The Birdcage Archives

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Little Misunderstandings of No Importance

Hello Gentle Reader

A hallmark of a great writer is their undying testament and willingness to resist the corrosive winds and sands of time. Even when all their books have been read and consumed, reviewed and analyzed, there is still a secret enjoyment between writer and reader to recreate the initial experience of reading them for the first time, in which they read and re-read continuously chasing the fleeting spark and magic of the first time. The late Antonio Tabucchi is that kind of writer. Every time I review and take stock of my books; trace my fingers along their spines, as if they were piano keys—they always hover and linger on Antonio Tabucchi. On restless nights, when I survey the books in their scattered disorganized manner, I find myself always pulling out a Tabucchi to sit down with. The other night I pulled “Little Misunderstandings of No Importance,” and begun to read the stories once again, whereupon they delight and enthrall as they did originally oh so many years prior. I had initially reviewed many of the short stories collected in “Little Misunderstandings of No Importance,” for the now defunct “The Short Story Review.” I have never reviewed the entire collection as a whole. After sitting don periodically and re-reading the short stories collected, I had decided to review the collection as a whole.

Two-thousand and twelve was a cataclysmic year for losing great writers. Among the great writer who passed were: Wislwa Szymborska, Carlos Fuentes, and of course Antonio Tabucchi. Their absence on the literary scene can still be poignantly felt. However, in a superficial and even limited manner, they are immortal. Though their last breath had passed their lips, their words, their stories, their narratives, thoughts and poems still live on. It’s not the same, as if they still existed; but inside every story, novel, essay, and poem exists a sliver of the writer who had put pen to paper and wrote and composed the finished product. Antonio Tabucchi’s work has always been imbued with the light touch of a magician, and the smoke and mirror perspective of the illusionist, wherein he is able to conjure the spectacular sensation in an otherwise mundane setting. His works (stories and novels) show how individual perspective influences the world, how chance, misunderstanding, belated comprehension, perceived divine intervention creates narratives and stories which escape and transcend history and time; as well ask some of the most unique philosophical ponderings pertaining to the human condition.

When mentioning Antonio Tabucchi one cannot escape the author’s love of Portugal, and its most famous poet: Fernando Pessoa. It was in fact, Fernando Pessoa, who influenced and inspired Tabucchi to learn Portuguese, become a scholar of its language, culture, and literature, and in doing so would spend half the year in Portugal and other half in Italy. The story goes, when Antonio Tabucchi was in Paris he came across the poem “The Tobacco Shop,” by Fernando Pessoa, with its pessimism and measured hope, a young Tabucchi became instantly interested in the writer and the sad and nostalgic world and language he inhabited. Inspired as ever by Pessoa and the Portuguese language, Tabucchi even wrote a short novel “Requiem: A Hallucination,” in Portuguese, in which he envisions an imaginary meeting between himself and the late poet Fernando Pessoa.

Antonio Tabucchi is often renowned for his novels, specifically speaking: “Pereira Declares,”—a political novel, about an overweight apolitical editor and journalist, who is awakened from his apathetic stupor by a young revolutionary, who seeks to fight and rebel against the dictatorship of Salazar. The novel granted Antonio Tabucchi continental success, and was picked up at home in Italy to use as protest against Silvio Berlusconi, who used his media companies to gain political influence and power. Despite his love and interest in Portugal, Antonio Tabucchi had a keen eye on Italy’s political and social situation, and was not above giving commentary on the situations, or dishing criticism out either. He was ever social and politically aware and conscious writer, and used this awareness and his writings to bring injustices to light, and protect freedoms of speech and expression in a world completely against contrary opinions.

“Little Misunderstandings of No Importance,” portray the melancholic longing of middle age and time. The characters within the short stories, each grapple with memory and times progressive march, they suffer fits of nostalgia and longing. They desire to correct youthful mistakes, or seek to comprehend how their life ended up in its current predicament. They seek to share their stories with those who have an ear to offer, and time to spare. In his introduction, Antonio Tabucchi discusses ambiguities and the baroque writers who sought to utilize their incomprehensible nature as a metaphor of divinity and life. Tabucchi, however, confesses he is not looking for a grand metaphor of divinity and life, but rather that he seeks out these: “misunderstandings, uncertainties, belated understandings, useless remorse, treacherous memories, stupid and irredeemable mistakes,” as addictive and irresistible substance, which is distributed amongst all lives, and all people are afflicted and suffer from their trivialities and crisis all the same. Alas, there is no cure; but they do make for a great romp and poignant narrative and story. In the titular story a group of friends enter university and joke about ‘little misunderstandings,’ but as youth wanes and time ages each of them the same, the frivolity and youth is replaced with the concrete horrors of mortality and earthly justice. Where at one point this group of youthful cohorts would describe themselves as friends, over time they become more and more dislocated and disconnected, before a ‘Little Misunderstanding,’ of the past of no real importance, becomes a awkward and twistedly cruel reality. Fate as ever in Tabucchi’s hands has a malicious idea of irony, exercises it with metallic conviction.

In “Spells,” two children find themselves joking about the supernatural, magic, witchcraft and the devil himself. A young boy visits his aunt and his cousin, who is distrustful of her new stepfather—she believes he killed her father, by turning him into the Nazi’s and having him shot. She calls him the devil himself. Yet the boy himself finds it difficult to believe; after all this new man (Uncle Tullio) comes every weekend bringing cheer to the solemn and oppressive home. He brings ice cream, and trips to open air theatres, and even a cat—who his cousin despises, as she views the four legged intruder as a spy and a harbinger of her stepfathers wickedness. It’s a lovely story which explores the childhood ability to explore both the real world and the imaginary world to explain the odd happenings in the summer house, but as well adapt to change and life itself.

“Rooms,” is another striking tale of familiar difficulties, but this time through the power struggle and neglect of siblings. A sister now cares for her brother, who was once a renowned and respected academic, but his health has since fallen into miserable tides. Her earlier neglects and living in his shadow have caused her to feel greater resentment and bitterness towards her ailing and invalid brother, who now suffers at the rage of her own pity at him and resentment of her own life.

The final story “Cinema,” is perhaps the most melancholic and nostalgic of them all. It traces the failed careers and personal lives of two actors, who once again meet to remake the film, which twenty years earlier had spring boarded their careers into hopes of starlight and glamour. However, glitter wares and glamour tarnishes over time, and when it’s all said and done with, neither leading actor’s lives or careers amounted to much beyond their breakthrough film. The regret and resentment runs deeper between the two, as at one point one was romantically interested in one, while the other evaded these romantic advancements to which she swooned over another. The relationship between herself and the other man, however, did not last. Now remaking the film of their youth, the two middle-aged actors recount former glory, love, and loss—and in an melancholic ending goes off script, complete with the Tabucchi monologue discussing loss, nostalgia, and the chance at changing the course of time and clearing history.

“Little Misunderstandings of No Importance,” is an early collection of short stories written by Antonio Tabucchi. It shows the precious and unyielding influence of Portuguese language and culture, as well as Fernando Pessoa, in how the themes of fate, misunderstandings, chance, and belated epiphanies create and influence the perceptions and lives of the characters within the collection. Yet, it does have Tabucchi’s one preoccupations, such as his use of allusions by writers he has admired, philosophical discursions, and the authors own keen eye for social and political situations and scenarios. The collection as a whole is masterful. At times its melancholy is wistful and dreadfully oppressive, lingering to long on the pages, while at other times its ascents the philosophical topic and questions being proposed by the writer, and at its best its poignancy its piercing and enlightening. Antonio Tabucchi was ever a masterful short story writer; and a great writer (period). His work is never dull or mundane, drab or tedious—it always carries an air of curiosity and a playful delight in ambiguity, but is not riddled pomp or pretentiousness. His work is always keen to flex the mind, and pull the heart from its hibernation; while retaining political and social conscious attitudes. If anything, “Little Misunderstandings of No Importance,” are jeweled dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and moths, each one flapping their own seasonal tint regarding time, place, and memory. They are subtle in depiction, but linger like cobwebs far after the final story or last page has been turned, and the book shelved. Tabucchi has always been a delight of a writer to return to time and time again, “Little Misunderstandings of No Importance,” is of no exception, and is a great introduction into a marvelous magician of a writer who died too soon.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

At The Edge of the World

Hello Gentle Reader

It’s never been much of a secret that I came from a small hamlet in the Canadian prairies. My hometown was nestled on the wind bare prairies, but also just over seven kilometers from a river valley, complete with a wooded campground and the frightening river itself. Just shy of five kilometers south sat the weir, complete with roaring damn and marsh like woodland.  My hometown was nothing out of the ordinary or special. There was a store, liquor store, restaurant/lounge; a post office and fire hall; as well as a bar (also known as the local watering hole), and the community hall, which was never used; and a slapstick/slapdash trailer cum church. There is also a school, which has educated students and children from pre-school to grade six; who in the previous year had just released its 25 year old time capsule. It also houses two four large baseball fields and adjacent soccer field, though both are not maintained and grow a seasonal crop of thistles, clover and dandelions every summer. For a child there were two parks located in the confines of its borders: the school park—which was the more extensive of the two—it had swings, jungle gym, seahorses, spinning attractions, monkey cages/bars, among numerous other playground allures. The other park was colloquially called: ‘The Tot-Lot,’ at one point it may have been a baseball diamond—for some reason the hamlet had been obsessed with the sport in some way or another—despite the fact that I never witnessed one adult play the sport, and the youth league was a motley crew of limited talent but eager spirits, which died off early. The ‘Tot-Lot,’ was minimalist in compared to the school park; it only housed an ancient wood crafted jungle gym, complete with two rusted slides, the blue paint casually peeling away in the long summer days, the old acrobat rings hanging on the north side above a permanent barren dirt trench, scrapped by years of tiny feet and shoes; in the west set the monkey cage, equally as old and ancient as the rest of the lot, but climbed on with great certainty and vigor. In the east on gallows like structures sat the old swings. The rest of the lot was nothing but scant grass and of course a crop of the usual weeds which sprung and bloomed all over these public spaces. Back then you didn’t have to scurry home until the street lights came on, or your parent would come grab you. Some had watches and had specific times to back at the house for dinner. Generally when one left the pack everyone else followed suit—and so the day would come to its close.

Despite coming from a hamlet, whose recent population (according to the census) is just over five hundred people; the saving grace was the close proximity to a more urban centre—specifically the city. Going to the city was a mundane event, but also a thrill. Of course every trip had its usual agendas: clothes shopping, grocery shopping, and specialty shopping—or on occasion visiting relatives. The city—despite our monotonous reasons—was always a wonder. The malls were cracked full of people, and of course I was more interested in people shopping (or complaining I was bored) then to be bothered with new clothes; or sit on a sofa to see if I thought it was comfortable (not that my opinion held any more water in the decision then a spoon). Being in the city saw the hustle and bustle, but it was also a strange world. Here no one knew who you were or who you belonged to; you were just an aimless face in a crowd, who was expected to make it to their own destination. When we would leave the city at the end of the day, I loved to watch the lights whiz by in the window, and marvel at the streets and at the people. I wondered about the office buildings and the people who worked there; I enjoyed driving through the industrial park, and seeing how deserted and quiet the area was. Yet, I often felt envious of the children of the city. They knew life, they knew the rules of crossing the street, using the lights, how to get around, and the basic street smarts they picked up by experience, or handed down to them by their older siblings or by hearing it. They knew the dos and they knew the don’ts. In comparison, where I came from there was no regimented logic; we crossed the road when no cars were presenting or coming, we jaywalked with ignorance, we loitered in ignorance, we were positively anarchic in comparison to the civil city life. Yet, I envied it. I envied the vastness, the beauty, the uniqueness of it all.

Both of my grandparents lived extremely far away. One set lived six hundred and twenty three kilometers in the mountains, lakes and greenery. The other set lived six hundred and fifty six kilometers away, in the flat and hilled world of the prairies under the protection of a Saint; or so I thought. Visiting my grandparents was a lesson of obscurity and sparsity. The one set that lived in the mountains valleys on a large piece of land on lake front property had created a heavenly landscape. Flower beds, bloomed a variety of different flowers, in a spectrum that rivaled the rainbow. There was always the buzz of bees within the beds, which was treated with fear and distance. The docks were old and rickety, which bopped and swayed in the water. The lake itself was cold and chilled you straight to the bone upon touching it—after all it was glacial fed. The trees were massive and offered shade everywhere; these weren’t your average prairie trees, which comprised of poplars or sickly evergreens, no these trees were massive and unique, there was the cedar trees and the beautiful magnolia; maple trees, and thick spruce trees. Beyond the flora and vegetation of the property, the fauna was in abundance; there was never shortage of some unique bird to be seen from osprey to blue jay, crow to finch and swallow, to black starlings, and of course hummingbirds. However, the property was remote in many ways. As a child, one lacks agency, autonomy, and freedom; and so we were often confined to this patch of green mountain and lake heaven, which after a while grew boring. When every flowerbed has been inspected, every tree admired, all birds observed and every bee run from, one grows bored and desires a bit of wanderlust. To this day if imagine heaven, I imagine a pristine landscape, but overall a gilded prison, whose charm wears off quickly.

My other grandparents lived on what I once thought was: “The Edge of The World.” They lived on the barren terror of the prairies—far worst then we did. When we traveled on the six hour drive out there, we passed through numerous small communities; many of these communities looked like they were ghost towns; completely abandoned and waiting to be blown away. I often wondered who could live here. Why would someone want to live here? Or in some cases: does anyone live here? When we would stop for gas and take a short recess, we noted the gas stations were employed or run by the elderly or the dissatisfied young. The elderly looked lost and foreign, as if waiting for their life to just come to them, or worst riding it out now until its eventual end. The youth were dreamy and airy, dissatisfied with their current predicament, but dreaming and contemplating how to get out of it. After purchasing it was time to go, again. The roads were rough and the closer we got to their place, the more abandoned and forlorn the landscape became.

Everything was flat and covered in farmland. Here and there, old farm buildings stood guard with windowless eyes. Over there: a bare popular on the verge of its end. Then: nothing, just prairie, sky and cloud.

The flatness would later be usurped the closer we came to our destination. As we neared closer to my grandparents place, we dipped into coulees and over them, and skirted around hills, only to come upon this unique little oasis in the an otherwise rolling but treeless landscape. As we reach their home, we passed beneath the shadow of its cross on a hill. At last check the population of this small little hamlet was forty-two people. It is nestled and perhaps protected by the hills and surrounding coulees. The main trek of road runs straight through, and the town is divided on either side. The infrastructure or buildings of the town speak of better days and nostalgic times. There’s an old office building—which I would later learn used to be the headquarters of a nationwide insurance company—is the most imposing building in the community. It’s stoic and static with its red brick face. However, I often found it eerie as a child to walk by that building. When passing by its pebbled mason fence I could only wonder about ghosts living in its abandoned recess. Thankfully there are no ghostly residents in the building, as it has been converted into apartments. Yet, it remains a strange building in this desolate little world; miniature in its minutia, anything related to commerce or business would always be strikingly out of place—even the post office, the federal outpost and symbol of federalism, is located outside of the community, at the beginning (or the end) of a hill on a farm. To the right of the office building turned apartments, there is a swimming hole—literally a swimming hole. Throughout my years of visits I never saw the hole or its baby blue admissions office open. The gate always locked closed, to the point where one thought the key was lost. From the chain link fence all I could observe was the forgotten slide rushing down to the water, which had over time been covered in a thick sludge of algae, under the shade of the framing poplar trees. 

Across the main road (and my grandparents home) sits an old white catholic church, shielded by poplars, but has certainly seen better days, where its pews were filled, mass was held, and its cathedral ceiling rung with the chorus of its Sunday worship. Now it’s locked up and boarded shut. The paint is peeling off its siding. The steeple shingles are weathered and blowing away, along with the rest of the roof. The transom windows—round and gothic—are caked with a cellophane of dust and age. The bell in the steeple has never rung its iron gong. The Virgin Mary remains in her alcove above the gothic transom window and doors, but beneath the bell itself. She’s aged and yellow, but resilient still; her hands and arms open wide and welcoming, quick to forgive and save the sinners of such an earthly mortal realm. The grounds are scabby with patches of different and turfs of grass pimpled about. Loathsome weeds grow lazily by the church: common tansies, wild parsnip (dangerous), dandelions, and quack grass. Here and there are uninspired but hardy crocuses. All around, however, on the borders of homes are untamed bushes and old trees. I remember probing the grounds, wondering if there was a hole or a forgotten door to slip inside. But everything was accounted for, and everything locked, boarded and nailed shut. All that remains in the church now are its secrets, whispers and sermons. I often imagined mice sitting in the church, dutiful, solemn, and pious praying in the pews, giving thanks for the meals, and asking for forgiveness for their transgressions and trespasses. There is no sanctuary to be found here.

Behind the church, through some unkempt hedges, with twisted branches, is the parish cemetery. It too has seen more forgiving and kinder times. The gate when was I younger was rusted and old. It would best be described as a wired farm fence, with an ancient cattle gate complete with rusted padlock and chain as the entrance into the cemetery; which of course you had to climb in order to get over. When I was a child, I did not have a conceivable concept of what the cemetery was. There were statues of angels: weeping, praying, trumpeting; monuments, stone crosses, and other memorial plaques and headstones. I admired them all. However, the cemetery was old; many of the older graves had lost their markings, while others had poorly constructed wooden crosses which through time and weather had been reduced to twigs and splinters nailed together. The grounds themselves had fallen into mismanagement. The grounds were barren, the grass flippant between patches of burned and brown, to a small verdure of green, while dirt and baked earth crept along like a slow infection. The graves were mostly overrun in weeds, just like the church. A few had been weeded and manicured, but many had fallen into disrepair. There were a few grave liners, whose initial encasement had been chipped or worst vandalized. Other graves looked like they were sinking. I used to play the cemetery, talk to the angel statues, and seen beneath the variety of crosses. I told myself stories, and tried to imagine somewhere else where I could be. When I looked south, I saw the imposing and unwavering black metal cross on the churches steeple. I couldn’t help but day dream of what or who lurked inside. I never paid any mind to the people I stood on or sat upon, as I had no clue there were people beneath me, in which I stood or sat on. That is until a relative older then my childhood-self came along and informed of where I was sitting and what exactly this ‘statue park,’ was. I was mortified, I was surrounded by the dead—and many of whom were lost and nameless.

When I think back to that small little hamlet complete with is tree lined main road, it’s boarded up church, and of course the white cross on the hill entering town, I always imagine it being on the very edge of the world.  The place was so remote, that walking out of its hamlet or parish boundaries, one was immediately entering the void of the prairies, the large expanse of space which would go on until the hills evaporated, the clouds dissipated and the grasslands just petered off into nothingness or rather into a bottomless canyon. The vastness and emptiness of the space was alienating and frightening. When I was older I often wondered through the hills and coulees, scrounging and scavenging cattle bones which had been picked and pecked clean, as well as bleached by the sun. The openness and endless space is still frightening, despite being so free and on the verge of being flat, one can’t help but feel like they were always on the verge of being consumed and lost in the world where all there was, was sky, clouds, and grass.

Returning home always felt like a return to comfort, but also a return to civilization. There seemed to be more life brimming and scuttling about. The roads had vehicles zipping by; lights were on in houses, people were out and about, everything seemed less silent, open, and empty. If that tiny hamlet split by a road, complete with its abandoned church, and commerce building turned apartments, and cross on the hill, was the edge of the world, then home was certainly the centre of the world.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Man Booker International Prize 2018 Longlist

Hello Gentle Reader

According to reports translated works of literature in two-thousand and eighteen, are significantly lower than the previous two years. The rationale and statistical analysis is unknown. Part of the problem could be translating works of literature takes time, from moving a narrative or a poem from one language to another one, with respect to the original work, while also ensuring it can be read and understood in its adopted literary language. Translators are after all linguistic acrobats who flip and spin and dazzle, while making sure the entire exercise is smooth and graceful, while giving off the impression that the entire act is easy and effortless. Another reason perhaps for the slow decline in translations, is the market is niche and quiet. The average reader who enters a book store, or shops online, will be more comfortable and inclined in staying in their reading habits and parameters—whatever they maybe. For some it’s a good story, cheap prose, and a throw away book; other enjoy long winding soap operatic series, that they can continue the saga in, as they are already emotionally invested in the characters’ lives; others prefer the company of escapism, be into fantastical worlds or far flung planets in space. Perhaps in the previous two years, the publishers who published such a wonderful excess of translated fiction found the market not quite to their business inclinations, and have halted the publication of new translated works due to the feeling that it’s a bad investment. Let’s be honest and face the harsh reality: publishing is a business, and is inclined to make a profit. Still after such great strides forward in the previous two-years, it would be sad to think that two-thousand and eighteen is the tipping point of translation success, and everything moving forward is a slow decline.

Now its third run, the Man Booker International Prize happily moves the focus away from the sour thought of translated fiction falling to the wayside once again, as it presents this year’s longlist of translated novels and writers. The longlist is riddled with talent and unique narratives and perspectives.

This year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist is as follows:

Olga Tokarczuk – Poland – “Flights,”
Christoph Ransmayr – Austria – “The Flying Mountain,”
Wu Ming-Yi – Taiwan – “The Stolen Bicycle,”
Jenny Erpenbeck – Germany – “Go, Went, Gone,”
Javier Cercas – Spain – “The Imposter,”
Virginie Despentes – France – “Vernon Subtext 1,”
Antonio Muñoz Molina – Spain – “Like a Fading Shadow,”
Ahmed Saadawi – Iraq – “Frankenstein in Baghdad,”
Gabriela Ybarra – Spain – “The Dinner Guest,”
Laurent Binet – France – “The 7th Function of Language,”
Sarah Moses – Argentina – “Die, My Love,”
Han Kang – (South) Korea – “The White Book,”
László Krasznahorkai – Hungary – “The World Goes On,”

There you have it Gentle Reader, the thirteen books longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Looking at the longlist, the Spanish language is well represented with four authors and four works of fiction represented on the longlist. Behind the Spanish language, French and German have two authors representing the respective languages. The remaining five authors come from a diverse linguistic backgrounds, and geopolitical areas. On the longlist there are two writers who have won the award prior: the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, and the (South) Korean writer Han Kang. Both writes have also made great reputations for themselves in the English language.

László Krasznahorkai, has been a favourite among the youthful and rebellious intellectuals and readers, who take great delight in his cerebral and postmodern apocalyptic narratives. “The World Goes On,” is not novel, but a collection of short stories. Yet, do not be mistaken, in the hands of László Krasznahorkai, the short story form is taken into a completely exhilarating and experimental direction. Compromised of eleven short stories, told by a elusive and ever present narrator who pushes the reader to see the oddities, beauties, and great strangeness of the world. It has the distinct flare of Laszlo Krasznahorkai where madness and obsession threaten to break free from the page and consume the reader. A guaranteed frighteningly and rewarding read for those who enjoy being drawn close to the annihilating thought of the abyss.

Han Kang has made great splashes on the literary scene since her debut only a few years prior. Her novels “The Vegetarian,” and “Human Acts,” are noted for their surreal and visceral depictions of cruelty and misunderstandings among individuals. Her work is noted for its emotional and raw intensity as it explores the human heart and psyche. Her longlisted novel “The White Book,” is a testament to these established themes, but is also a personal mediation on the writer’s baby sister who died only two hours after being born. The novel is described as her most personal work to date, but also her most experimental.

Of the authors on the longlist, I have only read one book: “Flights,” by Olga Tokarczuk; and sincerely hope it makes it to the shortlist. The novel is a unique format, riddled with personal essay, thoughts, stories, and anecdotes; it is both thought provoking, philosophical and enjoyable. Though, I slightly wonder and am curious about other writers who should have also been included on the longlist, such as the late Antonio Tabucchi with “Isabell: A Mandela,” or Fleur Jaeggy with “I am the Brother of XX,” or Bae Suah with “Recitation.” I sometimes wonder with peculiar uncertainty, if the Man Booker International Prize has made itself accessible for a diverse group of publishers to nominate and submit their publications for review and consideration with the award. I sincerely believe, the Man Booker International Prize is a capable prize which can encourage translations, and the publication of translated literature. I just wonder if it too suffers from myopia, as its parent prize the Booker Prize does.

For now though Gentle Reader, we can mull over the longlist and wonder who will make it to the shortlist, and who we wish to pick out and read of the works listed.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Fumbling and Faltering over Fantasy

Hello Gentle Reader

[ Part I ]

When I was younger my friends were incredible readers. They were the kids, who when they weren’t outside playing with friends, or playing video games, or watching television; where most certainly found tucked away reading a book in quiet solitude. They were voracious readers, who when conversations got drab or boring would turn to the books they were reading and discuss them, like our parents would discuss soap operas. Their mouths scribbled and rattled off names that were exotic and foreign. Each name held the sketches of a character. I’d sit back at first alienated and ignorant of the information being passed around me. They discussed the worlds like they had traveled there, the battles as if they’d seen the ruins and read the histories, and passed judgements on the characters and villains with informed opinions. There was little I could add to these conversations. So I sat back quietly and listened or watched the clouds drift overhead or observed sow thistle and dandelions shudder in the wind. Other times I excused myself and would go home. It’s no fun when you can’t be considered an active participant in the conversation. These foreign lands and exotic countries were personal and private to the books they had read. Seeing as I had not read those books, I was not invited to participate. Eventually my alienation was taken note of. Children are perhaps more perceptive and empathetic then they are previously credited for. Rather than reading the books, my dear friends told me (in condescend and personal way) the stories from books they read. The recounted in great detail battles and wars, and what caused them. They offered character analyses. They went over the history of the ‘ages,’ as they were often called, and discussed what happened in each age, which lead to the current chapter in the saga. Then of course they would listen to my minute, detailed oriented inquiries about the characters, the geography, the history, the cultural differences and the abilities which were abound in the books. I learned about high towers of sorcery, where pupils were trained on the nature and art of magic, and how conjure and compose enchantments; or knights and mercenaries who did battle for honour or for money, elves who were above the mortal squabbling of men, and the mundane toil of other races, gnomes who invent imperfect machines, because perfection only reduces purpose and meaning, and so on and so forth. It was all so bewitching, to sit on the playground and imagine these unique worlds and cultures just forming around the edges of your peripheral eye site, as you imagine them taking shape. At night I would dream about these wonderful worlds of awe. I’d ride on horseback through prairies and fields, through babbling brooks and flowery meadows; or work in a historical capacity, theorizing and documenting the battles and wars fought, through all the rusted armor and weaponry lying scattered about the fields of battle, and occasionally stumble across a bone or skull.

It was always a joy to listen to my friends tell me about these unique worlds found in the books they read; and of course in turn ask questions about the narratives and the stories told, which they enjoyed answering. Eventually I borrowed one of the books, my friends were reading, and while I sat alone in my room that late summer evening, I tried reading it. To my surprise Gentle Reader, I found the book terrible. It did not in the least bit echo the stories that my friends had told me or spun for me. The writing often tried to be high and flowery, while at the same time fell into the vernacular. The characters were as thin as the cheap mass market paperback itself. The author(s) came across as egocentric, and self-centered. It appeared immediately that as a reader I was expected to already know the world presented; the characters within it, and the history which has already happened, and be aware of the current political machinations of the time. Not to mention the books had tasteless illustrated cover art, which appeared chauvinistic with a blatant attempt at sex appeal marketing directed towards pimple faced pubescent boys. The plots were melodramatic, the battles short and the buildup long and drawn out, and any romance or filtration was undercut by how poorly written it was, as it came across as more a slapstick comedy then a tense and sexy mood. But my difficulties with the fantasy genre extended beyond the writing and its marketing. The truth is, I couldn’t grasp the premise. I would sit in my bed and do my best to sound out the spells or better yet the names of the characters, and try to understand the laws and makings of the world; and in the end failed miserably. The premise of magic was never a subject that was offered any elucidation. It was seen as both a natural force, which could be contained and controlled by human laws. Any culture presented in the work was often just a sentence or two and left at that. I returned the books to my friends, who eagerly waited for my review. I always lied. I’d say I enjoyed the novel and thought it was good; but admittedly I preferred when they retold the stories to me, rather than attempting to read them myself. They would return to their fantasy and science fiction novels, while I returned to my own books. I remember at the time reading children’s editions of: “White Wolf,” “Oliver Twist,” and “Moby Dick.” As we got older they continued to read works in the fantasy genre, while I pushed forward and read Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” and Charles Dickens “Great Expectations,” before moving onto crime and murder mysteries, before falling back in love with Virginia Woolf, branching into philosophy with Friedrich Nietzsche, then Jean-Paul Sartre (who I had a reader/writer falling out with), and then began to move towards my current reading tastes, which I have yet to stray from.

[ Part II ]

Fantasy and science fiction is rarely read and reviewed here. To this day the land of fantasy is closed off from me. No matter how many times I scale the walls, and sneak through fields and forests, the world refuses to relinquish the joys others seem to find in it. At which point, without further ado, I always depart from their lands and forget about their borders. As for science fiction, their spaces and other planets fail to amaze me or intrigue me, so I won’t be on the latest SpaceX car launch to travel to some far-flung galaxy and explore the world; whereupon I can observe its slow colonization and terraformation, at which point it too can sustain life. But I do retain some curiosity and perhaps even sympathy towards the genres and how they are loved by many in the reading public, before being quickly eviscerated by the ruling literary elite, who refuse to welcome the authors and their work into the pantheon of literature, due to their subject matter being considered subpar, ridiculous, ludicrous, with no real tether or attachment to reality or the present human condition. Now for long periods of time, the writers and the readers accepted this degradation and dismissal. That perspective, however, has changed over the years.

The late Ursula Le Guin, was an adamant defender of the genres, as well as a vocal critic of their unjust ghettoization. This fierce desire to change the perspective and the dynamic did not wane or adjust as she got older—it only grew fiercer. Who could forget her criticism of Margaret Atwood, who preferred her genre defying work(s) such as: “The Handmaids Tale,” “Oryx and Crake,” “The Year of The Flood,” and “MaddAddam,” to be considered speculative fiction rather than science fiction; which she called: “talking squids in space.” The charge of the outrage and backlash was led by Ursula Le Guin, who understood the reasoning behind Atwood’s comments, but remained steadfast and firm in her criticism that Margaret Atwood and others in the literary establishment were so quick to dismiss the merit of science fiction and other genre fictions. Margaret Atwood would later clarify her position (not apologize), and understood how Ursula Le Guin and others would find her comments unnerving even (unintentionally) offensive. The storm settled and Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin would continue their unique relationship as both friends, and contrary opposites of perspective and viewpoints of each other. As she got older, Ursula Le Guin became both grandmother and saint of her ghettoized community, which she continually tried to tear down the walls surrounding it, and see it recognized as a potent literary form of its own merits, not some B-listed, third class hack. Yes, there were those who could be found amongst their midst—but they were not the sole diplomatic representatives and ambassadors of their clan. This is where Ursula Le Guin, gather’s her credit. She was a writer who wrote both: science fiction, fantasy and children’s literature, but treated them with as much seriousness as she would a realistic novel or short story. She embroidered and emblazed her genre fiction work with precautious and human themes, which explored ideas of sociology, anthropology, psychology, gender, philosophy and other unique questions about the human condition, in a more foreign and extreme format, which only fantasy and science fiction could offer.

Ursula Le Guin’s pen turned spear, was often quick to be thrown at perceived threats. In two-thousand and fifteen she turned her criticism towards Kazuo Ishiguro, over his perceived trepidation that some of his readers may have with regards to his recently published novel: “The Buried Giant.” In her strongly worded blog post, the late author, lambasted Ishiguro, for what she saw as a high standing literary recognized writer, who snobbishly looked down on the fantasy genre, he so willing decided to utilize. His curiosity was concerned for his readers; would they follow him on his journey into the unknown post-Arthurian fantasy world he crafted (fit with ogres, pixies, and a slumbering dragon exhaling amnesiac smoke), would they grasp what it is he was trying to discuss, would they have some prejudicial perspective and judgement towards the superficial elements—“Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Ursula Le Guin took the final pondering as the most insulting comment the author could make. Just what was wrong with fantasy? Just what is his, own trepidation towards fantasy? Her curiosity was merely artificial then sincere, as she did not necessarily care what his concern for the word fantasy meant, or more precisely: if the novel is called fantasy where does that leave the career of Ishiguro as a high literary author. She accused his novel “The Buried Giant,” for lacking conviction in imagination, and that the novel merely borrowed surface elements of fantasy, such as mysterious boatmen, ogres in the peripheral, or a slumbering dragon—to set the scene, but lacked the vivid imagination and storytelling of fantasy to be considered fantasy. At best, she provoked, “The Buried Giant,” was just merely literary hackwork; where a literary author borrowed elements and techniques of the genre, with no real understanding of the depth of the narrative, or its unique style. She concluded, that of course Ishiguro’s novel would be well received, and his readers would most certainly run to him, buy his novel and seek to comprehend and understand the message and plot he was trying to convey. Yet, she could not endorse let alone condone the novel. She admired the attempt he made with the novel, but found his lack of conviction towards respecting the fundamental uniqueness of the genre, diminished any attempts at making the novel realize its full potential, and would not receive her endorsement. Her point was made explicitly clear in at the end of her blog post:

“No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”’

“The Buried Giant,” initially received mixed and lukewarm reviews (then eventually positive ones). It was, however, later endorsed by the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius, who commented on how much she enjoyed the novel and would recommend it to others, as it explores through parable elements, amnesia and guilt take hold of a society as a whole.

[ Part III ]

Fantasy often requires some explanation, introduction and orientation to the world. The writer must offer some brief overview of the world, from history to geography, as well as anthropology, before introducing main characters and eventually getting the story underway. Some writers are better known for their extensive world building then others; such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Ursula Le Guin, and George R. R. Martin. They introduce and intricately weave history, geography and anthropology through their works, far after initial introductions. This has been an issue with me as a failed reader of fantasy. I can’t grasp my head around the quick sketches and minimal vignettes provided, and often require and desire greater elucidation. Tell me more about the geography and the land; inform me about the unique cities salt and peppered on the map; enlighten me with greater detail about the cultures of the people living in this land; notify me of the flora and fauna, their dangers and their unique characteristics. Alas, a writer can only play an imperfect god, and at greater mercy for a harsher god and critic: the reader. Some are willing to disregard any gnawing questions they have and accept the world they have been offered. But I never could and never will. I desire all information. I desire a complete codex or encyclopedia which lists and explains all the details I crave. They are rarely produced, and when they are—to say the least any experience has been underwhelmed.

Another issue with fantasy literature and the genre is its desire for epicism, and its lack of moral complexities. There is always some grand battle or war is to be fought where morality and virtue are to triumph over the immoral and parasitic evil which has infested the world. It is a rather dichotomous perspective, which I find both baring and lacking any philosophical engagement. As a reader and individual, I don’t believe in concrete or explicit terms outlining morals into the supremely just and righteous, and the purely depraved and corrupt. Nothing is truly or inherently evil or extraordinarily moral. As we are continuously reminded in this ever stranger world, sociopathy is a spectrum not a scale—and every individual in some way or another does, possess certain traits considered sociopathic. The difference of course is if someone fixates and willing exploits the traits at the expense of others. In other words: personal and individual choices; not cosmic or universal decree.  The moral standing ground of fantasy literature, it seems, has always been two dimensional.

The other issue I often have with fantasy literature is its lack of daily life depicted and a lack of mundanity to it. Due to the genres desire for epicism and grand scale battles, the daily life of characters and the populace as a whole is often overlooked. But do the characters change their clothes? Do they wash their clothes? Sure there are ‘moments,’ scattered through the books, where they sit down by a camp fire and eat some rabbit or whatever fantastical creature has been hunted for the dinner, its skinned and cooked over the fire, and eaten, at which point we are told that’s that, good enough, back to the action. What about health and hygiene, do they bath, do they get sick, do they get proper nutrition in their diet? What happen if they become injured or ill? Are we simply to accept magic heals all mortal wounds, and prevents illnesses from taking place? Personally I can’t disengage my practical thought process enough to ignore these pressing concerns, and then accept [insert jazz hands] ‘magic,’ as a deus ex machina solution for another apparent issue. What is daily life in this world really like? Does it require a feudal or serf like system of governance and economy? Is it aristocratic? Is it theocratic? Is it a plutocracy? What is currency like in this place; how do transactions take place, and how is commerce able to work in this society. Are people ‘developed,’ or are they barely scraping a living off rocks; is there a division between economic classes, and a disparity of wealth. What do houses look like, what are in these houses, what is a family life look like, what are the prospective careers for the average citizen of the land and society? All these questions go unanswered. They are perhaps too trivial, myopic, and insignificant for a writer to give a thought to, and a reader to care to know about. After all we a interested in the great bloody battles, the epic fights, the glory and the death—not currencies and commerce, economies and disparities, or how a society functions under a particular governance. No we have a hero chosen by the gods, who will do the good work, and in his success and victory change the world. He will rid it of evil and immorality, and create a shining utopia, one of justice, righteousness, and shining moral codes. My thoughts: not interested. Call me dreary or boring, but the fantastic should be realistic in its world, which encompasses the realities of mundane day to day life. Of course we are not there for that at the end of the day. The true readers of the genre would much prefer (it seems or so it is marketed) to have it the way it is.

[ Part IV ]

Magical realism is often seen as the enemy of fantasy genre fiction. Magical realism has achieved everything that fantasy fiction wishes it had. Magical realism is recognized and acclaimed as a unique literary format of writing (not a genre), where the mundane is depicted with magical pizazz. The work of magical realism is often treated with scholarly intrigue and scalpel study. Where it’s relative or closest superficial relation: fantasy fiction; is still treated with contempt and snobbery. In return fantasy writers have often mocked magical realism wish such comments as:

“magical realism—which we all know is just fantasy written by a Latin American author.” – Steven Brust

“magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.” – Gene Wolfe

“[Magical realism] is a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” – Terry Pratchett

There comments are justified, but not entirely. In fact most of the comments merely show disdain or envy towards magical realism, due to its success, acclaim and appreciation.

Magical realism is often considered a form of fantasy by many—as it does not strikingly depict a staunch realistic or naturalistic world, in the same vein as: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, or Emile Zola. Rather, magical realism, presents the real world, which is afflicted or affected by fantastical or supernatural phenomena. This unique pheromone—or magic—is observed as a normal occurrence. The other striking difference between magical realism and fantasy fiction is how the magical element of the narrative are handled. In fantasy, magic or sorcery or enchantments, are seen as tools to be used by certain individuals, be it a wizard or a witch et cetera; these individuals are apparently naturally gifted or trained to use supernatural or magical elements as a functionary force of their will. In a magical realism novel or piece of fiction, magic or the supernatural is a natural occurring event, no different than the wind blowing, rain falling, or clouds overhead. It is simply put: an absurd natural event which takes place, and is dealt with in a similar fashion, with characters working around the event, preparing for the event, or cleaning up or mitigating the event.

In “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by the late Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there is a scene where a ghost meanders and mopes through the house looking for water in which to wash his throat wound, the mother leaves out pails of water for the ghost. In another scene, a girl is so beautiful, while she is hanging the laundry on the clothesline she ascends back to heaven due to her beauty. A character within the novel is always followed by a group of yellow butterflies. Beyond “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” magical realism springs up in Marquez’s short stories and other novels. In one short story an aging prostitute trains her dog to cry at her grave; while in another a village is stunned when an old man with enormous molted buzzard wings. The oddities discussed are at times mundane or perceived as natural occurrences.  These unique manifestations are also symbolic devices utilized by the author in the narrative. Take for example the story of the old man with enormous wings (“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,”). The titular character, the woman with the wings, is first thought of as an angel by the residents of the village; but the local priest (an authority on all matters divine and theological in nature), disagrees with this colloquial definition. The old man is too human, too frail, to be considered one of the select servants of God; and therefore cannot be considered angelic in presence. This divine appearance and then thwarted divinity by the priest, is a unique symbol of the human condition, whereupon we are viewed as earthly, frail, sickly, and could never come close to the divinity and celestial presence of god—and seeing as the angelic creature, shares these same physical traits, it also cannot be considered a member of the divine court.

I confess, I rather enjoy magical realism—when it is done correctly. I enjoy the fact that the world is familiar and requires no introductions, orientations, or explanations. The characters are who they are and go amongst their daily lives, with supernatural occurrences parading or existing around them. I enjoy the fact that magic is considered a more natural force or eccentric event, often mixed with the mundanity of life, such as being followed by butterflies, or being called back to the heavens due to one’s beauty. Perhaps, though, my most favourite book I have read, which displays stylistic elements of magical realism is, Olga Tokarczuk’s novel “Primeval and Other Times.” The beginning of the novel alone is truly a wonderful experience, its light riddled and baroque. One almost wishes Primeval exists itself. But the mystical town caught between the joys and pains of the world, does not exist and nor do its eccentric characters. The lives of the characters, which we observe through their slow procession through time, make up the novel and truly give it, its great success. The characters themselves live rather mundane lives; they build their homes and raise their families, they drink and cuss at the moon, or scrap what little food they can find to survive. Their lives are completely ordinary. There is no major quest or battle; no epic journey or encounters. There is pontification of the forces of good versus the armies of evil; it’s just the mundane and yet slightly baroque and whimsical world of Primeval.

Perhaps that is what is enjoyable about magical realism; it eschews the hallmarks of fantasy fiction such as the epic struggles, journeys and battles; for the quieter side of things in our own world, which just happens to be affected by the odd magical forces which surround the world. These magical forces, however, are not the pillar of the story or tools of functionary use, they are symbols utilized by the author to comment on the human condition, but also to present a magical perspective of our own ordinary world. I believe (though cannot verify) it was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who commented on the shortsighted and static perspective that pure realism literature possessed, as it never took into consideration the truly unique, personal, and exotic perspective every individual has of the world.

It should be noted as well, magical realism is not exclusive to Latin America or more specifically the Latin American Boom. There are writers all over the world who write in the style of magical realism (and then refute the term). They include the late Angela Carter, Ben Okri (refutes the term), Olga Tokarczuk (refutes the term), Salman Rushdie, Toni Morison, Franz Kafka, Jose Saramago, Victor Pelevin and even Kenzaburo Oe. Writers describing and other wise indecipherable or odd perspective of the world can be seen all over the vast literary stage. Magical realism grew popular from the Latin American Boom, but is not exclusive to the southern continent or its writers. It’s an enjoyable literary style, one that offers the breath of fresh air, from the same old depressing and brow beating books of some realistic narratives. It can be both whimsical and serious, provoking deep philosophical and symbolic questions, while also displaying a unique perspective of the world around oneself. When I think about “Primeval and Other Times,” I still warmly remember the first half of the novel, painted with its late summer light, and its baroque beauty. Secretly then I hoped I would never finish reading the novel; and the lives of the characters would just continue to unfold before me, and when they died their offspring would continue, and so on and so forth; but of course the novel had to end and it did end. To think back on the novel fondly though, as I often do, I know I had read something spectacular and worth remembering.

[ Part V ]

Fantasy fiction is something I could never grasp or comprehend. It’s a genre which eludes me. Perhaps I am too much of a pedantic reader, who is incapable of letting go of the tangible realities in order to explore the world so many others have found comfort and entertainment in. Admittedly, I’ve enjoyed HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” but can’t imagine myself reading the books. The adaption of “The Lord of the Rings,” still puts me to sleep. Yet, fantasy and I, as genre and reader are not simpatico. We’ve never blended well; and the same sits true for most science fiction; though I do recall enjoying the magical/dystopian novel “Blindness,” by Jose Saramago; but when it came to the science fiction metafiction of Margaret Atwood’s “Blind Assassin,” I was rather put off by its kitschy perspective; that being said, I did enjoy “Oryx and Crake,” and “The Year of the Flood,” but never finished the trilogy. I have been told I should read Angela Carter, and take a look at Ursula Le Guin. At this point though my Dear Gentle Reader, I do think my prejudice are firm and well-grounded. I doubt I’ll have any future attempts at serious puritanical fantasy fiction. I do enjoy magical realism, with its odd perspective and extraordinary events taking place in an otherwise ordinary world; and those same events are dealt with in the same ordinary fashion, befit the mundane world.

When I think back on fantasy fiction and my attempts at reading it, I am more reminded of my friends of my youth who have since scattered. I remember how they told me about the novels they read and the worlds they visited, the soap operatic adventures, the archetypical characters, and the otherwise unremarkable plots. Their enthusiasm still shines in my mind. If I am to confess what is missed the most: it would simply be the company and the socialization. Perhaps fantasy fiction and its worlds are more persistent in my memory due to its association with a time when things were simpler, when life appeared simpler, when time stood still, and summers would extend into what felt like eternity. Since then, I have stumbled, fumbled and faltered over fantasy, and grow more frustrated and even contemptuous towards the genre. No matter though, when I think of the genre now I remember sow thistles and dandelions; clouds overhead and blue skies.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary