into an exploration of transfinite numbers” and now this “terrifying adventure”.
“In order to truly see a thing, one must first understand it. An armchair implies the human body… scissors the act of cutting… The passenger does not see the same ship’s rigging as the crew. If we truly saw the universe, perhaps we would understand it.”
(view spoiler)[He visits the architect, who was a personal friend of his uncle, but he learns little, other than that the new owner is Jewish and wanted a “monstrosity” built in place of the original house. That night, he dreams of a labyrinth, and next day he visits the carpenter who did some of the refurbishments. He’s evasive: he says that the customer is always right, but that Preetorious was “not quite right”.
Over the next few days, the nephew walks around the boarded up house until, sheltering from a storm, he discovers the gate is unlocked and the door ajar. The floor is bare earth and the furniture is scattered – and strange.
“None of the insensate forms… corresponded to the human figure or any conceivable use. They inspired horror and revulsion.” It’s pertinent that this story is dedicated to H P Lovecraft.
Then he hears “something heavy and slow and plural. Curiosity got the better of fear, and I did not close my eyes.” Then it stops! Who, what, why did he see? (hide spoiler)]
The Sect of Thirty
“There is no man that does not carry out, wittingly or not, the plan traced by the All-Wise.”
I wish I believed in pre-destination: I could do whatever I liked, without fear of any more damnation that I would have had anyway – though I suppose the fact I think that condemns me in itself.
This is another story based on the discovery of a partial manuscript, in this case, a Christian sect of the name in the title. Their views, though varied (especially about death) and actions would be considered heretical by most Christians, and one aspect repulsive (and illegal) to all. But there is a Biblical logic, however twisted. I take it as a warning against fundamentalism, and especially looking so much at the details that you lose the broader context of right and wrong.
(view spoiler)[Their generosity to the poor means they do not even have clothes for themselves. Because looking at a woman lustfully is as sinful as having sex with her, and the former is impossible to suppress, they are promiscuous (what about lustful women, consent etc?). The sect’s name comes from Judas’ payment for betraying Jesus (thirty pieces of silver), and because all the participants in the crucifixion are unknown except for Judas and Jesus, “the sect venerates the two equally and absolves the others”. Crucifixion is key: in breach of the fifth commandment, members are crucified when they reach the age at which it happened to Jesus (thirty three). (hide spoiler)]
The Night of the Gifts
This revisits the Platonic idea that knowing is really just recognising because we’ve seen all things in some former world (see also The Congress, above).
When the narrator was nearly thirteen, he went to town on a Saturday night with an older labourer. Bars, dancing, drink, women… You can guess the gist, but it has a slightly unreal quality, especially towards the end, when you wonder how much of it was real, and how much embroidery. The narrator asks that question himself, drawing parallels with “the Captive” Indian girl and the story she told of the Indian raid that led her to her current situation.
Like “Undr” below and The Library of Babel (in The Garden of Forking Paths), this explores the paradox of infinity coupled with minimalism. More than that, it’s about the sacred danger of true beauty.
A king wants to be immortalised in song. He gives a poet a year to compose such a piece. The song is a triumph and the poet is given a silver mirror. He is also given another year to write an even better song.
(view spoiler)[In the second song, “the verses were strange… They were not a description of the battle, they were the battle.” But the king liked the obscurity of the verses and gave the poet a golden mask (is this like The Emperor’s New Clothes?). The third year, the poet returns with a single line. “The poet and the king mouthed the poem as though it were a secret supplication, or a blasphemy.” The kind is amazed that all wonders are encompassed so succinctly, but he and the poet now share “the sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden mankind”. The final gift is a dagger, which the poet dutifully uses as expected. The king “is a beggar who wanders the roads of Ireland, which once was his kingdom, and…has never spoken the poem again.” (hide spoiler)]
I’ve written so many words about JLB, and yet this story is all about encompassing a whole life, a whole word, in a single sound. How is that possible? How close can we get? Why would we try?
Like The Mirror and the Mask above and The Library of Babel (in The Garden of Forking Paths), this explores the paradox of infinity coupled with minimalism – and the peril of such perfection.
A man travels to a remote northern country where they have “true faith in Christ”. They carve runes of Odin (not very Christian), rather than writing on paper or parchment. Perhaps that is why “the poetry of the Urns is a poetry of a single word”. Carvings around the town are of different symbols, but all are, apparently, the Word (with a capital W – very Biblical).
(view spoiler)[The Urns are also prone to crucifying strangers (again, not very Christian). To avoid that fate, the traveller composes a laudatory poem. It seems to be well received: the king gives him a silver ring (but he glimpses a dagger under the king’s cushion). The next man presents a poem of a single word, and everyone is deeply moved by it. The traveller doesn’t catch the word, but another poet warns him he’ll die for hearing it, and helps him escape. He can’t tell the traveller the word because it is a sworn secret, “no one can teach another anything” and “You must seek it on your own”.
He travels for many years, eventually returning to find the poet and old man. On his deathbed, he tells the traveller a single Word, and in it, he sees everything: the poet’s life and his own. Then he picks up the harp and composes his own single word, demonstrating he has understood. (hide spoiler)]
A Weary Man’s Utopia 6*
A glimpse of a possible, simpler, future, but I’m not sure it’s one I’d want to live in, even if there were no poverty or war. I’m reminded of Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. The ending has an unexpected punch.
A traveller meets a very tall man with “peculiar eyes” who realises, by the clothing that the traveller has come from another time. The only common language they can find is Latin: “The diversity of languages encouraged the diversity of nations… the earth has returned to Latin.” Esperanto has no place in this vision (it was rejected in The Congress, above, as well).
For a utopia, envisaged by a writer, there are some surprising features, especially regarding books. On the other hand, is does presage some of the downsides of the internet – despite being published in 1975.
“No one cares about facts anymore. They are mere points of departure for speculation and exercises in creativity. In school, we are taught Doubt, and the Art of Forgetting.” There are no libraries or museums because “we want to forget the past” and “Each person must produce on his own the arts and sciences that he has need for… Every man must be his own Bernard Shaw, his own Jesus Christ, and his own Archimedes”. That sounds inefficient and solitary. “We live in time, which is successive, but we try to live sub aeternitatis” [under eternity].
“It’s not the reading that matters, but the rereading”: the old man has not read more than half a dozen books in his four hundred year life. Similarly, printing has been banned “for it tended to multiply unnecessary tests to a dizzying degree”. A brief trawl of the internet shows the truth of that, and the potential for information overload: “All this was no sooner read than forgotten… blotted out by new trivialities.” “People believed only what they could read on the printed page” – and boy do they believe: it was on a website or in an email that said it was reported on CNN, so it must be true. “esse est percipi - to be is to be portrayed”: selfies and general online validation, yep JLB saw that too.
In this utopia, there is of course, no poverty – and therefore no “vulgar wealth”, and indeed, no money. Governments “gradually fell into disuse (some former politicians found success as comedians and witch doctors!). Space travel ceased when “we found we could never escape the here and now… every journey is a journey through space”.
It sounds lonely, though: each person has only one child, and the old man lives alone; “When an individual has reached a hundred years of age, he is able to do without love and friendship” – but why would he? Being the master of your own life also means being the master of your own death, but this is no Soylent Green scenario; each chooses their own time.
After the leisured description of this time/place, there is a neat but shocking ending to the story. (view spoiler)[The traveller sees strange art that is “almost blank… painted with colours that your ancient eyes cannot see”. He is given one as “a souvenir of a future friend”. Then others arrive, help the old man strip the house and they all walk off to the crematory: “The death chamber… was invented by a philanthropist whose name, I believe, was Adolf Hitler.” Such a subtle way to make the point that Martin Amis was perhaps trying to make in the crass Time’s Arrow and Vonnegut did rather better in Slaughterhouse Five. “In my study… still hangs the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances that rea now scattered across the plant.” (hide spoiler)]
In the afterword, JLB says this is an exploration of “Americans’ obsession with ethics”; he reckons “it couldn’t have happened anywhere else”. I’m not sure about that, but nevertheless, it’s a straightforward short story of university politics – no mystical allusions in this one. Dr Winthrop has to pick one of two candidates to chair a conference. The characters and relative merits of the two candidates were rather dull – until I realised the twist of the tale.
(view spoiler)[One of the candidates realises Dr Winthrop will strive to be impartial – and to be seen as such. So he publishes a paper criticising Dr Winthrop’s work, on the assumption that will get him the job. “Written in the correct English of the non-native speaker, never stooped to incivility, yet it did have a certain belligerence… Not once was Winthrop’s name mentioned, but Winthrop felt persistently attacked.” It worked, and the winner then goes to Winthrop to tell him! They conclude they share the sin of vanity: one boasting of his strategy, and the other proud of his integrity. (hide spoiler)]
This is based on a historical event, outlined in the notes. However, it works quite well as a story, even without that knowledge.
Arredondo says farewell to his friends and sweetheart, saying he’s going away. However, he’s really hiding in his back room, reading the Bible (having sold all his other books), but without trying to understand it. There is an unexplained deadline of August 25 (which is the title of a story in Shakespeare’s Memory), though we’re told he won’t finish reading the Bible, and there are chaotic games of chess, with missing pieces, that won’t end. “He missed his friends terribly, though he knew without bitterness that they didn’t miss him.”
(view spoiler)[It was all preparation for assassinating the president – though he had to ask who he was, to be sure he shot the right man! He cut himself off from friends and newspapers so they could not be blamed. (hide spoiler)]
Greed, futility, loneliness, magic. An old woodcutter lets a traveller into his hut. The traveller has the disk of Odin, which is unique because it has only one side. It also makes him king. The woodcutter can’t see it when the king opens his palm, but he can feel it, and he thinks he catches a glint.
A travelling Bible salesman sells a holy book from India, The Book of Sand, so called because “neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end”. It is like The Library of Babel (in The Garden of Forking Paths) in miniature. It is written in an unknown script, with occasionally illustrations, and page numbers that are non-sequential and change every time.
“If space is infinite, we are anywhere, at any point in space. If time is infinite, we are at any point in time.”
(view spoiler)[They buyer/narrator/JLB cipher tells no one what he has bought. He fears theft, but also the possible discovery that the book is not actually infinite. He becomes an obsessive recluse: the book is monstrous, and so is he - like Gollum and his “precious”, and of course JLB’s own story of The Zahir, in The Aleph.
“It defiled and corrupted reality”. What to do? “I considered fire, but I feared that the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite.” He eventually hides it in a shady corner of the national library. (hide spoiler)]
• “America, hobbled by the superstition of democracy, can’t make up its mind whether to be a democracy.”
• “The miraculous inspires fear.”
• On blindness, he is “able to see the colour yellow, and light and shadow. But don’t worry. Gradual blindness is not tragic. It’s like the slowly growing darkness of a summer evening.”
• “Indecisiveness or oversight, or perhaps other reasons, let to my never marrying.” • • “Love that flows in shadow, like a secret river.”
• “Time – that infinite web of yesterday, today, the future, forever, never – is the only true enigma.”
• “In time, one inevitable comes to resemble one’s enemies.”
• “His face would have been anonymous had it not been rescued by his eyes, which were both sleepy and full of energy.”
”Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him.” and then they wash over the reader.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's n”Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him.” and then they wash over the reader.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews.
Dreamtigers, aka The Maker, is the fifth, published in 1960, and I’m including reviews of two pieces published under the title Museum, and the four prose pieces from In Praise of Darkness, published in 1969.
Brevity and Blindness
These pieces have many of the same elements as previous ones, but are mostly short – very short indeed. Each is a bubble of an idea, rather than a story. They’re intriguing, enticing and thought-provoking as always, but I slightly prefer the longer forms contained in The Garden of Forking Paths, Artifices and the Aleph. Part way through, I thought this collection may get only 4* from me, but the final pieces tipped me over well into 5* territory.
Those in Dreamtigers were published five years after Borges became completely blind, which may be a factor (he never learned Braille), and the loss and confusion of blindness is mentioned explicitly and tangentially in several. Mentions of mortality feel more imminent and personal than in his earlier writings.
The Afterword anticipates that after a lifetime drawing the world, “A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” (Borges lived another 25 years after this, during which time he continued to write and publish.)
DREAMTIGERS / THE MAKER 6*
This is a collection of impressions, like a prose poem describing a prose poem. It’s written in the third person, but like many of Borges' writings, the protagonist is a version of the author – especially as this refers to the (recent) horror of blindness. Although it’s described in unemotional terms, I wanted to shed a tear on his behalf:
“Gradually, the splendid universe began drawing away from him; a stubborn fog blurred the lines of his hand; the night lost its peopling stars, the earth became uncertain under his feet. Everything grew distant, and indistinct.”
Having loved tigers as a child (they're a recurring presence is Borges' writings), he is unable to summon them in his dreams. How much of what we dream of ever comes true? How much of that is fate, and how much our own fault?
A Dialog about a Dialog
A short, recursive discussion, wondering whether suicide is the way to prove (or disprove) immortality.
A paragraph comparing their pointlessness with the fact they will outlive the author. But we all die, so are our lives pointless too?
A childhood fear of mirrors is passed on to another, with sad consequences.
“I knew that horror of the special duplication and multiplication of reality” and especially did not want to dream about them. “The constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me… I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality” – and sometimes they did.
God exists because Borges does not know how many birds he saw! Perhaps.
Nature versus nurture and the trouble of being torn between two cultures. Is it ever possible to fit in anywhere? (view spoiler)[A boy is taken by Indians, and found years later. He’s pleased to recover a knife he hid in his house as a boy, but doesn’t want to live constrained by walls, so leaves, we know not where. “I would like to know what he felt in that moment of vertigo when past and present intermingled.” (hide spoiler)]
This has echoes of Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden (in The Aleph) and The Ethnographer (lower down this review).
A weird scam involving charging people to view a fake body that may be (but is not) Eva Peron!
Delia Elena San Marco
Remembering a dead lover. “Men invented farewells because they somehow knew themselves to be immortal even while seeing themselves as contingent and ephemeral.” I’m not sure I follow the logic of that.
A Dialog Between Dead Men
Thoughts on Argentinian history, comparing fame and their effect on posterity.
“Fate is partial to repetitions, variations, symmetries.” Nineteen centuries after Brutus murdered Caesar, a gaucho is murdered by a godson he fails to recognise. “He does not know that he has died so that a scene can be played out again.” But why is played out again – is it necessary or inevitable?
The innovative conceit about the second part of Don Quixote is that it was published after fraudulent sequels. Cervantes assumes that the original story was true, and that he is writing to set the record straight.
Borges’ piece extends the idea of Don Quixote being real. He imagines finding a missing fragment in which Don Quixote kills someone. But it’s a fragment, and Borges ponders how Quixote would have reacted to such an act.
The Yellow Rose
The impossibility of words to express things – which is even more poignant when you remember Borges was blind by the time he wrote this.
“He realized that it [the rose] lay within its own eternity, not within his words, and that we might speak about the rose, allude to it, but never truly express it, and that the tall, haughty volumes that made a golden dimness in the corner of his room were not (as his vanity had dreamed them) a mirror of the world, but just another thing added to the world’s contents.”
He considers those who may have reached full understanding by death – though he himself, lived another 25 years or so.
When the last witness of an event dies, in what sense does it exist? (The falling tree in the empty forest, again.)
Is that a reason to do less – or more? Borges may not live on through his genes, but his thoughts and some of his memories live on in his writing. He so often pondered immortality, and he’s far closer to it than I will ever be.
Grim glimpses of civil war in Argentina.
“Cross, rope, and arrow: ancient implements of mankind, today reduced, or elevated, to symbols.”
It’s often said that in the 21st century, we live in a very visual age (have those who say it considered Ancient Egypt?). Borges got there first.
“No one knows what sort of image the future may translate it into.”
Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote
“In the beginning of literature, there is myth, as there is also at the end of it.”
Cervantes outlived Don Quixote by only a short time: “For both the dreamer and the dreamed, that entire adventure had been the clash of two worlds: the unreal world of romances and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.”
God is fragmented and scattered. Will we recognise God if we see him, or might we misinterpret someone or something else as God?
Parable of the Palace
A poet emperor gets lost in a labyrinth that has possibly magical qualities: “The real merged and mingled with the dreamed – or the real, rather, was one of the shapes the dream took.”
A poem becomes a synecdoche for the entire palace – but what if the world cannot contain two identical things?
Everything and Nothing 6*
Have you ever felt something was missing? An aching emptiness inside? This is an agonising vignette, with a twist.
“There was no one inside him… there was no more than a slight chill, a dream someone had failed to dream.” So “He trained himself to the habit of feigning that he was somebody, so that his ‘nobodiness’ might not be discovered.”
The man meets God and discovers that God has existential issues too: “I, who have been so many men in vain, wish to be one, to be myself. God’s voice answered him out of a whirlwind: I, too, am not I; I dreamed the world as you, (view spoiler)[Shakespeare, (hide spoiler)] dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, yet no one.”
Coleridge said “We do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream of a sphinx in order to explain the horror that we feel.”
Does that explain how one can dream the return of banished and corrupted gods?
Inferno, I, 32
If you suffer profoundly in life (perhaps by losing your sight?) would knowing there was some higher purpose to your suffering make it more bearable? Even if it did, if you then forgot the revelation, would any comfort from it remain?
These questions are applied to a captive leopard who inspires a single line of a great poem.
Borges and I
Duality and identity. This opens, “It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to” and ends, “I’m not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.”
JLB explores this idea in many stories, but it’s most explicit in this and “The Other” in The Book of Sand and “August 25, 1983” in Shakespeare’s Memory, both of which I prefer to this.
MUSEUM: On Exactitude in Science
The first of two pieces from “Museum”. A perfect map is unappreciated, thus futile. In this case, it’s a literal (very literal) map, but what about more metaphorical ones? Perhaps we shouldn’t always dig so deep.
MUSEUM: In Memorium, JFK
The second of two pieces from “Museum”. Doom and inevitability: man killing man has happened throughout history and will continue.
IN PRAISE OF DARKNESS, 1969 6*
My edition of the Collected Fictions includes only the four prose elements of In Praise of Darkness, which was evidently mainly poetry.
The Ethnographer 6* (from In Praise of Darkness)
“The secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it.”
A student goes to live with Indians to learn about them and to gather material for his dissertation. The experience changes him. “He came to think in a fashion that the logic of his mind rejected.”
There’s a mystical angle, too: he learns their secret doctrine and returns to university, but resolves never to divulge it: he “could tell it in a hundred different and even contradictory ways… the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.” How can he ever belong anywhere? But if that’s a problem, is the insularity the logical conclusion?! (I hope not.)
This has echoes of Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden (in The Aleph) and The Captive (further up this review).
Pedro Salvadores (from In Praise of Darkness)
“We see the fate of Pedro Salvadores, like all things, as a symbol of something that we are just on the verge of understanding.”
He hides in his cellar – for nine years - while his wife lives openly above.
Legend (from In Praise of Darkness)
“Forgetting is forgiving” and “So long as remorse lasts, guilt lasts.”
Almost unbearably poignant, bearing in mind that Borges was aged ~60 and had gone totally blind about 5 years earlier. He is attempting “a prayer that is personal, not inherited” – a conundrum he doesn’t really solve.
“Asking that my eyes not be filled with night would be madness; I know of thousands of people who can see, yet who are not particularly happy, just, or wise.”
“Time’s march is a web of causes and effects, and asking for any gift of mercy… is to ask for that link to be broken… that it is already broken.” (Shades of Ambrose Bierce’s famous definition from The Devil’s Dictionary: Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.)
“Nor can I plead that my trespasses be forgiven; forgiveness is the act of another, and only I can save myself.”
“Free will is perhaps illusory.”
“I want to be remembered less as poet than as friend.”
“I hope that oblivion will not long delay.” (It did.)
His End and His Beginning (from In Praise of Darkness)
More painful beauty about blindness and imagining (hoping for?) death, and ending with acceptance.
“Familiar faces gradually blurred and faded, objects and people slowly abandoned him. His mind seized upon those changing shapes in a frenzy of tenacity.”
And it gets worse: “He was unable to remember the shapes, sounds, and colors of his dreams… nor were the dreams dreams. They were his reality, a reality beyond silence and sight, and therefore beyond memory.”
For a long time, “He never suspected the truth; it burst upon him suddenly”, but he came to realise “It was his duty to leave all these things behind; now he belonged to this new world, removed from past, present, and future.” He endures various agonies and then realises (view spoiler)[”Since the moment of his death, he had been in heaven (hide spoiler)].
• “He had listened to the complex stories, which he took in as reality – without asking whether they were true or false.”
”I can’t say whether the story was true; the important thing… was that it had been told and believed.”
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious tran”I can’t say whether the story was true; the important thing… was that it had been told and believed.”
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the seventh, published in 1970.
The Encounter is a crucial story, describing a seminal episode in JLB’s childhood, suggesting the roots of so many of his recurring themes.
This prepares the chronological reader for a significant change of style: these are “plain tales” that avoid unexpected endings, in the mould of Kipling. JLB asserts that he (JLB) is not “a fabulist or spinner of parables” and that his tales “are intended not to persuade readers, but to entertain and touch them.”
Most have an introductory section, explaining the (allegedly true) roots of the story, while conceding he may yield “to the literary temptation to heighten or insert the occasional small detail”.
“For many years I believed that it would be my fortune to achieve literature through variations and novelties; now that I am seventy years old I think I have found my own voice.”
I confess I was slightly disappointed; this led me to expect something closer to A Universal History of Iniquity than the more extraordinary pieces in between that and this. But I was heartened by the fact they are set “at some distance in both time and space” and that although they are “realistic… two of the stories… can be opened with the same fantastic key… I am decidedly monotonous.” Having finished this collection, they are deeper and more mysterious than those in A Universal History, but more straightforward than those in between.
For all that these are “plain”, two stories suggest the importance of imagination. In The Other Duel, it’s the familiarity of killing animals and the lack of imagination that makes killing people so easy, and in Brodie’s Report, the Yahoos’ “lack of imagination makes them cruel”.
He makes no mention here or in the stories themselves of his blindness (unlike In Praise of Darkness, reviewed as part of Dreamtigers). I suppose he was long used to it by then.
This concerns knife fighters in harsh neighbourhoods. Familiar territory, but not really my thing. I assumed (incorrectly) that this would set the tone for all those that followed.
Fortunately, this was deeper and more complex than it seemed at first sight. Unfortunately, it was pretty grim.
Brothers (who might be deemed “white trash” in the US) are very close: “falling out with one of them was to earn yourself two enemies”. The eponymous interloper is a woman, who cleaves them (in both senses) to/from each other. (view spoiler)[One marries her (more for service than a relationship), but the other loves her too (though I would dispute the word “love”). They agree to share her: “If you want her, use her”! There is no mention of her opinion, but she does what’s demanded “with beast-like submissiveness.” When jealousy becomes too much, they sell her to a brothel, but both sneak out to visit her there, so they buy her back. More jealousy. So they kill her. “Now they were linked by yet another bond: the woman grievously sacrificed, and the obligation to forget her.” (hide spoiler)]
They are dreadful men, who treat women appallingly. There’s no suggestion JLB approves, but it still left a nasty taste.
The notes mention a queer interpretation of this (and some of his others), which makes one see it in a whole new light. However, other sources say it’s based on a true story of friends; by switching the protagonists to be brothers, JLB seems to be ruling out a sexual triangle.
Class, friendship, betrayal, and reformation – about a Jewish boy, but with Biblical echoes.
A respectable bookshop owner was an unlikely gang member in his teens. He was shy, red-headed, Jewish, and wanted to fit in (he changed his first name to something more Catholic). When his mother and aunt were insulted, gangster Ferrari stepped in. Young Fischbein was impressed (the women were more equivocal: “a gentleman that demands respect for ladies” or “a ruffian who won’t allow competition”?), and is taken under the wing of Ferrari.
Which of them is unworthy of the other?
At first, Fischbein denies his friendship with Ferrari for fear it would be bragging. Then things take a more definite turn, for unspecified reasons. (view spoiler)[He tips off the police about a planned robbery, and Ferrari is killed. He doesn’t even seem to feel much guilt, despite the fact that at the time he saw Ferrrari as a god, and with hindsight as “a poor kid, misguided and betrayed”. (hide spoiler)]
The Story from Rosendo Juarez
This is another version of Man on Pink Corner, from A Universal History of Iniquity. Both include the line “Rosendo, I think you’re needing this” as a woman hands him his own knife, from up his sleeve.
A rough kid learns to fight, kills a man, is arrested, but “turned into a gorilla for the party” and now sees himself as a reasonable man, fully reformed.
The Encounter 6*
Young JLB (unknowingly) sowing the seeds for much of his adult work: labyrinth, knives, storytelling, and a mysterious twist and a tacit lesson of being careful what you wish for.
Aged about ten, he went to stay with a cousin, but “being a boy among men”, he was lonely, so slipped out to explore the large and unfamiliar house. “A big house that one has never been in before… means more to a boy than an unexplored country to a traveller”. He gets lost, but is found by the owner, who shows him an extensive knife collection.
Some of the men, playing cards, fight. JLB “was not drunk from wine but I was drunk from adventure; I yearned for someone to be killed, so that I could tell about it later.” The honest and plausible thoughts of a ten year old, but nevertheless shocking.
(view spoiler)[With detachment, he watches the fight “as though it were a game of chess”. He sees stabbings and death. Everyone leaves and vows secrecy. “What I had longed to see had happened, and I was devastated.” Many years later, JLB mentions this incident to a police officer who recognises the knives from his description. They were mystical knives that had belonged to sworn enemies. “It was the weapons, not the men, that fought. They had lain sleeping, side by side, in a cabinet, until hands awoke them. In the blades of those knives there slept, and lurked, a human grudge.” (hide spoiler)]
“I always suspected I derived more pleasure from keeping the secret than I would from telling it.” JLB doesn’t state if that remains true.
A reclusive widow “confuses her man, her tiger, with that cruel object he has bequeathed to her, the weapon of his bloody deeds.”
(view spoiler)[Her landlord is killed in a (vain) attempt to stave off eviction. She insists it was the ghost of her husband that did it. Is she deluded or scheming? (hide spoiler)]
The Elderly Lady
An aged widow remembers little of the minor hero who was her father, so the celebrations pass her by. The historical notes are almost as long as the story. Too many characters and generations and too much Argentine context for me to get much from.
A knife-free duel! And female protagonists! Paintbrushes at the ready…
An ambassador’s widow decided to become an abstract artist. So begins a tacit battle with a friend, who is also an artist. “In the course of that private duel they acted with perfect loyalty to one another.”
A simmering feud between two men. Duality and futility again (not that the story is futile!).
“Perhaps their only passion… was their hatred, and therefore they saved it and stored it up. Without suspecting, each of the two became the other’s slave.”
(view spoiler)[They pass each other every day, but the fight comes at the end – and even then, it’s not at their behest. They have to race – after their throats have been cut. The winner didn’t know he’d won. What was there to win anyway? (hide spoiler)]
The title is a city in Ecuador that was important in Argentina’s battle for independence. The story is about rival interpretations of Bolivar’s role in that, and hence about truth in general.
Can you trust historical documents? Of course not. “Even if they were written by Bolivar himself… that does not mean they contain the whole truth.”
The Gospel According to Mark, 5*
In his foreword to the Brodie’s Report collection, JLB describes this as “the best story of the volume”.
The protagonist is a medical student and a man of contradictions. His name is Espinosa, meaning “thorny”, which has echoes of the crown of thorns.
He spends the summer at his cousin’s ranch, but the cousin goes away to deal with floods. Espinosa is left as de facto master of the house, with a family of illiterate staff. He finds an old Bible, with the Gutres family’s genealogy at the back. They were originally Scottish, but English (and literacy) has died out in the 100 years since their forebears arrived. Evolution does not always go forwards (see Brodie’s Report, below, and The Immortal in The Aleph).
“Throughout history, humankind has told two stories: the story of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and the story of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha.” Which will this be? Both, perhaps.
The student decides to read aloud from this Bible, after supper, and he picks Mark’s gospel. The family are transfixed, even though they don’t understand it. He does this each evening. There’s a similar scene in The Congress (in The Book of Sand).
(view spoiler)[One night, the girl (age unspecified, but she was a virgin) comes to his room (a familiar Kafka trope, though with him it’s a young woman). She is naked, and climbs into his bed. The next day, the family crucify him. But only after they have interrogated him about forgiveness, and ascertained “those that drove the nails will also be saved”. If he had said not, would they have spared him? And if so, then what? Our sins will surely find us out. (hide spoiler)]
Brodie’s Report 5*
Gulliver’s Travels is a clear inspiration (it even features a primitive tribe called the Yahoos). A Borgesian aspect is that it purports to be the (incomplete) notes of a Scottish missionary in Brazil, found in the pages of a copy of 1001 Nights. Is the story of its finding true? What about the contents? The comic – and sometimes grisly - implausibility suggest not the latter. But it could be a fake document, genuinely found, as Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius claims to be.
There’s no particular narrative, just a string of provocative descriptions, ending with an indirect and unanswered question.
The Yahoo diet is strange, “fruits, tubers, and reptiles”. Reptiles, but not mammals? They catch fish with their hands (fair enough) but also “drink cat’s and bat’s milk”!
Every newborn boy is examined for a specific (but secret) pattern of stigmata. If he has them, he is immediately king – and therefore “he is gelded, blinded with a fiery stick, and his hands and feet are cut off, so that the world will not distract him from wisdom”, though given how primitive they are, and the fact they “smear his body with dung”, I doubt such kings will survive long enough to develop much wisdom.
Their counting system is 1, 2, 3, 4, many and “the Yahoos have no memory”, so if someone mentions a leopard attack, no one knows if it happened to them, their parents, or in a dream.
“Philosophically speaking, memory is no less marvellous than prophesying the future” as witch doctors can do. Does that require the assumption of one past and only one future? If we believe in multiple possible outcomes (as JLB suggests in other stories), this claim doesn’t make much sense.
The lack of conversion to Christianity is original: “The phrase ‘Our Father’ disturbed them, since they lack any concept of paternity. They do not understand that an act performed nine months ago may somehow be related to the birth of a child… and… all women engage in carnal commerce, though not all are mothers.”
Their language is strange and simultaneously simple and complex. “The intellectual power of abstraction demanded by such a language suggests to me that the Yahoos… are not a primitive people but a degenerate one” Indecipherable runes nearby seem to confirm that. Like the Gutres family in The Gospel According to Mark, above, and the immortals in the story of that name in The Aleph?
Would you die for art? In this culture, spontaneous poetry is revered – but in a perverse way. “If the poem does not excite the tribe, nothing happens, but if the words of the poet surprise or astound the listeners… he is no longer a man, but a god, and anyone may kill him.”
Brodie finally lists the Yahoos’ redeeming qualities, upholds an obligation to save them (from the occasional attacks by Ape-men, or from colonialism and Christianisation?) and says “I hope Her Majesty’s government will not turn a deaf ear to the remedy this report has the temerity to suggest.” What does it suggest? We will never know.
• “Literature is naught but guided dreaming.”
• “We all come to resemble the image others have of us.”
• “The newspapers… made him the hero that perhaps he never was, but that I had dreamed of.”
• “Friendship is as mysterious as love… the only thing that holds no mystery is happiness because it is its own justification.”
• “Time cannot be measured in days the way money is measured in pesos and centavos, because all pesos are equal, while very day, perhaps every hour, is different.”
• “Newspapers told loyal untruths.”
• “Sleeping… is the most secret thing we do.”
"People aren't overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within."
I didn't like this book. It comprises a novella (Kitchen) and sho"People aren't overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within."
I didn't like this book. It comprises a novella (Kitchen) and short story (Moonlight Shadow), but I'm not sure how much is the book's fault, and how much can be attributed to being set in an unfamiliar culture (Japanese teens/twenties), possibly bad translation, and that although the atmosphere is contemporary, it was actually written and set nearly 30 years ago.
I was expecting lyrical language, and quirky insights into Japanese attitudes to death and LGBTQ issues. I was sadly disappointed, but kept going because it was short and because I gave up part way through my previous book (something I rarely do).
Language: Teens and Translation
The weaknesses here made me sad. Both stories are narrated by a (different) young woman. The language is often simple, but rather than the spare beauty I vaguely associate with Japanese and Chinese writing, it's mostly just banal and awkward. That may be how angst-ridden, love-up, bereaved Japanese YAs really speak (or spoke, 30 years ago) or it may be the translation, but the result is the same.
After a particularly egregious section of stilted psychobabble, one character says, "What kind of talk is that? Sounds like it was translated from English." I guess the author is aware of how clunky it is. Odd.
"It's amazing how good this is," I said. "Isn't it," said Hiiraji. "Yes, it's delicious. So delicious it makes me grateful I'm alive," I said.
Another: "Why do I love everything that has to do with kitchens so much?... a kitchen represents some distant longing engraved on my soul." Does anyone think like that? (And it doesn't answer the question anyway.)
Metaphors must be hard to translate, but this one is so mixed up, I grudgingly admire it: "The two of us, alone, were flowing down that river of light, suspended in the cosmic darkness, and were approaching a critical juncture."
Maybe YAs would relate to the characters better than I did (I have no idea), but I'd be reluctant to recommend it to them because of the next problem...
Transgender is not Transvestite
The weaknesses here made me cross. Anyone concerned with LGBTQ issues (especially trans ones) may feel the urge to throw this book at the wall. One has to remember it's a different culture, a generation ago, but the trouble is, it doesn't feel like a historical novel.
One young man takes to wearing his dead girlfriend's sailor-suit school uniform. He finds that comforting (and no one would think it odd for a girl to wear a boyfriend's jumper); a female friend is "mortified" to be seen with him, but other girls find it attractive because they assume it means he understands women. Not exactly enlightened views, but plausible, perhaps. However, they're not challenged, which tacitly condones them.
Worse, is the trans character. She's much loved and sympathetically portrayed, but the terminology is muddled and descriptions would raise eyebrows and hackles nowadays. Early on, she is described as having "had everything 'done', from her face to her whatever", but she is often referred to as "really" being a man or a transvestite. Then it turns out that it was only when her wife died that she realised "I didn't like being a man... It became clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman." Really?! Just like that? To be cheerfully muddled?!
Finding Solace after Bereavement
The sudden death of loved ones is a unifying aspect of both stories. They all find awkward support from each other, and one finds solace in kitchens and food, another in jogging (and the river that had divided them, been their meeting place, and was ultimately where they were separated for ever).
"I felt that I was the only person alive and moving in a world brought to a stop. Houses always feel like that after someone has died."
If I had lost a parent, partner or child, maybe I'd have been more engaged with this book, but I suspect my experience would be so different as to be barely comparable. I'm grateful that I'm not in the position to compare.
Still, this helpfully explains that losing a partner is even worse than losing a dog or a bird! So I've learned something.
There were glimpses of something deeper. When overtly self-analytical, I don't think they worked, but some were genuinely poignant and thought-provoking.
Mikage was an orphan, raised by her grandmother: "I was always aware that my family consisted of only one other person. The space that cannot be filled, no matter how cheerfully a child and an old person live together - the deathly silence that, panting in the corner of the room, pushes its way in like a shudder." (The punctuation is a little odd, though.)
Reality, Magical Realism, Dreams
Both stories have a dash of this. In the first, it's a dream that might be a premonition; in the second, there's an ethereal character who (maybe) shows another character a little gap in time.
* "Far off in the pale sky, thin clouds gently flowed, suspended."
* "It was the kind of frozen morning in which mood shadows seem to be pasted on the sky."
* "She was someone whose face told you nothing."
* "The little girl, whose face epitomized 'grandchild'."
* "Her power was the brilliance of her charm" which "condemned her to an ice-cold loneliness."
* "The sound of raindrops began to fall in the transparent stillness of the evening."
* Traditional housewives "had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness".
* "On the deserted bridge, with the city misted over by the blue haze of dawn, my eyes absently followed the white embankment that continued on to who knows where. I rested, enveloped by the sound of the current."
* "I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive." Hmmm.