death

THE MONGOLIAN CONSPIRACY BY RAFAEL BERNAL

I take a shower, then put on cologne and clothes. To meet a woman. Fucking women! What will it be like this time? Life has passed me by, the world has moved on without me. Fucking world! Five years I was with her, five years I was out of action, and the world changed, and people changed, and now everything is fucked. Where did your false sense of security get you, huh? All those five years I thought I was winning but I was actually setting myself up for the biggest loss. Love. Fucking love! Don’t tell me how exciting this is, how adventurous. They all enjoy the stories, before they add their own. They’re all crazy. Everyone is crazy. It’s not just the women. Fucking people! The president of the United States, the leader of the free world, his hand in his trouser pocket, fondling his dick whenever a woman crosses and uncrosses her legs. Fucking gringos! My eyes are open. Maybe the world hasn’t changed, maybe it was always like this and it’s only now that I can see it, now that I have to confront it. Five years cocooned inside my love, eyes closed, fast asleep, blissful, like a fucking baby.

If I could I would glue together the broken pieces of my cocoon, climb inside, and go back to sleep. A man needs his sleep, but it’s impossible. Fucking sleep! The eternal sleep is what I need. A French woman with a bearded dragon clinging to the front of her dress blowing me on a bench in the rain. Yeah, it’s a funny story, until you realise there is madness in it. Hers and mine. Fucking madness! Madness is my cocoon now. Staring into the frightened eyes of the bearded dragon. I’m scared too, buddy. Maybe I shouldn’t go out tonight, maybe I should stay here and write. What’s the worst that can happen, if I write instead? I just finished The Mongolian Conspiracy. Mexican noir, they call it. Fucking noir! So much machismo I could almost taste the author’s sweaty balls, but, still, it was good, and I should write about it, make writing my cocoon. The author is Rafael Bernal, who also wrote a book called Su nombre era muerte about a man who learns to communicate with mosquitos and then puts together a plan for world domination. Fucking world domination with the help of mosquitos! Fucking madness again! Although that does sound like the kind of book I want to read.

“And here I am with my hands so heavy, walking down the street. And she is my bed, alone with her death. And me alone, walking down the street, my hands as heavy as the many dead. And nothing’s heavy for her anymore, not time, not nothing. Or maybe her death is heavy as if a man were on top of her. I don’t know what that’s like, death. She does know. Thats why she’s alone. That’s why she’s not with me. Because she knows and I don’t. All I know is how to start down this road, how to live carrying my solitude.”

Filiberto Garcia is a hired killer, a ‘stiff factory.’ He’s a man who feels naked without his gun. Because of course he needs it to do his job. Fucking killing! Garcia has an inexpressive face, his mouth is ‘almost motionless.’ Except when he sneers. The furniture in his apartment is as if brand new because ‘so few people visited’ and nobody ever uses it. So you’re forming a picture, right? Of this man Garcia. This killer. A loner, a tough. Fucking tough guys! Filiberto doesn’t like joking or laughing. And neither do I, these days. Fucking laughing! In many ways he seems like the typical noir leading man. None of this is unexpected, really. Although perhaps he’s a little more dour than usual and down on himself. He frequently calls himself a chump, for example, for treating Marta with respect and tenderness. Yet on other occasions his misogyny has punch, quite literally, and he isn’t above throwing the word faggot around, or Chink, either. An arsehole, in short, but whoever thought a killer would be a good guy? Fucking good guys! In the early stages you wonder if you want to spend over two hundred pages in the company of someone like this.

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Yet as things progress you start to realise that the story has more depth, that Filiberto has more depth, than you thought at first. Fucking depth! What about the story? It takes place among the opium dens of Mexico’s Chinatown. There has been a rumour that the President of the United States is going to be assassinated during a upcoming trip to the country and that the Chinese are involved. Fucking President! The FBI and a Russian secret agent are investigating, and Garcia is dragged in too. Which all seems like nonsense, as I suggested. Albeit enjoyable nonsense, perhaps. But as I worked my way through the book it struck me that Bernal used this stupid set up, and his central character, to say some interesting things about international politics, first of all, and about Mexico itself, and ultimately the world. Fucking world! The FBI man and the Russian are suspicious of each other, each seems to be working his own angles. In fact, every man in a position of some power, every high ranking, important man, in the book is a louse. Secrecy, double-cross. All done with a daytime TV smile and a clean shirt and tie. All of them trying to slither up the greasy pole of power…but only a few can make it, only those who have the strength and stomach for the climb. The rest will get knocked down, will end up on their ass at the bottom. Most likely with a broken head. As Del Valle says: there are no friendships in politics. Fucking politics!

Does anyone really care about the president? Is there even an assassination plot? Life is a game to these people. Fucking games! Sure, some of them will die, but the real losers are the poor folks. The ex-whorehouse gringa, the Chinese, the smalltime toughs, the petty thieves, the drunkards, the lowdown, the hustlers, the scum, the morons who look at the pie and think they can help themselves to a slice. But that’s what people like Garcia are employed for: to slap away their hands, to protect the pie. Not for the good folks, but for the baddest guys of all. Fucking pie! Filiberto Garcia is the real secret agent, because he doesn’t know. Or he didn’t. But he’s starting to see, starting to open his eyes. The world has changed. Fucking world! Garcia is a ruthless man, who has done, and still does, terrible things. But he has a kind of code, a set of principles, a way of doing those terrible things, that is out of step. He has been left behind. He’s an old man, of course. Nearly sixty. Fucking old age! He hasn’t kept up. Lawyers everywhere you look. And I don’t matter anymore. Too right, grandpa. All you’re good for is killing, is doing the dirty work for others. The world is making progress. Mexico is making progress. Fucking progress! Even killing isn’t what it used to be. Garcia fought in the revolution, but that’s ancient history. Now there are cocktail lounges, not old-time cantinas.

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WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… BY JOANNA RUSS

We all die. I know. You don’t have to keep telling me. Like it’s new knowledge. Like I don’t know. You delight in it, wickedly, in the same way that people sometimes catch spiders and make to throw them in the face of the person who is cowering and clearly afraid. I am afraid, very afraid. Of course, you don’t understand it. Death, I mean. You tell it, but you don’t understand the words. Like you’re reciting a foreign language, a language unknown to you. You say: why are you afraid? And I say: because death is nothingness. And you say: but you won’t know you’re dead. And I say: that’s the point. You cannot grasp it, that if I could experience death then it wouldn’t frighten me. Because it wouldn’t be nothing. I say: when you die, everything dies. When you cease to be, everything ceases to be. You don’t believe this, of course. But I’m on it now, and I don’t care. So I say: you are the universe. You are everything. I am everything. So naturally the only death that concerns me is mine. Yours might make me sad, but, at the same time, I would be glad to be around to feel that sadness. Yours is sad, potentially, but not a tragedy. Only one’s own death is a tragedy. Unless you want to die. There are people who want to die. There are people who choose to die. And that is perhaps a tragedy too. But only for them, not for me. I should write about the book. Must remember to actually write about the book. Joanna Russ is the author. Was? I don’t know how I came to hear about her. She wasn’t recommended to me. I never listen to recommendations anyway. My heart is beating, still, and so I can write about Joanna Russ and the book she wrote while her heart beat, still. Maybe. Maybe she is alive somewhere. Joanna, can you hear me? I hope you are alive, but not with any great conviction or feeling. I’m too concerned about myself. We Who Are About To… was published in…I don’t know when it was published. Sometime in the 1970s, I think. I recall reading that it wasn’t very well received at the time of publication. Which is hardly a surprise. I hate it when people say happy birthday to the dead. Happy Birthday, George Eliot. As though death isn’t death. It’s not a surprise because it’s a bitter, pissy little book. Someone said there is hope in it. There’s no hope. Or if there is it’s a small black dot in the distance. Death is like that too. Only the black dot is growing, and getting closer, moving ever closer until one day it will swallow you up. And then: nothing. Not even darkness. The narrator of the book doesn’t have a name. Or if she does I have forgotten it. She is part of a small crew on board a ship, a spaceship, that lands on a [previously] uninhabited planet. The plan is to colonise it, to populate it. There is very little that is recognisably sci-fi. If sci-fi means alien beings and alien worlds. The crew might just as well be stranded on an island. On earth, I mean. Only I guess that this would suggest the possibility of rescue. Which would suggest hope. I smoke, by the way, despite my fear. My fear of death. Of nothingness. I don’t fear cancer, of course, because that is still something. Terrible, but something, still. I smoke because I’m stupid. Because my species is necessarily, relentlessly, heartrendingly, hilariously stupid. The others are awful people. By others I mean the people who are part of the spaceship’s crew who aren’t the narrator. They are awful in a way that is banal, familiar. It’s amusing in a way to be introduced to people who might be the founding-fathers, and mothers, of a new civilisation, to be there in the beginning. Important people, about whom legends may one day be told. It’s amusing because they are, in reality, a dull bunch. There is no greatness in them. There couldn’t be. There is no greatness in anyone, or anything, only death. They aren’t bad people, no more than any average person is bad. One, Alan-something, does beat a woman, and that is a bad act, of course, but he does so out of embarrassment, rather than cruelty or anything interesting like that. He does it because he is stupid. For the most part, they potter around, bicker, half-formulate plans, and generally give the impression of a ridiculous species of animal meandering towards extinction. Like pandas. The narrator is no more likeable either. She is human, after all. I did wonder whether she was meant to be slightly more sympathetic, in the sense that she is perhaps a mouthpiece for the author. Although I don’t really believe that. I’m simply filling space. Pushing up the word count. I must say something more meaningful about the narrator. Include quotations from the text. Be motivated. Look interested. Think about death. Wasn’t it Heidegger who wrote that one must always have death at the forefront of your mind. In order to live an authentic existence. In order to live, period. He wrote, I think, that you must believe in your mortality. It is easy to say the words. I will die. To say it, and know it, and yet not know it, truly. To know it and believe it, truly believe it, is to collapse. To cease to function. To become like me. Heidegger, I think, was wrong. The narrator is a bitter, pissy woman. She hates the others. She is critical of them. Understandably, I guess. She is sarcastic. Confrontational, although she says of herself that she wants to keep a low profile. What is interesting – if interesting is the right word, and I am sure it is not – is the relationship between the narrator and her crew-mates. By which I mean that they – in a meandering, hopeless fashion – want to continue, to live, to bring forth new life. While she wants to die. She is afraid, but not of death. She is afraid of life. She wants to be allowed to die, to not continue. Because to continue in such circumstances is absurd. Some might say that is the crux of the novel. Should you enforce life, especially for a greater good. Or someone’s idea of a greater good. Yet some might argue that one’s right to die, or any other individual right, is meaningless in the face of the extinction of the human race. Although I don’t really believe that, what I said about the crux of the novel. The book is about disappointment. Weariness. The drudgery of existence, with its small victories and small, yet still crushing, defeats. It strikes me that the narrator uses the situation, the planet, the threat to their survival as a crew, as a species – for they have become, in being cut adrift from the rest of the human race, their own species – as an excuse to end it all. She was, it strikes me, tired of life long before they arrived. I, of course, am not tired. Not of life, anyway. I don’t believe in a greater good either. I believe in me. There is only me. I am a solopsist who barely even tolerates himself. Still, I cherish my own awful self, my beating heart. Because something, this awful something that I am, is, and always will be – for me but not Joanna Russ, it seems – better than nothing.

MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS BY AMOS TUTUOLA

Boo.

No one chooses to be a ghost. It’s something that happens to you, against your will, without your say. One moment you’re miserable and alive, the next you’re miserable and dead. Or not dead exactly; it’s more like being in a permanent state of drunkenness, but a particular kind of drunkenness. It’s the sort of state you find yourself in after the party, at 3am, walking home alone in the dark, when everything seems unreal, untouchable, soft and sad. Yet this is still preferable to real death, of course. Any form of being is superior to no being. Something is always better than nothing, no matter how intangible. Perhaps the nothing comes after. Perhaps life fades away in stages, like a stain. I don’t know. No one tells you anything. There isn’t an induction or instruction manual. The lights simply go out, and then the lights come back on, as though there was a brief glitch in the system. At first you think it’s business as usual, until you realise your leg is missing or your face now looks like a shredded lettuce.

Nowadays, I’ve got a lot of time to kill. In the world of ghosts there is very little socialising. We have no ambition, no lust for power, no lust of any kind, and aren’t these urges often the motivating factors behind human interaction? So we spend most of the day, every day, alone, not even acknowledging the still-breathing beings with whom we share the world. Yet sometimes, in order to pass a few hours, I’ll listen in to their conversation, hoping that from a distance, with no personal agenda, I can find something worthwhile in it. Unfortunately it strikes me as even more banal and absurd than it did when I could participate myself, because it does not, and cannot, relate to me. You might say that I am bitter. I would say that I’m bored. Certainly, I’m bored; and I guess that is how I came to this, or came back to this. To reading, I mean. It’s almost enough to make you believe in the Devil, in some powerful, malevolent force. To read, to spend the afterlife engaged in the one activity you blame, you hold responsible, for wasting years of your actual-life, for driving away friends and girlfriends, for missed opportunities. To return to books, with your tail between your legs.

“Again after a little while they left that and then my eyes opened as before, but I saw nobody there with me in this doorless room who was ill-treating me like that. Immediately my eyes opened there I saw about a thousand snakes which almost covered me, although they did not attempt to bite me at all. It was in this doorless room which is in undergrounds I first saw my life that the biggest and longest among these snakes which was acting as a director for the rest vomited a kind of coloured lights from his mouth on to the floor of this room. These lights shone to every part of the room and also to my eyes, and after all of the snakes saw me clearly through the lights then they disappeared at once with the lights and then the room became dark as before.”

Recently I read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola. I remember trying, on numerous occasions, to finish it in the-before-times. Then, I would give up after only a few pages. Maybe I have more patience now. Maybe my taste has become refined. More likely, I simply have no real distractions. I cannot, for example, break off my reading in order to drink tea or play with myself. In any case, it is the story of a boy – the narrator – who gets lost in the African bush and, yes, spends a great deal of his life amongst the ghosts that inhabit it. When considering the book, it is perhaps expected of you that you will engage with the African issue, which is to say that you will place My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in socio-political, cultural context. Quite frankly, I am incapable, and, truth be told, not really all that interested in how closely, or otherwise, the contents resemble, are inspired by, etc, Yoroba folk-tales. I am not a professional literary critic. For me, what is important is this: is it a good book? Yes, it is very good indeed. It is, in fact, a great book. Says the ghost.

In likewise fashion, I do not want to labour over the language either. Of course, I must mention it, briefly at least. It is sometimes argued that the writing is poor, broken, ungrammatical, or, God forbid, ‘primitive.’ Well, I can report that the syntax, for example, is unusual, vis-a-vis formal English, but isn’t, say, Henry James’ and James Joyce’s also? Or what about Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace, John Hawkes, Anna Kavan, the surrealists, and so on? Isn’t there the not-so-subtle, unpleasant odour of racism hanging over that ‘primitive’? Ask yourself this: what is correct? What does it even mean to call a certain kind of writing correct, or not-broken, or sophisticated? Aren’t these terms meaningless? In any case, perhaps Tutuola could have written like Jane Austen had he wanted to. And perhaps I’m primitive myself – well, I am half-dead, at the very least – but all that truly concerns me is whether the style serves the material well, which, in this instance, it undoubtedly does.

There is, however, the recurring theme of language within the story itself. Tutuola’s hero finds often that he cannot communicate with those around him, with, to be specific, the ghosts; or certainly not with words. When he meets the copperish, silverish, and golden ghosts, for example, they use lights to catch his attention and win his favour. They, and the other bush-dwellers that the boy crosses paths with, have their own language, which he cannot speak [although at times he seems to be able to understand them, they, in the main, cannot understand him]. Moreover, there are numerous instances where speech is physically impossible – such as when a web covers his mouth – or when it is outlawed, as in the town where one is only allowed to communicate with shrugs. I am not able to put forward a single, convincing, intelligent theory as to what the significance of this is. It might be nothing more than a way of heightening the bush’s sense of otherness, and likewise the boy’s exclusion from that world. Yet I like to think it is a cheeky reference to the European novels that plonk the white man in Africa to confront the alien, sometimes hostile, locals, with their weird food and their weird practices.

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Certainly, the ghosts aren’t all that friendly. I’ve already alluded to this; although, my kind aren’t Tutuola’s kind. Many of them want to kill the boy, or eat him – which also supports the aforementioned theory of mine, for it suggests the African cannibal cliche – or at least do him some form of physical harm. Yet this perceived ill-treatment, or lack of friendliness, is, in most cases, not presented as being a moral failing. Aside from one or two references to hell, and an episode featuring a female ghost who disagrees with the murderous commands of her parents, the author doesn’t appear to judge them, nor want the reader to. They are not savages; ‘the deads’ simply have their own customs, their own way of life, their own values, their own world, which are of course different to the boy’s, to that of earthly creatures. For example, there is the story of the mother ghost, who one must present with food, both for her and the numerous heads that are attached to her body. The rest of her people eat last, and not very well, and this is accepted as how it must be.

Now I would like to set all that aside – the theorising and philosophising, the search for a deeper meaning, etc – and concentrate on the weirdness. If we ghosts talked to each other more often I would say ‘here, read this book it’s…really weird.’ The weirdness is the selling point, the high point, the only real point that matters. I mentioned previously the mother ghost with many heads, but that’s nothing. How about the small ghost: ‘both his legs were twisted as rope and both feet faced sharply left and right, he had an eye in his forehead which was exactly like a moon, this eye was as big as a full moon and had a cover or socket which could be easily opening and closing at any time.’ Then there are the ghosts who steal into the womb of pregnant women, replacing her unborn babies; and the television ghost, who shows the boy a vision of his mother on the palm of her hand in order to convince him to lick her sore for ten years; and the talking land, which, when you place your feet on it, says loudly: ‘Don’t smash me. Oh don’t smash me, don’t walk on me.’

The weirdness is endless, and always entertaining. And, perhaps most impressively, very funny. A lot of books that are described as funny do little to justify the claim. They might make you smile, maybe even snigger, but laugh? Really? My Life in the Bush of Ghosts drew sounds from my throat I thought I would never hear again; and that, in the real world, and in the unreal world, in my world and in your world, is precious. I do not want to analyse, but rather give examples, to make, not for the first time in this review, a short list, without, I hope, spoiling the jokes. So what about the homeless ghost who dances to the boy’s crying as though it is ‘a lofty music for him’? And what about the ghost with snakes all over his body, the bad-smelling ghost, who can only eat sleeping animals, for the wide-awake ones are alerted by his smell and run away? Finally, from me, certainly not in terms of the book, what about the point when the boy turns himself into a cow in order to escape a ghost who is chasing him; when, unfortunately, as a cow, he catches the eye of a lion, who also takes up the chase? Perhaps none of this sounds amusing, for I am not a comedian, I do not have a polished delivery. I’m dead, or half-dead, after all.

Boo-hoo. Boo-haha.

THE HIGH LIFE BY JEAN-PIERRE MARTINET

What a world, Mesdames et Messieurs. What a world. Like a festering, rotting pighead in space. And us? We’re the fat, and ever-fatter, maggots that feed upon it. Sometimes, quite often in fact, I see people smile, and I have to wonder ‘are they mad?’ Or am I mad? Don’t they see? Maybe that’s the way: close your eyes and smile. I’ve always known that our planet is a horror show, and so nothing surprises me. Take the men in the entertainment business, those men that are currently being outed for years of sexual harassment or misbehaviour…am I shocked? I am profoundly not shocked. It is as I expected. It is simply the case that we are looking now, yes, we are looking at them and inevitably we are finding brutality, misery, and a host of other horrible things. The whole world, I tell you, is like this. Peer into any corner, shine a light on it, and you will see the filth. Take off your gloves and draw your finger along the surface and tell me how it feels. Greasy and unpleasant, isn’t it?

The world is a blocked sink, and I refuse to put my hand in there and rummage around in the dirty water, amongst the soggy, disintegrating scraps of food. So I read. I withdraw into another world. Is it a better world? If it is, it is only by virtue of not being real, of not actually existing, so that there’s no chance of encountering the awful people who inhabit it. I take my solace where I can find it. I take it by degrees. Often, I’m not even reading. I simply hold the book before my ghoulish face as a kind of barrier, a protective screen. People tend to leave you alone if you look as though you are reading. But there are those who ask: what are you reading? Usually on trains. Sitting next to some enormous old woman who wants desperately to tell you about her gay nephew or her wretched granddaughter’s wedding. I, of course, tell the truth. I say: it’s a book about pushing an eyeball up a girl’s ass; or, it’s a book about trying to fuck a bear, only the bear has a flaccid cock; or, it’s a weird little book about a weird little man who works at a funeral parlour and fantasises about killing people.

“Dark, yawning grave, ogre’s vagina, tomb of sleep and night, night of marshes, marshes of silence, silence of death.”

The weird little book is called The High Life, and it was written by Jean-Pierre Martinet. You might think, upon finishing it: what a nasty slug he must have been to have conjured up something like that. Well, I don’t know anything about him. All people are ghastly so Martinet must have been too. I will deal with the major characters soon, if anything about them could be said to be major, but first let me say something about the minor ones: they’re vermin. The owner of the funeral parlour, for example, watches the narrator, Adolphe Marlaud, choke ‘with an irritated look’; a twelve year old girl, whom Marlaud attempts to prey upon, enters the parlour and starts to trash it; an old woman seems ‘beside herself with joy’ at telling the misfortunes of another; and Adolphe’s father, it is revealed, shopped his Jewish wife, the narrator’s mother, to the Gestapo. There are others, but I am sure you get the picture. The High Life is only twenty-eight pages long, but each page is packed, like a neglected baby’s soiled nappy, with filth of various kinds and consistencies.

Death is fairly prominent. I’ve already mentioned the funeral parlour and the mother whose fate was to be gassed at Auschwitz by the Nazis. But there is more: ‘abandoned corpses, partially decomposed young girls, mauve and green and white, calves murdered with the blows of a cleaver, at dawn, under a drizzling sky.’ What else? Adolphe’s lover attempts suicide; and Adolphe himself, as suggested earlier, develops a murderous impulse, offing the odd dog and cat along the way. But this – death – is perhaps the least disgusting aspect of the novel, if you want to call this dribble of piss a novel. The references to death barely tickle the nostrils, in the grander scheme of things. I’ve read worse; you’ve read worse; we’ve all most probably seen and thought worse. It’s the dreary relentlessness, the never dispersing, subtle smell of recently emptied bowels, that starts to unsettle the stomach. Even the style of the book is crude, with references to ‘shit, ‘jerking off,’ and ‘cum on the walls.’

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One doesn’t get to know Adolphe, in the Tolstoyan tradition. He is, in truth, barely alive as a character. Although that is the point, you might argue. ‘People generally called me a creep, or compared me to a bug,’ he says of himself; and bearing in mind his actions this actually undersells his unpleasantness. Marlaud is, in any case, very self-aware; he is not at all fooling himself. Martinet goes to great lengths to promote his character’s disagreeableness, and, although one wouldn’t call it sympathising, his woes. He is, first of all, only four feet tall [while his lover, incidentally, is over six feet in height]. He is a ‘runt,’ with a ‘urinous complexion’; he is a man so ‘ugly, so miserable’ that he has become a ‘lover of shadow and silence.’ You might want to make complex psychological deductions based on all this, but, quite frankly, I don’t have the inclination or energy. What struck me most, and what is in fact the novel’s main source of entertainment, was Martinet’s enjoyment, the glee he clearly felt in coming up with creative ways to describe, in piling on, the misery.

Consider the sex scenes with Madame C. Martinet, as Adolphe, writes about ‘her monstrous breasts unfurling upon me with the muted rumbling of an avalanche.’ And I must confess to having laughed a little. Likewise when she is said to have ‘ejected me from her tremendous vagina, leaving me on the floor like a dispossessed king.’ If there is a weightier concern, a serious point to all this, a transcendent theme, then it is in relation to power, specifically abuse of power or the feeling of powerlessness. Madame C. takes Marlaud, not against his will, but not exactly willingly either. She overpowers him, with her large body, but with her personality, with force of character, with desire, also. When Adolphe buys a gun to shoot the cats that bother his father’s grave – a man who, remember, denounced his own wife – he finds that he suddenly feels in control, even God-like. ‘I had no idea there was such strength in me,’ he says when he offs some butterflies. Which is funny, certainly, but sad and alarming too, for it seems to me that, as we as a species inch ever closer to collapsing under the weight of our own faeces, it says something revealing about how we have got ourselves in this position in the first place.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES BY BORIS VIAN

At one time I would actively avoid pain and unhappiness, torture and murder, in my reading. I called those who sought out that kind of thing literary ambulance chasers. And yet over the last twelve months I have found myself increasingly indulging in it too, even though it still disturbs and upsets me. I justified it to myself as a newly developed interest in the history of outré, extreme or anti literature, and the decadent, erotic and gothic genres; and while that interest is genuine I didn’t ask myself why, or what motivated it. Then, as I read Boris Vian’s discomforting I Spit On Your Graves, it occurred to me that it is, at least to some extent, because I am, and have been for over a year, deeply unhappy myself. In part, this is due to my personal circumstances, but I’m also angry and hurt by what is happening in the world at large. While I still feel compassion for others, I now realise that I am probably drawn to books that confirm this negative world view, the view that people are essentially full of shit and life is mostly viciousness, pettiness, vapidity and suffering.

“Nobody knew me at Buckton. That’s why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn’t had a flat, I didn’t have enough gas to get any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem’s letter, and that’s all. There wasn’t a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let’s not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid’s little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter.”

These days, Boris Vian is most well-known for the cute, some would say twee, love story L’Écume des jours. He wrote I Spit On Your Graves, which as previously suggested is decidedly not cute nor twee, in two weeks as a genre exercise. On face value, it is a passable, better than average, and certainly readable, example of hard-boiled noir in which a man arrives in a town and seeks to take revenge upon some of the inhabitants for the murder of his younger brother. The narrator, Lee Anderson, is engagingly, typically, broad-shouldered and mean; and the supporting cast also conform to expectations, which is to say that the men are hard-drinkers and the women – who make up the majority – are hot-to-trot. Moreover, while Vian didn’t have the best ear for noir dialogue and one-liners, there are a few memorable wise-cracks, such as when Lee says of Dexter’s father that he was ‘the sort of man you feel like smothering slowly with a pillow’ or when he is asked what he intends to do with the Asquith sisters and he replies that ‘any good looking girl is worth doing something with.’

What makes Anderson, and therefore the book as a whole, unusual is that he is a black man who looks like a white man. Nearly all noir is political, because it is so class conscious; it deals almost exclusively with the lower – a word I use economically, not necessarily morally – elements of society and with crime. However, not often, or certainly not when the book was written, is race a factor. In I Spit On Your Graves, race is used, first of all, as a motivation for murder, as Anderson’s brother was killed by white people and it is white people upon whom he wants revenge. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is also used as a weapon. Anderson is able to pass amongst the whites because he looks like them. Using the stealth of his appearance, he targets two young, local white girls, who he intends to bed and then dispose of. Crucially, he wants them to know that they were fucked by a black man before he kills them, as he believes that this will horrify them.

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It is worth pointing out before going any further that the book was originally published under the name Vernon Sullivan. This was not, moreover, an ordinary pseudonym. In a move that put him in the same position as his central character, Vian – a white Frenchman – took on the disguise of a black American, going so far as to pen a preface in which Sullivan outlines the intention or philosophy behind his work. That Vian would not want his own name associated with the book is not surprising, as a story this controversial and relentlessly grim might have been career suicide. However, I feel as though his decision to use a persona, especially that of a black man, was an unfortunate one. First of all, if you are going to write something like I Spit On Your Graves, in which I imagine Vian believed he was making serious, important points about his society, you ought to have the balls to claim it as your own, and not try and palm it off on the very elements of that society that you feel are unjustly treated. Secondly, using Vernon Sullivan strikes me as an attempt to give his opinions and ideas authenticity, as though he understood himself that a successful white Frenchman speaking for disenfranchised black America suggests a lamentable, almost offensive, level of arrogance.

In his preface, Vian has Sullivan express his contempt for the ‘good nigger, those that the white people tapped affectionately on the back in literature.’ He goes on to explain his intention to write a novel in which ‘negroes’ are shown to be as tough as white men. And, well, while I understand what Vian was getting at, vis-a-vis a patronising attitude towards black people in literature, he doesn’t show Lee Anderson to be merely tough, but rather he shows him to be all the stereotypes that were/are expected of a black male. He is athletically built, criminal, violent and sex obsessed. There is barely a paragraph that goes by in which the narrator is not lusting after one young teenage girl or other. Sex is – far more than revenge, or his brother, or injustice – almost all he thinks about. Furthermore, one also has to ask why all the girls that Anderson sleeps with, and in some cases rapes, are underage. I struggled to understand the relevance of that. It felt seedy, nasty, and pointless. To have made them of age, in their twenties for example, would not have altered the story at all, except to make it marginally less disturbing. But maybe that was the point: Vian wanted his novel to be as unpleasant as possible, but to what end I do not know.

THE TRUMPETS OF JERICHO BY UNICA ZÜRN

It is at the end of a relationship that the most revealing statements are made. It is as though it is only when there is no hope of resolving the issues, of moving forward together, that people are able or willing to honestly disclose their feelings. ‘I thought I was pregnant last year’, my ex-partner told me once all was lost, ‘but I was too frightened to tell you.’ It was her most hurtful admission. I was ashamed that I had communicated my misgivings about having children in such a way as to convince her that it would be better to deal with the worry alone than to share it with me. And yet I do wonder – if she had been pregnant and had wanted to keep the baby – how I would have taken the news. Outwardly I would have done all that I could to be supportive, but secretly, inside myself, would I have freaked out? The awful truth is that often, when I have come into contact with pregnant women, I have felt uneasy, especially in regards to the grotesquely swollen belly, inside of which there sits a living creature. There is something magical about it, yes, but unnerving also.

However, it wasn’t until I read Unica Zürn’s The Trumpets of Jericho that I seriously considered how a woman might feel in the same situation. I don’t mean that I would expect that every woman be happy about being pregnant, rather that, as I have selfishly blundered my way through life, it had not previously occurred to me that to be the one who actually has the living thing inside you might be a whole other level of existential terror, a kind of terror that the likes of me  – i.e. a man – cannot fully understand. Indeed, for Zürn’s narrator her pregnancy has been nine months of a ‘gruesome inner union.’ She openly, almost gleefully, attacks the unborn, calling it a ‘bastard’, a ‘hateful creature’, an ‘abomination’, and an ‘unwanted suckling’. It is this last phrase that is, in my opinion, the most significant. The child was not planned, and is not wanted. While it is true to say that she is partly responsible, the girl – she is only sixteen – has had her body, in a sense, invaded.

At the heart of her despair, and her disgust, is the realisation that the baby’s existence, its inevitable coming, signals the end of ‘the sweet days of youthful peace’. On one level this ‘youthful peace’ refers to her physical well-being. She laments how the child has ‘sucked all the strength’ from her, with her labour pains, for example, being so intense that they feel like ‘the sea moving beneath a storm.’ There is also a touch of vanity in her concerns, for she remembers the time when she was ‘still slim’ and notes how her ‘long, beautiful hair is getting damp from fear sweats.’ However, her strongest objection is that she will no longer be able to do as she pleases. To have a child is to be responsible for, and obligated and tied to, another human being, which requires your time, effort, and money; especially for a woman, and especially at the time at which the book was written. She sees the baby as a threat to what she calls the ‘dancing freedom of a proud young cat,’ and remembers fondly how she once ‘hurried with big steps from one lover to another.’

“For the whole land is flooded with a large and powerful wave of the deepest melancholy, and wherever anyone goes or stands, they think here of violent death.”

The Trumpets of Jericho is not a plot-based book, so it is no spoiler to reveal that the girl plans to kill the baby. Indeed, on the second page she states that she has ‘cold-heartedly’ decided that ‘the suckling must die.’ The intended infanticide speaks to her mental state, of course, and I will return again to that, but it is also one part of a overriding atmosphere of gothic horror, which at times is surprisingly playful. The girl’s situation is that of someone living alone in a tower. She has, she says, no friends. Her only company are ravens and, for a brief period, the bat that is caught in her hair. With a touch of welcome humour, she theatrically addresses the creature: ‘I honor you, you serious, uncanny night spirit/But please leave my hair, because you are bothering me during the serious business of bringing my child into the world.’ I was also amused by the grim intention to pack the remains of the murdered new born ‘in seven different packages and send them to my last seven lovers.’ A dramatic fuck you to whichever of these men is the father.

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On the back of my copy of The Trumpets of Jericho it is described as ‘a fierce fable of childbirth’, which is a fine phrase, but which is not, in my opinion, entirely accurate. Of course it is important, and it is, moreover, the most immediately engaging, eye-catching aspect of the text, but I don’t think Zürn’s work is reducible to that alone. In fact, although I have devoted all of this review to it so far, at least half of the book’s fifty pages have nothing to do with pregnancy or childbirth at all. The second half is given over to a series of surreal-poetic stories, told by the narrator, the majority of which feature death. For me, The Trumpets of Jericho is about madness and unhappiness, about, specifically, Zürn’s own madness and unhappiness, with an attitude towards childbirth being only one facet of this. Indeed, the girl describes herself, rather quaintly, as a ‘member of the Eccentric’s club’. More alarmingly, she speaks of an anger against life and longs to kill herself, by leaping from a window.

I don’t often refer to biographical detail concerning the authors of the works I review, for I consider it irrelevant in the main, but on this occasion it is worth pointing out that Zürn killed herself by doing just that: by jumping out of a window. There is, moreover, a moment in the text when Zürn, as the author, addresses you: ‘you see, reader, that I cannot bend my thoughts away from death.’ It is a brief slipping of the girl-mask, of the pretence at writing a piece of fiction. Another, more telling, slip occurs when she actually namechecks herself: ‘Unica’s heroes murdered.’ The second half of The Trumpets of Jericho, which is at times barely comprehensible, but is always beautiful, is like directly entering the gloomy labyrinth of her mind; and it is, in this way, much scarier than what precedes it, if not so ripe for critical analysis.

THE CATHEDRAL OF MIST BY PAUL WILLEMS

Long before I finished The Cathedral of Mist I began to wonder how I was going to write about it, how, specifically, I could articulate the powerful emotional effect it had upon me. I saw myself floundering pathetically, like someone attempting to thread a needle in the dark. How many times, and how many ways, could I call Willems’ stories beautiful and moving? I had my notes of course, which were not as detailed or inspired as I would have hoped, but at least they were something to which I could cling. Yet, after closing the book I, unknowingly, put it down so that it was resting on the delete key on my keyboard. It was a fair few seconds before I understood why my words were quickly disappearing before my eyes. It was as though, after spending a short but disorientating period of time in Willems’ magical world, it was entirely possible, right even, that text can, of its own accord, begin to remove itself.

“The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt like we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors where winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories.”

My intention was to begin this paragraph with some biographical information about Paul Willems, who I assume the readers of this review know as little about as I do, but a cursory look around the internet provides almost nothing of note. He was, I read, a French-speaking Belgian author and playwright who passed away in 1997. The Cathedral of Mist was, according to the publisher’s blurb, first released in 1983. It contains six short stories [and two essays, which I skipped], which run to roughly sixty small pages. I mention these apparently insignificant details because it seems incredible to me, first of all, that the stories are so recent, bearing in mind the timeless quality of them, and, secondly, how slight the whole thing is. Never has my love for something been built upon such feeble foundations.

In view of the scarcity of information regarding Willems, and the obscurity of his work, at least in English, it seems appropriate that secrecy features prominently in the collection. Indeed, although I didn’t keep score, it seemed to me that the words secret or secrets appear in each of the six stories, sometimes more than once. In Requiem for Bread, when the narrator, who I assumed was the author in all the stories, is told that bread screams when it is cut, he describes this as ‘one of those secrets of the world.’ Likewise, the Countess Kausala in An Archbishop’s Flight is said to be the keeper of ‘some very pleasant secrets.’ It is never revealed what exactly it is that the Countess knows, but this is not important of course. The frequent references to secrets are simply one part of an overriding atmosphere of romance, wonder and mystery. The world, as Willems sees, or experiences it, is one in which one can purchase a hat and subsequently find oneself in a bed, in the forest, as the snow begins to fall; it is a world where a man will invent his own language in order to communicate with his dead daughter; it is a world where there exists a cathedral made entirely out of mist; it is a world of epiphanies, if you know where, or how, to look.

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Moreover, this is evident not only in the basic action or interactions, but also in the way that Willems uses imagery to transform ordinary, commonplace things into something significant, dramatic, beautiful or magical. Clouds, for example, are described as ‘great grey fairies’, and bullets are like bees, but perhaps best of all is when it is said that waves speak two words: ‘the first dashes up on shore, toward us. The other withdraws, taking back what the first said.’ I don’t like to compare one author’s work to another, for I find these comparisons lazy, largely pointless and often tenuous, but I could not help but be reminded, first of all, of Bruno Schulz. In his story Tailors’ Dummies, Schulz calls his father the ‘fencing master of imagination’ and this phrase seems to me to go some way to capturing not only his own genius but Willems’ too. Yet, having said that, there is an economy of style, a restraint, in the Belgian’s work that is lacking in Schulz’s, and which is reminiscent of Tarjei Vesaas.

What I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Cathedral of Mist is rather like a children’s book of fables or fairytales; and that would not be entirely incorrect. However, there is also a core of sadness, a very adult kind of sadness, and a preoccupation with death. In Requiem for Bread the narrator’s cousin dies by falling out of a window, and each night, when he shuts his eyes, he sees her ‘falling without falling, spinning without moving, dying without dying.’ In Cherepish he is in Sofia with Hector, a middle aged man who has ‘nothing in his life.’ Hector yearns for his own epiphany, but ‘whatever is essential has passed him by.’ Finally, in The Palace of Emptiness, Victor, following the death of his father, beats his wife ‘like a child who hits his mother because it is raining’. She leaves him for a while, is happy, and then, at the end of the story, she returns, ‘submissive to the harm she would need from now on.’ Willems’ characters are, more often than not, suffering; and, for this reason, I would resist the description of the author as a ‘fantasist.’