Julian the Magician by Gwendolyn MacEwen

20140717_155257Julian the Magician is the work of a poet of the mythic, the magical, and the exotic: Gwendolyn MacEwen. Although she is better known for her poetry–and mostly, I suspect, by academics rather than the general public–I recommend reading her today. Her style is a “sort of powerful poetic mad half-abandoned prose somewhere between [Kenneth] Patchen and Virginia Woolf,” and is filled with mystical significance and humour. Julian the Magician is an early example of Canadian literary fantasy.

Set in a vaguely Renaissance setting–not exactly medieval, since Julian has studied Paracelsus–Julian the Magician concerns the travels of a miracle maker who believes he is Christ. He has studied alchemy, myth, and Kabbalah, but has dropped those disciplines in favour of sorcery. The work of a magician is similar to that of the illusionist, but more specifically, Julian’s art is “the means of inducing the state of suspended logic” (16). His job is to “[unscrew] hinges on all doors” that block belief and thus let his audience come to believe in his magic (20). The problem is that the people become fanatic about his supposedly godlike powers.

Wandering the countryside in a cart, Julian journeys with Peter, his young assistant, Johann, a bitter man, and Aubrey. Julian’s journey mirrors that of Christ, MacEwen putting her own spin on the baptism, the wedding feast at Cana, and lastly, the trial and Crucifixion. The difference is that though Christ was God incarnate, Julian is simply a magician, and does not want to be thought of as anything more than human. In one scene, for example, the audience sees him turn water into wine, but Peter is convinced that the liquid in the jugs is still water.

When Peter reads over Julian’s journals, which the magician keeps private, Julian’s mind is revealed to be … incomprehensible. His thought processes are intensely metaphoric, similar to his abandoned speech, which his followers struggle to understand. Gradually, it becomes apparent to the wise reader that Julian’s magic is an analogy for the poet’s ability to manipulate words and string them into mysterious meaning. The poet’s role is to suspend reality–but the poet should never be deemed godlike. If so, she/he endures the same fate at society’s hands as Julian and Christ suffer.

When Julian becomes framed for murder, a crime that could unravel the belief he has sown into a community, the only solution is to endure crucifixion at the hands of his accusers. Will the faith of the community be shattered forever? What legacy survives the magician’s death? You will have to read the book to discover your own answer.

“Without time and location,” states MacEwen in the role of the editor of Julian’s journal, “we cannot place his figure anywhere in history.” The historical period and place where Julian plies his trade is unspecific to make it universal, a reflection of all magicians and poets in all times. It is the poet and the magician’s tragedy that their revelations, filled with the greatest significance for them, become incomprehensible to future readers and generations. But since Insomniac still offers this hard-to-find book for purchase online, at least Julian the Magician can find that readership now, sixty years after its first publication. A new generation can now discover MacEwen and be initiated into Julian’s mysteries…

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of Julian the Magician
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of Julian the Magician
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Love & Sleep by John Crowley

Love and Sleep by John CrowleyThe sequel to John Crowley’s Aegypt (The Solitudes), Love & Sleep continues the story of Pierce Moffet’s quest to write his history of histories, a book that in which he will propose that there is more than one history of the world.

He must decide what to do with the posthumous, unfinished manuscript of historical novelist Fellowes Kraft. The novel still sits at the famed writer’s office desk, a book that Pierce believes his entire past has prepared him to find.

I feel that my labour over the last several years has prepared me to read Crowley’s Love & Sleep. Researching the philosopher Giordano Bruno and studying the life of John Dee for my historical novel Intelligence has given me the tools I need to appreciate Crowley’s series in a way I would not have otherwise. It is like Pierce and I are mirrors of each other. I can only hope to impart some of my awe-inspired appreciation of this novel’s beauty to my readers.

Alchemical allegory
Alchemical allegory

If you are looking for an Appalachian novel (that’s right, there are hillbillies) that includes not only a parallel story set in England during Elizabethan age, but also an account of small town life during the 1970s New Age movement, and, among other antique delights, an alchemist’s  allegorical romance, then you have no other choice than to read Love & Sleep, because there is no other novel that offers those elements in conjunction, trust me.

In 1952, when he is still a boy, Pierce accidentally sets a forest on fire while burning a trash heap at his uncle’s house. This fire links his life to that of a mountain girl, who he comes to shelter from her abusive mother, their babysitter for the summer. With his cousins, he makes a secret club called  the Invisible College, which swears to protect her. By the end of the summer, Pierce loses his innocence and makes the fall towards adulthood.

Switch around the numbers of this fateful year buried deep in Pierce’s past, and you get 1592, the year the Inquisition arrested the heretic Giordano Bruno in Venice.

appalachia

Suddenly the story switches from the past to the historical past, and we see, as if from an excerpt of Fellowes Kraft’s masterpiece, Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who wishes to announce a new age of the earth, arriving at the Elizabethan court during the 80s–the 1580s, that is.

Thrown out of Oxford as a lecturer for his controversial  Copernican ideas, which not only postulate the sun as center of the solar system, but imply there is no center of the universe itself, Bruno seems destined to meet the other great polymath of the age, John Dee. Sworn to an occult quest with his companion Edward Kelley, Dee comes under the spell of the angel Madimi, who appears as a seven-year-old girl to Kelley, his scrier, in a seeing-stone. Their devotion to finding out the secrets of the universe from the angels will take them to Prague, and the Holy Roman Emperor Emperor Rudolph II’s court, where an ailing Emperor is searching for the Work.

In the 1970s, the adult Pierce is without driver’s license, labouring to compile a book for his agent. It will tell the history of histories, arguing that the world has not always been what it has since become. History can be divided into cycles, where different ideas and philosophies of defining reality come and eventually go, in sudden paradigm shifts that leave those in the present looking back wondering. In the new age, the future is different too and the past is no longer the same past. The late sixteenth century, a time of religious strife and warfare and desperate uncertainty, was one age of transition, an time that saw the abandoning of magical ways of thinking and the rise modern science. Though gemstones and amulets in the old world may have been able to cure sickness or even sink the Spanish Armada, in this world, the world we live in, their powers are lost.

The 1970s is another age of transition. Modernity finds itself struggling with its own liberation from the past. All the presumably dubious developments of the New Age movement–climacterics, astrology, miracle cures, auras–find a fresh popularity. However, this New Age is not new in any sense, for these alternative sciences were standard fare in the Renaissance.

While Pierce labours under the debilitating pall of melancholy, a medieval disease afflicting academics, in the picturesque New York State town of Blackbury Jambs, old Boney Rasmussen is after the secret for immortal life. Kraft’s only real friend, Boney is obsessed with using the resources of the Rasmussen Foundation to locate an object of exceptional value. A Holy Grail, a Philosopher’s Stone of sorts, it is also, perhaps, the one thing Pierce needs in order to tie his project together: an object that has maintained its magical virtue from the passing of one age to the other. It could be a powder, a crystal, a stone, a liquid–anything. But it could be anywhere–or everywhere.

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

While the premise of Love & Sleep sounds like it appeals to those interested in yet another Illuminati thriller of the Dan Brown tradition, Crowley’s mastery as a novelist sets him in a higher sphere. I rank him among the great literary novelists. His style is so rich and multi-layered, every scene and image finding layers of allegorical or symbolic meaning whether through coincidence, conjunction, or parallels with the sixteenth century, that you cannot read Love & Sleep fast, but contemplatively, tasting the implications of each sentence.

Life moves in the quiet rhythms of rural life. Any big, celestial revelations which mark the shocking but cheap ends of scenes in The DaVinci Code do not draw cries of exclamation in Love & Sleep, so much as produce smooth ripples on the surface. Crowley’s style is fluid, the dialogue realistic; how he captures the stilted feel of real conversations is a magic in itself. I cannot fathom his process of plotting these books or how he plans them at all, but somehow, every note is there, each scene a verse of poetry.

I find myself nodding in recognition at all the things the characters notice in their world, things as ordinary as the pink bubblegum medicine Rosie Rasmussen gives her daughter Sam to cure her earache and the joy of what it’s like to sit in bed and pull down an encyclopedia on magical phenomena to read an entry on werewolves. Pierce takes such a book down when he was young, called A Dictionary of Deities, Devils and Daemons of Mankind, by Alexis Payne de St.-Phalle. (Whose name, by the way, is hilarious.) For me, this book was The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical Worlds of Harry Potter. While the latter book led me to an interest in the Philosopher’s Stone, and then eventually to my novel Intelligence, Pierce’s Dictionary leads him to discover the land of Aegypt. And I think that John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence will form the inspiration for my Master’s thesis.

Love & Sleep is impossible to faithfully sum up in so short a space, but I have done the best I can to explain how astonishing it is. It goes far beyond typical historical fantasy, into the realms of magic realism and literary fiction, yet it never drops the ball on historical fantasy. Aegypt shows how ‘Fallen’ modern humanity can nonetheless glimpse another world that once existed, a world entirely separate from our own shopping mall-ridden, consumerist, parking lot-favouring, entertaining-ourselves-to-death, hyperreal, media-saturated society, a world that was just as much of a fluke as ours is today, to gently paraphrase Brian Attebery. John Crowley weaves a story that stands apart from every other novel I know, accomplishing what many writers of the fantastic have only attempted to do: he shows the mythic resonances of our own twenty-first century lives.

John Crowley
John Crowley

Picture Credits:

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Appalachia: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2010/09/08/appalachian/

Allegory: http://www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1972101.htm

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje
Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Before jazz became what it is today, before it was mainstream, Buddy Bolden blew his cornet in the streets of New Orleans. No recording of his music survives. A famous musician in his time, his genius and the threat of vanishing into silence tormented him. The quest Michael Ondaatje undertook in 1976 to discover the genius of this unheard-of jazz legend involved meticulous historical research, but also–inevitably–a certain amount of fantasy. The result is a novel that runs like a dream sequence, filled with erotic moments that are violent, frenzied, and at other times, romantic.

By erotic, I mean the entire novel is a slow uncovering. Every sentence has a perceptive, tender, yet improvised quality. You might know Ondaatje as the author of The English Patient, which was turned a movie. Written nearly twenty years before The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter is the novel of a more rogue Ondaatje, who helped, along with other poets such as Robert Kroetsch, develop the literary movement of postmodernism in Canada.

You might say Coming Through Slaughter is jazz. I have already mentioned its improvised quality. This is not, however, a novel printed off a first draft, but a meticulously crafted set of poetic scenes. You should expect nothing less from Ondaatje, whose reputation as one of Canada’s greatest writers is an acknowledged fact. I tried to catch Ondaatje committing the poetic treason of writing a single cliché, but I failed to locate even one. Every phrase he says is original. Both Ondaatje and Bolden’s art is the result of a genius instinct.

Buddy Bolden’s quarter of New Orleans, Storyville, “had some 2000 prostitutes, seventy professional gamblers, and thirty piano players.” His jazz synthesizes all the sounds around this lively area of town, where he works in a barber shop by day and plays sweet jazz by night. In a similar way, Ondaatje’s prose-poetry seems to be taken directly from life–from its most tender, private moments, and its most public, eccentric displays of passion.

But how can Ondaatje write so much about Buddy Bolden given the lack of historical records about his music? Necessity compels him to create a partly fictitious character out of Bolden–though perhaps not as fictitious as Count Almasy in The English Patient. Ondaatje caused some controversy with his best-known work of historical fiction, for depicting the character of the count, who really existed, in ways that clearly went against historical evidence. Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the topic of historical characters being used in works of fiction at some length in “Home and Away.” Some poetic invention of the past is necessary in order to create the stories we treasure as a society and a nation. England would not have Shakespeare’s Richard III, Kay paraphrases Ondaatje as saying, if not for poetic license with historical characters. I would add that Canada would never have Ondaatje, if a certain amount of historical fantasy were impossible to ‘get away’ with.

Bolden becomes Ondaatje’s vehicle to explore his ideal of poetic genius, which he found in the figure of the outlaw, or the artist ‘on the edge’. Going outside the novel for a minute, I would like to quote a passage from “White Dwarfs,” a poem by Ondaatje that expressed his perfect hero: “Why do I like most / among my heroes those / that sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel?” Ondaatje is fascinated by the outlaw, especially in his early work (see The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and Bolden, while not a criminal precisely, is still on the edge, a lonely figure. He must come through slaughter–encounter mortality and his own imperfection–to reach that perfect edge, where beyond there is only silence.

Trapped in relationships with two different women, Bolden runs away from his wife, but later returns home, a changed man–more quiet, not his gossipy old self. But the silence is only a buildup to the defining moment of his history as an artist. He blows his cornet in a parade down a New Orleans street and, after a moment of musical ecstasy, loses his mind, vanishing among the stars.

Just as the poem “White Dwarfs” proposes that the meaning of language is found in silence, so is the significance of Bolden’s life found in his silence–the absence of his music. This blankness enables Ondaatje–along with his reader–to search for Bolden’s music, if such an ephemeral thing as music can ever truly be found, or artistic perfection ever attained.

Just as jazz is all about the silences you leave between the notes, so is Coming Through Slaughter all about the absence of Bolden. It is even about the physical white space on the page. Each scene is followed by white space, where, if we linger, we are left to imagine the untold. White space becomes the perfect mirror onto which we project our own fantasies of what Bolden and the other characters do between scenes. On one particular page, only the lyrics to a song, or poem appear: “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky” (57). And that is all we need.

Ondaatje dares to go places other authors don’t ever go. His tale of Bolden’s life and death confirms his interest in transgression. Bolden’s story is like that of Icarus: he flew too high, too close to the sun where no one could catch him, on the wings of his own genius, and plummeted to his slaughter in the ocean. And like Doctor Faustus, Bolden even made a deal with the devil, according to his Christian critics: he dared to mix sacred hymns with blues, a music very earthly and secular. What came out of that has become to be known as “jazz.”

Ondaatje finds a wholly original way to express this Icaro-Faustian transgression: Bolden was always so short, he writes, that he couldn’t reach the blades of the fan in his barber shop. But later, after his fall, the following passage appears alone with itself on a page: “Bolden’s hand going up into the air / in agony. His brain driving it up into the path of the circling fan. / The last movement happens forever and ever in his memory” (138). Bolden’s artistic pride has caused him to reach out so far that he hurts himself, like he would if his fingers struck the blades of a fan.

I must now mourn Buddy Bolden using the words Christopher Marlowe’s chorus used to mourn Doctor Faustus at the end of his famous play: “cut is the branch that would have grown full straight / and burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bow.” Transgression is the only way to achieve artistic innovation, yet there is always a price to pay for it.

Buddy Bolden in William Cornish's band. Bolden is the cornet player in the top row, second from the left, just above Brock Mumford on guitar.
Buddy Bolden in William Cornish’s band. Bolden is the cornet player in the top row, second from the left, just above Brock Mumford on guitar.

I think Coming Through Slaughter makes excellent reading, especially if you are on a bus heading to a Jazz Festival concert in downtown Montreal. You can also read it before attending a summer festival in your hometown. Even if you don’t like jazz, if you are an artist, or appreciative of good art, then this novel is worth a read. All art deals with blank space, whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, or even architecture. For the historical fantasy novelist, blanks spaces that show up in the historical record are also the perfect place to stage a work of imaginative, even fantastic, fiction. In a way, this is what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.

Which is why I leave you off, with this proposal: in addition to being antithetical, anti-real, and even heretical, historical fantasy, as we may see it through the lens of Michael Ondaatje’s oeuvre, is also jazz. The two syncopated rhythms of realistic history and fantastic mythology–one a linear, regular, pattern, the other free-flying and circular–give historical fantasy an edge. And nowhere is this phenomenon better explored than in Coming Through Slaughter.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

Photo Credits:

Ondaatje: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Ondaatje_Tulane_Lecturn_2010.jpg

Bolden band: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddy_Bolden

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac's On the RoadWanderlust. It affects the best of us sooner or later. We get tired of the same old routine, the same old house, the same old job, the same daily repetitions. We get tired of the cycle and want direction: a long, straight road that you can drive down with utter abandon until the ends of the earth. This desire for escape is universal. Just as we all want to see new lands, meet new people, sometimes all we want is a good read in a book to imagine a side of life we’ve never seen. Traveling the road of a text through a book that asks, “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” (22)

Any reader who picks up On the Road will get thrust into the world of the hobos, hipsters, fairies, hitchhikers, and okies that make up the generation of beat men and women who rebel against the sedentary life of late 1940s America. No, this is not a fantasy novel, despite the colourful names of some of the types Sal and Dean meet on the road. It is a novel about fantasy and fulfillment, about imagining what might await you on the open highway. It’s a celebration of the present moment and an exploration of a country whose infrastructure enables one to fly anywhere from coast to coast in a train, bus, van, sedan, convertible, or jalopy.  All avenues open, anything is possible.

Sal Paradise gets this itch to start moving after his divorce. A combination of the empty space he feels within himself and his new freedom as a bachelor leads him to follow Dean Moriarty, a man who digs every highway and every suffering, glorious person along the way. They chase girls, drink at bars, and break speed limits, taking in as much experience as they can. They travel in a matter of days to the Western lands that America’s settlers took months to reach by caravan, but their idea of the West is the same: it is paradise, it is freedom.

Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac

If the Beat Generation is a religion, then Dean Moriarty may be its God, and Jack Kerouac his prophet. Dean is omnipotent: he is a lawless, frantic container of sexual energy, who can convince a woman to sleep with him by uttering the location and time of their appointment. Dean is omnipresent: he can travel anywhere in America and has a knack of showing up at the perfect time. Dean is omniscient: he takes in everything he sees and knows the streets and roads better than anyone. He’s madly in love with the present moment, he knows time, and the world is not enough to contain him.

From San Fran to San Antonio, from New York to Nebraska, the duo crosses the States, searching like the questers of the Grail after what Dean calls It. They want to dig people who have It, the insight into life’s meaning, the drive that gives life its enjoyment and perfection. They search in hobo railway yards, Prairie cotton fields, mambo-playing Mexican whorehouses, abandoned California mining towns, and all over for this treasure. But like in all knightly romances, the meaning of their journey arises in the telling, and not so much in the result. Society continually weighs them down, threatening that one day, its demands will bring an end to their life on the road. But while in the presence of Dean’s seemingly infinite, mad energy, Sal has no room to doubt that he is in for the ride of his life.

on the road.

Photo Credits:

http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1742.Jack_Kerouac

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sur_la_route

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

the  OrendaWe had magic before the crows came.

Joseph Boyden begins The Orenda with an allusion to the lost world of Huronia that is suggestive of a certain insight proposed in John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence: the world was not always what it has since become. Huronia, the land of the Wendat nation, has since vanished, along with their magic ties to orenda, the life force the suffuses all things, living and dead. Whether The Orenda is a historical fantasy is debatable–there are magic tricks, dream prophesies, and prayers and libations of all kinds, though none or very few unexplainable by science. However, The Orenda is certainly a historical novel, and therefore invested in showing us a forgotten world and time.

Before the arrival of the crows–the Jesuit missionaries who first called First Nations magic unclean–the Wendat had a power that the Christian European world could not comprehend. This is what the Jesuit priest Père Christophe discovers while living away from the security of the settlement of Kebec, behind a Wendat palisade deep in the woods. This ‘primitive’ village is the primal setting of the Canadian consciousness, at least according to Margaret Atwood in her 1970s book Survival, and thus promises to be a gripping Canadian epic.

The first heart-stopping sequence sets the tone for the rest of the novel with the brutal slaughter of the family of a young girl. Snow Falls witnesses her father sing his death song as his skull is bashed in by a club and he falls, arms outstretched and blood pooling around his head. The man who committed the murder is Fox, brother of Bird, who is a respected war chief of the local Wendat village. Bird is at war with the Haudenosaunee, who soon pursue him to avenge Snow Fall’s capture.  As the war party trudges away through the snow, Christophe carries Snow Falls to safety and tries to win her trust.  Despite her rebellion, he sees her father, splayed in the same shape as he fell when he died, in the silver crucifix around the Jesuit’s neck. It is implied that she believes her father’s orenda has come to rest in the crucifix. This belief in the orenda is what defines her people as different from Christophe’s.

‘Orenda’ is the closest word the Wendat have for ‘soul,’ though it also implies ‘power’ and is a mystical force that unites not only humans, but all things–trees, animals, stones. You could also say the orenda is like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, which borrows ideas from world religion,  or Polynesian ‘mana.’ The difference between Christian soul and Huron orenda proves to be a vast gap that must be bridged if Christophe is to save the ‘savage’ Wendat from what he sees as the demons of Satan.

Though we see Bird and his brother Fox engaged in committing horrific violence within the first few chapters, we later see them at home in their longhouses with their families. We grow to see these characters as heroes defending their traditional way of life. Though in one sense, Christophe–or Christophe Crow, as the Wendat call him–is the antagonist of this novel, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and admiration for his intelligence and bravery. Snow Falls naturally draws our sympathy as we see her grow from a scared Haudenosaunee orphan into a grown Wendat woman who may one day become a seer.

The Orenda is a novel composed of various heroes who come together as antagonists to each other, because of their cultural differences. Even the enemy who we rarely see, the Haudenosaunee, Bird describes as being not so different from the Wendat. But if every character has a good orenda, then what happens to ruin the magic that the Wendat once had?

The Huron were forced to trade with the Iron People for what were once luxuries that became necessities. Was this another cause in the fall of Huronia?
The Huron were forced to trade with the Iron People for what were once luxuries that became necessities. Was this another cause in the fall of Huronia?

Joseph Boyden poses the question of who’s responsible with a beautifully structured tragedy. Is it Bird’s adoption of Snow Falls that begins the war that will see the end of his world? Is it the disease the Jesuits bring with them? Is it Christophe Crow’s clumsiness? Or was it just a few bad harvests? Boyden sows the seeds of the end in the beginning, as the Wendat sow the seeds of the three sisters–squash, corn, and beans–each spring to be harvested–or burned–in the fall.

At times The Orenda causes you to remember the present social troubles of First Nations by glimpsing the birth of the patterns of destruction that have assailed them ever since. You see alcohol, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and the way of regarding First Nations as “savage” that eventually results in the formation of Residential Schools. All that bloody and painful history has its origins in the fatal story that involves Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe Crow.

Even before I began to read The Orenda, I expected it to be a defining epic of Canadian history, an absolute must-read. I also expected it be similar to the movie Blackrobe. Indeed, several scenes in The Orenda appear to have been either inspired by Blackrobe, or the source material it has in common with it: The Jesuit Relations. But The Orenda goes deeper in describing the ripples the Jesuits caused in Canadian history. The past and future are present, says Aataentsic the Sky Woman.

I saw Blackrobe once in high school at the same time as I studied–too briefly, perhaps–the civilization of First Nations before and during  European contact. I remember learning about all the anthropological points between distinguishing the Algonquins and Iroquois, the genocidal wars the Iroquois won with Dutch muskets, and then New France’s reaction, or rather inaction, regarding the wars. Our schools spend too little time teaching about First Nations history. But The Orenda can satisfy your curiosity about any blank spots in your mental timeline. I personally find the old-school map included in the hardcover edition and the references to Huronia and Kebec (instead of Quebec) work wonderfully at alienating Quebecois readers who are familiar with their country/province so that they can be carried into the perspective of those who lived during that time.

The Orenda is part of Joseph Boyden’s saga of the Bird family, and the first prequel. Certainly the first to go back so early in the history of the family. I have read Through Black Spruce before, a tale of a comatose bushplane pilot (named Bird) who remembers how he dealt with a gang of drug dealers in Northern Ontario while his daughter speaks to him while he recovers in hospital from a crash, recalling her own journey to find her sister. It has the same stark, affecting style as The Orenda and it explores some of the social issues in First Nations communities–issues that we now know go back to the seventeenth century. Three Day Road is another in the saga, a book I may pick up in the future.

The Orenda won Canada Reads in 2014, was a Governor General’s Literary Awards finalist, and made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Orenda‘s orenda is strong. Read it.

Boyden
Joseph Boyden, author of The Orenda

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Photo Credits:

http://grou17.wix.com/fur#!__master-page-3

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage’s unnamed protagonist—an unreliable narrator—fantasizes almost as much as he steals.

A poor, starving Middle-Eastern immigrant walking the Montreal winter streets, he sees himself as a cockroach: the lowest of the low, but also crafty and able to survive. His awkwardness around women causes him to undergo what he perceives as a metamorphosis into a dirty, many-legged insect who will survive the apocalypse, when all the wealthy people in the world will die.

As he tries to romance Shohreh, the woman with whom he is enamoured, the self-styled cockroach tells his therapist Genèvieve about his life before immigration, that is, the story of his relationship with his sister and how he tried to defend her from Tony, her abusive husband. These therapy sessions were court-ordered after the narrator attempted to hang himself, and he tells his story like Scheherazade, to keep himself out of the mad house.

Eventually the narrator’s past begins to catch up with him and he must decide how to act against the powers of capitalism and religious fundamentalism. But the poor cannot be pacifists in the world the cockroach has explored. Sooner or later, in a moment of decision, the cockroach will rise from the shadows and drains of the underworld and rise against the upper world, where the sun shines so bright.

cockroachThough I once thought the narrator was a creep, stalking women and men to find their homes and steal from their basements, by some strange magic, the protagonist wins your sympathy and cannot fail to engage you. It may depend on your political views or moral expectations, paraphrasing Rawi Hage during the Concordia event, but the narrator is funny, witty, and can get away with anything. Evil and goodness coexist in the same man.

Cockroach, or so argued Samantha Bee on Canada Reads, highlights the difficulties and troubles surrounding the immigrant experience in Montreal, a hidden “underground” world that most Montrealers cannot see. But Hage’s novel is more than an informative Montreal Gazette article. It is the unreliable, yet politically radical vision of a trickster whose monologues in defiance of the hypocritical and the wealthy must have delighted Hage to write whenever he stepped into his alter ego’s worn-out shoes.

I simply love Hage’s refreshing style. His long, lyrical sentences are filled with extended similes and charged descriptions that underlie the narrator’s keen observations. Take the following as a metaphor for his desire to escape the trials of the immigrant experience:

“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing of Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts” (10).

The narrator’s observations also help him to expose hypocrisy. Take the narrator’s following rebuke against a Jehovah’s witness, which almost reads like a slam poem:

“You are a charlatan, standing there with your magazines full of promising images like opium. Look at you, human, all dressed up. You can’t be handsome without weaving the saliva of worms around you, without stealing the wool from the backs of sheep, without making the poor work like mules in long factories with cruel whistles and punch-in cards” (284).

Another wonderful feature of Rawi Hage’s style is his refusal to write dialogue with quotation marks. The effect is that we are receiving all the dialogue filtered through the narrator’s voice, which means characters may or may not have spoken exactly as the narrator tells it. This adds another layer of untrustworthiness to his protagonist, making you question everything he tells you.

At the Concordia event “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage,” which I attended with my father in 2009, Hage said that he saw the lack of quotation marks in his writing as not a radical innovation, so much as a result of his own laziness. He never understood why you would ever need quotation marks. It is this kind of unconventional attitude that underlies Cockroach.

Hage’s stylistic unorthodoxy adds to the appeal of his story, like innovative directorial cuts add to the originality of a Martin Scorsese flick. Particularly, I am thinking of Taxi staring Robert DeNiro, another tale of isolation and the underworld, which culminates in an act of violence. There is even a mirror scene, only when Hage’s narrator looks in the mirror, he sees a man-sized cockroach standing behind him instead of saying, “Are you talkn’ to me?” Is it any wonder that Hage was a Montreal taxi driver and lived in New York City for a time?

Anyway, I suppose I would have to read his most recent book Carnival, which also concerns a taxi driver, to find out about this link between Rawi Hage and Robert DeNiro. In the meantime, Cockroach is a great book for Canadians and especially Montrealers to read, if they enjoy a little trip down the sink drain.

drain

Montreal, view from Mount Royal.
Montreal, view from Mount Royal.

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Photo Credits:

Cockroach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokybrown_cockroach

Montreal: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montreal_Skyline_winter_panorama_Jan_2006.jpg

Drain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kitchen_sink_drain.jpg

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula coverWe all know the villain.

Dracula is an aristocratic vampire who lurks in a Transylvanian castle, emerging only at night from his casket in an abandoned chapel to stalk the living with unholy horror. He is suave, seductive, can transform into a bat, but is best know for his penetrating incisors, which he uses to suck the blood out of helpless maidens.

The legend of Dracula has seen myriad incarnations, from Tod Browning’s Dracula in which the iconic Bela Lugosi plays the Count to retellings in cartoon versions such as Looney Tunes and The Simpsons. However, it seems that no one incarnation of the Dracula story is consistent with any of the others. Each adaptation recreates the legend anew, including new plot twists, insights into Dracula’s character, and the victims who fall prey to him. But what, then, was the original horror that inspired these retellings?

Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

You might have first been exposed to this original version—as I was—in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie of the same title. Keanu Reeves plays real estate solicitor Jonathan Harker, who visits Dracula while on a business trip. The Count is seeking to buy a house in London, but entraps Jonathan against his will in his castle, where he gradually comes an awareness that the count is “Un-dead,” a being called nosferatu, or Vampire.

Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

In his novel, Bram Stoker opens with the same sequence. Jonathan narrates his story in a personal journal kept in shorthand as he rides on the Orient Express to Transylvania. At first, he does not know why the local peasants give him a crucifix and make warding signs against the evil eye in his presence—as a nineteenth-century man of a scientific age and a member of the Church of England, he has learned to shun superstition. However, the old Catholic rites of Eastern Europe later come in mighty handy, given the power of crucifixes to ward off evil spirits.

The first four chapters are so iconic, that to me they really are the story of Dracula, which we have come to know and love. That is, they show the classic plot that has trickled down to us through the media.

The tale then enters the everyday world of the friendship between two women: Mina Murray and Lucy Westerna. Mina is waiting anxiously to hear back from Jonathan, whose correspondence has stopped. She and Jonathan are planning to be engaged. Meanwhile, three suitors compete for Lucy’s hand in marriage: they are Sir Arthur Holmwood, next in line for the title of his father Lord Godalming, Dr. John Seward, who runs a lunatic asylum, and Mr. Quincey Morris, a Texan gentleman.

After opening like a lightning bolt, the story winds down to the pace of an old movie, slowly rebuilding the suspense. Things get strange when the Demeter, a ship from the Black Sea, crashes into the beach at Whitby without a crew, the captain reduced to a skeletal corpse with his hands tied to the wheel. A bottle containing an addendum to the ship’s log dangles from the corpse’s hands. After reading the captain’s account, we learn that an eerie mist haunted the ship during its passage, various members of the crew disappearing overnight without a trace.

Shortly afterwards, Lucy begins to sleepwalk. When she leaves her bed one night, Mina traces her to a graveyard. There she sees a strange, thin man kissing Lucy’s throat in the darkness. Lucy becomes sick afterwards, growing paler and paler by the day, until Dr. Seward sends a wire to his old Danish professor Abraham Van Helsing, an expert in obscure diseases.

Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing.
Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing.

Together, Dr. Seward and Van Helsing work together to find the root of Lucy’s illness and protect her from evil. Unable to discover how she keeps losing blood, they finally discover two small bite marks in her throat, which she had been trying to hide. Perhaps they were made by a dog.

As yet, none of the characters have an inkling that a vampire is amongst them, though Van Helsing is suspicious. However, hints appear here and there that Dracula has come to London. Once Jonathan arrives home with his journal around the middle of the book, Van Helsing puts one and two together. The various characters’ journals, telegrams, and letters—which tell their story—become crucial when the original documents are put together, forming a coherent narrative that at last convinces Mina and Dr. Seward that supernatural evil is afoot.

Van Helsing and Lucy’s suitors then team up to defeat the dark forces of the Un-dead, fighting in a chivalrous battle for the sake of the woman they each love. Leonard Wolf likens the Dracula story the legend of St. George and the Dragon. It is an apt analogy. In a quintessentially English manner, the vampire hunters unite in the defense of the women they love, like knights in shining armour. Mina helps out where she can in acquiring information on the Count, while the men assume the duty and active role of hunting the evil spirits. Alas, the female vampire killer is a product of another century.

There are several discoveries awaiting a reader of Dracula. Aside from the main plot, I had many pleasures in uncovering characters who are often skimmed over in retellings, or erased. For example, there is the sane lunatic Mr. Renfield who worships Dracula in Dr. Seward’s asylum, although at first Seward thinks he is merely zoöphagus, in that he likes to eat live animals, such as flies, spiders, and even birds.

Stoker establishes many of the tropes of later vampire tales. For example, the connection between vampirism and female sexuality is strong. Female vampires tend to be associated with “wanton” sexuality and adultery, as opposed to Lucy and Mina’s purer femininity, which inspires Harker and the others to fight.

Also, Stoker establishes many of the visual/sound effects movie producers would use in later years. This includes the enlarging of a vampire’s mouth into a rectangular shape before it bites, the “hissing cat” sound they make when agitated, and the Count’s ability to climb castle walls. It’s somewhat heartening to know these images were conceived in a world before Hollywood.

On my reading experience of Dracula, I would remind readers that is a product of the nineteenth century. This is certainly not Twilight. I, for one, loved the nineteenth-century diction and style, but I am aware that this style might not be for all. If you like Lord Byron, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Charles Dickens, then you will find that Dracula is written with a similar taste. Expect paragraphs of Van Helsing’s expositional dialogue, for example, and characters describing how they feel through speech.

Hugh Jackman as Gabriel (not Abraham) Van Helsing. Same tradition, but different age spawns a different interpretation of character.
Hugh Jackman as Gabriel (not Abraham) Van Helsing. Same tradition, but different ages spawn different interpretation of character.

Furthermore, do not expect the guts-and-gore style of modern suspense. Van Helsing is an old doctor, not Hugh Jackman with an automatic stake-shooting crossbow. As such, the “action” scenes are sparse. However, in what “action” scenes there are, the prose kept me tethered to the story and fixated on what was happening. The spaces between served to augment the suspense and sense of dread—not diminish it. Dracula is more of a haunting presence throughout the story than a character in himself, as he must be.

In conclusion, I still wonder how Dracula was received in 1897. Did people open its covers expecting the same kind of story we expect today? I doubt so, since there has been more than a century of theatre, movie, and TV adaptations of the story that are floating in our subconscious as we read. It seems so hard to imagine reading Dracula without any prior expectations or biases towards the Count and his legend—a difficulty that attests to how deeply Stoker’s legend has taken root in our culture.

Nonetheless, if you are willing to get as close as possible to the original experience of Dracula, then only Bram Stoker’s novel will be able to satisfy your lust.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
Bela Lugosi as Dracula.

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Photo Credits:

Cover: http://betweenthelines.in/2012/11/book-review-dracula-by-bram-stoker/

Bram Stoker: http://www.experiencewhitby.co.uk/exp_whitdrac.html

Van Helsing: http://fanart.tv/movie/7131/van-helsing/

Abraham Van Helsing (Hopkins): http://www.imdb.com/media/rm3643051520/tt0103874

Bela Lugosi: http://www.doctormacro.com/movie%20star%20pages/Lugosi,%20Bela-Annex.htm