Does magic exist in the contemporary world? Charles de Lint’s mythic fiction brings supernatural beings into the context of the everyday and Forests of the Heart explores the contact between ordinary people and what he calls Mystery.
Bettina and Adelita are sisters, both partly Mexican, partly Indios, and raised by their grandmother to see la époco del mito, the time of myth. However, as they grow older, Adelita puts the childish stories away, while Bettina becomes trained by her grandmother to become a skilled curandera, or healer. After her grandmother disappears, she comes up north to Newford, the imaginary setting of many Charles de Lint’s novels and short stories, and finds work as a model for a high-end artist’s retreat.
Meanwhile in Newford the folk/Celtic music scene that de Lint writes about so well is thriving even as an especially frigid winter threatens to upset the normalcy of the city. Miki and Donal are sister and brother, a musician and artist, who came years ago to Newford from an abusive family background in Ireland. Hunter, a man who stands out somewhat because he has no artistic leanings at all, owns Gypsy Records, a music record store that forms a hub for local musicians. De Lint provides copious details about the ins and outs of running such a store, likely because he has had experience running his own store. The author’s talent as a folk musician likewise brings an irresistible spark of life to his depictions of the musical communities of Newford.
But it is not into this community that serves as our introduction to Newford. At first we see Ellie, a sculptor, at work with the city’s Angel network, which helps out the homeless. Work is especially needed now that the weather is getting steadily worse. Our first impression of her comes from her heroic act of saving a homeless man choking to death on his own vomit, by giving him a most unpleasant mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Her companion on these outings with the Angel relief van is Tommy, a young Native American whose many aunts seem, to Ellie, to be mythical characters than real women.
When Ellie meets a mysterious man, who may also be a woman, on the streets that night who gives her a business card with the name Musgrave Wood upon it, she feels the first inkling of destiny beckoning to her. Is it a sculptor’s contract or something weirder?
Meanwhile at the Irish pub, Miki, Donal, Hunter, and Ellie grow suspicious about a group of dark strangers who sit in the back of the room to hear the Irish reels. Donal claims that they are hard men, made bitter by years of drunken Irish angst, and that it is better you don’t look at them for too long lest they try to make you their friend–an honour conferred by a punch to the guts. The weird thing is that Bettina, across town, can see them too, standing without winter clothing in the cold snow smoking just outside her window. And she grows steadily more convinced that they derive from the same magic world her grandmother showed to her.
It turns out these dark men are none other than the Gentry, exiled Irish spirits who wander homeless in the city. And they want their revenge against the native manitous, or Mysteries, the rightful spiritual guardians of North America. Their plot to assert dominance over the Mysteries will cause much destruction and draw all of de Lint’s characters into a test against the destructive potential that lies in the bitterness and darkness that all human beings carry deep inside of them.
Although this is not a new novel by Charles de Lint, it is more recent than his classic work Moonheart, a product of the 1980s. I strongly suspect the winter storm was inspired by the ’98 Ice Storm, a turn-of-the-century ordeal that blew out the power in hundreds of cities across the eastern seaboard and is still etched clearly in my memory. The conflict of the musicians/artists against the dark forces of the Gentry gains something of the air of the Fisher King myth, where the salvation of the land itself and its fertility is at stake. What’s so great about this is everyone over a certain age can remember this Ice Storm and feel that much closer to the myth. That’s part of the payoff of setting fantasy novels in the here-and-now.
The following is an excerpt from the presentation I made earlier this week for my seminar on (Post)Colonial Geographies with Professor Sandeep Banerjee at McGill University.
The young protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s children’s fantasy novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories asks his father Rashid Khalifa, a great storyteller better known as the Shah of Blah, or the Ocean of Notions,“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22) Upon being asked this question Rashid falls silent and finds “he had run out of stories to tell” (22).
So begins Haroun’s great quest to restore his father’s gift for storytelling, a journey that will take him all the way to the Sea of Stories, which is being poisoned by a dark lord named Khattam-Shud, “the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself” (79). On the way, Haroun meets an array of quirky characters who become his allies, including Iff the water genie and Butt the hoopoe bird (who don’t tolerate Ifs or Buts!). Haroun flies to Kahani, an invisible moon that shadows the visible one. There he travels the Sea of Stories to Gup City, capital of a kingdom of story-loving blabbermouths on Kahani who are at war against the Chupwalas, or “quiet fellows” (215), led by Khattam-Shud. He must help the kingdom rescue the princess Batcheat from the dark side of the planet, where the Chupwalas are poisoning the Streams of Story.
The Sea of Stories is a representation of intertextuality and the war between Gups and Chups is a battle over that initial question: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22). While the Chups are represented as bureaucratic functionaries interested in utility instead of fables, the Gups are defenders of the Sea. In TheEncyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute writes an entry devoted exclusively to the idea of an Ocean of Story. Somadeva, a Kashmiri poet, collected various stories in the eleventh century in the Katha Sarit Sagara—“a kind of encyclopedia of story types” (704). The English translation by Norman Penzer is the ten-volume anthology The Ocean of Story (1924-8). Like The Arabian Nights, The Ocean of Story influenced Rushdie. Clute takes the notion of the “Ocean of Story” to refer “to the current critical understanding that almost every traditional STORY exists in multiple versions; that it is exceedingly difficult to sort these versions into chaste stemmata” (704). Stories interpenetrate each other in patterns that defy linearity. Rushdie describes this effectively in his description of the Sea of the Streams of Story:
“it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. […] the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves […] It was not dead but alive” (72).
The Sea is an intertextual body of water. However, when the Chups, who disbelieve in the utility of Story, poison the Sea, these Streams of Stories, about rescued princesses, for example, become scrambled and filled with horrors, until they are meaningless. Haroun’s mission is to stop the poison and let the Sea replenish itself.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories opens in Rashid and Haroun’s home in the Valley of K, in a “sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name” (15). Rashid mentions that the Valley of K used to be called “Kosh-Mar,” which is from the language of “Franj, which is no longer spoken in these parts” (40). A cauchemar in French is a nightmare, but it also sounds like câche-mer, or “the place that hides a Sea” (40). This nightmare-country is full of “sadness factories” and “ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts,” a magical image of an unevenly developed social reality. Mr. Sengupta, who is a clerk working for the City Corporation, “hated stories and storytellers” even though Rashid has a use in society: “the politicos needed Rashid to help them win the people’s votes” because he gains the people’s confidence by admitting “everything he told them was completely untrue” (20). As far as Rashid is concerned, the falseness of stories is what makes them useful.
Trouble starts, however, when Mr. Sengupta runs off with Rashid’s wife Soraya, spurring the initial question asked by Haroun. The rest of this book review essay is an inquiry into this question: what use are false stories? Rushdie intimately connects the prospect of storytelling and art to the Khalifas’ desire for their home town’s improvement, suggesting that art may indeed have a significant use—inspiring social change.
First, thought, I would like to speak more particularly about one intertext in particular that is involved in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun meets two talking and singing guppy fish in the Sea. Their names are Goopy and Bagha, a male and a female fish, but their names are taken from the male protagonists of Satyajit Ray’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). This Bengali film is furthermore based on a short story written by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray, who participated in a Bengali cultural renaissance, according to Wikipedia.
The film explores the redemptive and magical power of art. The film begins with Gopinath, seen as eccentric in his village for his love of the tanpura and his avoidance of hand labour, being exiled by the local king. On the road he meets Bagha, a drummer, and they both adopt the title ‘Bayen,’ meaning musician. Encountering a tiger in the forest, they are saved by a band of ghosts, who then grant them three boons: clothing and food, the ability to travel, and the ability to entertain. Goopy and Bagha gain the favour of the King of Shundi, whose peasant population is stricken dumb by an epidemic, similar to how the Chupwalas are speechless in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Using magic to subvert the Empire of Halla’s attempt to invade Shundi, Goopy and Bagha capture the King of Halla, who is the good King’s long lost brother. Soon after the people of Shundi have their speech restored, thanks to a magic potion. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as in Goopy Gyne Bagha Bynne, the power of art—storytelling and music—is seen as highly redemptive, inspiring social change and peace.
John Clute makes the connection between Story and music in works of fantasy more explicit:
“In modern fantasy, when they are performing their task, protagonists or COMPANIONS who are musicians […] tend to become LIMINAL BEINGS, and articulate in memorable form the relationship between different levels of being in the world. They put into a form […] some version of the essential STORY being enacted, which may be memorized, or followed, or obeyed” (673).
Goopy and Bagha embody this role in the film. They mediate the social relations between the lower classes and the upper classes as well as between the Kingdoms of Shundi and Halla. Furthermore each of their actions move the story towards the fairy-tale ending that culminates in their royal marriages to the daughters of the Kings of Shundi and Halla. This happy ending represents the healing of the brokenness of the land and alludes to the potential founding of a utopia in the new union between the kingdoms.
Yet what useis Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a story that is not even true? What useis Haroun and the Sea of Stories? What useare the ageless fairy tales that lay behind these modern forms? To the literary scholar, it is useful to consider how such “essential” stories are in fact mediating the historical moment and the social relations that produced them (Clute 673). But literary scholars are not the typical audience of such books. How could there be a social benefit from these stories, which do not even offer accurate, realist representations of social reality? Is magical realism and fantasy a mystification, a distraction?
The question I would like to direct our attention to can be whittled down to the following: do Ray and Rusdie affirm the possibility that immaterial labour, which is what storytelling arguably is, can bring about a utopia? Do the stories themselves have any agency, or is the potential for social revolution limited to the labours of the artist?
Walter Benjamin in “The Author as Producer” invites us to consider the author’s position is society rather than, say, the attitude of the artist or his/her text towards the relations of production, which are defined by capitalism and comodification (222). The movie and the children’s novel are part of a real social system. Furthermore, they are disseminating a representation of a pair of musicians and an old storyteller who must survive within the social milieu of their own fictional society. Benjamin argues that a revolutionary writer is in effect counterrevolutionary if he or she has a mere attitude of solidarity with the proletariat, but not in terms of his or her position as a producer (226). Though the author may belong to a higher, privileged class by virtue of education, he/she can still use this education to help the working class.
Rushdie’s position within society as an intellectual embedded in the capitalist system of the book market seems to be at odds with the theme of social restoration in his novel. However, perhaps Rushdie has done as much as he can do while still embedded in the system of capitalism. At any rate, it seems rather clear that capitalism helps in the dissemination of Haroun and the Sea of Stories and the in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne‘s wide distribution. The relationship between artist and capitalism is not necessarily limited to the notion of ‘selling out.’
Frederic Jameson is a historical materialist theorist of utopia and science fiction. One of his theories, which he expresses in “The Politics of Utopia,” is that representations of utopia mediate the current social structure of the society that produces that representation. This simply means that when you read a utopia–for example, the society in Divergent–it says more about the society that imagined the utopia than it does about the possibility of actually realizing it.
Looking at Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I speculate that it is partly Rushdie’s reaction against the fatwa uttered against him by Ayatollah Khomeni for his writing of The Satanic Verses, which he published just before Haroun. Are we talking about a utopian society more accepting of fable, dreams, and the value of untruth? Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, on the other hand, might be a comment on the utopian horizon India imagined for itself at the beginning of the rise of its national film industry, which is nowadays in competition with Hollywood.
Both Rushdie’s book and Ray’s film are works that celebrate culture and imagine the greatest possible society will arise in a world that tolerates, sponsors, and embraces the arts and all that art represents. But in the unequal distribution of power in the global market and between the classes of society, can cultural utopia–not the existence of one but the existence of a representation of one, which might be all that is possible with the concept of utopia–change our lived, socio-economic reality?
I highly doubt that it can do so on its own. But by inspiring people to be agents of change, I think these authors are trying to suggest that it can.
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 Slaughteris 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.
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.
For Black History Month, I thought I’d share a Canadian poet whose lush, cadenced verse is like Nova Scotian blues. I’m talking about Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke.
I read it studying Can lit with Professor Robert Lecker in my last semester at McGill and we had fascinating discussions in class.
Some background: Whylah Falls describes a story set in Africadia, which is Clarke’s name for black Nova Scotia. Africadians are descendents of freed Loyalist slaves who fled the American colonies during the Revolution in 1783 and wound up in Nova Scotia, where they set down roots. Although I recognized “Africadia,” which sounds like “Africville,” from the headlines, I was unaware of how deep the roots of this Nova Scotian African-Canadian community really went. Clarke makes it his duty to represent Africadians, who were an illiterate people, in his expertly crafted verse.
The conflicts–internal and external to the poet–which Clarke tackles are one of the many things that are interesting about Whylah Falls (at least from an academic standpoint). But if you took it off the shelf and read it, you might be confused about what genre it is.
Sure, it is partly poetry–but it also has several prose pieces. The table of contents is divided into Cantos like the epic poems of old, under headings like “The Adoration of Shelley” and “The Trial of Saul.” The front matter also contains a dramatis personae list of main characters, in the style of the Renaissance drama folio. This makes no mention of the blurred, grainy photographs he includes throughout the volume.
Basically, Clarke has written a classical epic about Africadia, combining the “white” tradition of the “great poets” with the more intuitive cadences of blues jazz.
Is he crazy for attempting such a mixture of genres? Before you answer, you must consider that Clarke is such a master poet that he is well capable of answering this ambitious challenge.
His rhythm and style–which for him are inseparable–form a syncopated song that follows the cadence of jazz progressions. Although I am no music know-it-all, someone in class mentioned that the scansion of his lines match certain jazz rhythms. This achieves an unforgettable effect in his love poetry, which flows with allusions to the most romantic book in the Bible, the Song of Solomon. (Which even I borrowed from, last Valentine’s day)
Whylah Falls follows a man returning to his home after being educated abroad. The opening stanza of his first poem sets the mood for the book:
“At eighteen, I thought the Sixhiboux wept.
Five years younger, you were lush, beautiful
Mystery; your limbs–scrolls of deep water.
Before your home, lost in roses, I swooned,
Drunken in the village of Whylah Falls,
And brought you apple blossoms you refused,
Wanting Hank Snow woodsmoke blues and dried smelts,
Wanting some milljerk’s dumb, unlettered love.”
The way Clarke breaks each line and the diverse, evocative vocabulary are testament to his mastery of language. As you might have guessed, his book is not only filled with love poetry dedicated to people, but to the place of Whylah Falls itself and the river that runs through it.
Whylah Fall‘s characters are also brilliantly inspiring, the salt of the earth, so to speak. Who could forget the following description of Cora in the kitchen?
Cooking is faith. Cora opens her antique cookbook, a private bible, enumerating Imperial measures, English orders,–pinches, pecks, cups, teaspoons, of this or that–and intones, “I create not food but love. The table is community. Plates are round rooves; glasses, iced trees; cutlery, silver streams.”
This alchemy of cooking is only possible in Whylah Falls. Even if you do not think you are likely to pick up a book about an African-Canadian minority group in Nova Scotia, you can still see that the imagery in its vital power can awaken the soul.
The story of Whylah Falls eventually centers around the shooting death of Othello Clemence, whose murderer is acquitted on self-defense. The fake newspaper clippings Clarke includes are brilliant and funny, showing a more humorous face to our poet. But his poems about the murder’s effect on the community blend beauty with violence to produce an elegiac effect:
“His breath went emergency in his lungs,
His felled heart grasped impossibly at light;
A thrown bouquet, he dropped softly to earth.
Torn from sweet oxygen, O wilted fast.”
Ranging from the mournful to the humorous, the sassy to the extravagant, and the sensual to the religious, Whylah Falls has something for every reader this Black History Month. If you read it on Valentine’s Day, you have the added benefit of reading some of this luscious verse to your beloved. Just remember that “the language we swill with loneliness is liquor, is love, a turmoil in the bones.”
Excerpts are from: “The River Pilgrim: a letter,” “How to Live in a Garden,” “Eulogy,” and “I Love You/More than Words.”