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Nandakishore

Sacred Space

Joseph Campbell said: "Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again." This is my sacred space, in the midst of a jumble of books of no particular denomination in a cavernous dimly-lit library hall, whiling my time away among the musty pages while the world busy destroying itself outside. You are welcome, fellow reader, to share this space.

Currently reading

Italian Folktales
Italo Calvino
Gilead
Marilynne Robinson
A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka There is an episode in the comedy sitcom Mind Your Language, where Jeremy Brown's motley crew of students drawn from all over the world to learn English tell jokes to pass the time. Juan Cervantes, the Spanish bartender, tells a hilarious joke: at the end, he is in stitches, unable to stifle laughter, because the joke is so funny. The problem is, it is wholly in Spanish, so nobody else in the class can understand.

This novel left me feeling like one of those class members.

This is the story of old Nikolai Mayevskyj (pronounced "Mayevski"), eccentric immigrant engineer from Ukraine who falls in love at the age of eighty-four with a sex-bomb, Valentina, who is thirty-six. Valentina has the only goal of finding domicile for herself and her "genius" son, Stanislav, in the UK: and the recently widowed engineer is an easy target. Nikolai's daughters Vera and Nadehzda (the first-person narrator) are appalled, and set about rescuing their father from this scheming vixen, burying their running feud about their mother's legacy temporarily. In the process, a lot of dirty family laundry is unearthed, a lot of distressing events take place, but true to the tradition of comic literature, things pan out in the end.

If one believes the blurbs on the jacket, the novel is "extremely funny" (The Times), "mad and hilarious" (The Daily Telegraph) and "...a comic feast, a riotous oil painting of senility, lust and greed" (Economist). But I found it to be nothing of the sort. The deliberate comic tone of voice that the author adopted was jarring, in view of the fact that extremely serious matters like the abuse of the elderly was being described. You can't laugh such things off.

Also, there is the matter of portrayal. All the characters were seriously lacking in sympathy: there is hardly a one there the reader will care to identify with. Many of the conversations (especially where a kind of pidgin English was used to parody the Ukrainians' imperfect grasp of the language) were narrated in a tone of mockery - and when an author mocks her own creations, how can the reader take them seriously?

The book Nikolai is writing, A Short History of Tractors in the Ukrainian, is included as a sort of metaphor for the journey (historical, mental and physical) of the East European expatriate engineer, interested only in machines, from the communist East to the capitalist West. Nikolai's reading of excerpts of the book is interspersed with the main narrative throughout the novel, which though informative, failed to meld with the main story. The unspeakable horrors suffered by the family under Stalin and the Nazis somehow fail to make the impact they should, mainly because of the author's insistence on keeping up a comic tone.

However, three stars for a worthwhile story, and a social problem well-presented. But one is forced to think Ms. Lewycka would have created more of an impact if the book was written in dead seriousness. There is nothing more distressing than a joke which falls flat.
The Real Inspector Hound - Tom Stoppard Agatha Christie meets P.G.Wodehouse meets Samuel Beckett meets Franz Kafka.

Brilliant!
An Inspector Calls - J.B. Priestley The proscenium stage has a romance of its own. You, the spectator, is actually a Peeping Tom, staring into the lives of total strangers through the invisible fourth wall. And what lives! For on the stage, time and space are usually compressed or telescoped according to the whims and fancies of the playwright. Passions are exaggerated on purpose, and action proceeds at an unbelievable pace; all the while retaining the semblance of normality (this is not essential for an arena stage, where the unreality of the situation is accepted by the audience from the start). The denouement is usually explosive, and you leave the theatre emotionally drained.

J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls uses the advantages (and limitations) of the proscenium stage to the maximum extent possible: to produce a play which is a very good mystery (in the Agatha Christie tradition), a social statement (very much like Ibsen) and a final twist which takes it into the realm of fantasy. I read the play, then watched the BBC adaptation… you have to see it performed to appreciate the power packed into ninety minutes of stage-time.

The Birlings (the industrialist Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, daughter Sheila and son Eric) are having a quiet little dinner at their home to celebrate Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, son of Sir George and Lady Croft. Gerald is also present. For Arthur Birling, the occasion is doubly joyful, as Birling and Company are the less powerful competitors of Crofts Limited, and the marriage will mean a profitable business deal as well as a social coup d’état. It is the pre-World War I era, and Birling is acutely consciousness of his social backwardness-something he is trying hard to rectify through his financial and political clout. He has been rather successful as he hints to Gerald, because a knighthood is on the way.

Into this haven of bourgeois comfort and security walks in Inspector Goole, unannounced, and goes about destroying it piece by piece. He is apparently there to conduct an enquiry into the suicide of a girl, Eva Smith, who has been admitted into the infirmary after drinking disinfectant. According to the inspector, the Birlings have a hand in the girl’s death. Initially Birling is haughty and superior; being still “on the bench” and a friend of Chief Constable Colonel Roberts, he can afford to be short with a mere inspector. Goole, however, goes about his business ruthlessly and ultimately succeeds in grinding them down, one by one.

It comes out that the girl has been mistreated by all of them. Birling initially fired her from his factory for organising a strike; Sheila got her dismissed from her subsequent job at a dress shop out of pure jealousy and Gerald “kept” her for a year at a friend’s flat, after picking her up from a bar which she was frequenting in her desperation. This last revelation leads to Sheila breaking off her engagement, and Gerald goes out to be alone for a while. But the Birling’s evening of woe is far from over.

Inspector Goole establishes that a couple of weeks before, Eva Smith had approached Mrs. Birling in her capacity of the chairman of a charitable society. She was pregnant and in desperate need of assistance. Initially she had lied that she was a married woman and that her name was Birling (!); however, the truth soon came out that the baby was out of wedlock. Eva did not want to approach her lover because he was an immature boy who is an alcoholic and had stolen money to support her. Mrs. Birling, however, was adamant that the baby’s father must be made solely responsible, and succeeded to influence the society to turn her out without a penny.

However much the inspector bullies her, Mrs. Birling is adamant – now that the woman has committed suicide, her lover must be dealt with very severely. Then Goole drops his final bomb: the culprit is none other than Eric, her son, an accusation which the young man accepts. He also admits stealing money from his father’s firm.

The family is in a total shambles now: a son who has committed adultery and theft, a daughter whose engagement has ended the same day it started and a father in the hope of a knighthood, faced with public scandal and disgrace. Eric is almost ready to murder his mother, because as he says, she is “responsible for the death of her own grandchild”. It is at this point that the inspector begins to behave very peculiarly. After rubbing in the fact that they all have got blood on their hands, he makes this speech and leaves.


One Eva Smith has gone… but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men do not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. We don’t live alone. Good night.


It is into the situation that Gerald comes back, and he comes with some welcome information – he has just confirmed that there is no Inspector Goole in the police department! With cold logic, he establishes that they have no reason to believe that the girl in each of the incidents mentioned by Goole is the same one – true, he produced a photograph, but it was shown to each of them individually. The hoax is confirmed when they call the infirmary and confirm that there has been no suicide that night.

It is time for a pat on the back for Gerald, a sigh of relief from Mrs. And Mr. Birling, and a jolly round of drinks. Sheila and Eric, though initially reluctant to return to “normalcy” are on the way to being persuaded when the phone rings.
It is from the infirmary. A girl has just died on the way there after drinking disinfectant, and a policeman is on the way to question them… and the curtain descends.


***

The depth of the play is truly amazing. Only when we encounter the conversation again can we understand its depth, and how cleverly it is constructed. The story takes off smoothly from a drawing room farce to a darkly philosophical tragicomedy, which is sure to draw the viewers into the middle of it without them noticing: and to leave them drained at the end.

Highly recommended.
Chavunilam - P.F.Mathews People know of Cochin (or Kochi, as it is called now) as the biggest city in Kerala, its financial hub; a city which has almost become a metro. The image which comes to the mind is this:





Whereas, in the not-so-recent past, it was nothing but a group of mud flats inhabited by a few hardy fisher-folk. These people are a self-contained world. They are almost all of them Latin Catholics, converted by their erstwhile Portuguese conquerors. Most of them are abysmally poor and many are heavy drunkards, helped on by the prosperous bootlegging industry flourishing in these islets since fishing became non-lucrative. Their entertainment of choice is the "Chavittu Natakam" which is said to be a curious mixture of the opera and the traditional Kerala art form of Kathakali. And nowadays, they are also a political pressure group who dictates which Member of Parliament is elected from the district of Ernakulam.







P. F. Mathews' Chavu Nilam ("The Dead Land") tells the story of a group of these people on an unnamed islet: to be more specific, it is centered around a doomed family who decide to make the site of a former leper colony (the dead land of the title) their homestead. The visiting tailor Michael "Asan" (master) decides to marry Mariam, who is a squatter on the land, against the better counsel of the superstitious villagers. Mariam is the daughter of a mad mother who has murdered her husband - and the unfortunate events start right away, with Mariam having one miscarriage after another. Even though three of their children survive - Peru, Barbara and Eesi - they are also doomed by the curse of the dead land. After many agonising years of doomed living and many incidents of suicide, accidental death, murder and incest affecting not only the inhabitants of "chavu nilam" but also the whole islet, the story ends with cousins Inasu (son of Peru) and Anna (daughter of Eesi) living a sort of stable life in their huge house on the cursed land.

The novel is a weird mixture of narrative and myth. There is no story as such, other than the frightening degradation of a family, and a people doomed to perish with them. The novelist has used a rather convoluted language which reminiscent of Malayalam translations of the Bible: ponderous and at times frightening with its Old Testament fixations of sin and justice. The characterisation is done with bold, deft strokes: the picture of a people, slowly losing touch a with a past and not having much of a future is finely etched - and the metaphor of the "Dead Land" is very effective.

However, the pointlessness of the whole thing becomes jarring after a while. The piling of misfortune upon misfortune, rather like the gore-fest in a slasher movie, does tend to lose reader interest. The constant back-and-forth shifting of the timeline also tends to confuse. Towards the second half of the book, the story drags, and one starts waiting for the denouement: this slim book (160 pages) seemed overlong at times, due to the snail's pace of the narrative.

A bold attempt, which would have benefited from a bit more structuring. A worthwhile read nonetheless.
Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha - T.P. Rajeevan This novel (which in English means "Paleri Manikyam: A Midnight Murder Story")straddles the no man's land between fiction and reportage. Apparently it is based on a true incident: the rape and murder of a beautiful girl, Manikyam, immediately after she is married and brought to the Northern Kerala village of Paleri in 1957. The case is interesting because it is the first recorded case of its kind in the newly formed state of Kerala, and the first case to be investigated during the tenure of the first democratically elected communist government in the world (so many firsts!). However, the court records show a typically botched-up case: an incomplete investigation, weak prosecution witnesses and total lack of evidence which allows the accused to get away scot-free. Fifty years after the incident, the unnamed narrator is probing into the incident, intent upon getting into the heart of the matter. But it is far from easy because most of the dramatis personae have passed away, and many of the remaining are almost senile.

Manikyam, a village beauty from another village, is brought to Paleri as the bride of the village idiot Pokkan. The scheming mind of the local evil landlord, Ahmed Haji, is behind this: as with any beautiful girl in the region, he wants Manikyam for himself. Manikyam's mother-in-law Cheeru is already his keep.

However, Manikyam proves to be made of different stuff - she would have none of it. Afraid that the hue and cry made by her would alert the village and publicly disgrace him, Haji arranges a play in the town, free for all, thus ensuring that all villagers would be away. With the help of Cheeru, Haji sees to it that the girl would not be able to go for the play, and also that her husband is away. The stage is thus perfectly set for rape.

During that fateful night, however, the girl is murdered. The inconsistent witness statements point fingers in many directions. And the cause of truth is not helped by self-seeking policemen, helping to protect the rich and influential.

An excellent premise for a whodunit, isn't it? But the novel is much more. On the framework of the classic detective story, the novelist hangs the history of a rapidly changing region, a social commentary on the caste-relationships of Kerala, and the deep, dark mythology of a country still not very far removed from the days of tribal warfare. Manikyam herself becomes a legend (as exemplified by the ballad written about her): a symbol both of downtrodden femininity and the lower classes and the all-pervading, blood-drinking Goddess who is forever present in the Malayali psyche. As the narrator keeps on uncovering layer after layer of truth, the heart of the land also stands revealed.

This is an interesting read, if you resign yourself to the fact that the ultimate revelation is not mind-blasting like a proper mystery. To be fair, it is based upon a true story (though I could not find any reference to it on the web) and we cannot expect real life to behave like a Hercule Poirot mystery. Also, the novel rambles at times, moving into side avenues and expository passages: it is not exactly a page-turner.

The verdict: a strange, unique but ultimately unsatisfying book.
The Autobiography of a Sex Worker - Nalini Jameela This is one of those books I had to drop in-between. I read the revised version (in Malayalam), not the original which had created such a controversy-and found it as dull as ditch-water. I was interested in knowing the trials and tribulations of a woman forced into selling her body, and the inner workings of the sex trade racket in Kerala. What I got was a sort of journal detailing the author's relationships with various customers, recited in a monotonous drone. Maybe it gets interesting further on, but I had lost interest in finding out.
The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh - A.A. Milne

Have a deep, long look at the image above. That motley crew are undoubtedly the most famous toy animals in existence.

Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga (I cannot see Roo) and (last but not least) Tigger.

A. A. Milne, and established playwright and writer, constructed silly nursery stories and poems for his young son Christopher Robin, built around his beloved toys. He published them. And much to his chagrin, he came to be known as the creator of "Winnie-the-Pooh": all his "serious" works were forgotten!

Read this book, and you will understand why.

True, nothing much happens in the stories. There are no hair-raising escapades, no dashing adventures and no earth-shaking events. What we have here are a bunch of rather silly animals (the team mentioned above, along with two imaginary ones, Rabbit and Owl) in Hundred Acre Woods, doing a lot of silly things, talking nonsensically (though pompously) most of the time, and making prize fools of themselves. Yet these stories are magical, for adults and children alike.

Christopher Robin is the acknowledged lord of this idyllic kingdom: the stories start when he comes down the stairs, dragging Pooh-bear behind him ("bump, bump, bump") and ends when he goes up the stairs in the same fashion. The cosy world of the nursery transforms itself into a magic land where you can hunt "heffalumps" or go on "expotitions" to the North Pole. The cast of characters are always the same, and the happenings, similar. Where these stories score are in the way the characters are etched. With true English underplayed humour, Milne has invested these stuffed toys with fascinating personalities.

Pooh, the "Bear of Very Little Brain", but subject to occasional flashes of brilliance and bursts of versification.

Piglet, the smallest and weakest of them all but sometimes capable of doing "Very Grand Things".

The clever Rabbit, many a time too much so for his own good.

The pedantic and pompous Owl, who can't restrain himself from holding forth at the slightest provocation.

The long-suffering Eeyore with his never-ending complaints.

The devoted Kanga and her frisky little son Roo, whom she keeps in her pocket.

Happy-go-lucky Tigger, bouncing all over the woods.

These characters are typically English: in fact, they could have stepped out from a P.G.Wodehouse novel. When a child reads these stories, he/ she will enjoy them at their face value; while the perceptive adult will be fascinated by the subtext.

It is no surprise that these stories endure. As Milne says: "...the Forest will always be there...and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it." Christopher Robin will grow up; making way for other kids who will take his place. But this imaginary landscape will endure, because "in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."

Fantastic book!

P.S. The illustrations by E.H.Shepard should also be mentioned. They are so much a part of the story that we cannot imagine the book without the pictures.
Staring At The Sun - Julian Barnes The really important questions do not have answers: and the really important answers do not need questions. Life is itself, not comparable to anything. And all the great miracles are present in the here and the now, if only we can see them... like staring at the sun through the gap between your fingers.

...Some of the things which I took away from this magical, unreviewable book.

Read it.
Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1) - Hilary Mantel The English are a people, I’ve found, who are obsessed with kings and kingship, whether positively or negatively (one has only to look at the media hype surrounding the birth of the royal baby and the jokes on twitter about the same). Englishmen love their kings and queens, but are also extremely critical of them – most of which is expressed as underplayed sardonic British humour. This is why, I think, writers keep on dipping into British history and coming up with erudite historical tomes, steamy potboilers and seriously written novels which shine new light on hitherto unexplored areas. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning effort, Wolf Hall, belongs to the last category.

If one wants to choose an era in British history which is guaranteed to pull readers in, what other period than the Tudor age? The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain has this to say:


The age of the Tudors has left its impact on Anglo-American minds as a watershed in British history. Hallowed tradition, native patriotism, and post-imperial gloom have united to swell our appreciation of the period as a true golden age. Names alone evoke a phoenix-glow – Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary Stuart among the sovereigns of England and Scotland; Wolsey, William Cecil, and Leicester among the politicians; Marlowe, Shakespeare, Hilliard, and Byrd among the creative artists. The splendours of the court of Henry VIII, the fortitude of Sir Thomas More, the making of the English Bible, Prayer Book, and Anglican Church, the development of Parliament, the defeat of the Armada, the Shakespearian moment, and the legacy of Tudor domestic architecture – these are the undoubted climaxes of a simplified orthodoxy in which genius, romance, and tragedy are superabundant.


It is this “genius, romance and tragedy” which draw chroniclers again and again into the court of Henry VIII, inhabited by a lecherous king, a scheming queen, ladies of flexible virtue and gentlemen with ulterior motives. We are all familiar with Henry and his desperate attempt to produce a male heir; the clever and scheming yet ultimately ill-fated Ann Boleyn; Sir Thomas More, man of letters and spiritual leader; the voluptuous Mary Boleyn, an “easy armful” (to borrow Hilary Mantel’s words); Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s right-hand man till his fall from grace. A writer just has to dip his/ her hand in and draw out any of these characters, and the story would be already half-written, one feels.

However, Hilary Mantel does not take this easy path. She draws out a shadowy character, enters into his mind, and shows us the Tudor court through a totally unfamiliar pair of eyes. The character is Thomas Cromwell, assistant to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. A commoner without any aristocratic pedigree. The son of a blacksmith whose only strength are the bulldog tenacity of the survivor and a native cunning, honed to perfection during the period he wandered from country to country as a teenaged exile, on the run from his murderous father.

The story of Henry VIII is common knowledge to anybody with a moderate understanding of history. A lothario of sorts, this much-married gentleman went through six wives in the desperate effort to produce a male heir, to make the kingdom safe from usurpers. Out of the six marriages, the one to Anne Boleyn produced such a schism that the church was fragmented – the Church of England, with the King as its head, split off from the Pope. Almost overnight, Catholicism was dead in England.

However, the careful student of history will notice that this was only one of the many pretexts – the world was already pissed off with Popery, who appropriated the Bible as the sole property of the Church, to be read and interpreted by the clergy only. The worship of God was only possible through the mediation of these men of cloth, many of whom engaged in acts of extreme debauchery, kept mistresses, and sired bastards all over the place. The time for a change was nigh, and it was sparked off through Martin Luther’s fiery rhetoric in Germany. Henry’s personal rebellion was only a part of the big picture.

***

By early 16th Century, Martin Luther had set the Protestant Reformation in motion in Germany. He claimed that the Bible was the only true repository of divine wisdom, accessible to all; the priesthood had no role. Salvation was possible only through belief in Christ as the redeemer, and not through paying money to the clergy. Protestantism swept Europe. The Catholic Church was shaking in its foundations, when Henry decided that he wanted his marriage (a marriage of convenience) to his elder brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, annulled on the basis that it was illegal in the first place. But everybody knew the real reason: Henry wanted a male heir, which was impossible for the Queen who was now past child-bearing age, and also because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he was head over heels in love.

The Church was not very amenable to the King’s demand. The pope cannot support a man who wants to cast away his lawful wife to marry his mistress! Moreover, the Spanish Emperor’s wrath was also to be considered. Archbishop Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, who was also the Papal legate, tried and failed – leading to his fall from grace and death in disgrace. Thomas More who followed him as Lord Chancellor was loath to entertain the temporal ruler’s demands over the dictates of the spiritual realm. Henry finally realised that to have his way, he would have to take control of his kingdom as no king has done before.

Enter Thomas Cromwell…

This relative nobody shot to prominence as King Henry’s right-hand man in this troubled times. All over England, heretics were being tortured and burned by the Church: in Europe, Catholicism and Protestantism were going at it with hammer and tongs. Deriving the king’s power from the mythical Lucius I of England, Cromwell and the Parliament passed a series of statutes which effectively made the ruler supreme sovereign of both spiritual and temporal activities in England. It was now treason not to accept the Crown’s supremacy; those who were the persecutors in the name of God, found themselves persecuted for treason. The boot was on the other foot.

***

Wolf Hall narrates the events described in the above paragraphs, while trying to inhabit the mind of Thomas Cromwell. I say “trying to” purposefully, because I do not think Hilary Mantel has been wholly successful in her endeavor. At the end of the novel, one is still left with a doubt as to what makes this man tick – a huge minus in a narrative which is primarily stream-of-consciousness. Cromwell’s overarching ambition and manipulative capabilities are well-etched, but the man himself remains a mystery (other than his contempt of the official church and his minions, which may be a possible motive for his actions).

However, other than the protagonist, there are some fine character sketches. Henry VIII himself, pompous, idiosyncratic, sentimental yet ruthless; Sir Thomas More, cruel in his obsession with religion; the various dukes and noblemen and other royal hangers-on, intent only on self-advancement; Mary Boleyn, willing to use her feminine charms without inhibition for self-advancement; and last but not least, the seductive Anne Boleyn with her single-minded ambition to become Queen. As the novel progresses, these characters grow and obsess us, which is a sign of good writing.

But Hilary Mantel’s style is difficult. There is a pudding in our part of the world which is very tasty but sticks to the palate, so eating it is a chore: the author’s prose reminded me of it. Most of the time, Cromwell is mentioned simply as “he”, which made it difficult to recognise who was referred to, especially while a group conversation was being described. However, the stream-of –consciousness method has an advantage that reveries can be inserted at any time, and the author can speak through her protagonist. Even though not essential to the tale at hand, some such interior monologues are very beautiful. I cannot resist quoting one.


In the forest you may find yourself lost, without companions. You may come to a river which is not on a map. You may lose sight of your quarry, and forget why you are there. You may meet a dwarf, or the living Christ, or an old enemy of yours; or a new enemy, one you do not know until you see his face appear between the rustling leaves, and see the glint of his dagger. You may find a woman asleep in a bower of leaves. For a moment, before you don’t recognise her, you will think she’s someone you know.


This is the world Thomas Cromwell (and I suspect, many of our modern politicians) inhabit.

***

Even though Ms. Mantel does not do anything to redeem the image of Anne Boleyn, some words she speaks are suggestive.


Anne says, ‘I am Jezebel. You, Thomas Cromwell, are the priests of Baal.’ Her eyes are alight. ‘As I am a woman, I am the means by which sin enters this world. I am the Devil’s gateway, the cursed ingress. I am the means by which Satan attacks man, whom he was not bold enough to attack, except through me…’


This passage left me wondering about the numerous political scandals in the modern world where beautiful women have played a part, and kind of attention media lavished on them, stripping and raping them through words and unspoken innuendos. No, the world has not changed that much, as far as men’s thinking is concerned.

***

P.S. While I was reading the book, the British Royal Baby came into the world at the same time as Elizabeth was born in the story. Coincidence? Maybe…

At least, the modern-day prince will not have to fear the assassin with his hidden knife – only the paparazzi with his hidden camera. Thank God for small favours.

Best Of Fritz Leiber - Fritz Leiber Fritz Leiber is a legendary name in science fiction and fantasy, up there among the stars with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke et al. I do not know whether the present book includes his best (since the author has endorsed it himself, it should), but it does have some fantastic stories.

Leiber calls himself a “Science Fantasy” writer in the introduction: it seems an apt term, because there is nary a hard SF story in the whole volume, and many of them are outright fantasies. The author uses the world of the future and imagined scientific advances as a prop to hang his stories on, which are mostly fantasy.

The story nearest to a hard SF story in the volume, A Pail of Air, is also my personal favourite. Earth has been “abducted” by a passing dark star, pulled into its gravitational field and taken away from the Solar System. The atmosphere has frozen in the absolute zero of space, the different constituents each freezing at a different temperature and forming layers atop the soil, with water at the bottom and oxygen at the top. A scientist and his family have managed to survive by creating an almost-hermetically-sealed-room with a fire which is never allowed to go out: they replenish the oxygen periodically scooping the frozen layer from outside and allowing it to evaporate. The story is told by the young son of the scientist, who has been born on this dismal dead planet. The story is a wonderful paean to mankind, determined to survive no matter what.

A couple of stories are surreal vignettes, disturbing in their dark intensity. Interestingly, Leiber says that both these stories “almost wrote themselves”. The Man Who Never Grew Young is the story of an eternal in a world where time flows backward: all around him, he sees people grow young and go back into their mothers’ wombs, but he is destined live for ever. In Mariana, the world of make-believe is taken to its logical conclusion – which is (terrifyingly!) ridiculous.

These stories span the period from the end of the Second World War in the nineteen forties to the cold war period of the early seventies: and many of the stories reflect the concerns of the era in their content and intent. Sanity and Wanted: An Enemy are straightforward in their concern with war and world domination. The Foxholes of Mars and The Big Trek are essentially moralizing stories about war, even with their SF setting – and I found them rather mediocre.

Leiber’s concerns about right-wing America are reflected in Coming Attraction, Poor Superman and America the Beautiful. In two of these stories, the protagonist is British, and the story is essentially a look at one’s own country through foreign eyes. Even though the Soviet Union is a thing of history and the cold war is largely forgotten, these stories remain chilling remainders of where humanity can go when bigotry and paranoia is allowed to dominate – something which is very valid almost all of the “liberal” democracies today.

Fritz Leiber is also a terrific satirist. As a person who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, the story Rum-Titty-Titty-Tum-Tah-Tee was especially hilarious for me: new age philosophy, modern art, jazz music and pop psychology are all put together in a hilarious romp of a tale and lampooned. But for all that, it is still a valid fantasy. The same is also true for The Night He Cried, where Mickey Spillane and his brand of hard-boiled detective fiction is mercilessly slaughtered.

There were also a couple of stories I could not quite “get” - Little Miss Macbeth and the multi-award-winning novella Gonna Roll the Bones. However, this is not to take away from the power of these stories: only a confession of the limitations of my aesthetic sensitivities.

***

Running across all these stories is the common theme of human existence, the sheer joy of it, even in extremely adverse conditions. This is the real courage to live, as epitomised by the scientist holding on on a destroyed earth in A Pail of Air:

Courage is like a ball, son. A person can hold it only so long, then he has to toss it to someone else. When it’s tossed you way, you’ve got to catch it and hold it tight – and hope there’ll be someone else to toss it to when you get tired of being brave.


If I should choose one passage to describe Fritz Leiber’s philosophy (if there is such a thing!), this would be it.

***

Fritz Leiber says:

All I ever try to write is a good story with a good measure of strangeness in it. The supreme goddess of universe is Mystery, and being well entertained is the highest joy.


Any perceptive reader, I feel, would agree wholeheartedly with the entertainment part.

My Life and Hard Times - James Thurber A humourous book, but only mildly so. I expected much more from the author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. However, these quirky reminiscences are enjoyable, if only for Thurber's inimitable style.

Aristotle said: "The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think." Seeing the past through the wrong side of the telescope, Thurber is is able to invest apparently distressing events with the patina of humour which brings out his delightfully eccentric family (including himself) into focus. Read it, and remember similar "hard times" from your childhood...
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image - Leonard Shlain Dr. Leonard Shlain has an idee fixe (or in more colloquial – and colourful – terms, a “bee in his bonnet”). It is this: alphabet literacy is the cause of misogyny among humanity. He spends 400+ pages of the current book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess , trying to convince us of this path-breaking, explosive idea.

Does he succeed? Sadly, no.

Dr. Shlain starts out well enough:

Of all sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. Sophocles once warned, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” The invention of writing was vast; this book will investigate the curse.


In first three chapters, the author traces the development of human beings from “hunted vegetarian to scared scavenger to tentative hunter to accomplished killer in a mere million years”. This remarkable development was achieved by three accidents of natural selection: forelimbs with opposable thumbs, spectacularly powerful eyes and a huge brain. Bigger brains meant more difficult childbirth and extended childhoods – which required the female of the species to specialize in child-bearing and –rearing, leaving the male to hunt for food. It also meant there had to be a strong pair bonding between couples, so that the child can have a stable family to grow up in. This was achieved through perpetual estrus of the female, so that sexual attraction became a permanent bond. Lo! The modern family unit was born.

Even though the above anthropological analysis of evolution may be debated, we can more or less take it as true (though some contentions of Dr.Shlain, that females initially traded sex for food, may be questionable). However, from here the author takes off into uncharted waters. He argues (quite convincingly) that the hunter male needed much more of tunnel vision, so that the cone cells of the central part of the retina developed at the expense of the rod cells, which aid in peripheral vision; also, the analytical left brain developed at the expense of the contemplative right brain. In the females, whose role was nurture rather than killing, it happened exactly the opposite way. So … males=death, females=life.

(…All right, all right! I know you cannot reduce humanity to such a simple equation, but let’s accompany Dr. Shlain a little further on this unusual logical journey.)

The nurturing role of the female in mythology is, of course, well known. Before the patriarchal religions took over, there was the Great Goddess in many forms across the globe: this matriarchal divinity was all-encompassing and nurturing in almost all the cultures. In contrast, the male divinity is aggressive, acquisitive and predatory. As time went by, this male god subjugated the goddess, to extent of removing her totally from existence in the three Levantine religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and reigning supreme as the only true God. In Dr. Shlain’s opinion, this happened because human beings became alphabet literate.

The first form of abstract writing we have is the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia. It is a commonly accepted fact that the original forms of writing were pictorial – in Dr. Shlain’s words, “before there was writing, there were pictures.” In his opinion, in creating an abstract script, human beings moved firmly into the camp of the left brain and the holistic right brain was marginalised. With this, the fall of the Goddess began.

Dr. Shlain cites the myth of the god Marduk, who killed the mother goddess Tiamat and dismembered her corpse to create the universe, as the first male-centric myth, “shocking for its misogynist virulence”. He sees it as the creation of Akkadian priests, who conquered the Sumerians; significantly, they also converted the image-inspired ideograms of the Sumerian cuneiform into phonograms, symbols representing the sounds of words. This is a paradigm shift into the abstract arena of the left brain, where the Goddess and her humanistic and holistic values have no existence.

Starting from this, the author moves through the history of the ancient, classical, medieval and modern civilisation (mostly Western), arguing with examples of how the world slowly adopted patriarchy as they got more literate; to reach its pinnacle in the Abrahamic religions, where images are total anathema, God is a faceless, male entity (even though sexless, God is always He), and the word of God and the Holy Book are the only sacred things.

Here is where the things get a bit woolly. Dr. Shlain does a good job of analysing the growth of misogyny over the years, along with the growth and spread of the Abrahamic religions: however, he does not succeed in proving that literacy itself is the cause. Alphabet literacy grew along with the patriarchal religions, true. But, as the author himself admits, correlation does not immediately prove causation.

There are one or two areas where Dr. Shlain posits a far-fetched theory and later on, builds his arguments on this dubious foundation. Take his analysis of the Cadmus myth, for example. In one of the versions, the Greek hero Cadmus came to Thebes from Phoenicia, slew a terrible serpent which had been terrorising the populace, extracted its fangs, and sowed them in a nearby field. From each tooth sprang a fierce warrior. The grateful Thebans made him king. Dr. Shlain sees the serpent as a feminine symbol (throughout the book: this itself is dubious, as most mythologists and psychologists see the snake as a phallic symbol) – and the teeth as the symbol for the alphabet. So in killing the serpent and sowing the teeth, the myth is talking about the Phoenicians’ feat of bringing the art of writing to Greece, for which there is historical evidence. Ergo: the advent of alphabet literacy killed the Goddess in Greece! I would call this dubious reasoning at best.

Dr. Shlain also makes mistakes while analysing history. For example, even though he says that Israelites’ captivity in Egypt is unproven and the majority of the historians do not subscribe to it: however, one of his chapters is based on the Exodus as a historical event, and he brings in a lot of questionable claims to support his theory, even quoting discredited authors like Immanuel Vellikovsky to support his arguments. Also, his chapter on India is full of erroneous statements. He considers the Aryan invaders to India (an invasion theory which has been largely disproved) to have been alphabet-literate, hence misogynist and aggressive: whereas the Harappan civilisation which existed before that to have been illiterate and hence Goddess-oriented. He also puts in such patently silly statements such as “the Harappans spoke a form of early Sanskrit”, “The Rig Veda is India’s oldest epic poem [it is not an epic poem at all!] and contains glimpses of the culture as it existed before the arrival of the Aryan warriors and alphabet literacy. [the Vedas were written by Aryans – according to some sources, before they reached India-see The Vedic People by Rajesh Kochhar]”

(I could go on quoting, but I think the above examples are sufficient to show why Dr. Shlain’s credibility took a severe beating once I passed this chapter.)

The author makes a lot of definitive statements on things which could only be conjecture. He seems to be hell-bent on splitting things into twos, one part dealing with literacy, the left brain, misogyny and intolerance: and the other dealing with the right brain, image-centric Goddess worship and tolerance.
The book analyses almost all of the religious and cultural history of mankind through this dualistic glass: be it the cult of Dionysus, Buddhism, the Tao or the teachings of Confucius.

As he moves past the medieval age into the history modern religion (especially in the West), however, Dr. Shlain proves to be an entertaining narrator. He has meticulously traced the transformation of Christianity from the unorganised and tolerant religion preached by Jesus into the intolerant and murderous behemoth it became after the Renaissance: also, the story of the metamorphosis of Islam from the frugal desert religion based on surrender to God to an empire spanning half the globe is also enchantingly told. One can only cringe at the excesses of the inquisition and the cruelties of the witch hunts. One fails to understand how such hatred towards believers of another faith, and general intolerance towards women could reach such paranoid heights – but apparently they did. The only caveat I have is that Dr. Shlain relates intolerance and bigotry everywhere to literacy, based on very tenuous evidence.

More of the same arguments follow as the development of the “modern” world, as we know it, is analysed – it would be tedious to give a line-by-line account. Suffice it to say that the monster of alphabet literacy is identified to be behind all modern evils such as the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges: and the re-awakening of the right brain in the twentieth century is seen as the source of positive movements like feminism –although it is never made clear exactly how the connection is made. By now, the book starts reading like a polemic against the alphabet!

However, the last chapter, where Leonard Shlain identifies television as the antidote to the misogyny engendered by the written word takes the cake. His argument that the return of the image on the TV screen to replace the word on the printed page has again started engendering right brain values in human beings is extremely questionable. Does the production of a generation of couch potatoes, addicted to reality shows and mindless soaps, imbibing the lies dished out by the corporate news networks along with chunks of lurid advertisements, help the Goddess come back into our lives?

To be fair to Dr. Shlain, he writes in the epilogue:

I began my inquiry intent on answering the question Who killed the Great Goddess? My conclusion – the thug who mugged the Goddess was alphabet literacy – may seem repugnant to some and counterintuitive to others. I cannot prove that I am right.


I have to say that you are right on that count, Dr. Shlain. For someone who has been taught that

Music and literature and are the twin breasts of Goddess Saraswathi:
One (music) pure sweetness from top to bottom; the other (literature), ambrosia to the mind.


it is very difficult to differentiate art and literature – and to see either of them as not emanating from the Goddess.

Edit to add: Even though I do not agree with Dr. Shlain's premise, the growth of misogyny along with dogmatic religious views merit serious consideration. There is ample reason to believe that the left brain took over from the right brain somewhere along our march to civilisation: even though it helped us in material ways, our spiritual side atrophied. And I personally believe this spiritual side has a lot to do with the Goddess. Hence my two stars.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm (Edit to add: the review below contains what some may consider to be spoilers. But on the whole, I do not think that reading this review will spoil the enjoyment of the book for you.)

Science fiction stories usually concern the impact of the progress of science on human beings. When the science part dominates, it is called “Hard SF”: when the human part dominates, it is “Soft SF”. However, this is not a rigid categorisation as most Hard SF stories (for example, Asimov’s Foundation series) contain some sociology, and most Soft SF cannot exist without some science. The most fascinating Soft SF stories deal with a society unalterably modified by science, and how human beings come to term with it.

Did I just say “human beings”? Well, as far as Kate Wilhelm’s Hugo and Locus award-winning novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is concerned, you can add the word “almost” – since most of the characters in this story are clones.

The Story

The novel is a dystopia: one that many science fiction writers seem to love – the whole world having gone to hell on a handcart. Wars, pollution and pestilence of Biblical proportions are slowly wiping out life on earth. To compound the problem, human beings and animals are becoming increasingly sterile. It seems that the world is doomed to extinction.

The filthy rich Sumner family, up in their farm on the Shenandoah Valley, have read the signs early and have found a solution. They will preserve an island of stability and sanity in a world gone volatile and mad in their mountain citadel – and led by the gifted Dr. Walt, Harry Vlasic and David Sumner, they develop the ultimate answer to sterility – cloning.

So far, so good. Only, they discover too late that clones are not humans in the true sense of the word. Much more single-minded and efficient than their originals, and sharing an extra-sensory empathy with one another, they soon take over… and the world seems ready for a new species. A society where individuality is unknown and any deviation from the group is frowned upon; where sex is a group activity and the production of children, other than the cloned ones, is by harvesting a handful of fertile women as “breeders”. It is the end of humankind as we know it.

Or is it?

On a field trip to gather information and building materials (a perilous one that a few hardy individuals periodically make – it is literally a matter of life and death for any clone to be separated from the group for too long), Molly, the artist, is touched and permanently changed by nature. She can’t go back to the group existence any more: she has rediscovered humanity. Her art becomes steadily less utilitarian and more idiosyncratic, and she begins questioning group values. Of course, this striving for individuality is major deviant behaviour among the clones, so they isolate her in the old house, with its hoard of books. Unknown to them, she is carrying something else – the son of the doctor Ben in her womb.

Molly and her son Mark enjoy an idyllic existence in the old house for five years until they are ultimately discovered. Mark is taken away to live in the communal nursery with other children, and Molly is assigned the role of a breeder, a baby – producing machine.

But once touched by nature, man cannot become a machine again. As the clone community declines because of lack of innovation, abhorrence of nature and the steadily dwindling resources from a dead world, Mark, the earth-child, provides the spark to ensure that humanity is born again.

***

The novel is structured in three parts: the first part (and in my opinion, the weakest) showing the development of the society of the clones and their takeover, the second part detailing Molly’s “conversion” and the third, the renaissance of humanity through Mark. Even though it attempts to be nothing other than science fiction, the mythical overtones are hard to miss. David Sumner is the original savior prophet/ hero, who creates the chosen race and is ultimately sacrificed by them: Molly, the Mother of God/ Mother Goddess: and Mark, the persecuted God Child/ Hero/ Messiah of the new world.

Kate Wilhelm wrote this novel in the seventies, when the cold war was going strong. For Western Europeans and Americans, the Soviet Union was the Devil Incarnate and the ultimate dystopia, a place where human beings have lost all claims to individuality and function only as cogs in the machine, as epitomised by the communist bloc (we now understand that this was far removed from the truth). In those days, a communist takeover of the world was a real threat in the mind of the average American; the end of civilisation as we know it. Part of the success of this novel is that that particular paranoia is explored in detail, without being judgmental.

“The Freedom of the Individual” is at the heart of the American secular religion, sometimes (in the opinion of citizens of other countries) carried to ridiculous extremes (one cannot imagine a philosophy like Ayn Rand’s meriting serious consideration anywhere else in the world). Collectivism of any kind is to be abhorred. So imagine the situation if the human race becomes collective, not through force, not through choice, but as an inherent feature of their biological make-up? That is what the author does, and her prediction on the fate of such a society is clear and unambiguous: death by atrophy of the spirit.

The passage reproduced below encapsulates the author’s philosophy in a nutshell.

…He looked over the class, and continued. “Our goal is to remove the need for sexual reproduction. Then we will be able to plan our future. If we need road builders, we can clone fifty or a hundred for this purpose, train them from infancy, and send them out to fulfill their destiny. We can clone boat builders, sailors, send them out to the sea to locate the course of the fish our first explorers discovered in the Potomac. A hundred farmers, to relieve those who would prefer to be working over the test tubes than hoeing rows of carrots.”

Another ripple of laughter passed over the students. Barry smiled also; without exception they all worked their hours in the fields.

“For the first time since mankind walked the face of the earth,” he said, “there will be no misfits.”

“And no geniuses,” a voice said lazily, and he looked to the rear of the class to see Mark, still slouched down in his chair, his blue eyes bright, grinning slightly. Deliberately he winked at Barry, then closed both eyes again, and apparently returned to sleep.



The community where everybody is forced to work in the fields and children belong to the group and not to their parents seems like a parody of Chairman Mao’s China.

It is interesting to note that Mark saves the society because he is more in tune with nature than the clones who needs the presence of each other for sustenance and cannot survive alone. While stressing individuality, Ms. Wilhelm also seems to advocating the recognition of our umbilical tie to Mother Earth (Gaia, Bhumi, call her whatever you will). Presumably it was the separation which brought about the unnamed catastrophe at the beginning of the story – a scenario which eerily parallels the situation we find ourselves in today…
A Martian Odyssey - Stanley G. Weinbaum
Stanley G. Weinbaum, according to Isaac Asimov, existed before the "Golden Age" of science fiction (which according to him was before the path-breaking editor John W. Campbell appeared on the scene). In those "dark ages", science fiction was mostly composed of the stories of the "space opera" style: adventure stories of the type H. Rider Haggard produced, only they were transplanted to Mars and Venus instead of Africa. Indeed, it is maybe no coincidence that Edgar Rice Burroughs created both Tarzan and John Carter of Mars.

Stanley Weinbaum was a short-lived meteor who blazed brilliantly across the SF night sky for a very short duration. After producing a handful of brilliant and innovative short-stories, Weinbaum succumbed to cancer at the very young age of thirty-three, leaving his best stories unwritten, according to his friends.

My first introduction to Weinbaum came through Asimov’s compilation of SF before John W. Campbell, Before the Golden Age, through the short story The Parasite Planet, where Weibaum has imagined a brilliant Venus full of deadly life-forms. Ever since, I have been waiting to get hold of more of his work, and when I came across the current volume (A Martian Odyssey), I was overjoyed.

After going through the whole book, my enthusiasm has come down a notch. These stories have not aged well: they were written the 1930’s, between the wars. Most of the world was under the thumb of the Western colonial superpowers, and the U.S.A was just starting its career as an economic power. The concept of Western supremacy permeates the stories (even though I am sure that the author never intended it), and in some cases, becomes downright objectionable. Consider the following passage from Proteus Island:

…he could, he supposed, tie her wrists and ankles; but somehow the idea appealed to him not at all. She was too naïve, too trusting, too awe-struck and worshipful. And besides, savage or not, she was a white girl over whom he had no conceivable rightful authority.

Captain Carver is here musing over what to do with the girl he has “captured” on Austin Island. Ultimately, the fact that she is white saves the girl from bondage!

However, one can pardon such attitudes which are more a product of the age than the person. Even though I found Weinbaum rather wanting as a storyteller on many occasions (many of his stories follow the formula of the boy winning the girl after rescuing her in an alien environment – and the girl is invariable beautiful), as a creator of extraterrestrial life he has no competition. The alien landscapes he creates are so original and the flora and fauna so enthralling (if a trifle frightening), that you will find yourself following the story at breakneck speed. Apart from Parasite Planet, this tome contains A Martian Odyssey, The Valley of Dreams, The Mad Moon, Redemption Cairn and Proteus Island, all choc-a-bloc full of E.T.’s to satisfy even the most finicky connoisseur. I will not detail them here, not only because I am unable to justice to his imagination in a mere book review: I do not want to take away anybody’s delight on encountering them for the first time! Also, Weinbaum has explored non-traditional areas and seminal ideas (for his time, at least) in stories like The Adaptive Ultimate.

In the afterword, Robert Bloch talks about Weinbaum’s ideas for future projects and his intention to enter into the field of fantasy – intentions which remained unfulfilled, alas, due to his untimely exit from the world stage. One sometimes feels the truth of what the M.T. Vasudevan Nair (the famous Malayalam writer) said: “Death is a clown who has no sense of the stage.”

A must-read for all SF addicts.
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Is narrative linear?

We all know that we tell a story in a linear fashion – “begin at the beginning, go on till the end, then stop”-but isn’t the linearity imposed by us? Isn’t history a multitude of narratives taking place simultaneously, like a multi-piece orchestra?

And what about the narrator? Is the external narrative same as the internal one? Is the story paramount, or the teller? What would be Wuthering Heights, say, if narrated by Heathcliff?
Writers and filmmakers across generations have struggled with these questions. Many of the gifted have tried to break free from the linearity that the story form imposes upon the teller. Most have succeeded to a greater or lesser degree.

I would rank David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas among one of the great successes.

*

Cloud Atlas is packet of six nested narratives, rather like one of those Chinese dolls nested inside one another or (for the mathematically minded) a series of nested functions in a computer program. Each of the stories adopts a different tone of voice, purposefully parodying established literary forms. Thus, the first story is written as a journal, rather like Robinson Crusoe: the second is in epistolary format: the third is a pulp thriller: the fourth, a partially dystopian novelette full of black humour: the fifth is an out-and-out SF story and sixth, a story of the far future dystopia with its own language, rather like A Clockwork Orange. The second story starts in the middle of the first, the third in the middle of the second and so on till we reach the sixth, which is told at a stretch; once that finishes, we are again taken “out” through the stories in reverse order, from fifth to first.

The narratives are all linked, and they are progressive in time. The linkage is tenuous initially, but in the second half of the broken stories, the previous story has become all important to the protagonist of that one. Each of the earlier narratives is “read” by the protagonist of the subsequent one, and the author purposefully inserts a question mark on the authenticity, perhaps to stress the unreality of the fictional universe we are inhabiting – rather like the alienation techniques of avant-garde filmmakers and playwrights. While getting caught up in each story, we are reminded continuously that this is the narrative of a flawed human being like ourselves – and the narrator might be unreliable.

*

I will not dissect the stories in detail. Better reviewers than me have analysed the novel in detail on this site and elsewhere, and have explored the historical context of the novel in depth. Rather, I will concentrate on the overarching themes that run as a common thread through the connected narratives, and the structure of the book in general.

Man’s endless cupidity and greed, and the part it has played in human “progress”, can be seen as the underlying theme. In The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the Western powers are in the nascent phases of their ruthless domination of the “savage” world; the so-called “White Man’s Burden” to “civilise” the Earth. In Half-lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, we can see the corporate behemoth this mission has given rise to – a juggernaut that crushes everything that stands in the path of its insatiable greed. In An Orison of Sonmi ~ 451, we are introduced to the future dystopia that is the ultimate result of the consumptive nightmare of our times, and one clone’s fight against the faceless corporate. In Sloosha’s Crossing’an’ Ev’rythin’ After , we see the ultimate result of our greed: a future society not very different from the ones of the Maori and Moriori in the first novella, where the strong enslave and plunder the weak and the rule of fang and claw hold sway.

But there is hope even in this bleak landscape: for the mythical ancestress of the Valleysmen is none other than Sonmi~451, the renegade clone from the previous novella. When her interrogator asks why she became a willing scapegoat, she answers:

To Corpocracy, to Unanimity, to the Ministry of the Testaments, to the Juche and to the Chairman, I quote Seneca’s warning to Nero: No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor.

This is the fire that carries the revolutionary forward, from Prometheus via Spartacus right down to Che Guavera and Suu Kyi: the promise of a golden tomorrow. And even though in a way unanticipated by her, the image of Sonmi and the recorded interview has become a sort of rallying cry for the downtrodden Valleysmen.

As Adam Ewing, protagonist of the first novella, says (as he replies to the imagined taunt of his father-in-law that “…only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”):

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

*

And it is one this standalone note that this strange book ends, like the Cloud Atlas sextet written by Robert Frobisher, the doomed protagonist of the second story. It should be noted that this particular novella stands out from the rest, as it is different in tone and content from the others. Here there is no establishment trampling upon the individual, rather it is the tale of an outsider, an individual who would find any system oppressive. This rather unlikeable person has the gift of art inside him, which allows him to endure the torture of mundane human existence, which is the only thing he can share with lesser individuals like us.

The shifting kaleidoscope of clouds creating their own eternal yet ephemeral dance formations in the sky of human existence – and the artist, working like a mad cartographer, to create for us an atlas of the clouds.
Lavondyss - Robert Holdstock Ryhope Wood in Hertfordshire, England is where myth comes alive. It draws images from the dreams and the collective unconscious of human beings and produces beings called Mythagos: heroes, shamans, fantastic beasts and beautiful damsels from the primordial depths of the psyche, walking about in flesh and blood. Robert Holdstock, award-winning author of Mythago Wood, follows up the first tale of his fantastic realm with an even more daring one: a journey to The Old Forbidden Place, Lavondyss, where all myth is generated.

Rivetting stuff, right?

Wrong.

Lavondyss is one large snooze-fest. The story opens with a bang, then stays exactly where it is. The background is lovingly created, and we get to know more and more about the inner workings of Ryhope Wood and the location of Lavondyss: but Tallis Keeton's journey in search of her lost brother Harry (lost in Mythago Wood) just does not take off.

As the story progresses, it begins to sound more and more like a notebook on world-building or a treatise: there is precious little action. And what there is, is disjointed. The story takes a huge leap between part one and two, and it is some time before the reader comes to grip with all that has happened in between. Holdstock's prose is good-one only hopes he had put it to better use.

The two stars are for the world the author has created. I honestly cannot give any stars to the story - whatever there is!