The Convenient Untruth: Reading Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

As a child in Wales, I walked to church three times every Sunday.

St Michael’s church – Llanfihangel Genau’r Glyn – had stood at the top of the village since Norman times, nestled beside an ancient forest. A yew tree in the graveyard was said to be two thousand years old. Mattins was at 9.30 am. Sunday school in the afternoon, and Evensong at six. Dressed in cassock, surplice, and ruff, I sang in the choir, then sat quietly while the vicar recited the prayers and gave his sermon. Perhaps it was here that I discovered the pleasures of boredom, gazing around and imagining stories about the colourful figures in the stained-glass windows (the saint skewering a poor dragon with his lance; the handsome young captain who had died in the Great War). It was here that I fell in love with the sounds and cadences of English through the language of the King James Book of Common Prayer.

For the Lord is a great God: and a great King above all gods.
In his hands are all the corners of the earth: and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands prepared the dry land.
O come, let us worship and fall down: and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For he is the Lord our God: and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

At Christmas time, I walked with the choir through falling snow, carrying a lantern on a staff, to sing carols at local farmhouses before being ushered into the bright kitchens for hot drinks and mince pies. In summertime, the long evenings were often spent at the vicarage (eighteenth-century, ivy-covered) playing tennis with the vicar’s four, equally adorable, teenaged daughters.

By the age of fourteen, though, a stern voice within me brought all this to an end. Religion was superstitious nonsense, I told my mother in a curt, patronising tone. The idea of an all-powerful creator was no more than a pathetic delusion. I attended church no longer. Coincidentally, the vicar and his family moved to another parish around this time. There were no more summer evenings flirting on the vicarage tennis court.

My views on religion were unchanged when I recently came to read Chris Tsiolkas’ 2019 novel, Damascus. (I let books rest for a few years after publication, so my reading isn’t polluted by reviews or dinner-table conversation). Having written about early Christian history, I was interested in how Tsiolkas (a non-believer like me) would approach the story of St Paul. The Apostle is renowned for his influential epistles, for shaping early Christianity, and taking it beyond the Jewish world. He is also known for his emphasis on Original Sin and his views on women and sexuality which jar with contemporary attitudes.

Tsiolkas is interested in exploring the conflict within Paul rather than making simplistic judgments. The novel begins with a young Christian woman being stoned to death by religious Zealots for the crime of having sex outside marriage. The scene is brutal and painful to read. Only when the smashed body of the woman lies dead do we discover that Paul has been watching. It was he who exposed her ‘crime’. Paul’s actions, we begin to learn, are an externalisation of guilt and hatred of himself for his homosexuality and lust (a possibility much discussed in theological writings). The tale unfolds with Tsiolkas’ customary skill and economy of detail. It leaps across decades, locales, and protagonists, to present a rounded portrait of Paul at different stages of life: transformed by his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus; travelling the Roman Empire to spread the word that a Second Coming is imminent, and that becoming a Christian brings eternal salvation. In the novel, Paul surrenders to Christ’s message of universal love, and is prepared for his imminent return, the ‘end time’. At the story’s end, Paul has died, and his companion, Timothy, is an old man approaching his own end. They have done their task well, however, with the seeds of Christianity planted over half the Roman Empire. At the same time, factionalism and differences within the Church hint at troubled times to come.

Tsiolkas is masterful and empathetic in conveying the conflict in Paul’s mind, and the power of his impact as an evangelist. Yet I could not help being revulsed at observing the birth of the Church – not only because it infused natural instincts with guilt and shame and became such an oppressive instrument of the powerful (from the Emperor Constantine to Putin in the present day), but because belief in an all-powerful creator is simply irrational nonsense, a cruel delusion foisted on the vulnerable, alienating them from power over their own lives. At the same time, we can understand its appeal to people struggling in poverty or distress of any kind, especially slaves in ancient Rome or antebellum America. The message is essentially, ‘Yes, your life is miserable and that won’t change. But obey the Church’s laws and you will be reborn and live eternally after you die’. For people in difficult physical or mental straits, this is a seductive offer. In Nietzsche’s acerbic words, ‘Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in “another” or “better” life.’ Nietzsche, by the way, was always careful to distinguish between the Christianity of the Church and the actual message of Jesus Christ, of loving kindness to all humanity (a kindness so lacking in my own brutal words to my mother).

There’s more to it than this, however. Whatever their circumstances, humans have always needed to understand existence within some overall framework that seems to make sense of their experience, a schema into which they snugly fit. It’s their place in the world. Our sense of self turns out to be a fragile thing. This has become evident in recent years as large numbers of people have become unmoored from reality, coping with the stress of a global pandemic by clinging to risible conspiracy theories and even taking violent action inspired by them. Religion is mocked with cheap jibes by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, but as a scientist shouldn’t he recognise that people indisputably have a need for such an epistemological framework?

This need does not evaporate for people who are fortunate to live in a society like ours which is democratic, rational, and educated. Instead we become invested with a confidence in science (as happened overwhelmingly in Australia during the pandemic) and a framework of liberal values (including human rights) which begin to assume the infallible ‘natural’ authority of Mosaic laws.

It takes a further leap, perhaps, to face the fact that there is no objective, universal framework to our lives. The universe has no purpose. Life is merely an accident which seeks to perpetuate itself. Death is certain. As Camus wrote:

All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world.

For Camus, accepting the senselessness of the world is the first step; the next is to take responsibility for making our own sense of it. But do we have the courage to do this, to forego the comforting fantasies of religion and other absolutist schema? Would St Paul have embraced the Christian message if faced with the knowledge that there is no God and that death is final? How much more impressive that would be – to do good for its own sake, not as a transaction, as a down-payment for eternal life.

Image: Caravaggio. The Conversion of St Paul (1601).

Noise to signal

I never read books when they appear. I prefer to let them sit and marinate on a shelf for a few years before picking them up.

There is always a book of the moment. You’ll remember them all . . . Tsiolkas’ own Barracuda and The Slap, of course. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. They are the novels which everyone seem to be reading or asking if you have read yet (oh happy author). For a few months, it seems, it is everyone’s book club pick and the subject of dinner-table chatter. There are special stands in bookshops and interviews and author profiles in the weekend papers. Even the person next to you on the tram is reading it.

For me, the noise to signal ratio is too high. It’s impossible to read a book and separate my response from influence by the blizzard of others’ opinions about it. Reading is an intensely intimate, personal experience, as much today as when I was a ten year-old curled up on a sofa with the story of Black Beauty. Whatever the book, I read every page twice, fast then slow: once for the story and again for the poetry of it. We rarely pay as much close attention to another person’s words as we do to the those black marks on the page before us.

I let books marinate after I buy them, then. After a few years the noise dies down and I can read them at last, can be alone with them. And so, at last, to Damascus.

Speak, Library

Review of Telltale by Carmel Bird (Transit Lounge, 2022)

In 1790, French aristocrat and soldier of fortune, Xavier de Maistre, unwisely fought a duel in Turin, in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Whether this was over a lover, a gambling debt, or some obscure eighteeenth century slight we do not know. Duelling being illegal at that time, de Maistre was sentenced to house arrest for six weeks. With only his dog and butler for company, the young Frenchman passed the time writing Voyage autour de ma Chambre, a ‘travel book’ in which he explored his room, regarding the furniture and decoration as though they were strange flora and fauna in a distant, exotic land. The book became a cult classic, light-hearted but also a testimony to how the familiar can be rendered new and strange through the imagination.

Reading
Without the support of a dog or even a butler, Carmel Bird – along with the rest of us – found herself confined to home for over a year during the COVID lockdown. Like de Maistre, she set out to make a book from this experience – drawing on the contents of her library, her memories, and her thoughts about writing. Carmel Bird has been a solid presence in Australian letters for many years – author of 11 novels, short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award three times, and winner of the Patrick White Literary Award in 2016. Bird is also widely respected as an essayist, editor, and mentor. She is especially proud of The Stolen Children: Their Stories, published in 1988. Her new work, Telltale, she says,’ is not simply an incomplete examination of the books I have read, but also an incomplete examination of myself. I suppose one can open a door upon the other. Self-examination involves, in my case anyway, an examination of my practice as a writer, bringing in many reflections on the working of the imagination, the behaviour of the unconscious mind’.

Bird begins this journey around her library with some precious volumes from her childhood, Brer RabbitAlice in WonderlandColes Funny Picture Book, and others. We are what we read, and she wonders at her different reactions to some of the stories now, perceiving the imperialist and racist assumptions which lie within them. In describing these and later favourites (Proust, Nabokov, Salinger, and WG Sebald among many others), Bird displays her love of books as objects as well as containers for words. She describes their smell and bindings, and the texture of the pages in books of different eras, noting how popular nineteenth century works are often more foxed and friable (due to the invention of wood pulp-based paper). Each book, she recognises, is a sensory experience freighted with different memories and emotions. Another realisation, as Bird voyages along her bookshelves, is how prevalent pandemics are in the background – for example, The Decameron (bubonic plague); Jane Eyre (typhus); Bleak House (smallpox), and The Secret Garden (cholera). We try not to think of them (as we are doing now with COVID) but disease and death are always with us. Bird also makes a bibliographic confession that she says her friends find ‘shocking and repellent’: when an outsize paperback is unwieldy to read (like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature), she simply attacks the spine with an electric carving knife, slicing it into manageable sections, later tied up with a ribbon. I have no words . . .

Writing
Writing about the Grimm Brothers’ folk tales, Bird confesses to fascination from an early age with horror, especially in proximity to comfort and sentiment in the tales. ‘It’s a matter of looking death in the face, really,’ she writes, ‘reading and re-reading for the music of the telling of stories of life and death. Ever after, forever and ever.’ This juxtaposition is evident in her own works, including Telltale. Along with Elizabeth Jolley in WA and Gerald Murnane in Melbourne, Bird was one of the earliest teachers of creative writing in Australia in the 1980s. Stories ‘dramatise the traces of the terrors of the human heart, and the heart picks up the traces as it registers the stories. Narrative is nerves and blood,’ she insists. Bird writes as she reads – in ‘a sort of trance’. She ponders on the necessity of solitude to writers. Quoting Robert Hughes in his memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, she notes, ‘Solitude is, beyond question, one of the world’s great gifts and an indispensable aid to creativity, no matter what level that creation may be hatched at.’ But not everyone yearns for a silent cork-lined room like Proust’s. Others can write in the midst of confusion, chaos, and worse. Some are happy to work in a busy cafe, and Bird reminds us that Behrouz Boochani laboriously tapped out his prize-winning No Friend but the Mountains on a phone while behind the wire of the infamous Manus Island detention centre.

Remembering
Telltale is not a voyage in a straight line. One thing reminds Bird of another, then another, as she veers off in different directions to recount a further memory, book, or anecdote. This feels disconcerting at first. As becomes clear, however, it is deliberate. Bird wears her tangents with pride. She acknowledges this, confessing it is a way of weaving together different periods and aspects of her life regardless of chronology: ‘Telltale is composed of two different kinds of narrative. One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which. Will the threads hold? What patterns might I work across the surface?’ As she points out, while the physical details of a memory may be clear, ‘ the principal element that has been retained is the feeling. Perhaps the feeling is the meaning’. Memory does not possess a clock. Incidents which happened decades ago may feel as fresh as something that happened this morning. What binds this warp and weft of life is imagination – the books in her library – where, as Bird writes, ‘Strange magic is a given, and it has its own potent, mysterious logic – an ability to take a reader to the far side of time’.

Telltale opens with one of Bird’s earliest memories, of being a five year-old standing on a bridge over the Cataract Gorge in Tasmania, on the way to a family picnic. Below her was the terrifying spectacle of the thundering Tamar River. Ahead was a park with her family spreading out a tartan rug and peacocks calling to each other among the rhododendrons. She felt suspended between the past and future, between passivity and action, between one moment and the next: ‘I am so small, high up above those waters, transfixed and terrified, suddenly snapped out of everyday consciousness and into a brief flash of truth. A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep. I am alone in time and place.’ This moment has stayed with Carmel Bird all her life, gathering more and more meaning. She later discovers that this was the very day the allies fire-bombed Tokyo, killing over 100,000 civilians – the deadliest air raid in history. She wonders if a little Japanese girl there was dressed just like her in neat grey socks. In Telltale‘s final lines, she recalls being a child again back on a bridge over the abyss, full of horror and fascination. The memory is outside time. Bird still stands there, suspended, and – thanks to this moving and enchanting book – she always will be.

THE WINTER PALACE

My new novel, The Winter Palace, will be published by Penguin Random House in February 2024.

The Winter Palace is a tale of love and war spanning a lifetime, from pre-war Poland, to Siberia, Palestine, and Australia. It explores the mystery of how love endures despite all which conspires to destroy it; despite the passing of time which exiles us relentlessly from our own past.

The Tale of Genji: Reading in a time of pandemic

For Genji, too much was never enough . . .

When I was in my twenties, I worked at home for several years. I was writing a thesis on Lolita, gazing out at an oak tree in the garden of my cottage, and making endless cups of tea. BBC Radio murmured in the background, the ubiquitous soundtrack of British life. Every morning, the presenter announced the winner of a ‘round tuit’ – listeners nominated someone who was always going to ‘get round to it’ on some household task. It was harmless chatter in between the music which I need when working.

In the years since, I’ve accumulated a formidable list of works I mean to read, when I get round to it. Among these is The Tale of Genji. Nestled in the ziggurat of books beside my bed – between DeLillo’s Zero K and a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft – Murasaki Shikibu’s novel has lain untouched for years. One reason for this delay is the work’s formidable reputation (‘Am I ready for it?’). Another is the commitment it requires; The Tale of Genji is a doorstopper of nearly 400,000 words. It is 1,200 pages long, and weighs over a kilogram. But if not now, when?

While the pandemic rages, I am working at home again, in isolation like everyone else. It is a silvery eucalyptus tree that I see in the garden. Once again, I make countless cups of tea while Spotify plays in the background. The time has come to read The Tale of Genji.

Scholars dispute whether the book is a novel or not – or whether it was the first. Yet it doesn’t need a label to be recognised as a great work of art. The Tale of Genji is a richly-embroidered tale of romance and intrigue at the court of the Emperor of Japan, written around the year 1,000 CE. Apart from literary quality, it is invaluable as a historical document, providing an acutely-observed insight into Japanese life and culture in that period.

What were your ancestors doing a thousand years ago? Mine were sitting in a wattle-and-mud hut somewhere in Britain, coughing as they huddled around a smoky fire, and waiting for someone to invent the chimney. The urbane comforts of Roman Britain were long forgotten. Yet on the far side of the world, a level of civilisation had arisen beyond their imagining. In Japan, this flourished in the Heian (‘peace’) period between the ninth and twelfth centuries: a period recognised as the classical era of Japanese culture, in architecture, music, literature, and art. There was a huge cultural flowering – comparable to that in Elizabethan England.

The Imperial Court was based in Kyoto. Among the courtiers was the woman now known as Murasaki. She was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, and a renowned poet and novelist in her own lifetime. The Tale of Genji is her greatest work. Most females at this time were married soon after reaching puberty. Murasaki, however, stayed at home with her father well into her twenties. He was a renowned scholar and poet, and she was an eager student. This turned out to be a great advantage when she joined the court, to be a companion for the Empress Shōshi, who had joined the imperial harem at the age of 12. The Empress too, seems to have been an enthusiastic student, and the two became lifelong friends bonded by a love of literature.

Murasaki was not not only a keen observer of life at court, she was finely attuned to the complexities of human relationships. Drawing on her experience, she imagined the most noble man of all: the son of an emperor, charming, handsome, intelligent and cultured, a poet and musician, cunning yet kind-hearted. His name is Genji.

The novel recounts his life at court and many romantic affairs. He falls from favour and is exiled for years. Returning to Kyoto, he marries several wives and takes many consorts (Japan was a polygamous society during this era). Over the years, he does not discard the women he is involved with, but retains them as lifelong friends – adding more and more wings to his palace to accommodate them. Each keeps her household of servants and a private garden designed to her wishes. Sometimes Genji passes an entire day visiting them in this chain of pavilions, chatting, playing music, and reciting poetry. (There are over 800 waka poems in the novel.) At other times, he is skilfully navigating the complex power-play between rival families at court. The tale covers decades, including around 400 characters, and lasts beyond the end of his life. Despite many affairs, Genji’s deepest love is for his life companion, Murasaki (by tradition, the author has been named after her). Once she dies, he is plunged into a fatal grief. His last words to her echo lines of the poet, Henjō, we are told:

Above, below, the dew falls soon and late,
As if to tell us the story of the world.

’Grief does not correspond exactly with love,’ Genji muses. ‘When an old and continuous relationship comes to an end, the sorrow is not just for the relationship itself . . . it is the proliferation of memories . . . that makes for the deepest sorrow.’ The following chapter is entitled, ‘Vanished into the clouds’. It is a blank page. When the story resumes, Genji is referred to in the past tense. Murasaki has described his passing in the most elegant way possible. Genji had every advantage anyone could desire. Yet for him, too much was not enough, as he hungrily sought new experiences. Murasaki’s death teaches him that the quality of experiences is what matters, not their quantity. He wishes that they could have lived a thousand years together, yet knows the final moment of that thousandth year would still come around.

The Tale of Genji paints a shimmering picture of that distant place and time a millennium ago. Genji’s palace of pavilions in Kyoto, gardens alight with lanterns. Mountain-top monasteries above the clouds. The lonely, wind-swept strand of his exile. This world seems exotic, yet also very familiar at times. Murasaki is able to write convincingly from the perspective of both male and female characters. Relationships are immediately recognisable as authentic. When the wife of Yurigi, Genji’s son, has had enough of his behaviour, she storms off to her parents’ house, leaving their young sons behind. ‘So you leave your brats behind for me to look after, do you?’ he asks. ‘Now they’re my brats, are they?’ she replies angrily. The bickering could be from a Family Court transcript of today. Despite the conflict, Murasaki makes it clear that they love each other too, and work – sometimes painfully – towards a new understanding and appreciation of each other.

When Arthur Waley’s translation of Genji was published in the nineteen-twenties, reviewers compared Murasaki to Jane Austen and Marcel Proust. The breadth of her portrait of a society over decades, and her precision in rendering characters, relationships, and how people talk to each other, justify these comparisons. Murasaki moves with absolute mastery between narrative, poetry, characters’ interior monologues, and her own, sometime acid, asides. Like Remembrance of Things Past and other ‘great works,’ being labelled as such can make The Tale of Genji seem daunting and marmoreal. This is a pity. Murasaki’s novel, Like Proust’s, is deeply human, full of humour and sexual adventures, as well as psychological and social insights. Yet the delight she takes in portraying Genji and his society is accompanied by a profound awareness of its ephemeral nature. This is the concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ) – a melancholic sense of the transience of life, seen even today in the Japanese fondness for travelling to watch the cherry trees’ brief blossoming.

We do not know Murasaki’s actual name, but some of her diaries survive, covering the years 1008-1010. Here she imagines how other women at court see her: ‘awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, and scornful’.

I like her already.


Murasaki Shibiku. The Tale of Genji. Translated with an introduction by Edward Seidensticker (1976).

What becomes of the broken-hearted?

Cover: Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted

The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted
Robert Hillman (Text Publishing, 2018)

‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ wrote Theodor Adorno.

For a whole generation after World War Two, few novels were written about the Holocaust. It seemed too soon. Only in the nineteen-eighties did writers feel more confident that they could write about it without throwing the typewriter across the room with a cry of horror and despair. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Thomas Keneally Schindler’s Ark (both published in 1982) showed it was possible to write about the fate of the Jewish people under the Nazi regime with sensitivity as well as a clear artistic purpose. Since then, the Holocaust has become a frequent background for both fiction and movies, including the highly-praised Book Thief by Markus Zusak, another Australian like Keneally. For any writer, the dangers of writing about that period are legion; how easy to stray into treating what happened with mere sentimentality, a lack of the right kind of respect, or – almost worse – to bring that cruelty and horror into the domain of the normal through familiarity.

Robert Hillman ventures into this perilous territory with a new novel, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted. The year is 1968. A farmer, Tom Hope, has lost his wife, Trudy, not once, but twice. She runs away first to be with another man, and then again to join a religious cult. To add injury to injury, she abandons a child with him for a few years – long enough for the farmer and the boy to bond and love each other – and then takes him away again. Bemused and alone again, Tom considers himself a hopeless husband, a hopeless man. At this point, a newcomer opens a bookshop in the local town: Hannah Babel, an immigrant from Hungary. The plot is sprung.

Tom Hope is a simple man. A dab hand with farm equipment, metalwork, or a sick sheep, he is ‘soft,’ reluctant even to shoot a wild dog that is killing his sheep. He has few words, seems ignorant of the wider world, is passive, dull even – just the sort of man a wife would leave, you imagine. Hannah appears a familiar literary character at first. An attractive ‘continental’ (read, ‘Jewish’) woman arriving in a conservative country town: sophisticated, educated, well-dressed, and setting the feathers flying among the men.

The town is full of memorable characters, from the randy butcher to the eternal spinster. There is a flood. There is a wedding. There is a murder. More than one, in fact . . . around six million in total, including Hannah’s first husband and little boy who are killed in Auschwitz. Here, then, is the challenge Hillman sets his characters: how can you bear to live, let alone love, after such tragedy, such loss? How can you have hope? Into this maze, Robert Hillman leads his characters in The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted.

Hillman is a practised and masterful storyteller. The plot is ‘frictionless,’ carrying the reader forward eagerly as the pages are turned. Description of people and places is spare; the narrative pauses only occasionally with a telling detail. This is most obvious with ‘Hometown’. ‘You can’t have a wedding without sausage rolls,’ Hannah is firmly told by Bev from the CWA. Anyone who has lived in the country will recognise Hillman’s affectionate, sharply-drawn evocation of the suffocating yet also comforting familiarity of small town life. Once Tom and Hannah become lovers and marry, they begin to change. The reader’s initial impressions of them are forced to change too.

In Hannah’s presence, Tom is forced to grow up. His relationship with his first wife, Trudy, was in monochrome, either adoration or bleak despair. With Hannah, he learns about love as coming to understand that someone else actually exists in the same way he does, and the extraordinary struggle to accommodate sharing one’s existence with another person. This is profoundly true as he discovers Hannah’s past; she even has to educate him about the existence of the death camps and who the SS were. He learns the tenderness with which to manage her feelings, while at the same time, preserving his own integrity as a person. This becomes a crisis when his little step-son, Peter, runs away from his mother to be with Tom. The thought of having a little boy in the house and developing affection for him is unbearable to Hanna, whose own son was taken from her at Auschwitz to be murdered. She feels there is no choice but to flee.

Hannah, too, changes in Tom’s presence. We learn more about her experiences in the 1940s. It is as though the reader sees a pencil sketch turn to an oil painting with colour and subtle depths. Her initial exotic ‘cosmopolitan’ persona is revealed as a protective outer layer to her character, as she lowers her defences with Tom. He (and the reader) begin to see her complexity and pain and courage to somehow carry on living with the burden of horror she has known.

Among other things, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted is a portrait of a good marriage. Being together challenges Hannah and Tom to mature and to become better people. They learn when to compromise and when to not. They learn when to be together and how to be happily apart. Tom can never completely know Hannah’s pain, but he knows its shape and how to respect its presence. In Rilke’s telling phrase, ‘Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.’

In Robert Hillman’s impressive canon, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted is possibly the best book he has ever written.

 

Image: Text Publishing

Nabokov’s Blade Runner

br_spinner

‘[Pale Fire] unlocked my understanding of K.’
Ryan Gosling

Spoiler alert
Recent years have seen a succession of thoughtful movies about robots, artificial intelligence, and aliens: Her, Ex Machina, and Under the Skin, among others. As well as concerns about technology, these also explore current anxieties about society and what it means to be human. Also noticeable is the sympathy invited for non-human entities (a strategy cleverly exploited by the plot twist in Ex Machina). In this, they are faithful to the origin of almost all robot-themed stories for the last two centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

‘I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.’

It was not only Frankenstein’s monster which was ‘born’ in 1818, but one model of the Romantic hero: a misunderstood outsider, persecuted and hunted by society for being different. This archetype has lived on in books and movies, evolving to reflect our changing concerns and anxieties.

Blade Runner 2049 must have surprised even avid fans of director, Denis de Villeneuve, by its beauty and depth. The terrible and majestic visions it conjures (reminiscent of the paintings of John Martin) combine with a poignant attention to the emotional life of the characters. First among these is Agent K, a replicant employed by the LAPD to find and destroy any surviving Nexus-8 replicants, which had developed free will and revolted in the 2020s. Ryan Gosling’s muted characterisation perfectly conveys the replicant’s calm, ruthless efficiency at killing.

When all is said and done, Agent K is, after all, just a very smart toaster with good looks, who’s handy with a gun.

Gosling also hints, though, at the curiosity and emotional turmoil which well up inside K after discovering the mysterious ‘6.10.21’ inscription which sets the plot in train. As a Nexus-9 replicant, K is designed to be obedient and truthful; increasingly, though, he learns to lie and disobey, as though experience and memory inevitably lead to development of free will and imagination, despite his programming.  Like the protagonist, K, in Kafka’s The Castle, Gosling’s character is alone and treated with disdain in an indifferent, broken world. LA in 2049 has little civil framework and seems dominated by a technology corporation expert in AI and contemptuous of the law (does that sound familiar?).

As the Shelleys and others recognised 200 hundred years ago, the new industrial capitalist economy would break down existing social relationships and drive people into isolation as individual workers and consumers. To recognise and revolt against this is to be condemned as an outsider: a Romantic tragic hero, like Frankenstein’s monster and all his children, like Agent K.

Blade Runner 2049 is not shy about acknowledging this literary and cultural context which contributes to its richness. The most prominent – insistent – presence in the movie, though, is Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant, perplexing 1962 follow-up to Lolita: the novel Pale Fire. Lines from the work are twice used in a ‘Post-Trauma Baseline Test’ on K, and he has a copy of the novel at home. His virtual girlfriend, Joi, offers to read it to him, but he says, ‘no, you hate that book,’ showing that they have discussed it before.

Pale Fire has variously been called, ‘a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel’ (New Republic), and ‘the great gay comic novel’ (Edmund White in the TLS). The novel purports to be the critical edition of a 999-line poem by John Shade, with a copious critical apparatus by his supposed friend, Charles Kinbote. The poem concerns Shade’s drowned daughter, time, and death, but Kinbote’s notes soon reveal him as a quite unreliable, mad fantasist, interpreting the entire poem as being about him and his secret life as the exiled king of a non-existent Ruritanian kingdom. It is perplexing, delightful, funny and moving all at the same time.


The parallels between Blade Runner 2049 and Pale Fire run deep, beyond the overt references, to enrich our understanding of the movie.

Worlds within worlds
In 2049, Agent K is an artificial being (with the same initial as Kinbote). As a replicant being, he seems defined by the corporation which created him. After discovering the mysterious inscription which matches a childhood memory, though, he begins to imagine himself within an alternative narrative: that he is actually the secret child of Deckard and Rachel. He then finds this is not true: that he was given the DNA and memories of their daughter, Ana, as a way of hiding her existence. By the end, we are left with the question of whether K was actually programmed to find Ana, not operating under free will after all?

In Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, is published within a critical apparatus by scholar, Charles Kinbote. The reader knows these are actually both characters in a novel, each with their own conflicting fictional world. Kinbote’s mad reveries are actually no more ‘real,’ then, than Shade’s moving reflections on death and the imagination. A convincing case has been made that Shade is intended by the author to be the invention of Kinbote. An equally convincing case can be made that Shade playfully invented Kinbote, and is not even dead when the work is published. Nabokov himself stayed mum on the topic, just as the films’ makers cannot be drawn on whether Deckard is a replicant.

Pale Fire also has a little-known place in the history of computer science. The novel was well-known to Ted Nelson, renowned inventor of hypertext and one of the fathers of the World Wide Web. Working at Brown University in 1969, he recognised Pale Fire as a revolutionary literary metafiction and received permission from Nabokov’s publisher to create an electronic version, to demonstrate the possibilities of a hypertext document.

 

Agent K’s pale fire
‘The moon’s an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun,’ wrote Shakespeare in Timon of Athens – the source of Nabokov’s title. He uses this quotation to muse on whether memories and imagination can be as ‘true’ as actual events. In Blade Runner 2049, a major theme is whether a replicant with ‘memories,’ experience, emotions, and free will – a pale reflection of a human – can be as real as natural-born person. If so, we bear them the same responsibility as a god to its creations, as a parent to its children.

 

Blade Runner 2049 - eyeCheck the eyes
Eyes – the ‘windows of the soul’ to the ancient Romans – are a dominant motif in the Blade Runner movies. In both, examining the eye is a way of identifying a replicant. Eyes and sight are important in Pale Fire too. In the opening lines, we read:

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit
Or, with a silent shiver, order it, Whatever in my field of vision dwelt –
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte Stilettos of a frozen stillicide –
Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.

There are 15 references to eyes in Pale Fire, principally as a way of recording memories or conjuring imagined or remembered scenes. Ridley Scott explains this in an interview: ‘The eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It’s like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn’t only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot.’

 

The secret letters
When K examines DNA records to search for Deckard and Rachel’s child, he finds two identical people: a dead female and a male. (This is a rare scene in the movie that doesn’t work: he identifies the matching records by supposedly scanning millions of GATC sequences with his bare eyes. It would also mean the two people would look identical, which K and Ana do not.) Nevertheless, this typographic discovery is a revelation to K: he realises that the child existed, is a male, and still alive. He discovers otherwise later, but this typographic sequence starts him on the trail that leads to Ana.

In Pale Fire, Shade recounts a vision he saw while having a heart attack:

A sun of rubber was convulsed and set:
And blood black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem, And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark,  tall white fountain played.

This is the exact wording chosen by the scriptwriters for K’s post-mission test on K in Blade Runner 2049. Coming across another person’s near-death experience which also mentions ‘a tall white fountain,’ Shade seizes this as evidence of an after-life, that his daughter may still exist after death. Soon, though, he discovers it was a cruel misprint – the word was ‘mountain’ not ‘fountain’.

This mistake was the point, Shade realises: that he is somehow being played with, stumbling through life in search of patterns. He has a revelation that he is part of ‘a game of worlds promoting pawns/ To ivory unicorns.’ In the original Blade Runner, of course, a much-discussed topic is the unicorn dreamed of by Deckard, and then seen as an origami figure left by his colleague, Gaff in the final scene, suggesting that Deckard may be replicant himself. In Blade Runner 2049, K’s DNA sequence of GATC similarly contains misleading typography which inspires, disappoints, and finally takes him nearer the truth.

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Snow falling on replicants
Snow is a persistent motif in Blade Runner 2049. Joi, K’s AI companion, holds out her hand to catch snowflakes, but sees them pass through her hologram body. Later, Ana (Deckard’s daughter) creates a virtual mini snow-storm which falls just over her, saying, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ to her father. What neither of them know is that K is dying outside at that moment, lying supine while real snow falls on him. He has a faint smile on his lips, happy that he has given his own life to save Deckard and reunite him with his daughter – proving to himself that he is not just a machine but a living thing. At this moment, the ‘Tears in the rain’ music from the original Blade Runner plays. It inexorably reminds us of replicant Ray Batty’s dying words after saving Deckard’s life 30 years before: ‘I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’

In Pale Fire, snow is also mentioned a total of five times, evoking ‘that crystal land’ of his imagination where all things might be possible, where his dead daughter might still be alive. As in the movie, Nabokov’s novel ends in a death which is accepted and valued as a necessary part of life; the poem is ‘completed’ by an absent 1000th line, missing because the poet has been shot at that moment.

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Father and daughters
Despite the extraordinary visuals of Blade Runner 2049 and the literary pyrotechnics of Pale Fire, the emotional power of both movie and novel is drawn from their quiet heart: a father’s love and loss of a daughter.

After the death of Rachel in childbirth, Deckard lives in hiding with their daughter, Ana, first-born of a replicant. While she is still young, he gives her up and deliberately loses contact as a way of saving her life if he is ever hunted down. As far as Deckard knows, he will never see again the only person he loves – sacrificing his feelings for her sake. The climax of Blade Runner 2049 is their reunion, brought about by K, who has willingly sacrificed his own life for their sake.

In Pale Fire, John Shade has lost his daughter – awkward, unhappy Hazel – to suicide or an accident. He is riven by grief, yearning to be reunited with her. The entire poem is a meditation on how this might happen, dabbling and rejecting absurd spiritualism, and finally realising that, while accepting her death, they can be together through the power of memory, imagination, and art which transcend time.

For Deckard, Ana, and Agent K – and for us as the audience – this is as good as it gets, and that is good enough. As John Shade writes:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link and bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

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A girl in amber

Eve Cohen

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE
 Orhan Pamuk (2008)

Once upon a time, a young peasant girl fell in love with a handsome prince . . .

She thought about him all day long and dreamed of him at night. When he rode through the village with his retinue, she felt sick with yearning. One day, she was walking by a bridge as he rode across it, his long hair flying in the wind. She saw him spit into the river as he passed by, so she ran downstream, waded into the water and caught the phlegm in her hands. She brought it to her lips. There could be no greater happiness. This was love, she thought, closing her eyes in bliss.

I was reminded of this Japanese folk story while reading The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). Pamuk’s novel was published in translation in 2010, but only this year, early in 2017, did I reach it down from the bookcase. (I never read books when they first appear, avoiding the chatter of reviews and conversations. Reading a novel, of all things, is a solitary affair.)

Pamuk is a natural-born storyteller. The novel opens with the narrator, Kemal, describing a passionate afternoon in bed with his lover, Füsun.

In that moment, on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three, just as we felt ourselves to be beyond sin and guilt so too did the world seem to have been released from gravity and time.

Kemal was 30, the heir to an Istanbul business fortune. He would soon be engaged to Sibel, an ambassador’s daughter who, ‘according to everyone, was the perfect match.’ Füsun was a teenager, a distant, poor relation. How could anyone not read on, to discover what happens next?

Kemal happily imagines that he can keep both relationships going in parallel. Sibel is an elegant woman from the same ‘westernised’ upper class of Istanbul society as himself. Her family proudly says she has ‘studied at the Sorbonne,’ by which they mean, she has spent some time in Paris shopping, having affairs, and attending a few public lectures. Füsun is also beautiful and thoughtful, although barely 18 and the daughter of a seamstress. The closest she has been to Paris is working in the pretentious Şanzelize Boutique which sells fake european clothes.

Kemal cannot get Füsun out of his head. He allows the engagement to Sibel to fall apart, but then finds that Füsun has fled, distraught at his dishonesty. He finally tracks her down, living with her parents. He starts to visit, acting the benevolent, rich relation. Soon he is at their door regularly, tolerating their humble home as the price of being able to gaze on Füsun. Sometimes she smiles at him. The days become weeks. The weeks become months.

Kemal neglects his business. He loses touch with old friends and gives up visiting fashionable restaurants and nightclubs. In the years that follow Turkey is riven by political turmoil. There is a military takeover. Bombs and gun battles become regular occurrences. Kemal hardly notices, however, as he pursues his obsessive love. When not with Füsun, he passes the time being driven around Istanbul by his faithful chauffeur, observing moodily through the windows of the old Chevrolet how the city is changing . The ancient quarters of Istanbul are steadily being demolished and replaced by concrete apartment blocks. Kemal realises he is happiest with Füsun’s family, surrounded by the tasteless ornaments of their crowded living room, cosily watching television together.

Füsun finally relents and agrees to marry Kemal, but this decision only triggers a tragic death that seems inevitable. He still cannot let go of his obsession with her, buying the family’s house and turning it into a museum dedicated to Füsun. This shrine contains objects which remind him of her, and are infused with emotion. The actual cinema tickets from when they saw a movie together. Her shoe and a little white sock, carefully labelled and lit in a cabinet like prehistoric relics. The stub of a  cigarette once held between her lips. There is even the door knob from Füsun’s childhood bedroom, sacred because she touched it so many times with her hand. This is the eponymous museum where Kemal now approaches the novelist, ‘Orhan Pamuk,’ and asks him to write his story.

The story is as seductive as Füsun, though we are never actually told what she looks like. As with the city of Istanbul, she is evoked rather than described. The novel has also been criticised for long passages where ‘nothing happens,’ for its repetition and length. These are integral to Pamuk’s hypnotic, seductive style, however. They are classic aspects of the oral storytelling mode which he draws on, circling round and round his love for Füsun until the awful conclusion. We relax and let his voice carry us forward, as though sitting with author, sipping raki on a balcony as the Bosphorus flows past.

Kemal cannot move forward with his life, yet cannot go back in time either. Like all of us, he is cursed with memory. He cannot relinquish his love of Füsun which he feels the only thing of worth in his life. (At his lowest ebb, he lies in bed, licking the door knob, which ends up in the museum, because she has touched it countless times.) The Museum of Innocence is about Turkey too, tugged between european and middle-eastern cultures. (The recent history of the country makes the novel even more poignant in this regard.) It’s about Istanbul and its inhabitants, aspiring to be modern and cosmopolitan, yet unable to let go of old ways which feel more familiar and authentic. It’s about how men and women regard each other. Most of all, the novel is about how can we live with the knowledge that each treasured moment is doomed to become the past? For Kemal, the everyday clutter of life seals his memories in amber – saving these objects becomes a way to cling on to past happiness.

Pamuk’s wry protagonist can seem at times like the last Romantic hero. He can equally be seen as a sad, pathetic fool who has wasted his life (yet what else was Goethe’s Werther?) Kemal also has much in common with Nabokov’s Humbert in Lolita – a charming, self-deprecating narrator who invites sympathy for his obsessive love. Like Humbert, Kemal’s charm distracts the reader from his actual treatment of the woman he idolises. Like Humbert with Lolita, Kemal projects his emotional obsession onto Füsun without consideration of what she actually feels or thinks or wants herself. Both women are denied any possibility of independent being by the protagonists until the very end. In Füsun’s case, she can only escape Kemal and declare independence by her own death. Through his museum, Kemal even attempts to control her after she is dead, packing it with his memories alone.

Iris Murdoch once wrote that love is the remarkable discovery that another person actually exists beside oneself. If this is love – unlike the one-sided passion of the Japanese folk tale – then Kemal remains a stranger to it until the end. This is the real tragedy at the heart of the novel.

In a curious twist of fiction and fact, Pahuk has bought a house in Istanbul and turned it into the Museum of Memory of the novel. In 2014, it won the European Museum of the Year Award.

Image: Photograph of Eve Cohen

Bradley on the Beach

Clade: cover

CLADE by James Bradley (Penguin, 2015)

Note: plot disclosures.

Climate change. Genetic engineering. ADHD. How to be a parent of teenagers in the twenty-first century. The mysterious worldwide collapse of bee colonies . . .  Add a discussion about the Apple Watch, and a list of topics covered in James Bradley’s new novel would read like the front page of The Guardian.

Writing a serious novel that draws overtly on contemporary social concerns is a fraught project at the best of times. To begin with, it can date badly within a few years; issues that consume the chattering classes’ attention soon become out-of-date because of inevitable changes in circumstance or attitude. (When did you last discuss George Bernard Shaw or CP Snow over the dinner table?) There is, too, the thumping drum beat of Good Intentions which all too often drowns out any subtler artistic music. Even Ian McEwan did not escape this trap in Solar, his 2010 comic novel set against a background of global warming.

What to make, then, of Clade, James Bradley’s latest novel, his first since The Resurrectionist (2007). The tale opens with Adam, a scientist at an Antarctic research base, calling his wife, Ellie, from the snow-covered shoreline. They are going through the frustrations of conceiving by artificial insemination. Adam is researching climate change. ‘The planet was on a collision course with disaster,’ we are told. ‘In the United States and India, floods covered millions of square kilometres; in Africa and Europe the heat was becoming ever more intense.’

For some reason I’m reminded of Neville Shute’s On the Beach, unforgettably filmed in Melbourne in 1959. With the rest of the world destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, scientist Julian Osborn (played by Fred Astaire) realises that as soon as winds from the northern hemisphere reach the city, the last humans on earth will die too. Ava Gardener and Gregory Peck’s characters fall tragically in love. Others grab what pleasures they can before taking suicide pills as the radiation clouds approach. The film ends with a dead city: shots of an empty, windswept Swanston St, and a plea for nuclear disarmament. I settled down to read Clade, confidently expecting another tale of human love and tragedy set against an apocalyptic backdrop of climate change.

It’s here that something curious happens. Adam and Ellie have a daughter, Summer. With a turn of a page, time leaps forward and she is a troubled teenager. With a group of friends, Summer breaks into luxurious empty apartments to party as fires rage around Sydney. They take drugs and ransack the owners’ possessions and even their memories. Technology has continued to evolve even as the planet is racked by the effects of global warming. Summer slips on a pair of ’lenses’ and has virtual reality access to the apartment owners’ files and home videos. There is another lurch in time. Years later, Adam is in England to track down Summer and the grandson he has never seen, Noah. Just as he finds her in a remote East Anglian cottage (near Randolph Stow’s final home in Harwich, perhaps), a typhoon smashes into England causing catastrophic flooding. Summer disappears and Adam (by now divorced) takes Noah home to safety in Sydney. Once again, the story lifts off and whirls into the future. Little Noah is now an eminent scientist himself, about to make an astonishing discovery . . .

The effect of these repeated temporal disjunctions is disconcerting, as thought Clade were a literary TARDIS, unexpectedly whirling the characters through time and space into yet more unfamiliar situations. It is also strangely exhilarating, even when characters we are just becoming curious about fall into the slipstream of the story: Lijuan, the Chinese schoolgirl, Amir the mysterious beekeeper, and Meera the dangerously attractive teenage friend of Summer. We quickly learn to delight in the unexpected, while asking ourselves the question every author prays will form in the reader’s mind: What is going to happen next?

Another pleasure in Clade is the deft handling of how to describe future developments in technology. How easy this is to get wrong, falling into the trap of over-describing and revelling in self-indulgent sci-fi geekery. Bradley keeps his enthusiasm for the genre on a tight leash so that we barely notice the self-driving cars and virtual reality worlds or ‘vulchies’ into which some the characters escape. In this, it is part of  Bradbury’s deft skill at storytelling which carries the novel forward.

Most of all, though, Clade is a profoundly human story, in common with the great dystopian novels. Orwell’s 1984 is not simply about the dangers of totalitarianism. Camus’s The Plague is not about a disease or even the Nazi occupation. Clade, too, is not a polemic about climate change, profoundly concerning as that is. Like any novel worthy of the name, its true subject is how we respond to each other and the world around us: to our evolving relationships, to the inevitable death of ourselves and those we love, to the numberless baffling perplexities of being human – what Nabokov termed as ‘having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence’. At the ending of Clade – especially after Noah’s extraordinary discovery – there is an unexpected optimism and exuberance in the infinite variety and possibilities of life. The motif of the bee, so prominent on the cover as well as in the text, comes to mind. Ellie recalls seeing fossils of bees over 140 million years old; they had buzzed around the dinosaurs to collect their pollen, adapting to evolve and survive over unimaginable distances of time until the present. That too must be our future if we are to endure.

True love

Image

Do you remember the cartoons on TV when you were a child? In those surreal tales, Scooby-Doo, Tom, Jerry, or Roadrunner would sometimes be hit by a cannonball. It passed through their bodies, leaving only a neat circular hole which they looked at in comic dismay.

That’s how grief feels. A great hole punched through your body –  through your life – that makes you want to curl up on the ground, weeping and whispering the lost one’s name. Nobody said it would be dignified. We don’t pass through neat stages of grief either, as was once thought, but – at best – we somehow learn to live with it, in time.

Robert Hillman’s new novel, Joyful (Text Publishing) explores this terrain of love and loss with a characteristic blend of lightness and dark enquiry. Antiquarian bookseller, Leon Joyce, mourns the early death of his wife, Tess. Leon is no ordinary man, however, nor is their relationship conventional. Leon is, he tells us, quite uninterested in sex. Tess, on the other hand, is enthusiastically promiscuous. They come to an arrangement. One day a week she can do as she wishes with no questions asked.

When Tess dies, Leon discovers that she had a secret, slavish passion for a bear-like Polish poet, Daniel. She had installed Daniel in one of Leon’s country properties and visited him every Sunday. Driven almost mad with grief, Leon sets off to Yackandandah, to repossess the house, and to jealously reclaim her memory – to restore the beautiful, perfect Tess he remembered.

Tragedy and comedy are finely and sensitively balanced in the story of Leon and the people he encounters. There are a number of sub-plots which echo the despairing extravagance of Leon’s sorrow. The most moving and memorable of these concerns Professor Delli who is also driven mad by grief for a while following the death of both his children. Delli empties his house onto the street and ends up standing naked in the rain by a country road, like Lear on ‘the blasted heath’. He threatens to kill his wife, Daanya, and calls her by new obscenities every day. Daanya only responds with understanding and love, stroking his arm and saying gently, ‘poor Delli’ until he finally recovers.

In contrast, Leon tries to literally ‘buy’ others’ memories of Tess, so that only his own are left. He almost destroys the house, carving letters to her into every wooden surface of the house until it is covered, then attempting to set it on fire. Finally realising he can never regain the idealised Tess, he abruptly proposes to Susie, the assistant in his bookshop, who agrees to move in with him.

This is no romantic, healing conclusion. Leon is a monster of self-pity. After losing Tess, kept like a beautiful mannequin as the object of his obsession, he finally releases her memory only to attach his needy tentacles to poor Susie who feels sorry for him. Iris Murdoch defined love as ‘the extremely difficult realisation that someone other than yourself is real’. To love, then, is to realise and cherish that other existence in itself, with no reference to oneself. This is a discovery that the repellant Leon ultimately fails to make, remaining a prisoner to his own obsessive needs. In her own gaily promiscuous way, Tess was actually more faithful to him.

It must be said that the novel is sometimes tangled by levels of detail which ‘over egg’ the story: for example, the academic researcher who conveniently appears on Leon’s doorstep with the sole function of leaving copies of his great-aunt’s diary behind, which carries another echoing sub-plot.  Overall, though, Joyful is an idiosyncratic and imaginative novel which will move anyone who reads it .