The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient

The following is an update of an essay I submitted to a class on Michael Ondaatje taught by Prof. Robert Lecker at McGill. The English Patient, especially after it was transformed into a movie, ignited a controversy about historical representation. Was it ethical to rewrite the death of marginal desert explorer László Almásy by having him burn in a fiery plane crash? The ethics of Ondaatje’s rewriting of history was under particular questioning because of Almásy’s choice to join the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II. His actions had consequences, to paraphrase the thief Caravaggio in the film. Are there any limits to an author or a director’s freedom when they deal with historical subject matter? This is a question that haunts not only makers of historical films and writers of historical novels, but writers of historical fantasy, such as Guy Gavriel Kay. Fantasy makes no claim to represent reality, which makes it a ‘safer’ mode in which to depict events that reflect, but do not actually depict, primary-world history. Although Ondaatje seems to reject the easy road of fantasy, Kay mounts a convincing case that fantasy can universalize a historical moment to make it applicable to multiple contexts.

Almasy
Almásy

 

“The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient

.

Under accusations that he had distorted the life of Hugarian aviator and explorer László Almásy while writing The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending his art. In his article “Michael Ondaatje Responds,” Doug Saunders quotes his defense:

From Homer to Richard III to the present, literature has based its imaginative stories on historical event. [] If a novelist or dramatist or filmmaker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works, or it just might be safer for those artists to resort to cartoons and fantasy. (qtd. in Tötösy)1

Ondaatje transforms the marginal but real figure of Almásy into the burned-out ‘English’ patient, a victim of a fiery plane crash. Almásy’s fictionalization distorts the reader’s perception of historical fact. Yet Ondaatje desires to depict the private lives of historical figures through ‘the truth of fiction.’ This postmodern approach to novel writing defies the strictures of mimetic, bourgeois representations of history, while rejecting historical fantasy, which transcends the issues at the heart of the Almásy controversy. Like Ondaatje, historical fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-mimetic aesthetic dramatizes the relationship between the private and the historical. While Kay humbly admits the impossibility of knowing the private lives of historical figures, Ondaatje insists on explicit historical references, which add deeper meaning to the innermost emotions of his characters.

In a keynote speech delivered in Toronto, Kay refers explicitly to The English Patient and the Count Almásy controversy when he asks the provocative question, “Are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?” The value of artistic freedom must be weighed against the danger of “political propaganda,” which constitutes such works as the Tudor play Richard III. Kay also raises the issue of whether “privacy or respect for lives lived” should be a factor in a novelist’s ethical considerations while fictionalizing historical characters, asking “If they are uttely obscure—like Almasy [sic]—can we do it?” If such depictions do imply a violation of privacy, then Ondaatje pays slight regard to those limits. For example, Almásy died not in Tuscany after a plane crash in the desert, as the novel suggests, but in Salzburg, where he was “appointed head of the Desert Institute in Cairo” just before his death in 1951 (Tötösy 3). If, for example, Ondaatje had rewritten Ghandi’s death instead of Almásy’s, whose biographical details remain obscure for most readers, the controversy surrounding The English Patient would have become a scandle. But can Almásy’s obscurity alone permit Ondaatje to indulge in a historical fantasy?

Critics such as Elizabeth Pathy Salette accuse the film of The English Patient of being “ahistorical” and even “amoral,” since it “trivializes” the distinction between the Nazis and Allies (qtd. in Tötösy 8). This criticism can extend to the novel. One passage states explicitly that “it no longer matters which side [Almásy] was on during the war” (251), which was the side of the Nazis. Furthermore, Caravaggio trivializes wartime alliances and makes a melodrama out of the patient’s adulterous affair when he tells him, “You had become the enemy not when you sided with Germany but when you began your affair with Katherine Clifton” (254-5), the fictive wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton.2 Taken out of context, these quotations relativize the ethics of alliance during the Second World War, which is a problematic effect of the novel. Within their context, however, the same quotations are really about how private individuals relate to the war. The side Almásy takes has great emotional significance for the explorer friends whom he betrays and to Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy who lost his thumbs in a Nazi torture while tailing him for the Allies. Ondaatje is more interested in individual emotions within the epic sweep of the catastrophe of World War II rather than what he calls in an interview, “that Ben Hur sense of looking down and encompassing the full scope” (Wachtel 256). He humbly refuses to pretend he can paint such a picture accurately, preferring to piece together “little bits of mosaic” instead (256). Understanding these personal relationships and how they are affected by an overarching event forms Ondaatje’s primary interest in historical literature.

On the other hand, Kay’s historical fantasy novels are able to avoid ethical pitfalls because he avoids explicit reference to historical events. In the sense that they create worlds that do not actually exist, Kay’s novels are non-mimetic; however, they remain intricately researched and founded on an idea of a specific time period and geographical region. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay invokes Moorish Spain during the Reconquista. The Islamic territory of Al-Andalus becomes Al-Rassan, a non-factual but reasonably accurate reflection of historical reality. A reflection of the historical, legendary figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (El Cid) appears in Kay’s novel under the name Rodrigo Belmonte. Using this manoeuvre, Kay explains, “I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his enemies.” Notably, Ondaatje does exactly the opposite in Coming Through Slaughter with regards to showing many aspects of Buddy Bolden’s personal life. Yet, he avoids the claims of biography, which he knows he cannot make, by including authorial self-references that make it evident that the novel is a self-conscious, imaginative construction.

Although Kay’s historical fantasy is not escapist, Ondaatje implies that fantasy would be a dissatisfying alternative to choosing a historical setting grounded in the real world. Douglas Barbour, who happens to be an Ondaatje scholar, calls one of Kay’s novels “the kind of escape that brings you home” (qtd. in Kay), since his novels serve as a kind of historical allegory for real events. This “allows the universalizing of a story” because it “detaches the tale from a narrow context” in history. Historical fantasy can be more ethically responsible than Ondaatje makes fantasy out to be when he rejects offhand the childlike alternatives of “cartoons and fantasy” (qtd. in Tötösy). Unlike Kay, the author of The English Patient requires the freedom to set his art in the real world. Although both Kay and Ondaatje are careful in their humility towards representing history, Ondaatje still feels that a connection to real events is fundamental to his fiction; in this light, The English Patient‘s historical fantasies about Almásy are more radical than the imaginative histories of Kay’s novels.

Despite the ethical dangers of historical representation, Ondaatje makes the case that his depiction of Count Almásy reveals more truth than lies. Ajay Hebel claims that his postmodern novel expresses an “imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been” (qtd. in Tötösy 2). This is “truth by lying,” a phrase Ondaatje attributes to Vargas Llosa in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel (258). Ondaatje claims that his departures from history are more honest than his description of facts: he tells Wachtel, “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (257). Rather than relying on written histories, which can be warped, Ondaatje uses historical personas simply as a “costume” or “mask” in which he can “both reveal and discover” himself (Bush 240). In this way, he avoids making truth claims he cannot make, accomplishing the same humility as Kay, but while using a different literary mode. History becomes the playground in which Ondaatje writes about themes that are less about history and more about the personal relationships that exist in private among small groups of individuals.

Lyrical and private moments in The English Patient are Ondaatje’s strategies of responsible historical representation. These moments serve as a shield against potential accusations of historical falsity. Ondaatje’s fascination with “minor characters in history, people who don’t usually get written about” (Wachtel 256) give him artistic space, since figures like Bolden and Almásy have relatively few verifiable facts recorded about them. The blank spaces of their lives can be filled with fictions. Often these lacunae are their personal lives, their private thoughts, their first person perspectives—how the ‘English’ patient relates his story, saying, “I fell burning into the desert” (5). “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from,” says the mysterious burned man (139), suggesting the ambiguity of his identity as either English or Hungarian. Almásy’s ambiguous identity creates space for Ondaatje’s fictional inventions, a kind of writing that is at odds with history writing itself. Intimacy and emotions rarely get written down in history. Discussing his affair with Katherine Clifton, Almásy says, “You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history” (145). Not only does Ondaatje give Almásy a voice he never had, but he claims that the evidence of the affair is in, paradoxically, the absence of recorded evidence. Such details construct an illusion of fact within the fiction.

Another layer that frames Ondaatje’s subject matter in addition to protecting his novel from the scrutiny of censoring historians is the Villa San Girolamo itself, a private, isolated chronotope. Hana, Caravaggio, Kip, and the patient reside in the villa, which was made a private space after the nurses abandoned it and as the front moved into northern Italy. It is a place and time where Ondaatje’s characters take refuge from the tumult of history-making events, a “tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). Aside from Hana’s personal writing, the events at the villa go unrecorded, making the fictive Almásy’s last days unknowable to any readers of the official historical record. While the four characters inhabit the villa, it is the perfect setting for Ondaatje to explore the human emotions and relationships that pass between each of them. Although Kip imagines “the streets of Asia full of fire” after the bombing of Japan (284), Ondaatje is not primarily interested in history lessons, but in “an interpretation of human emotions—love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace—in a historical time” (qtd. in Tötösy 8). Fantasy would make these human emotions less authentic, because they would be less recognizably connected to a time and place of significance for the twentieth century. For Ondaatje, being criticized for manipulating history is the price to be paid for the perfect setting in which to dramatize emotions.

Works Cited

Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 238-49.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. Toronto: Vintage, 1993

Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, ‘History,’ and the Other.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999): 2-12. <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ clcweb/vol6/iss3/5>

Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.

Endnotes

1Regretfully, I could not unearth Ondaatje’s original letter, or the Saunders article; I must quote from Ondaatje third-hand.

2A further violation of the bourgeois mimetic contract, the plot of heterosexual adultery erases the fact that Almásy may have been a homosexual engaged in a relationship with Rommel (Totosy 6).

Photo Credits:

Almasy: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Almasy_Laszlo.JPG

Advertisements

Joseph Boyden on his Identity and Origins

Joseph Boyden
Joseph Boyden

Monday at the D.B. Clarke Theatre in the Hall Building on Concordia University campus, Joseph Boyden talked about his identity and origins–both as a writer and a man of mixed Irish-Ojibwe blood. He was accompanied by renowned conversationalist Kate Sterns and Globe and Mail book reviewer Jared Bland,

“Who are you?” opened Sterns, a direct question to start off the evening.

Boyden’s most recent novel, The Orenda, won CBC’s Canada Reads competition. It was up against such worthy contenders as Cockroach by Rawi Hage and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. His novel Through Black Spruce won the Giller Prize. The Orenda also made the longlists for the Giller and Governor General’s Literary Awards. In addition to this recognition, Boyden is an activist for indigenous rights, in recent times taking a particular focus on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

He wrote poetry before fiction. He confided to me that his unpublished poems were imagistic, reflecting the highly visual scenes that are so powerful in his novels. Much of his older poetry was also song lyrics. In fact, he used to tour with the punk rock band Bazooka Joe as a roadie, in rebellion against the social conformity of suburban Ontario.

“I didn’t want to be a writer,” said Boyden. “As a teen, I wanted to be a singer, but I was so bad even punk bands wouldn’t take me.”

Boyden began to write short stories and longer forms after entering an MFA program. He expressed having a certain anxiety leaving poetry behind. “I was scared of novels; I was scared of fiction,” he said.

One day, he hopped on a motorcycle on an epic road trip from Toronto down to the University of New Orleans, which a professor had told him had an excellent MFA program in Creative Writing. He would have gone to Concordia, he said, ” But my motorcycle didn’t have snow tires.”

He showed up to the program with what he thought would become the greatest novel since Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, without having written any short fiction yet. He was in his mid-20s. His original title for this motorcycle road-trip novel was The Tree of the Lost. Then he came up with an even better title: Motorcycle Boy.

Sterns and Bland spent some time rubbing in the fact that this embarrassing first novel of Boyden’s was now public knowledge. There is something about young male writers, Sterns said, who want to write quest or adventure novels about the glory of there being nothing but the open road. I would personally have to agree.

My first unpublished novel, Battles of Rofp, also had a quest narrative and an embarrassing title (that no one could pronounce without curling their tongue and spitting into their upper lip). There is something quintessentially adolescent about such novels–about reading them and writing them. There is such glory and naivety about first novels, especially when a writer skips writing short fiction and goes right for the full-length epic. I smiled knowingly and nostalgically at Boyden’s honesty. Wow, if the author of Motorcycle Boy could come to win the Giller, maybe the author of Battles of Rofp can too, in  time, I thought.

Boyden described how his novel was received by his workshop group in New Orleans. His peers sounded like they were politely tiptoeing around more brutal criticisms, as workshopers tend to do. “[They told me,] ‘You paragraph really well and I’m glad you used 12 point font,'” he said.

His harshest critic “in a Lutheran German kind of way” but also his most constructive one, was none other than his future wife, Amanda. “She clarified for me what it meant to be serious,” said Boyden. He cut his long hair, and she encouraged him to write short stories. One of his first successful ones required him to look back into his childhood in Geogrian Bay.

“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” came from this mining of life experience, a story about childhood and growing up on a reserve. Since he was passionate about his subject matter–even more passionate than he was about motorcycles–and because he knew all about it, his workshop responded with positive affirmations. “They loved it,” he said.

“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” was later published. In fact, it was the first story I ever read of Boyden’s, since it’s featured in Robert Lecker’s anthology Open Country, which I bought for a survey class on Canadian literature during my first semester at McGill.

Writing opened new paths for Boyden and his family and friends to recognize the legitimacy of their Ojibwe cultural heritage. “It was also so exciting because I was exploring something my friends didn’t talk about,” he said. “It was a part of me I thought others wouldn’t give a care about.”

A cultural rejuvenation swept over his family as a result of his short stories and novels. One of the most touching stories is that of his mother. “She did her first Pow-wow at the age of 80,” Boyden said.

Recently, Boyden edited a limited edition chapbook that is also available as an ebook–it is called Kwe, meaning ‘woman’ in Ojibwe. He was contacted for the job and had a week to solicit authors for unpublished material that pertained to the social problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women, (although the topic wasn’t mandatory). Boyden did not expect big things, but within a week he had received submissions from authors across Canada including the inestimable Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Proceeds from Kwe go to Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters campaign.

When discussing The Orenda, Boyden wondered whether people would care about what happened in the mid 1600s, what with Samuel de Champlain’s settling of Quebec, the Jesuit martyrs, and the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) wars. But, as it turns out, it was a period in Canada that is highly relevant to the political, social, and environmental issues of the twenty-first century. “This speaks to everything we’re going through right now, whether it’s war, whether it’s immigration,” he said. “I trust my gut when it tells me to go back to the 1600s.”

What’s next for Boyden? Out of all things, who could expect a ballet? That’s right. No; he does not have to dance. Or sing in that punk rock style of his. The production is being staged in relation to the other initiatives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is trying to acquire documentation and testimonies of those who suffered in Residential Schools. Tina Keeper, a Cree activist, has asked him to write a story for the ballet.

It goes to show that Boyden’s philosophy is never to turn down an unfamiliar challenge. Advising any young writers in the audience, he said, “Figure out screenwriting, figure out playwrighting.” Writers who seek to earn a living are more and more turning towards other forms of storytelling, including television.

The biggest of Boyden’s challenges is also one of Canada’s biggest challenges: to change the way we think about and discuss First Nations issues in Canada. Even if The Orenda cannot change social problems directly, it can expose its audience to a healthier perspective on First Nations identity, instead of letting Canadians succumb to the poisonous us/them divisions that characterize the political rhetoric of the present government.

Joseph Boyden: Ojibwe activist, Canadian novelist and short story writer, ex-punk roadie, ballet writer. He has been many things and will be many more. Waiting in line to have my book signed, I hear him explain the eagle feather tattoos on his forearm to another fan. The feathers are cut at the nib to suggest a writer’s plume. On his right arm, there is a tattoo of a band that displays his Native heritage, on his left, a Celtic design of an animal that might have been dog, bear, or dragon. His Irish side.

I walk up and shake his hand.

My signed copy of The Orenda.
My signed copy of The Orenda.

6 Similarities between Guy Gavriel Kay and Michael Ondaatje

Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay

 

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

Embedding myself in the novels and poetry of Michael Ondaatje this semester in an MA seminar taught by Prof. Robert Lecker, I could not help but notice the similarity between the thematic/artistic concerns of the author of The English Patient and Guy Gavriel Kay. Both are great writers and both are Canadian. Upon first glance, this might be where their similarities end. Ondaatje has written postmodern poetry and literary fiction that merges with autobiography, while Kay writes mainly historical fantasy, although he does have one book of poetry, Beyond this Dark House. On closer inspection, they both have similar obsessions. I could possibly write a whole thesis on their similarities and differences, but why write a huge paper when I can just turn out a blog post?

Both of these authors leave me in awe at their poetic prose style and the infinite care and research that goes into their novels. They’re also two writers whose collected works I’ve come close to reading in full–by the end of the semester, I’ll have Ondaatje’s novels and much of his poetry under my belt, and I’ve already read all of Kay’s books. It’s about time we set them side by side and imagine them in conversation–perhaps at a round table debating art, history, and the life of the artist over drams of scotch (I hear Kay, at least, knows a thing or two about the latter).

(Michael Ondaatje doesn’t have Twitter.)

Without further ado, here are the 6 similarities between Michael Ondaatje and Guy Gavriel Kay:

1. They both use the same John Berger epigraph.

At the end of Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay uses the same epigraph by John Berger that Michael Ondaatje uses at the beginning of In the Skin of a Lion: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” Fittingly, the fact that both authors employ the same epigraph confirms what the epigraph itself implies. Both novels also happen to borrow from myth–Ysabel from Celtic myth generally, and In the Skin of a Lion from The Epic of Gilgamesh. (The title alludes to a particular line in that ancient narrative poem.)

2. One is a poet-turned novelist and the other a novelist-turned poet.

Ondaatje began his career writing poetry, from early works like The Dainty Monsters and the man with seven toes, to his more mature confessional poems in Secular Love. While writing poetry, he slowly made the transition into the form of the novel. He eventually became hugely famous for writing The English Patient, a novel that was made into an Academy Award winning movie.

Guy Gavriel Kay is chiefly a novelist, although he intersperses poetry when a particular character, usually a poet, has the occasion to write a few lines. My favourite examples of such poetry come from the Chinese-inspired poems in River of Stars and Under Heaven. He has also published a nice volume of poetry called Beyond this Dark House.

3. They are both interested in where the mythic intersects with the personal.

In The Lions of Al-Rassan, the relationships between Ammar ibn Khairan, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Jehanne bet Ishak–which includes both romantic love and friendship–are between three legendary individuals. Rodrigo, for example, represents a figure similar to El Cid, the national hero of Spain. Kay  shows how public duty places demands on each of these figures in such a way that it conflicts with their personal friendships. The result is sublime, believable art. Describing how five University of Toronto students deal with a new mythic world in The Fionavar Tapestry might be Kay’s quintessential exploration of the mythic-personal conflict, although I must say his treatment of such themes in Ysabel is more effective.

Ondaatje’s early poetry in The Dainty Monsters was intensely interested in the intersection between myth and one’s personal life: the section of the book entitled “Troy Town” attests to this, particularly the Trojan War poem “O Troy’s Down: Helen’s Song.”  When he began to write novels, he did not abandon this interest. Coming Through Slaughter treats the myth behind jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who went mad playing the cornet during a New Orleans parade. He writes intimate, sensual scenes of Bolden’s personal life that also imagine the possible cause of his madness–the archetypal downfall of substance-abusing musicians. Furthermore, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid deals with the myth of the titular outlaw, made famous from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls.

4. They are both obsessed with the figure of the outlaw.

Ondaatje’s first published novel was also an experiment in poetry. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid opens with the frame of an absent photo of Billy, and implies that the reader will have to assemble an image of this mythic character themselves. They are to do this extrapolating from the fragments revealed in Ondaatje’s multi-genre collage. This is outlaw poetry, and poetry about an outlaw. As well as being intensely violent and precise in its imagery and diction, The Collected Works reveals the obsession of an author trying to excavate an American celebrity about whom no one seems to have a full picture.

Guy Gavriel Kay finds his Billy the Kid in the figure of Yue Fei, a Chinese hero. In River of Stars, Kay writes the story of Ren Daiyan, who is a fictitious analogue for Yue Fei. An expert bowman who wishes to restore the glory of the Empire of Kitai, Ren ambushes representatives of the Prime Minister’s oppressive Flowers and Rocks Network, which is exploiting the empire’s starving poor. Kay speculates on the origins of a Chinese national legend through the figure of Ren, who eventually becomes a General fighting for the Emperor–a movement from the peripheries of society to the center that may lead to disaster (as it often does in Kay’s novels). The intricate attention Kay pays to how Ren’s story becomes legend attests to his obsession with Yue Fei.

5. They both wrote novels that explore the life of an original and mysterious artist.

In addition to the outlaw, Kay and Ondaatje are obsessed by the figure of the artist. Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is about Buddy Bolden, who many believe to be the originator of jazz itself. Jazz is also a metaphor for Ondaatje’s own style. Taking documentary evidence of Bolden’s life as a starting point, Ondaatje improvises the narrative of Bolden’s life in a way that mimics the solos of a jazz musician. Ondaatje strongly identifies with Bolden, at one point stating, “When he went mad he was the same age as I am now” (134). Coming Through Slaughter stands as perhaps the greatest jazz novel ever written.

Although Kay is less personally invested in the artist Caius Crispus from his Sarantine Mosaic duotrope, he still connects Crispin to an artwork in real life that fascinated him. A mosaicist, Crispin becomes the employee of Emperor Valerius and charged with the creation of a massive mosaic to cover the inner dome of his Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom. This project is analogous to the decoration of the dome of Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Can an artist produce a work that can survive the times in which he was born? Is it possible to create a monument that will stand for eternity? While Crispin’s mosaic is designed to withstand political tribulations, Bolden’s jazz is deliberately ephemeral. Yet both forms of art continue to inspire.

6. They each use a different strategy to depict the personal lives of historical characters.

Regarding this issue, Kay explicitly links his novels to Ondaatje’s. Do historical characters deserve privacy? What about living characters? Is it more ethical for a novelist to speculate on the intimate life of Elizabeth II, or Elizabeth I?

In his speech “Home and Away,” Kay describes the rationale for his particular approach to historical fantasy–writing narratives set in locales that invoke historical milieus but do not actually refer to such milieus. In this way, Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora become Sarantine Emperor Valerius and Empress Alixana. At one point, he compares his problem of blending the historical and the personal to the ethics of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient:

And then there are the moral questions. These emerge most strongly when we consider that ‘history’ isn’t just about the distant past. Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?

The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient. […]

The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss.

Kay’s strategy to deal with this moral problem is to present his work as entirely fictional. This extra level of removal acts as a humble admission that he does not know what historical characters truly thought during the time they were alive, or what they felt. It also enables him to weave a mythically structured plot that true history, being filled with random events, does not always permit.

Ondaatje’s strategy is entirely different from Kay’s, and yet achieves a similar effect, in one respect. He purports to show you Buddy Bolden or Billy the Kid in their most intimate moments. But rather than presenting a straightforward plot, he presents a fragmented, disunified story from different voices and witnesses.  Readers must suture the gaps between various scenes with narratives of their own. It is a style that lets the reader participate in the creation of Bolden and Billy.

Furthermore, Ondaatje makes clear in Coming Through Slaughter that his goal is not the mimesis of a historical subject–that is, the reproduction of a historical reality–but a more jazzed-up combination of fact and fiction. This kind of art serves as a mirror to his own self. “The photograph moves and becomes a mirror,” states Ondaatje, illustrating the transformation of one of the only surviving photos of Bolden.  Bolden reflects Ondaatje’s own psyche; the two inhabit each other. His improvised history of Bolden says less about a historical referent that it does about Ondaatje’s idea of the self-destructive artist.

Kay’s secondary worlds are also mirrors–although they are less personal to the author and more like mirrors to history. The patterns of history reflected in novels like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan continue to map onto events in the modern world–wherever national or linguistic heritages are being erased or competing religions wage endless wars against each other. This gives Kay’s novels, according to sometime Michael Ondaatje scholar Douglas Barbour, “the kind of escape that brings you home.”

In conclusion, I will state boldly that Kay’s novels are a ‘historical fantasy’ reaction to many of the ethical problems and artistic interests that concern Ondaatje as a writer. Together, these two authors share something more than a Canadian citizenship; they are two kindred spirits writing from two very different, yet nonetheless related, artistic philosophies.

Call for Submissions: Scrivener Creative Review

Scrivener Creative Review is calling for submissions. In the past, we have published poetry by Leonard Cohen, Louis Dudek, and P.K. Page. Today, Scrivener is dedicated to uncovering emerging Canadian writers and publishing established talent.

Writers from across the globe are welcome to submit. Scrivener publishes high-quality, literary writing in three genres: poetry, prose, and book reviews. Also, your black and white art/photography submissions are always welcome.

As Book Reviews Editor this academic year, I am in charge of all reviews for recent books. Book reviews should be of novels, short stories collections, poetry, or graphic novels. Scrivener strives to give publicity to deserving books from small Canadian presses.

To submit your poetry, please send no more than five (5) poems to poetry.scrivener@gmail.com. Each individual poem may be no longer than four (4) pages single-spaced in length.

To submit your short fiction, please send no more than four (4) submissions per author to fiction.scrivener@gmail.com. Works must be no longer than 2500 words.

If interested in writing book reviews, please send a short writing sample and a topic of interest for a potential review to reviews.scrivener@gmail.com. Reviews should be no longer than 2500 words.

To submit your art and/or photography, please send no more than five (5) images per artist to artphoto.scrivener@gmail.com. Art and photography submissions must be in black and white. Please submit your work in the highest possible resolution.

That is all! We will be publishing online and in a print edition in Winter/Spring of 2015. Due date for the print edition is March 9 2014. Good luck!

UPDATE:

Here is a list of books interested reviewers can read. Contact me at reviews.scrivener@gmail.com:

*New: Hypocritic Days by David Fiore

*New: The Women of Shawa Island by Anthony Bidulka

*New: Dancing Nude in the Moonlight by Joanne C. Hillhouse

Notes and Dispatches by Rob Mclennan

 Blind Items by Dima del Buccia

Date with a Seesha: A Russell Quant Mystery by Anthony Bidulka

Rabbit Punch! by Greg Santos

Butterfly in Amber by Kenneth Radu

A Traveler’s Tale by Byron Ayanoglu

All I Can Say For Sure by John McAulay

The Scarborough by Michael Lista

 

.

Leonard Cohen

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

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:

.

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

Fantasy, Narrative, and The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci

The Origin of SpeciesAlex Fratarcangeli, the protagonist of Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species, works on a Ph.D. proposal that could change literary academics: he chooses to analyze literary texts in the light of Darwinism. As its title suggests, the novel is about Alex’s relationship to the life of Darwin and his seminal The Origin of Species. On the road, he lives through various failed romantic relationships and tries to learn what it means to be a father. This journey culminates in the production of a Ph.D. proposal that I believe to be both fascinating and potentially revolutionary, if academia takes these ideas seriously. In Ricci’s fictitious 1980s Montreal setting, academia does not.

Having achieved an MA in Victorian Studies, Alex pursues his Doctorate and is assigned Jiri Novak as his supervisor, a man with a troubled past. He has an idea about what he wants to explore, but he struggles to come up with the revelation that will tie his thesis together: kind of like the way I am currently searching for my Master’s research essay topic. Not even Jiri, however, can deny the simplicity and revolutionary potential in Alex’s work, even if the institution of academia finds Darwinism a tough pill to swallow.

What emerges is the argument that narrative is older than humankind. As Darwin’s discoveries about evolution once put humans in their not-so-special place in the animal kingdom, so does Alex’s thesis put all of literature in perspective with biology. To paraphrase Ricci, narrative is not the hallmark of human self-consciousness, but a path to it, a journey in itself.

The masked booby of the Galapagos presents its mate with a series of gifts that indicate the male’s desire to give the female a life of happiness. This, and interactions like it across the animal kingdom, prove that “happily ever after” is a story that goes beyond the human.

A masked booby chick. The product of a fairy tale? Yes, as it were.
A masked booby chick. The product of a fairy tale? Yes, as it were. We all are products of fairy tales.

Bringing this understanding in light of my own research, I am astounded to think that Tolkien’s transcendent vision of the fairy tale’s happy ending, eucatastrophe, should be part of some biological imperative. No doubt Tolkien, who believed in the Christian resonance of eucatastrophe, would find Alex’s thesis radical.

Darwinism is often described as leading to the rise atheism in the nineteenth-century, a slaying of the ultimate Father–who was also Tolkien’s Father. Without God, what becomes of transcendence? Must narrative itself become arbitrary, without an overriding scheme? Is storytelling a denial of Darwinian competition and randomness in how it attempts to map order onto an orderless world? Is storytelling itself a fantasy of an order that no longer exists?

Of course, we see fantasies that have tragic endings. I need hardly mention Game of Thrones. But there is also the branch of historical fantasy, which blends Tolkien’s eucatastrophe with historical probability, often placing a moment of refuge, instead of an outright happy ending, amid a larger historical catastrophe, such as war and famine. When you consider Clute’s five points of the fantasy novel structure (wrongness, thinning, recognition, healing, eucatastrophe), and all that description of florid, healthy natural habitats in Thomas Convenant, you are left with the sense that this structure is tied to ecosystem. Fantasy magic is related to the “health of the land.” Is this a memory of  how narrative, like the structure of life itself, is “primal beyond reckoning?” (Ricci 400).

Could it be that eucatastrophic literary fantasy is a leftover from a protohuman mating ritual?

Suddenly, why so many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels–I’m thinking of The Lions of Al-Rassan above all–end with romantic couplings at the end becomes clearer than glass: eucatastrophe is itself a promise of sexual fulfillment. It is a fulfillment that often occurs despite the catastrophes of history. And in its promise of happily ever after, what the characters offer their beloveds is refuge: from the trials of history, the world, all the forces of eat-or-be-eaten.

What Darwinism implies about fantasy as a mode is a whole other ball of wax. Perhaps fantasy itself has a rather obvious sexual origin. “Happily ever after” may itself be the fantasy that spawned all fantasies, making fantasy itself older than mankind.

In fantasy literature, as in other forms of narrative, animal instinct lies at the foundation stone. When reflecting on how physical bodies of ancestral creatures came to influence the bodies of texts, Alex reflects, “Somewhere in literature’s dark beginnings there had to be real blood on the page, there had to be real bodies being sacrificed or being saved” (82). Even in the midst of his Darwinist reverie, the religious connotations in this line is intriguing. I believe it reminds the reader that Christ’s death–a body sacrificed so humanity may be saved–spawned a body of text. Perhaps in the even more distant past of the Bible, there were animal bodies whose narratives human beings inherited. Such creatures may have given us the greatest love story of all, the greatest eucatastrophe–according to Tolkien, the Resurrection.

Yet this “blood on the page” has a more eerie connotation: Doctor Faustus and his deal with the devil for knowledge. Perhaps Alex’s devotion to Darwinist ideas are his signature on a satanic contract. A hubristic scholar, Alex is beset by frustrations on all sides. He has sold his soul to academia and blames his partner Liz’s abortion on getting a paper published in Canadian Studies. Perhaps the Chernobyl disaster, referenced often throughout the book, is as metaphor for mess of his life. But if Darwin killed God, then Satan is dead as well, and Alex only serves to entrap himself in a cycle of guilt  marked by a fateful trip to the Galapagos islands.

Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species)
Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species)

Alex “had always seen Darwinism as just another of the grand schemes for making sense of the world–like Marxism, say, or Freudianism, or New Criticism–that proved all was right with it” (297), but his opinion soon changes as he begins to see the undirected life of Darwinian evolution for what it is. Soon he is offered a chance, perhaps, at redemption, when he learns he has borne a son to his Swedish girlfriend.

Eventually it is Alex’s research into sociobiology that sets his thesis in presentable order: “It was all total anathema to the literary purists insofar as they even deigned to notice anything reactionary–it was just biological determinism writ large, they said, the worst sort of regression, a heartbeat away from social Darwinism and eugenics–but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true” (398).

This theory goes against “everyone,” claims Jiri, his supervisor. “The Marxists, the feminists, the deconstructionists, everything that’s happened in the past twenty years” (409). Just as Darwin unhorsed the theism of his time, Alex threatens to overturn the other structures of significance literary theorists have built for themselves over the years, proving that literature is at base biological.

“I suppose it’s like Derrida,” Alex explains at an earlier point in the book. “This idea that there’s a whole structure in our minds that controls how we think. Except that instead of language or binary opposite or something like that, it’s genetic” (75).

If the radical theory of literary criticism contained within Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species ever builds steam within the real world of academia, I have a feeling it could change the landscape. Alex is one fictitious character against a conservative institution, but his theory is simplifying, like all great theories, including Darwin’s, are. Time will tell the extent of the consequences of evolutionism, Darwinism, and sociobiology on the field of literary studies. Personally, I cannot wait to see the effects of the ideas on fantasy literature.

Nino Ricci, author of The Origin of Species
Nino Ricci, author of The Origin of Species

.

Image Credits/Works Cited:

.

Ricci, Nino. The Origin of Species. Anchor: 2008.

http://ms.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

http://www.bellasbookshelves.com/?p=1696

http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=135c6779-b5d1-4bc7-b933-d19aeed03a61

 

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

.

Photo Credits:

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

Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley

aegypt

Hermes Trismegistus
Hermes Trismegistus

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

..

Why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes?

This question, and the  ideas that stem from it, form the backbone of what might be called the definitive historical fantasy novel.

Pierce Moffet wants to find a compelling book idea for a nonfiction history book.  He discovers that the reason we think gypsies can tell fortunes is not because they came from Egypt (or even India for that matter), but because our ancestors thought gypsies came from Aegypt, a dream-Egypt sprung from the European imagination. In the Renaissance, before hieroglyphs were interpreted, Egypt was Aegypt to the Greeks, and the inscriptions on the temples of that far-off country were suspected of hiding all manner of ancient magical incantations and occult lore given by the Father of Magic, Hermes Trismegistus.

In one sense, Aegypt: The Solitudes is literary fiction, with the bulk of the action happening among the fictitious Faraway Hills region of rural Kentucky in the 1970s. Yet, it is also a historical novel with elements of fantasy. A couple of scenes happen in Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England, and it even has a Goethian “Prologue in Heaven.” Except for one scene, in which a minor character named Beau imagines (with the help of drugs?) that he soars through the heavenly spheres, each of these “historical” scenes are chapters written by the fictitious historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, John Crowley’s alter ego. The result is an alchemy that gives “real” modern, American life a glowing significance in light of the “fictitious” historical past.

Winning the Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006, Crowley has made quite the contribution to American letters. His style feels casual and genuine, a smooth voice that puts you at ease in the pastoral setting of the Faraways.

The Rolling Hills of Kentucky
The Rolling Hills of Kentucky

After a fateful bus trip away from an anonymous life in the city, Pierce finds himself in the rural region, near the town of Blackbury Jams. We learn he is the sort of man who spends an inordinate amount of time coming up with thorough, even scientific answers to fanciful questions, such as what he would do if a djini granted him three wishes. But one question in particular begins to tantalize him: why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes? Little does he suspect that his scientific historicism and fascination with fairy tales will come together to form an intellectual synthesis.

Meanwhile, Rosie Rasmussen is trying to finalize her divorce with her husband Mike Mucho, and look over her three-year-old daughter Sam. She has trouble understanding her own lack of a desire to love Mike any more, wondering what she will do with her life as she consults with her divorce lawyer. Her escape during these emotionally troubling times is to read Bitten Apples by Kraft, a novel about a young William Shakespeare written in a realistic style. Crowley makes us read scenes from Kraft “over her shoulder,” writing certain scenes from Bitten Apples as scenes in The Solitudes. The historical-fictitious world of Kraft’s novels thus run parallel to the main, twentieth-century narrative. The result is that we inevitably compare the main plot to Kraft’s plots, noticing parallels between the past and present.

John Dee http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF
John Dee
http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF

The disaffected, modern characters who search for meaning in rural Kentucky contrasts with the Renaissance setting of Kraft’s novels, subtly suggesting that the characters repeat mythic patterns in their day-to-day thoughts and actions. The way Crowley weaves these parallels seems almost accidental, but given Crowley’s sophistication as a writer, it is clear he intends readers to pick up on these “accidents.” Whether they have deeper significance is up to the reader to decide.

Since the novel is about Rosie and Pierce’s relationship to Fellowes Kraft, an author who they’ve never met, and his oeuvre, it becomes significant for past and present when, in Bitten Apples, a young William Shakespeare enters the house of Doctor John Dee on an errand. (To read more on what I wrote on Dee, click here and here.)

During his visit to the old Doctor, Will gets a primitive photograph taken of himself from the camera obscura in Dee’s garden. He is then invited inside his home where he comes face-to-face with Dee’s famous “crystal ball,” a smoky quartz stone the colour of moleskin. Dee uses it to scry for spirits. Will says he sees something in the smoke, a portent warning of fateful visit from a stranger—but whether he really saw anything, or only wanted Dee to think he saw something, remains ambiguous.

An innocent enough reply, Will’s “prediction” comes true when Dee makes the acquaintance of Talbot, or Edward Kelley, a con man who claims to be able to communicate with angels. While he deceives Doctor Dee on his desperate quest for spiritual meaning, Pierce and Rosie, in the twentieth century, ponder their own searches for significance and love.

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

But what changes the game for Dee—and Pierce—is the (re)appearance of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a heretic Dominican monk in Renaissance Italy who develops a theory about an infinite universe while challenging the Ptolemaic world system. The heretic’s story is one that Pierce was familiar with since childhood. But never has Kraft delved into Bruno’s life in quite the way he does in the unfinished, untitled manuscript Pierce finds in the abandoned house of the late author of Bitten Apples

Pierce discovers that his whole life has been preparing him to read this one manuscript, a book that uncannily echoes his own intellectual journey to write a nonfiction book on the history of histories. The manuscript opens as follows:

Once the world was not as it has since become.

It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.”

As Pierce reacts to this stimulating subject material, Dee sees Bruno sailing for England in an attempt to flee religious persecution. Aegypt: The Solitudes leaves us off with the sense that the meeting between Dee and Bruno will be an epic meeting that could change the fabric of history itself. The first book of the Aegypt Cycle ends, as does Bitten Apples, with “THE BEGINNING.”

My personal reaction to Aegypt was not unlike Pierce reading Kraft’s manuscript: I felt as if all my research into historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, and even my novel, had finally prepared me to read John Crowley. I first heard of Aegypt researching the historical fantasy genre. The personal research I conducted for my novel Intelligence—research into Giordano Bruno, John Dee, hermeticism, and the Elizabethan era, for example—also found echoes in Aegypt: The Solitudes. It was rather like looking in a strange mirror, seeing myself reflected in Pierce and Kraft’s endeavours. While I cannot say with certainty that Aegypt will form the subject of my MA thesis, I believe I must reckon with it if I wish to continue studying historical fantasy.

The worst praise I could give for Aegypt: The Solitudes is that it is like reading a classier, finer, more intellectual DaVinci Code, if you leave out the thriller elements. Comparing Crowley to Dan Brown is unfair for a number of reasons, but if you like Brown’s thrillers of hidden histories and secret societies, you will have a natural affinity to Crowley, who is undoubtedly the better artist.

For those of you who love literary fiction and are thinking about dipping into historical fantasy, but are afraid you might not enjoy it, reading Aegypt will familiarize you with the ideas behind the best historical fantasy, while not obligating you to leave the confines of literary fiction. For those of you who love fantasy or historical fiction, then Aegypt‘s blend of history and fantasy offers a rewarding literary reading experience.

John Crowley
John Crowley

 

Image Credits:

John Crowley: http://www.momaps1.org/expo1/event/kim-stanley-robinson-in-conversation-with-john-crowley/

Aegypt: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greaves_Pyramidographia_1646_Front.gif

Giordano Bruno: http://johns-spot112948.blogspot.ca/2013/02/giordano-bruno.html

John Dee:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee

Kentucky: https://www.flickr.com/photos/anneh632/2691048983/