power

STEPS BY JERZY KOSINSKI

A friend suggested to me the other day that I might be suffering from some form of PTSD. I actively avoid the tv news and newspapers. I’m reticent to open letters. I flinch when someone knocks at the door. I came to believe, an early age, that the world is a grotesque place, and my behaviour, she said, is that of someone who does not wish to have his judgement backed up with further evidence. I withdraw into books, she said, because I’m wary of what exists outside of them. I withdraw into books that, in most cases, contain fictional worlds far removed from the grotesque one in which I live. Indeed, I once abandoned Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird after reading only a few pages. I was unwilling to take the weight of the child’s suffering upon my shoulders.

“Had it been possible for me to fix the plane permanently in the sky, to defy the winds and clouds and all the forces pushing it upward and pulling it earthward, I would have willingly done so. I would have stayed in my seat with my eyes closed, all strength and passion gone, my mind as quiescent as a coat rack under a forgotten hat, and I would have remained there, timeless, unmeasured, unjudged, bothering no one, suspended forever between my past and my future.”

I do not know, therefore, what compelled me to pick up Steps  – which is often described as disturbing and brutal – by the same author. It wasn’t, as I know it is for some, the recommendation of David Foster Wallace, whose work I have only a begrudging admiration for. Perhaps it was the comparisons to Kafka and Celine, two writers I count amongst my favourites, even though these kind of comparisons are often wide of the mark. Certainly, I did not see much of either in Steps, but there is a compellingly odd, almost weightless atmosphere, which reminded me not of Kafka but Ice by Anna Kavan. As with that book, there is a lack of basic, concrete information. Everything is vague. No character is named. At most they are given a title, such as the ski instructor. Places are not identified either, except in terms like ‘the island’ or ‘the village.’ The settings could be anywhere, at any time. The only real reference points are mentions of ‘the war’ and concentration camps.

What this creates is a sense of unreality, and, consequently, a feeling that anything is possible. And when it does occur, this anything is, as promised, almost without exception violent and/or unpleasant. There is, for example, one scene, or entry, in which a ‘demented’ woman is found by the narrator in a cage in a barn in a village. She had been, it is told, repeatedly raped. In another, a man feeds bread with broken glass in it to children. Often the violence is random, almost motiveless, and sadistic. A nightwatchman is killed with a glass bottle. A army sniper takes out unarmed passersby. The violence is not, however, disturbing, not even for someone who is as sensitive to it as I am, precisely because it takes place in a world that is not, except in superficial ways, recognisably ours; it is Kosinski’s own dream-like alternate reality. It also helps, in this regard, that his style is not voyeuristic or pornographic. He does not linger over the particulars, so that, for example, one does not witness the witless woman’s rapes.

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As one or two of the previous examples suggest sex plays a significant role in a number of the entries. Even the first, in which there is no sexual activity at all, but in which the narrator convinces a young girl to run away with him by flashing his credit cards, sex could be said to be the motivating factor. Indeed, this entry introduces one of the book’s primary preoccupations, which is the human predatory, often sexually predatory, instinct. In one piece, the narrator is called a ‘hyena’ for preying on a dying woman in order to gratify himself; in another he is himself preyed upon by two overweight women, when he finds himself trapped on an island without money or food or any means of escape; in yet another the narrator cold-heartedly hopes a gang-rape victim will recover soon so that they can begin to ‘make love’ again, while reminding himself that he would have to be gentle [a thought he finds ‘unwelcome.’]

What is interesting about the book, however, is that, although women are sometimes abused – the worst being the bestiality incident – they are, on numerous occasions, shown to be both strong and independent. When the narrator is photographing patients within a mental institution, a women working there is said to be able to ‘endure for years an environment I found unbearable even for a few days.’ Moreover, the women are most often less emotionally needy, more mature in their outlook than the men in the book. One, who is unfaithful, states that ‘intercourse is not a commitment unless it stems from a particular emotion and a certain frame of mind.’ Another is said to refuse to have a steady companion. Of course, this could be seen as some sort of literary wish fulfilment on the part of the author, but it did not strike me that way. One of my favourite passages in the book is when a woman is describing the unique appeal of oral sex, and her power over the man is emphasised:

“It’s a weird sensation having it in one’s mouth. It’s as if the entire body of the man, everything, had suddenly shrunk into this one thing. And then it grows and fills the mouth. It becomes forceful, but at the same time remains frail and vulnerable. It could choke me — or I might bite it off. And as it grows, it is I who give it life; my breathing sustains it, and it uncoils like an enormous tongue.”

I mentioned the war previously, but Steps is not a war novel. In fact, most do not call it a novel at all, but, rather, a collection of short stories. However, I am reticent to describe it as such myself, and I certainly did not read it as a number of standalone pieces put together in one volume. There is, admittedly, limited continuity or consistency. At times the narrator is a soldier, at others he is a vagrant, or an archeologist assistant, and yet I think Steps works as a whole in more significant ways than the occupation of the person relating the action. I return again to atmosphere of unreality that dominates the book. If our ideas about what is possible are suspended, then it is ok for a narrator to take on multiple, conflicting, roles, especially when, in terms of style and tone, it seems clear that it is the same man narrating each entry, much like how the girl in Ice can die multiple times and still be alive on the following page.

THE DEVIL TO PAY IN THE BACKLANDS BY JOAO GUIMARAES ROSA

Do you believe, sir? In him, I mean. Not God, no; not God. The other one. The dark one. Prince of Darkness? Yes, I have heard him called that. And many other things. You’re a learned man, sir; I can tell…your clothes…you have money, of course, and no one makes money in this world without either education or spilling blood. Or both, perhaps. So you tell me, what should one call him? Or is it better not to call him, for in calling one might make him appear? No, I have never met him, but talk to people around here and you will hear all kinds of stories. If you were to believe them it would seem as though he has settled in these parts, like a vulture sitting in a pindaiba tree, its beady black eyes following the slow progress of an injured animal, waiting for the right time to swoop.

Yes, you’re an educated man…the way you speak, I can tell. So you must read, sir? A silly question; of course you read. There’s a book, maybe you have heard of it: Grande Sertão. A difficult book, they say. In English it is called The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. A better title, I agree. The devil, sir, raising his scaly head again. One cannot avoid him, it seems. And what about the backlands…the backlands of Brazil…the sertão…and the poor bastards who inhabit it? There is much to say about that, certainly. The sertão it is inside you, so says Riobaldo the jagunço. You don’t inhabit it, it inhabits you. The sertão cannot be subdued, it itself subdues. Do you understand me, sir? Wait, not me, no: Riobaldo, the white rattlesnake. I am not he, just as you, sir, are not the devil. Do you understand?

“All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reigns for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger.”

What is war, sir? Please forgive my boldness, but I want to know what you think. Is it a dirty business? The worst of the worst that man is capable of? The Devil to Pay in the Backlands begins with gunshots. I am telling this wrong, in the wrong order, even though I am starting at the beginning. Grande Sertão opens with gunshots, but it is not war, only Riobaldo, Tatarana, target-shooting down by the creek. What do you make of that? It’s important, sir, I believe. It suggests both war and peace; first one, then the other. It tells you something about the book, about its themes, and about Riobaldo, also. He does this everyday, he says. He enjoys it, unloading a gun.

The sertão? I haven’t forgotten. How could I forget? Bear with me, please. The book is full of fighting and violence. In the backlands…the sertão. I fired and saw the skull fly into pieces, says Riobaldo the jagunço, the bandit. He shoots to kill, they all shoot to kill…the jagunços, as they skip along the surface of the world. Do you understand, sir? This is it: Grande Sertão. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. War in the backlands of Brazil! Jagunço against Jagunço! It troubled me., sir, I must admit. I had expected war, but thought that it would be jagunço against politico, outlaw against authority. Only, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Backlander against backlander. Poor man against poor man. And to what purpose? For what reason?

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To the untrained eye, Grand Sertao is really just an old fashioned western; it is a vengeance play. A great man is killed, and he must be avenged. Ok. What of it? This is not the point. Justice, sir, no, that is not the point. There is some talk, in the book, of civilising the backlands, of civilising the people, as though that is the reason for the war. Ok. But, no, this is not the point either. Are you following me? There are double-crosses. Chiefs change, people change sides. There is no order, no sense to it all, to life in the backlands. Lawlessness. Instability. One moment someone is your comrade, your ally, the next they are your enemy. And do you hate them? Did you love them before? Yes or no? Or does none of that really matter? Do you just do what you do, because you must do it, because what else is there, what hope of a better life? Ah, yes, I believe that this is the point, sir.

Yes, this is the life of the jagunço; this is what it means to be of the sertão. Wretched mindlessness. Mindless wretchedness. Or perhaps that is too harsh. Riobaldo tells the story of Pedro Pindo’s young son, Valtei, who was ‘mean and cruel as all get-out.’ A ‘little monster’ who liked to kill. His parents beat him to drive out the wickedness, to drive out the devil, you might say. Yet after a time they came to enjoy it, by which I mean the beatings, beating their child. What do you say to that, sir? What does that tell you about the people of the sertão? Or people in general? I am losing my way a little, being too specific. Examples are a dead-end. The sertão, Riobaldo says, is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. Ok. But what of the lepers? The wretched? They are there too, ‘living in hopes of not dying.’  

The backlands are cruel, sir, that much is clear. With poverty, and without hope, comes immense suffering. Yes, that much is clear. But the sertão, it is unclear. What, really, is it? It is not, I think, so literal, so that one can measure it, from here to here, from boundary to boundary. It is boundless. That is the impression Riobaldo gave me, that the sertão is as much in the mind as under one’s feet. In fact, doesn’t he say: the sertão is everywhere? It is endless. And it is cruel, yes, but beautiful too. This we learn from Diodorim. A river falling down, all eagerness, foaming and boiling; the bright fog over Serra dos Confins; hoarfrost collecting on the backs of cattle; a hot gust of wind passing through the fronds of a palm tree. I could go on, sir? The jaguars, the parrots, the croaking frogs. Wretchedness and loveliness; war and peace; devilishness and Godliness. Isn’t this life, sir?

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The coin always has two faces. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a story of war and brutality on one side, and love on the other. Ah, Diodorim! Otacilia too, but let’s forget her, sir. Diodorim…Reinaldo…that man ‘like a soft haze’ who Riobaldo, Urutu-Branco, loves ‘more than is fitting for a friend.’ Have you ever felt that way for another man, sir? Riobaldo, a jagunço, a bandit, an outlaw, the most manliest of occupations…and he, what, a homosexual? No, bisexual, for he also loves Otacilia and sleeps with numerous whores. And what of Diodorim? He too? Both men, and both jagunços. Well, sir, I found that most surprising. Let’s be honest, in the hands of a lesser writer it might have been ridiculous…too hard to swallow. To pull it off requires skill.

But let me tell you, you believe it, sir. You believe in it. In their love, a love never consummated. Moreover, it adds further depth, to Riobaldo. Diodorim, no, he is fairly one dimensional throughout, but Riobaldo…what a character. A man wracked with doubts, not only about his sexuality, but about his courage, his abilities too. A man who is engaged in the constant questioning of himself, his life, his actions and his place in the world. The coin with two faces; a man has two faces….this man. The intelligent bandit, the fearless coward, the womanising homosexual. But one thing troubled me, sir, for there is a lot of talk in the book about God and about the devil, about how certain inclinations, certain actions, are the responsibility of one or the other. Two faces. So was João Guimarães Rosa suggesting that homosexual desires are the work of Satan? I hope not, sir, but that did cross my mind. More likely the point is that this is how Riobaldo would see it, would understand his desires, for he too, in spite of all his intelligence, is part of the sertão. Reason and superstition. Two faces.

“Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. That is what I am afraid of. To whom did I sell it? That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”

What does it mean to be a good man? I keep asking you questions, sir. I apologise, but I must continue in this way. A man cannot always answer himself, his own questions. Riobaldo’s narration takes place after these events, of course, after the war, and how does he feel about it all? About all the killing and wretchedness? What does he feel? Not regret, no, but guilt. He is a man with a guilty conscience. In that he is different from the other jagunços. Maybe that is progress, sir? Intellectual, emotional progress. Is that how the sertão will change and prosper, when each man suffers at the hands of his conscience for the evil that he commits? Perhaps. So all that talk about the devil and about God, it makes sense. Who is your master, who is driving the cart? God…or the other one?

Riobaldo is in turmoil, for he doesn’t know who has his hands on the reigns. He is, as I said, for all his intelligence, still of the sertão, he has only dragged himself halfway out of the swamp…and so he sees signs in everything, sees the devil’s work in the world. The big question, the book’s ultimate question, is this: does he exist. Does the devil exist, sir? That is what Riobaldo, Tatarana, repeats, over and over. Does he exist? And, more importantly, can he take responsibility for some of my actions? Ah. Yes, that is it. Can I blame him! Isn’t that what Riobaldo wants? He wants to save his soul, he wants to not go to Hell, of course, but, really, truly, what he wants is for someone to shoulder the blame for the deaths, the blood that flowed.

To his credit João Guimarães Rosa leaves the question unanswered. The question, sir, of whether he exists, the devil, I mean. There is a point in the narrative, when Riobaldo ascends to power and takes on the name: Urutu-Branco. The white rattlesnake. That is surely a symbol, sir, of….for him. The Cursed One. And there are other hints and suggestions, that…Has Riobaldo sold his soul? Did he, that night at the crossroads….ah, once again, so brilliantly Joao handles this scene, for there is no sulphur, no goat-legs, no contract…there is nothing but one man, Riobaldo, alone. Isn’t that the truth, sir? Tell me, please. Isn’t that the truth of the world? That he doesn’t exist, that really it is just you, alone? You, miserable human, with all your flaws. Who is responsible, sir? That is my final question, that is the reason I came to these crossroads tonight myself, to ask you this, and once and for all hear the answer: who is driving the cart?

THE DEVIL IN THE FLESH BY RAYMOND RADIGUET

Precocity is, it seems, both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I find it both attractive and repellent, although I am sure I am not alone in that. Indeed, it took me a long time to admit to enjoying the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the child emperor of French poetry; and yet I was, despite my public and sincere criticisms, privately very much drawn to it. How do you explain these contradictory feelings? Jealousy? Well, I think it is more than that, more complex. I would argue that to be so young and so talented just does not seem right, as though nature had made a mistake, had created a freak, like a pretty little kitten with five legs. All of which is to say that I anticipated that I would be, at best, ambivalent towards Raymond Radiguet, whose first novel – Le Diable au corps [The Devil in the Flesh]was published in 1923 when he was just twenty years old.

The short novel begins with the narrator admitting that his story is likely to result in ‘a good deal of reproach.’ It is a fantastic opening line, because not only does it inspire you to want to read on, in order to find out why, but it also hints at the personality of the young man, for he does not give the impression that these reproaches would be unwarranted. Indeed, the schoolboy, who is never named, very quickly confirms one’s initial suspicions as to the quality of his character. He states that his sensuality was ‘aroused rather than quelled’ by his parents’ disapproval [for example, he uses his father’s boat even though it is forbidden] and admits to feeling contempt for his peers. Of course this may strike you as ordinary small-scale teenage rebellion, and one could also, with justification, point out that most teenagers are self-absorbed and arrogant, but that does not make the behaviour any more admirable or the person more likeable.

“I could touch her face, kiss her eyes, her arms, dress her, damage her in whatever way I liked. In my frenzy I bit her where her skin was uncovered, so her mother would suspect her of having a lover. I would have liked to carve my initials there.”

Moreover, as he continues to recount his story one gets the sense that there is something slightly more sinister, or concerning at least, about the boy’s attitude. In what is the novel’s finest scene, he watches as a woman, a maid, totters about on the roof of a house, a woman who has clearly had a kind of mental breakdown and is potentially suicidal. While some children, and his brothers, are more interested in the fair that is simultaneously in action, he is absorbed in the spectacle on the roof, which makes his heart quicken ‘to a new, irregular beat.’ Furthermore, when he meets Madame Grangier he takes an instant dislike to her because of her ‘short figure and inelegant appearance.’ These examples, for me, suggested a callousness that one cannot explain away entirely in relation to someone’s youth, as he views one person as a sort of entertainment, and judges the other harshly by virtue of her lack of beauty.

At this point all the signs were that The Devil in the Flesh was going to be another in a long line of French novels focussing on young men so caddish as to approach the level of psychopath, men who harbour particularly unpleasant ideas about women. And, at least on the most superficial level, much of the content bears that out, particularly the central relationship with Marthe, an older married woman with whom he starts an affair. While he professes to love her, this relationship is characterised by a relentless pursuit of power, with the boy wanting to gain control over Marthe and get her to do as he pleases. For example, the first date, if you want to call it that, involves the narrator convincing the girl to put off an appointment with her mother-in-law in order to spend the day with him. He delights in being able to make her lie for him.

When Marthe goes shopping for furniture for what is to be the house she will share with her husband, the boy contradicts her choices; when she suggests she likes a certain piece he ‘immediately suggested its opposite, which I didn’t necessarily like myself’ and by the end of the day the ‘browbeaten’ girl has started to doubt herself, and her own tastes. It is a particularly powerful scene, because it shows how easily, and with such subtlety, people can be manipulated, and how a controlling person can employ their art in order to get what they want without resorting to physical violence or threats. The boy, quite consciously, wants to make her live in a house in which he has chosen all the furniture, because he believes it will symbolically make him part of the marriage, and that, by making her complicit in this way, he will have a kind of ownership over her. Furthermore, this need for power and control also extends to the fiancee, who will, unknowingly, look upon and use his furniture every day.

However, while all this does put one in mind of Julien Sorel, Frédéric Moreau, and Georges Duroy et al, Radiguet does a number of interesting things that elevates his work, that makes it something more than a down-sized version of The Red & the Black or A Sentimental Education etc. First of all, one must remember that the narrator is essentially a child, while his lover is an adult. This fact alone makes one doubt the veracity of some of his claims, makes one wonder if he is playing up to his role as a scoundrel, especially when he recounts episodes such as when the couple are in bed and the boy wants the light to be put out, believing that the ‘darkness would give me courage.’ Moreover, there is an scene where Marthe buys him a dressing gown and suggests that he try it on straight away. She does this in order to get him to have sex with her, which indicates not only that she is prone to playing manipulative games herself, but also accentuates her experience [and his inexperience].

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Throughout The Devil in the Flesh there are numerous other instances where the narrator comes across as shy and naive, or when one is reminded of his youth. In one scene, during their first meeting, he considers kissing Marthe, and yet is glad that he cannot because they are not alone; he is relieved that a barrier exists that makes it impossible to do the thing that most scares him at that moment. It is in relation to incidents such as this that one comes to realise that this cad maybe isn’t as bad as you, and even he, believes; he is, quite simply, a child engaged in adult business, or, as he himself acknowledges, a boy ‘attempting to come to grips with a man’s adventure.’ If one bears this in mind his behaviour, his meannesses, his wrong-doing, at least in terms of Marthe, is shown in a new, softer light; indeed, they become forgivable, perhaps even understandable.

What further distinguishes the work is what it has to say about war, and this is, I imagine, what stirred much of the controversy surrounding the novel. Indeed, on the first page the narrator states that war, far from being a tragedy, meant ‘four years of holiday.’ He also talks about how ‘The Austrian assassination,’ which I imagine refers to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, produced an atmosphere ‘conducive to extravagance.’ What he is suggesting, then, is that the war made all kinds of previously unacceptable behaviour permissible, which makes sense of course. The instability, the spectre of death peering over your shoulder at all times, must have had an effect upon people’s minds, must have made them eager to enjoy themselves whilst they could. Moreover, and this is particularly relevant in regards to Marthe, the fact that so many husbands were away from their families provided an opportunity for people to indulge themselves if they were so inclined. Therefore, and the narrator does mention this himself, one could maybe view Marthe’s affair with a schoolboy as not a great love, but as something that was, in essence, simply a consequence of the war.

I want to finish by returning to my introduction, in which, I am sure you will remember, I claimed that I was unsure as to how much I could enjoy a novel written by someone barely out of his teens. Well, now that I have read it I can give my verdict: I fucking loved it. It is unusual in the sense that it feels both juvenile and mature, which of course mirrors the state of being of its narrator, who is, to paraphrase Britney Spears, not a boy, but not yet a man.

THE TIME OF THE DOVES BY MERCE RODOREDA

You should never ignore the signs. In a relationship, I mean. It is easy to tell yourself that you are overreacting, or imagining things, that your doubts are unreasonable or that what you see or feel is insignificant relative to the positives, but you ought to trust your instincts [or your counter-instincts, if your instincts are telling you that things will work out ok with someone who is giving you the impression of being a douche]. The reality is that, contrary to what we are repeatedly told, no one ever ‘suddenly flips’, no one’s personality completely changes for the worse with a snap of the fingers; the clues to someone’s future behaviour or attitudes are always there, sometimes subtly disguised perhaps, but there nevertheless.

I was once talking to a friend of mine and she told me about a guy she had been seeing and how he would get aroused when she cried. I’m not making this up. He got an erection…when she cried. And as I listened to this story I was sure that the conclusion would be that she had freaked out and ended the relationship, but no. She thought it was ‘a bit odd’, sure, but it never crossed her mind to stop seeing the man who was made horny by her unhappiness. No doubt some of you will dismiss my example as a one-off, as an extreme or unusual incident that is not representative of anything, that is not applicable to people-in-general. You might say ‘no right thinking person would have given him the benefit of the doubt in those circumstances’, and yet I have heard hundreds of similar anecdotes and stories, often with unpleasant outcomes.

All of which is to say that as I was reading Mercè Rodoreda’s La plaça del diamant [or The Time of the Doves in the best English translation] I was struck by how depressingly familiar, how predictable, the trajectory of Natalia’s and Quimet’s relationship is. In the early stages, one’s impression of Natalia, who narrates the novel, is that she is kind and gentle, but green or naïve, perhaps even weak. The book opens with the young woman attending a party, dressed all in white. I do not think that this is a coincidence. White is, of course, traditionally worn by brides, and in this way the dress is a hint at her forthcoming marriage, but it also says something about her character, in that the colour is representative of virginity, of purity, even innocence. Likewise, Quimet’s name for Natalia, ‘Colometa’ or dove, which he bestows upon her almost immediately, is obviously significant. Doves are regarded as an emblem of peace and love, which is ironic because Quimet delivers little of either of these two things.

“I covered my face with my arms to protect myself from i don’t know what and i let out a hellish scream. A scream I must have been carrying around inside me for many years, so thick it was hard for it to get through my throat, and with that scream a little bit of nothing trickled out of my mouth, like a cockroach made of spit…and that bit of nothing that had lived so long trapped inside me was my youth and it flew off with a scream of I don’t know what…letting go?”

It is worth noting that Quimet is sweating heavily when Natalia first meets him at the party in the plaça del diamant, for this suggests manliness, and, as the sweating is caused by him having been dancing, sensuality too. Moreover, Natalia compares his eyes to those of a monkey, indicating a brutish animality. From the very beginning Quimet dictates to Natalia, informing her that one day she will be his wife. Even giving her a nickname is an attempt to establish ownership; it is a way of making her his. As the couple continue to spend time together these negative signs, or indications, as to his character become more pronounced. He jealously accuses Natalia of taking a walk with her ex-boyfriend [and she, who is innocent, almost comes to believe that she had done so]; he attempts to make her quit her job; he grabs her around the throat. He is, then, quite clearly a possessive, self-centred bully; he is, as we in Yorkshire might say, a wrong ‘un, and Natalia ought to get rid, because life with him will not be happy, but she, of course, does not.

As a result of all this, one cannot help but read The Time of the Doves with a heavy heart, with frustration and a sense of helplessness. It is like watching, from a safe distance, a car skid off the road and into a ditch. However, although on the surface this appears to be a novel about family and responsibility, poverty and suffering, it struck me that it is ultimately about power and control. And, yes, this refers to Quimet’s desire to dominate his wife, to have her, as he himself says, like everything he likes [which results in the ridiculous situation with the doves], but it relates to Natalia also, and her efforts to wrest control of her life back, from her spouse and from the world-at-large. For example, when Quimet’s dove-mania reaches its apex, and he has them moved into the family apartment, Natalia sabotages them, and tries to murder the chicks. Then, later, when the family are starving, she makes the decision to kill her two children and herself.

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[La plaça del diamant in Barcelona]

It has been said that The Time of the Doves is a political novel, and, although the action takes place over thirty years, covering Franco’s ascension, the Spanish Civil War, and World War Two, and although all of these things are mentioned in the text, it may still strike one as a strange claim. That is because these events are kept in the background; they are never the primary focus. Natalia appears to do her best to not acknowledge politics, or at least not take a serious interest in it outside of the effect it has upon her day-to-day life; and she certainly does not choose a side, being, for example, neither obviously in favour of the republicans or the revolutionaries.

In order to understand the political nature of the story it is necessary to return to what I was discussing previously: power and control. First of all, to be an ordinary citizen in times of conflict or strife is to be at the mercy of a bunch of madmen who will decide the direction of your life, who are, specifically, fighting in order to have that level of control over you. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the novel is set in Barcelona, and that Natalia is Catalan, as was the author. Francisco Franco, who was Head of State from the 1930’s until his death in 1975, was a brutal dictator, and one of his policies was to make Spanish or Castilian the dominant language in Spain. In order to achieve this he made it the official language, and banned the public use of any others, including Catalan. I don’t want to speak for Catalans, but it seems reasonable to suggest that they would have felt as though they could not be themselves, as though they were being forced to be something other than who they were, as though they were being stripped of their identity, and this is similar to how Natalia is portrayed, as someone always constrained, but who is looking to be at ease, to be free like the doves.

HARD TO BE A GOD BY ARKADY & BORIS STRUGATSKY

One of the things that makes alien contact attractive is the possibility of interacting with a species more advanced than our own. Outside of films, whenever we think of aliens we tend to see them as superior beings, with great knowledge to impart, more sophisticated technology, etc. In the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic the Russian brothers cleverly played on this idea, with the visitors being completely disinterested in human beings, suggesting, you might argue, a kind of haughtiness in their attitude towards us. But what if it is not the case? What if contact was made and it turned out that we are actually the more advanced species? Looking around me, that strikes me as really quite a depressing thought.

In any case, this is the situation in Hard to be a God, only the alien planet is not simply primitive, relative to earth, but is essentially earth with the clock turned back thousands of years to the middle ages. Upon discovery of this planet human beings have taken to sending observers to live amongst the natives. The reason for this never seems particularly clear, but it is stressed to these people that their task is limited to observation, that they must not interfere or intervene, and they certainly should not reveal their purpose or real identity. Most of the agents find these rules easy enough to stick to, with the notable exception being Rumata [earth name Anton].

For me, this is one of the great existential novels, with Rumata’s emotional and intellectual crisis being as intense, and unrelenting, as any of Dostoevsky’s antiheroes. His role, or part, is as a womanising nobleman and dangerous, expert swordsman. In this he fails, not only because he isn’t allowed to kill anyone, but also because he cannot bear to sleep with any of the native women, who are not prone to bathing. More interestingly, he is a superior, more evolved being, who every day is forced to live amongst, to confront, the barbarous, drunken, and primitive. Moreover, the city is run by the tyrannical Don Reba, who plots and kills, and generally brutalises the locals, paying particular attention to the literate, who are captured and hung. It is in relation to this that one begins to understand the significance of the title.

Hard-to-Be-A-God

[From Aleksei German’s film adaptation of the book]

Rumata is the God [in fact numerous characters believe him to be divine] who has the power and knowledge to alter what is happening, even put a stop to it altogether. The dilemma that he faces is a theological one, is one that is generally thought to be God’s. Think about how often you hear people cussing God, criticising Him for not doing something to prevent or put a stop to certain tragedies. When bad things happen He is charged with not caring, with abandoning his children. The counter argument is that if you force people to be good, then goodness essentially becomes meaningless, and if you stop all disasters, if only positive things ever happen, you prevent people from learning through adversity. God, it is said, created free will, and created the world, and then left us all to it, come what may, and this is the best thing for us. These are some of the issues Hard to be a God asks you to consider.

Furthermore, Rumata is aware that he cannot make people enlightened. He could remove Don Reba, he could save individual lives [and he does], but this will actually change nothing, or very little, because the people will still be primitive. On this, I was put in mind of certain conflicts, which are deemed humanitarian, whereby the UK and/or US government has invaded countries and sought to remove a tyrannical regime, with Iraq being the most obvious example. I’m not, I ought to point out, calling Iraqis primitive, but there are parallels between that situation and Hard to be a God, as both raise questions about how much of a responsibility do we have to protect other nations, and how worthwhile is it if you cannot guarantee that the people will accept the new conditions and way of living? There is, moreover, something of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about the Strugatsky’s book, in that there is a certain arrogance in going into another country [or planet, in this instance] and negatively judging it against your own. In fact, Hard to be a God could be interpreted as a comment on colonial arrogance, because it suggests that perhaps ‘uncivilised’ countries ought to be left alone, be allowed to develop and work things out on their own.

“And no matter how much the gray people in power despise knowledge, they can’t do anything about historical objectivity; they can slow it down, but they can’t stop it.”

It ought to be clear by now that this is a weighty, complex book. I have in this review really only tentatively jabbed at all the fascinating themes and ideas contained within it [I haven’t, for example, discussed the cyclical nature of history]. However, one thing that does demand some attention is the theory that Hard to be a God is political allegory, that the world it describes is really Russia in the 1960’s, the decade in which it was written. This is given weight by the Strugatsky’s themselves, who claimed to have started the book as a kind of Three Musketeers in Space historical romp, only to change their minds. They did so, it is said, due to fears that the death of Stalin, and the thaw that followed, had done little to change the climate of the country, that artists and their art were still under attack, would be suppressed etc. Yet while there is clearly some of this in the book – specifically Don Reba’s hatred for writers and the literate –  I feel it is reaching somewhat to suggest that this is the real or primary focus.

Before finishing I want to briefly touch upon a couple of negatives, one more serious than the other. The first is that Hard to be a God is essentially plotless, and pretty repetitive. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance levels where this sort of thing is concerned, but it didn’t particularly bother me. More of an issue was the ending, which felt rushed to me. It was as though the Strugatsky’s had simply taken on too much, too many big questions, and couldn’t figure out how to neatly tie up their narrative, and so it ends at an arbitrary point. Yet while this is a criticism it is, in a way, also a kind of compliment too, because I wanted the book to be longer, I wanted another couple of hundred pages so that we [the reader and the authors] could really, fully ride this engrossing and challenging story out and so achieve a more natural and rewarding conclusion.

PEDRO PARAMO BY JUAN RULFO

[P] came out of the airport and into the stifling heat of a Mexican midsummer. Overhead, birds as big as cats circled slowly as though tired of the day. By the exit, a line of black taxi cabs dozed. [P] rapped on the window of the closest cab and waited, his forehead already damp with sweat. The cab slowly pulled away as though trying to free itself from something thick and sticky. An identical cab shuffled forward to take its place. [P] approached, and the window came down erratically, like the movements of a large spider with a missing leg.
‘Get in, señor,’ said a voice from inside.
[P] gripped the handle, which sent a shock of electric heat through his hand.
‘Son of a…’
‘Get in.’
Hot as Hell. Leather seats clinging to his back and his legs.
‘Where to, señor?’
‘Comala.’
The driver did not turn around, but laughed into the windscreen.
‘To Comala? This is your first time in Mexico, no? You do not want to go to Comala, señor.’
‘Why not?’
‘It is, how you say, dead there? Very few people. For a tourist, you understand.’
‘I’m not a tourist. I’m here to write’
‘Escritor, señor? Ah, you are a journalist?’
‘No, I’m writing a review. Research. Comprende?’
‘Si, si. And what are you researching, señor?’
[P] ran his hand across his brow. It felt like burning sand.
‘Pedro Paramo. You know it? By Juan Rulfo.’
‘Si. The action takes place in Comala, no? I understand. You like this book, yes?’
‘Naturally. It’s a favourite of mine.’
‘It’s a book about a quest. Juan Preciado, his mother she have died, no? And he have promised her to find his father, Pedro Paramo, and make him pay. You are on a quest, to Comala to find Pedro Paramo too. Is clever.’
‘Well, yes, I guess. It is a kind of mystery too. There are two questions at the heart of the narrative. One is ‘what is happening in Comala?’ and the other is ‘who is Pedro Paramo?’’
‘Living bile.’
‘Yes. Abundio, I think, describes Pedro, within the first few pages, as living bile and you read on wanting to know what he has done to deserve it.’
‘Si.’
‘And what you find out is that he was a powerful, brutal man, who appropriated land and murdered people.’
‘Don’t put that in your review, señor. Is spoiler, no?’
‘I guess. But you would want to explore that, right? Because it is important. The unscrupulous business man, who holds a village in the palm his hand, and eventually crushes it. Rulfo wants to make a point about what life was like in these places, about the corruption, the immorality, the exploitation. Pedro Paramo is, amongst other things, a political novel; Paramo actually means barren plain.’
‘I know that, señor.’
[P] mopped his brow again.
‘It’s awfully hot in here. Haven’t you got any air conditioning?’
‘Is hot everywhere in Mexico.’
‘I see. Well, anyway, the book is a kind of Shakespearean tragedy about power and control and poverty…about memory and grief…’
‘And family too, no?’
‘Yes, and family too. Abundio says to Juan Preciado that ‘we are all Pedro Paramo’s sons.’ Or something like that. And he means it figuratively, of course, in that Paramo is the patriarch of the village, the overlord, but he means it literally too, for Pedro fathered many of the inhabitants. One of these children he decided to recognise, Miguel, almost as a wager with Father Renteria. And he, Miguel, turns out maybe even worse than Paramo himself.’
‘The sins of the father are passed to the son, señor.’
‘Sin is central to the novel, actually. I don’t know anything about Rulfo’s religious beliefs, or even if he had any, but his book could certainly be interpreted as a comment on, a criticism of Catholicism. Everyone in Comala has sinned; but they are poor and cannot pay for the masses, for the absolution that would save their souls or the souls of their loved ones. These people are beyond saving, seems to be the idea.’
‘Mexico is a superstitious, a religious place, señor. The grip is strong. Father Renteria, he is interesting, no?’
‘I think so. He is the one who can give absolution. He takes money from Paramo to absolve his son, to give his son forgiveness and, in essence, allow him into heaven. This son, who committed atrocious crimes. Crucially, Renteria himself asks for absolution from a Priest, and is denied it.’
Suddenly the taxi came to a halt. [P] was thrown forward.
‘We’re here, señor,’ said the driver.
‘Uh? What? Where?’
‘Comala.’

‘Where are you, señor?’
‘Comala.’
‘You know better than that, [P].’
‘How do you know my name?’

Comala. The earth scorched his feet through the melting rubber soles of his shoes. The landscape seemed to glisten, to move and slide away before his eyes, like images seen in a puddle of oil.You must go to Comala to research your review…
‘So this is Comala?’ said [P] to the burro driver.
‘You know better than that. This is a ghost town, señor.’
‘Ah, yes, si, it is quiet. And hot.’
‘Hotter than Hell, señor?’
‘I’ve never been…ah, what’s your name?’
‘Gabriel Garcia Marquez.’
‘You don’t say! Listen, I’m…’
‘You’re looking for Pedro Paramo.’
‘Yes, I guess. I’m here…’
‘To conduct research for a review.’
‘How do you know all these things?’
‘I spoke to your mother.’
‘My mother is dead.’
‘Si.’

Doña Gloriana opened the door of her little hut and ushered [P] inside.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ she said.
‘How can that be?’
‘Gabriel said that you were on your way.’
‘But I was just with him.’
‘Si. You look tired, [P].’
‘Where am I?’
‘Comala, señor.’
‘No.’

His arms and face so sunburnt they looked like raw meat…

‘Have you read Pedro Paramo, Doña Gloriana?’
‘Of course, everyone in Comala has read that book.’
‘There are hints, early on, that Comala is Hell.’
‘Si.’
‘First of all, as he enters Comala Juan Preciado is accompanied by a guide, an inhabitant of the village.’
‘Like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, no?’
‘Si. Exactly. And the way to the village is described as always down, always descending. And there’s the intense heat, of course.’
‘Of course. Si. But don’t think about these things, my son; sleep, rest.’
‘All the inhabitants of Comala, the people Juan Preciado meets, are deceased; I think everyone picks up on that eventually. But they are also in purgatory. That became clear to me. They cannot absolve themselves of sin, they are, then, ghosts, or souls, trapped, in an intermediary stage, between Heaven and Hell…they cannot buy their release. Life in a poor Mexican village is a kind of purgatory; maybe that was the point.’
Shhh, [P], go to sleep, my son…

In the dark room [P] could hear chattering voices. Echoes of the past.
‘Who is there?’ he shouted.
We are here. Who said that? I did. Let him speak! Tell him. He came all this way to research his review. To Comala, for that? Si. And he has spoken to Gabriel, the taxi driver, and Doña Gloriana, and never once mentioned the voices. That’s us! Si, si. Pedro Paramo is polyphonic. Did he not say anything at all about that? No, señor. It is composed of multiple voices, echoes of the past. So many voices vying for attention. He hasn’t spoken about the structure, either. Shut it. Let him speak, goddamn it! The narrative is jumbled, as though it were a painting that someone has cut into tiny pieces and thrown all over the floor. So you have to pick up the pieces and put them together again? Si.
‘Be quiet, all of you. Let him have his rest.’
Can the dead rest, Doña Gloriana?
‘Si. Si. If they are good boys.’