Teaching Blog Post

I have a post up at the Cambridge Secondary English P.G.C.E. blog. It’s about teaching choral reading using the excellent audio series War with Troy, in which storytellers Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden superbly retell the story of the Trojan War. You can read my post HERE.

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The Eater of Darkness (Robert M. Coates, 1926)

One of the advantages of being a student again is having access to a good library. I’ve long been intrigued by an obscure little book called The Eater of Darkness, a sci-fi pastiche and early example of Surrealist fiction in English, written by an American expatriate in Paris who later became a well-known art critic (to whom we owe the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’)—and what could be more intriguing than that? My curiosity about had been frustrated for years by the scarcity and expense of available copies: first editions are on sale for about £300 at the lower end of the scale, and more than £1,000 at the higher end, while even the 1959 reissue would set you back by about £30—all for a slender paperback of less than 200 pages.* When I learned that my university library has a copy of the first edition, I was delighted, but there was also a touch of trepidation that the high expectations I’d been building up would be confronted with a dry, justly-forgotten period piece, a curio of strictly academic interest. In fact, the book is a hoot from beginning to end.

The hero or anti-hero is Charles Dograr, a young man who becomes involved for no discernible reason in a murderous crime wave masterminded by ‘the old gentleman’, the many-aliased inventor of the ‘oculascope’, a machine which can kill at great distance and to a high degree of accuracy by means of what Dograr calls an ‘x-ray bullet’ (the diagram Coates includes of this apparatus is less Heath Robinson and more Joan Miró). When Dograr first looks through the oculascope, his vision is directed through a series of things, the series becoming one of those long, amusingly miscellaneous lists that seldom come as a surprise in modernist literature:**

                                                                      a cigar humidor

         the mechanism of an alarm clock

         a roll of toilet paper

         the chain of an electric light fixture

         four pages of the New York Journal

         the hand of the reader

         an orange

         an El station turnstile

         a goldfish bowl.

         a cushion

         the calf of Fannie Brice’s leg

         two kissing lips

         an iron handrail

         a corset string

         a garbage can

         a plate of ham sandwiches

         Laurence Vail

         Peggy Vail

         a pack of cards

         a stiletto

         a glass eye

         two felt slippers

         a cigarette holder

         an umbrella

         an art-bronze bookrack

         Harold Stearns

         Floyd Dell

         a clogged drain pipe

         a sheaf of Shulte Cigar Store coupons

         Malcolm Cowley

          a tree

          a bottle of gin

          a street lamp in an open park. . .

You might expect to find some of these objects in fragmentary form in a Cubist painting, but while many of them can be visualized individually, the action that is supposed to link them is all but inconceivable—the curiosities and wonders of modern physics travestied into utter nonsense. The old gentleman’s expression of his scientific and philosophical creed, which defines ‘homo physico-philosophicus’ as a person to whom physics and metaphysics are synonymous, becomes ever more pseudo-scientific and nonsensical (‘And Form, therefor, is capable of indefinite projection through space—provided that the co-related energy be entirely endogenous !’).

It is entirely appropriate, then, that the figure at the centre of these shenanigans is an absurd bundle of mannerisms, attitudes and behaviours that can in no way be contained within a psychologically convincing character, even an insane one. Charles Dograr: the sensitive soul who murders without pity or motivation, who impersonates the relative of one of his victims, who fantasizes that innocent pedestrians are bent on robbing and killing him, who buys a bunch of silk shirts and music records before abruptly dumping them in the trash, who delivers a solemn hymn to plant-life (‘The vegetables are not vindictive’). At the centre of a nonsensical plot is a nonsensical protagonist, nothing but an occasion for authorial fun and games:

For Charles Dograr was one of those rare souls whose spirit seems to have been compounded, as it were, of more fragile substance, of emotion more volatile, perception more finely tunable than the rest, so that he rode currents of intuition that others sank through seeking the rock-bottom of logic, and was uplifted and exalted by the transcendental vapors of a perhaps earthly—even, to continue the figure ad locandum, miry—concept into which others, trudging, stuck bogged and bemisted.

   So sound moved him more than hearing, vision more than sight, and his instinct sucked Truth, like honey, from the flower of Life, disdaining the syllogistic distillation of the comb.   Briefly, he listened to the melody, not the words, of the Eternal Song, and he was just the person—perhaps the only one alive—to imagine there was any discoverable meaning in such a passage as this, when he found it in a book.

The punchline is anything but subtle, yet it made me laugh. Funnier still are the crazed antics that ensue from Dograr’s encounters with life in a 20th-century metropolis, a mode of existence which cannot accommodate a walking absurdity such as Dograr without chaos being the result. And yet from that chaos, there emerges a critique of the hidden absurdities of technological, capitalist modernity, in all its strait-laced humbug. Take, for instance, the moment when Dograr bumps into a total stranger on a busy street—an everyday occurrence in a major city, but one transformed into an extraordinary moment when Dograr, instead of exchanging the customary apologetic looks and walking on, beats the man senseless. A crowd of passers-by gathers around him to provide an audience for a rousing speech that extricates him from any unpleasantness (the idiosyncrasies of punctuation have been retained):

    “This man would drag down the Fair Name of American Womanhood into the Mire of Infamy,” he proclaimed, pointing to his recumbent antagonist.    “Bearing the outward semblance of Honor, Uprightness, and the Spirit of Fair-Play that is typical of American Manhood, he worms his way into the sanctity of the American Home ,and there works his foul way unobserved.   That man—”, he drew himself to his full height—“was trying to get my wife to run away with him. And besides, he’s a Bolshevist !”

    A confused murmur rose from the hoarse throats of the crowd—a mingling of cheers for Charles, and threats for the unconscious victim.    Charles, with charming modesty, raised a deprecative hand, and vanished in the direction of the Grand Central.

Naturally, Dograr is unmarried. His puffed-up rhetoric, parodying that of the red-baiting press and of the blustering politicians who operate symbiotically with it, is all too effective; the unfortunate pedestrian becomes one of the novel’s several hapless victims—ordinary, unremarkable citizens who become entangled at random in the mechanisms of events beyond their comprehension. This fellow gets off relatively lightly; others are blown up or have their brains fried. The political reading that is available here is concurrent with the sense of a writer enjoying himself, messing around with meaningless non-lives and goofily disposing of them. The skewering of rhetorical clichés is expertly done, but fairly elementary; what gives the joke its kick is the little absurd touch at the end—the ‘deprecative hand’ raised ‘with charming modesty’—and it is this that caused me to disturb the peace of the library’s Rare Books reading room with one of several very audible giggles.

This is a funny book, as funny as Flann O’Brien in full flight. The highpoint of its humour is, I think, when the author promises to describe the habitation and person of a young lady, only to withhold most of the detail on the grounds of decency:

    In fact, had the reader been led actually to open the door of that chamber at the hour mentioned, the first glance about the walls of the room would have led him (if he be as mature in experience as we suppose he is) to close the door softly and make his way out to the street again (if he be as decent and upright a man as we pray him to be).

Once again, Coates is not content with the joke as it stands, hilarious though it is, but takes it to even greater heights of comic invention:

    In other words, the lady was a prostitute.    In the flesh, the reader must have fled from her—or paid ten dollars to investigate her charms.    We see no valid reason why the readers of this book should be otherwise dealt with.    On receipt of ten dollars we will forward in plain wrapper a complete and catalogued (illustrated) description of Madame Helène Montmorency.

At this point, I dissolved into something far less controlled and dignified than mere giggles.

The book is full of such delightful tricks: a column of a newspaper report running alongside the novelistic narrative, the report degenerating into gibberish; a purple-prosed Scotland Yard report (‘the heavy-shouldered, the ruffian sea, the ruffed and petticoated, creaming sea, its void immensity’); sly cracks at the conventions of pulp sensationalism (‘beautiful and unashamed in the curving redundancy of her body’s loveliness beneath the unconcealing silk chemise’); mimicry of cinematic technique (captions accompanying short, ‘montaged’ scenes, references to irises closing); unhelpful mock-scholarly footnotes, including one which abuses the author for his ignorance of the elementary principles of plot construction. These tricks alone would be enough to make the book a comic masterpiece, but Coates can do more besides, for there also marvellous passages that strike other notes, notes that convey something of the wonderment and anguish of being alive, of being surrounded by questions that have no answer. I will say nothing of the narrative frame into which Coates inserts his ludicrous thriller plot, except to note that it leads to an ending that is at once audacious, unsurprising, appropriately anti-climactic and oddly beautiful. It is a sad quirk of literary history that this book has so little reputation; it will be a minor tragedy if this situation continues.

*There is a cheaper reprint from 2012 by Olympia Press, but to judge from the Amazon reviews, this seems to be best avoided.

**The people named in this list are all historical figures. Fannie (or Fanny) Brice was a stage and radio star; Laurence Vail was a writer and artist; his wife Peggy (better known as Peggy Guggenheim) was an art collector; Harold Stearns, Floyd Dell and Malcolm Cowley were all writers.

The Mackerel Fiesta

Thank you, Gethin. Ladies and gentlemen, it is, I must say, a great honour to be here today, and to preside over this wonderful fiesta, now in its thirteenth year. I have heard one or two complaints that, as festivals go, ours is less than venerable, and, indeed, is a rather artificial affair, a flimsy excuse for public inebriation, not based at all on a genuine tradition, but shamelessly copied from similar festivals to be found in Spain or Portugal, one or the other, or perhaps both, or neither. Malta maybe? But never mind about that. Some cynical souls have even suggested that the whole event has been manufactured with the sole aim of drawing in crowds of gullible tourists and pocketing their foolishly spent money. Yes, boo hiss indeed, ladies and gentlemen. Boo hiss indeed. Well might you boo, and well might you hiss. But not with your mouth full, Mr. Jenkins, that would be my advice. But, looking around me, I see so many local faces, that, while I won’t say that this is a local fiesta for local people, ha ha, it does illustrate the value we in this lovely little town attach to a sense of community, for what can bring a community together more effectively, more cohesively, than burning a giant fish on a beach?

Those of you who have attended the fiesta before will know the routine: from here we march in procession to the sweet sounds of our talented band, through the centre of town, over the bridge, down to the yacht club, where there will be some entertainment and a few words from me (as if that weren’t entertainment enough), and then it’s just a short walk to the beach, where, after we have given thanks to Almighty God, our fishy friend here will make the supreme sacrifice, and be set alight. And then, at the end, we’ll have the raffle, with the first prize being this impressive magnum bottle of champagne. For the procession we have, as you see, six bearers to carry the effigy―a round of applause, ladies and gentlemen―including Mr. Andrews, who, of course, being a genuine local undertaker, is used to this sort of thing. Following them will be our weeping, wailing widows, and a fine sight they are, I’m sure you’ll agree, ladies and gentlemen, so another round of applause, if you please. Don’t milk it, Mrs. Pryce-Evans, there’s really no need for a twirl.

Right then, if everything is ready, let the procession begin! Don’t push, Gethin, I’m ahead of you, it’s only proper. I wish this music were a bit more mournful; rather too jaunty for the occasion, don’t you think? Widows, your keening is commendable, but might I suggest a few more ululations, and less of the giggling, if you please. This is a serious matter, after all. Thank you, Mrs. Pryce-Evans; that was an excellent flutter of the handkerchief, but try not to overdo it. Let dignity be your goal. And bearers, if you could just attempt to assume a more solemn air, that would be appreciated. For God’s sake! Who is that wearing trainers? Mr. Andrews, I am disappointed! You, of all people, should know better. Some of you, I regret to say, are not taking this quite as seriously as you should, but there we are, it can’t be helped, I suppose. What is it, Gethin? No, I don’t want a shot, get back to your place, mun.

Now then, ladies and gentlemen, here we are, and, as promised, we will have some entertainment for you very shortly. But first, as your minister, it behoves me to say a few words on this momentous and splendid occasion. Those of you who know me will know that community is one of my chief concerns, and in our community, we value very much those members of it who go out to sea and bring us back its bounty, braving the winds and the waves and the terrors of the deep. Thank you, God, for keeping them safe. But God, if you must know, I have bone to pick with you, because, to tell the truth, the catch has been a bit disappointing this year, hasn’t it? Not much of a bounty at all, really. And what’s worse, it’s a continuation of a recent trend. People talk about overfishing and marine pollution and what-have-you, but other towns and villages, some of them not so very far from here, have done much better than us, and that’s a fact. Why is that, Lord? What have we done? Where have we sinned? I know you move in mysterious ways; that, I can’t deny. But if, in your infinite and impenetrable wisdom, you could see to it that next year we have a better catch, I for one would be most grateful. To that end, we offer you this piscine effigy, and hope you like it. In fact, I’d say it looks so fetching, that you’d be a bit of an odd fish not to. Odd fish, ha ha.

Now, I am well-known in these parts for the keen interest I take in fishing matters, which some have said rivals the interest I take in religious matters. More than rivals, thank you! Mr. Jenkins, there, always ready with his little quips, some of them, as you can see, being less successful than others. I have been on several fact-finding missions across the globe in order to develop and enhance my understanding of the issues, and to attempt to find a solution to the relative dearth in maritime produce that has brought about so much local consternation. For instance, at the Trøllbøgrøll Institute in Bergen, in Norway, where I have been―TWICE!―I was reliably informed that the annual percentage, not excluding… Ah, I see that Gethin is gesturing to me in that characteristically frantic way of his, and I can only interpret his gestures as a polite reminder that time is of the essence, and on that, he has my full agreement, for if we take a moment to consider time, yes alright Gethin, keep your bloody hair on, boy.

Right, time now, ladies and gentlemen, for that entertainment I mentioned earlier, for which I am sure you have been waiting with baited breath. And so, without further ado, let me introduce you to someone who needs no introduction, the one and only, our very own, Mrs. Llinos Wendy Davies! A warm welcome, ladies and gentlemen, please. That’s better. It’s a thrilling performance we have in store for us now, ladies and gentlemen, because Mrs. Davies, who no doubt has already captured your attention with her remarkable attire, is about to combine the noble arts of belly dancing and fire juggling. Take it away, Mrs. Davies!

After that eye-opening spectacle, no-one can say that the years have not been kind to Mrs. Davies. Indeed, one might say that age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite b―yes, you’re right, Gethin, that would probably be a bit off-colour. Well caught. Careful, there, Mrs. Davies, one of the torches is not quite―Good God, she’s on fire! Someone put her out, for the love of Christ, I can’t bear all that screaming. What are you doing? You can’t chuck her in the harbour, the bloody tide’s out, mun. What? The prize champagne? But what about the raffle? Oh, sweet Jesus, what a waste! Still, at least she’s out. Thank you, Mrs. Davies, that was unforgettable. Don’t worry, the ambulance is on its way. I’m sure, ladies and gentlemen, that you will all join me in wishing Mrs. Davies a speedy recovery. Now then, Gethin, what can we get to replace the champagne? We need something for the main prize. A big bottle of Strongbow? Very well, it will have to do. Wait, it looks as if it’s been opened. Well, if it’s only one swig, I suppose no-one will mind.

Ladies and gentlemen, after that excitement, it is time now to move on to the ceremony itself. Bearers, widows: to your positions please, so that we can go down to the beach. Musicians, there’s no need, we have had the benefit of your talents for long enough now. This year, ladies and gentlemen, in a bit of an innovation, we have built really quite a large pyre on which the mackerel will be placed. A bit more oomph, you see, like a Viking funeral. Doesn’t it do the town proud? Here we are. Before we consign this extraordinary effigy to the flames, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to say a few brief words and to lead us all in prayer. Yes, Gethin, I did say brief. Lord, we are gathered here today in thy presence to give thanks for thy munificence, which, though in the opinion of some may have fallen a bit short in recent years, nonetheless blesses us and is still a cause for gratitude, and after all, Lord, who are we to complain? We are but maggots, crawling and slithering repulsively in the noxious depths of sin and iniquity, blind to thy holy purposes, Lord, and undeserving, mostly, of the paltry crumbs of sustenance you deign to drop, from time to time, when the mood suits you, and evidently it hasn’t suited you much this past year or in previous years, but that’s quite alright, mustn’t grumble, you are the Lord of Light and Life, after all, and we thy humble―alright Gethin, no need for that. Burn the damn thing, amen.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a promising start to the conflagration. The mighty, marvellous, majestic, magnificent mackerel really giving out some heat, there, ha ha, although I do detect a faint aroma of… I’m not quite sure what, exactly, but I can’t honestly say it’s pleasant. Gethin, what did you use to make the fish? Plastic! Good God, mun! Whose bright idea was that? No, it was not my idea, you lying git. What kind of plastic? What do you mean you don’t know? No, it’s not a bloody technical question, it… wait, are those tyres? You put car tyres in the pyre! You fucking idiot! You useless bucket of shit! Jesus fucking Christ, the smoke coming off that thing! Oh God, the smell! No, no, ladies and gentlemen, stay put, I think the wind is about to change. Yes, yes, there we are, see, blowing it all back into town, out of the way. Great black billows of Satanically noxious smoke, pretty poisonous, I should think. I hope people in town are inside with their windows closed, although on a lovely sunny day like this, it’s quite possible that they’re not. Still, rather them than us, ladies and gentlemen, eh? Ha ha. No. No, Mr. Jenkins, you’re right, that was inappropriate. Gethin, you’re sure this isn’t dangerous, aren’t you? I mean, I hope we’re not going to get sued.

Oh Christ, I think the wind has changed again. No, don’t panic, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no cause for alarm, it’s simply a minor… My eyes! My God, my eyes! And my throat, too! Thank you, Lord, thanks a fucking bunch. Run! Run, ladies and gentlemen, run for your lives! Christ on a bike, I’m blind! Oh fuck fuck fuck. Gethin! Gethin! Gethin, where are you, boy? Don’t leave me! Oh, the pain! I can’t breathe. Not like this, Lord! Not like this!

Elegy for Sir Benet, Parson of Corwen, by Guto’r Glyn (c. 1464)

A dream arrived dire and fearful
that from the poet forced his tears,
shattered his hand-strength at the hilt,
and cracked his sword Saturday night.
The sword was buried in the dust,
a leader fair and scholar wise.
A brutal blow did God’s fist strike
by smashing Edeirnion’s own fist;
as he struck to earth Brân and Llŷr,
he struck to earth the eagle’s chick,
and struck to earth the people’s shield,
and struck to earth the learned priest.
In Gwynedd, the lament is great
because Sir Benet’s in his grave,
and for their kinsman, great the grief
in Tegeingl, such dreadful news.
Yesterday, an invitation;
today, where is the inviter?
Set for today, the joyful feast:
the feast that’s now a funeral.
Faces washed by waves of water,
The fallen churchman’s bleak blue sea.

An eagle of the faithful, strong
and exalted bird of Llwch Gwin;
stalwart leader of St. Sulien’s,
built like a Roland, grey giant.
The claws of death, ever mighty,
will strike down all our human deeds.
Not in the whole breadth of England
has such a man as he been felled.
St. David, alas, is not here
to raise him to the realms of life,
nor St. Beuno, who recovered
seven from death’s unloved domain.
To see Sir Benet full of health
would make my heart replete with bliss.
If Corwen’s curate has left us,
fine man, woe to those remaining!
Since his going, men are worse off
and good priests thinner on the ground.
That man never failed in kindness,
but now gifts are seldom received.
No poet passed with empty purse;
now only air stuffs his leather.
Why don’t you endow another,
God, with patronage to bless us?
When Ifor Hael died in summer,
Rhys Leiaf took on his mantle.
Ifor met his death in Corwen,
devastating that scholar’s court.
Sweet Mary, who merits the chair?
Whose virtues will deserve the place?
Who will give at a splendid fair
the second gift on Sulien’s feast?
Sir Benet, while there, gave freely,
sharing his wealth without stinting.
If an Englishman gets the job,
by God, let him have open hands.
But it’s not likely that we’ll have
a parson to compare in fame.

The Book of Good Love (Juan Ruiz, translated by Elizabeth Drayson MacDonald, 1999)

The Book of Good Love, an amazing, rather bewildering 14th-century Spanish poem, is a slippery text that vaunts and revels in its own slipperiness. Is it a pious denunciation of carnal appetites, or a ribald celebration of them? Which way do the abundant ironies slant? The author repeatedly exhorts us to understand his book correctly, according to his intentions, but is of little help in making those intentions clear. The prose introduction claims that readers and listeners will be moved to ‘cast aside and abhor the evil ways and wiles of foolish love’, but then informs us that anyone wishing to ‘indulge in the excesses of worldly love’ will find many handy tips―a sly barb aimed those determined to misuse the text for sinful ends, or an equally sly nudge letting us know of the text’s usefulness in achieving those ends? On the surface, the introduction insists that the book’s purpose is to encourage virtue; intelligent readers and listeners will not be misled by the sound of words, but will understand the intention behind them, which is to show the path to salvation. A little later, however, in the poem proper, we are promised that correct understanding will be rewarded with a lovely lady―‘entiende bien my dicho e avras dueña garrida’.* Perhaps this ‘dueña garrida’ is more spiritual than fleshly; the promise is preceded by the proverb ‘No evil word is spoken, if it is not thought to be evil’ (‘non ha mala palabra si non es a mal tenida’), warning us against misinterpretation, but the proverb is ascribed to wise old women, and the most prominent wise old woman in the text is a cunning go-between who facilitates illicit affairs―hardly a paragon of spotless morality. A few stanzas further, and the book is compared to a musical instrument, to be played badly or well according to the aptitude and inclination of the reader/listener―a metaphor that acknowledges a degree of freedom of interpretation, with the proviso that some interpretations are better than others. Any confidence we may have in a pious interpretation is complicated by the hint of sexual innuendo in the metaphor; we may lean instead towards a bawdier interpretation, but then have to reckon with the assertion that where the book appears to be false, it speaks the greatest truth (‘Do coydares que miente dize mayor verdat’). Near the end (which is not really the end, for there more than 90 stanzas to come after the author announces that he has reached the conclusion), the poem is described as a short text with a long gloss, in which ‘every story has another meaning/in addition to the one ascribed by elegant discourse’ (‘que sobre cada fabla se entyende otra cosa,/syn la que se a-lega en la Rason fermosa’)―a reference to the many Aesopian fables included in the book, which are used to advance different, even opposing points of view, and which can be cited to advocate or justify immoral as well as moral behaviour. The book’s open-endedness confounds its insistence on the primacy of authorial intention, so that it exists as both a volume of advice on holiness, and a ‘brief breviary of play and jest’ (‘de juego E de burla es chica breuiario’). The poet declares that he has served with scant wisdom (‘con poca sabidoria’), and spoken as a minstrel in order to please all, which does not accord with the claim of a subtle hidden purpose, whether it be the salvation of souls, the dissemination of advice on how to get into a woman’s bed, or as an example of and guide to poetic skill (its other stated function).

The slipperiness extends to the authorial persona. Very little is known of Juan Ruiz, other than that he was Archpriest of Hita in central Spain (the role of archpriest is now largely defunct in the Catholic Church). From the opening prayer, the writer is identified as ‘the archpriest’; he later identifies himself without any ambiguity as Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita. Soon, however, the poet starts complaining of his lack of success with women, and is advised by Love and Venus on how to improve his chances― strange matters, one might think, for a priest to be discussing openly. In fact, priests were often far from celibate in medieval Spain; though marriage was forbidden, concubinage was widespread, and The Book of Good Love appeared at a time when efforts were made to crack down on the practice.** We might, nevertheless, raise an eyebrow at a priest unashamedly conforming to the trope of the lecherous cleric and portraying himself as someone almost wholly fixated on earthly love (or simply on sex, as the case may be). When he claims to be passionately in love with his neighbour, a young widow called Endrina (the name means sloe), his desires apparently include marriage; in his first attempt to woo her, he mentions that, contrary to his parents’ wishes, he has refused to marry a rich woman in Toledo. Is this still Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita? A younger version, before he took holy orders? When the suitor engages the services of a go-between, the older woman refers to him as Don Melon of the Kitchen Garden, or as Don Melon Ortiz; are these nicknames, or are we to understand that it is no longer the story of the archpriest, but of an alter ego? The affair with Endrina ends in marriage (an impossibility for a priest), and the relevant stanza refers to Don Melon in the third person; the section headings, however, all refer to the archpriest, and when the narrator speaks to Venus of his love for Endrina, it is long before any mention of Don Melon. Where does Juan Ruiz (or ‘Juan Ruiz’) end and Don Melon begin? Once the marriage is over, it is not long before the narrator again claims to be in love, and again collaborates with a go-between, who addresses him as archpriest; what has happened to Endrina, who disappears from the poem after the wedding?

The go-between is herself a figure of unstable identity. During the Endrina episode, she is always called Trotaconventos (which means convent-trotter, or someone who walks between convents), while during the next courtship episode, she is always called Urraca (which means magpie). Indistinguishable in speech and behaviour, they might nonetheless seem at first to be different people, but then, in the course of a later courtship involving a nun, she is called both Urraca (in ST 1326) and Trotaconventos (in ST 1343). Also of unstable identity are the rough mountain women with whom the archpriest has a series of bawdy encounters; so similar are the encounters that the women seem like multiple iterations of the same character. The effect is doubled by narrating each encounter twice: once in the cuaderna vía*** verse form used for most of the poem, and once in the form of a song, with differences in each telling. Textual lacunae are another source of ambiguity. Most prominently, the sex scene between Don Melon and Endrina has not survived (a loss of about 32 stanzas), probably because the material was deemed too explicit. Judging from the aftermath, some element of deception or even rape was involved, which would accord with Ruiz’s credited source, the pseudo-Ovidian medieval work Pamphilus de amore, but in the absence of the text, it is impossible to be absolutely sure of what is supposed to have happened. Certainly Endrina feels betrayed, for she rails against Trotaconventos for tricking her, but the older woman responds only with chilling indifference and pragmatism. The author, in his guise as the archpriest, then laments Endrina’s fate and advises women to learn from it by steering clear of conniving go-betweens and unscrupulous suitors:

Andan por todo el pueblo dalla muchos desires,
muchos despues la enfaman con escarnios E rreyres;
dueña, por te desir esto, non te asanes nin te ayres,
mis fablas e mis fasañas Ruego te que byen las mires,

Entyende byen mi estoria de la fija del endrino;
dixela por te dar ensienpro, non por que a mi vino.
guardate de falsa vieja, de rriso de mal vesino,
sola con ome non te fyes, nin te llegues al Espino.

[Soon rumours fly around the town about her,
and she is defamed by many with mockery and laughter.
Madam, don’t be angry when I say this to you,
I beg you to listen carefully to my words and stories.

Try to understand fully the story of Endrina, daughter of the sloe;
I told it to you as an example, not because it happened to me.
Beware of false old women, of a bad neighbour’s laughter.
Don’t trust a man to be alone with you, nor get too close to the thorn.]

Is this sympathy for the dishonoured victim, or is there perhaps an undercurrent of gloating? What is certain is that ‘Juan Ruiz’ is distancing himself from ‘Don Melon’, as if the former had nothing to do with the latter’s misdeeds, whereas earlier there had been no clear line of separation between them. The revelation of Don Melon’s baseness stands in stark contrast to the archpriest’s declarations of sincere passion (‘con locura E con amor afyncado’/‘deep-rooted love and its madness’, as he says to Venus); one man is a cynical sexual predator, the other a hapless, scorned, moon-faced suitor. Perhaps the very starkness of the contrast, and the confusion over identity, is just the point―the noble poses and flowery rhetoric of the earnest lover mask only brutish male appetites. Trotaconventos is under no illusions when she promises the archpriest/Don Melon that she will be able to procure for him other women as well as Endrina:

ssy me dieredes ayuda de que passe algun poquillo,
a esta dueña e a otras moçetas de cuello aluillo,
yo fare con mi escanto que se vengan paso a pasillo,
en aqueste mi farnero las traere al sarçillo.

[If you could see your way to help me get by,
both this lady and other girls with nice white necks,
I will make them come little by little with my spell,
will gather them into my basket with my weeding hook.]

Before his courtship of Endrina, the archpriest, embittered by rejection, launches into a self-pitying diatribe against Love, berating him as a thief and blaming him for all human sins. Love, who causes men to conceive impossible and ruinous desires, is compared to a fowler beguiling and ensnaring birds; the comparison is taken up later by Endrina, only this time it is the deceived woman who is the ensnared bird, and the amoral man and his go-between who are the fowlers. Love advises the archpriest to make false promises, to court several women at once, to strive to make them lose their shame: a pagan deity recommending most un-Christian behaviour to a priest. Venus’s counsel of unrelenting persistence is just as troubling, especially her image of a dog drawing blood by licking and licking (‘el can que mucho lame sin dubda sangre saca’). But again, it is hard to know interpret the image: a winking endorsement of harassment, or harsh condemnation of men’s bestial drives? Whatever the case, Ruiz makes Endrina’s precarious social position clear, for there are pressures in addition to Don Melon’s advances: on the one hand, as a young widow she is vulnerable to the aggressive suits and legal threats of other men, which might be neutralized by marrying Don Melon, but on the other hand, marrying too early might cause her to forfeit her inheritance. Even Trotaconventos gets her due: reliant as she is on Don Melon’s generosity, she reminds him that the rich have a habit of cheating and oppressing the poor, and warns him not to do the same. Women leading insecure lives have to contend with the lusts of privileged men, and it is the men who wield the power, in spite of the archpriest’s complaint of arrogant rich women giving him the cold shoulder (‘ado es el grand lynaje ay son los alçamientos’/‘the higher the lineage, the greater the arrogance’). His encounters with the mountain women, who threaten him with violence, are a kind of burlesque reversal, in that it is he who must now submit to feminine desire, and to women of a very different class from the wealthy widows and maidens he is used to pursuing.

The tension between flesh and spirit is not only expressed in sexual terms; one long section concerns a fantastic struggle between the embodiment of Lent (an elderly woman, whose army consists mostly of fish) and Don Carnal (a gluttonous emperor with an army of meats). The poem’s sympathies seem to lie with the wily Don Carnal, who has an ally in Love, but this could be a trap; immediately before this section is a series of austere devotional verses on Christ’s passion (‘las llagas quel llagaron son mas dulçes que miel/a los que en el avemos esperança syn par’―‘The wounds they gave Him/are sweeter than honey/and give us boundless hope/in the Lord’). The book contains several passages of seemingly impeccable piety, including hymns to the Virgin Mary, condemnations of sin and exhortations to a holy life. How all this reverence can co-exist with the earthier aspects of the work is a conundrum that cannot easily be resolved, for the theology of ‘the archpriest’, who prays to God for success in his amorous endeavours (‘el que ‘amen’ dixiere lo que cobdiçia lo vea’/‘He who says ‘Amen’ shall see what he covets’―but covetousness is one of the sins he earlier decries!) may be very different from that of the archpriest-author. What is not in doubt is the brilliantly salty expressiveness of the language, which displays a close familiarity with the everyday speech of different social classes. Here, for example, is one of the mountain women letting loose in full force:

Ryome commo rrespuso la serrana tan sañuda.
desçendio la cuesta ayuso, commo era atrevuda,
dixo: ‘non sabes el vso comos doma la rres muda,
quiça el pecado puso esa lengua tan aguda,
¡si la cayada te enbyo!’

Enbiome la cayda aqui tras el pastorejo,
fixo me yr la cuesta-lada, derribome en el vallejo.
dixo la endiablada: ‘asy apilan el conejo.
sobarte,’ diz, ‘el aluarda sy non partes del trebejo.
¡lyeuate, vete sandio!’

hospedome E diome vyanda, mas escortar mela fizo.
por que non fiz quando manda, diz: ‘¡rroyn, gaho, enverniso!
¡commo fiz loca demanda en dexar por ty el vaqueriso!
yot mostrare, sinon ablandas, commo se pella el eriso,
syn agua E syn rroçio.’

[I laugh at how
the angry girl replied.
She came down the slope.
for she was bold
and said: ‘Don’t you know
how a dumb beast is tamed?
Perhaps the devil gave you
such a sharp tongue,
watch if I don’t give you a taste of my crook!’

She threw the crook at me
here, behind my ear,
and I fell sideways down the slope
and into the ditch.
The devilish girl said:
‘That’s how you nab a rabbit;
I’ll wallop your saddle,’ she said,
‘if you don’t stop this game.
Get up and go away, idiot!’

She invited me in and gave me meat,
but I had to pay for it.
Because I wouldn’t do all she asked
she said: ‘Pathetic, fool, simpleton!
What a daft thing
to leave a cowherd for you!
If you don’t obey me, I’ll show you
how a hedgehog rolls into a ball
without water or dew.’]

We may or may not choose to obey the author’s directive to try to decipher his secret purpose, if indeed he has one, but at the very least we can be sure of being entertained.

 

 

*The implied reader/listener is here male, but the text also addresses itself directly to women in places.

**In a hilarious episode near the end of the poem, a group of clergy react with dismay upon learning of the decree against concubinage; a dean tearfully laments ‘vobis enim dimitere quam suaue’ (‘We must send soft pussy away’).

***Poetry composed strictly according to cuaderna vía principles comprised mono-rhymed quatrains of fourteen syllables, with a caesura in the middle of each line; this was the dominant literary verse form in medieval Spain. Ruiz is no strict adherent: some stanzas are syllabically regular, others are not, while rhymes are occasionally omitted (manuscript variation must be taken into account, of course). The cuaderna vía of the poem is interspersed with ‘songs’ and ‘verses’ that use a variety of different metres.

Mist (1967, Kim Soo-yong)

mist2

Mist, heat, and small minds twisted by poverty: these are the only notable features of the fictional seaside town of Mujin. Such is the withering assessment of Yun Gi-jun, who works at a large pharmaceutical company owned by his father-in-law. Mujin is where he grew up, and he was glad to leave it, but now he has been sent there to be out of the way while his wife and her father take care of an important business meeting. Gi-jun’s professional status is empty and powerless; every material comfort he has acquired in Seoul is dependent on his advantageous marriage, and when his presence is deemed surplus to requirements, he cannot object to being packed off for a short while to the very hometown from which he was so desperate to escape. There is barely a hint of nostalgia. The town’s enervating heat and omnipresent mist are correlative to its backwardness and mediocrity, which isolate it from the rest of Korea―certainly from the distant capital, on its way to becoming a thriving megacity. And yet perhaps the country is more truly represented by this backwardness and mediocrity than by the aggressive drive towards modernity championed by its right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee. Perhaps the markers of progress and prosperity are as much of a façade as Gi-jun’s job title; perhaps its champions are themselves mired in the same backwardness and mediocrity they ostensibly seek to eradicate. Perhaps, indeed, very drive towards modernity―accompanied as it is by stifling oppression and conformity―is itself, at heart, an expression of deep-seated backwardness and mediocrity.

Socio-political questions such as these are addressed obliquely in this film, for the focus is on the consciousness of the central character, his memories and fantasies. The border between Gi-jun’s mental landscape and the world beyond it is confused by various anti-realist devices, so that the film is as mutable and ambiguous as the coastal fog. At his first appearance in his office, Gi-jun has a hallucination of ants crawling over the pages of an accounts book, brought on, perhaps, by the city heat, or by the alienating, mindless routine of his work. He takes a pill (one of his own company’s?) in order to banish the vision, then slams the book shut when a colleague enters, as if to crush the non-existent ants. Later, in the window of the train, he has the first of several visions of his younger, poorer self; here, as elsewhere, no attempt is made to make the actor seem more youthful, further widening the breach with realism (and suggesting a greater continuity between his former self and his current incarnation than Gi-jun might comfortably admit). In two scenes, the younger and older Gi-jun even seem to interact: in the first of these, the film cuts from younger to older in such a way as to suggest that the younger acknowledges the other’s presence with a slight smile, but this is left open to interpretation rather than made explicit. Later on, as Gi-jun walks along the beach with In-suk, a teacher with whom he has struck up an affair, he sees two boys walking ahead; immediately after, we see that he is no longer walking alongside In-suk, but alongside his younger self, before whom he tries to justify his conduct in marrying a wealthy widow (the younger Gi-jun answers only by spitting). Are the two walkers he sees ahead of him real? Do they prompt his fantastic vision? Or were they from the start products of his imagination? Does he see himself seeing himself? What of all the other scenes from Gi-jun’s past: are they objective flashbacks, subjective memories, or invented fantasies?

Gi-jun is present in almost every scene in the film, either on or off camera. The only real exception is a brief dialogue between his wife and her father as they conduct their business in Seoul, their contempt for Gi-jun evident. In the preceding shot, Gi-jun turns his head to look offscreen as he tends his mother’s grave―perhaps looking towards Seoul and the people who ordered him to perform that same chore. Does the scene really shift to the capital, or is it all in Gi-jun’s imagination? Again, the film is not explicit. After accompanying the policeman into town with the dead woman’s body, Gi-jun visits the office of an old school friend, now a locally powerful tax officer; an episode of Tatiesque comedy as successive underlings bring documents to be stamped seems to prompt Gi-jun to reflect that his own professional life, while outwardly more prestigious, is at heart no less mundane and mediocre. At least this is what might be inferred from the close-up of a typewriter―which happens to be exactly the same typewriter we saw in Gi-jun’s office near the beginning of the film. The shot is followed by a view through a doorway into another office, and again, this very shot was used in the opening scene in Seoul. I doubt the late Nicolas Roeg ever saw Mist,* but he might have found much to enjoy in it.

A few of the temporal disjunctions are quite complex, and tracing them requires some attention. In one scene, after Gi-jun has passed through the town’s small red light district on his way home, a remembered remark from In-suk is the cue for a shot of the younger Gi-jun writing desperate letters to potential employers in Seoul. A series of jump cuts, accompanied by clock chimes, then shows the present-day Gi-jun lying awake from different overhead angles. The next morning, he visits his mother’s grave; when he looks off to the side, he sees a vision of his mother’s funeral procession. Returning from the grave site, he comes across the body of a prostitute who has committed suicide, attended by a police officer and some gawping boys; later we see Gi-jun following the crowd as the dead woman is carried away.** In between, however, there are some more overhead shots of Gi-jun lying awake at night; again, jump cuts are used, but there is a different sequence, and this time there are no clock chimes. Both these sequences of overhead shots appear to take place on the same night, but is it before or after the prostitute’s suicide? Or is the second sequence Gi-jun’s memory of the previous night, the details tweaked in order to show the unreliability of that memory? At the end of the film, as Gi-jun thinks back on the past few days, regretting his treatment of In-suk, scenes of their affair are replayed, only differently: from different angles, with different gestures, dialogue and facial expressions. Again, it could be that these re-stagings are meant to be Gi-jun’s unreliable memories―but then again, it could be that they are the true versions, while the earlier scenes are not to be trusted. Or perhaps nothing is to be trusted; perhaps everything we see is distorted by the main character’s subjectivity. The matter is left open.

mist3

Other anti-realist devices include a freeze frame, non-diegetic music that accompanies In-suk’s singing, and the mist itself, theatrical in its excess. All of them serve to leave us disorientated in the oneiric fog of Gi-jun’s subjectivity. The sonorous but oddly affectless manner in which actor Shin Seong-il delivers the voice-over suggests a tranquilized anxiety, soothed, perhaps, by the pills his company makes, or by the mist, which Gi-jun likens to a sleeping drug. The association of the oppressive, deadening mist with the products of what is probably a chaebol (one of the powerful family-owned conglomerates that have dominated Korean society for decades) links the backwardness of Mujin to the supposedly modern and forward-thinking capitalist-consumerism of Seoul, implying that both are equally responsible for the suffocating banality and purposeless constrictions of Gi-jun’s existence, which in turn have resulted in a smug, weak-willed, neurotic character. In-suk may dream of leaving Mujin for the capital, but the bitter implication of the film is that her life would likely be no freer in Seoul. A more direct political critique would hardly have been possible during Park’s regime, but subtle and indirect as its method may be, Mist makes clear the wider malaise afflicting the country. The only other work by Kim Soo-yong I’ve seen is The Seaside Village (1965), an intermittently powerful but rather muddled melodrama; his achievement here is light years ahead.

The Korean Film Archive has made Mist available on YouTube here.

mist1

*The film’s Korean title is 안개, which translates as ‘mist’ or ‘fog’, but its international title was originally supposed to be The Foggy Town, which is seen in the opening credits. However, the Korean Film Archive has retitled it simply Mist. The story by Kim Seung-ok, on which the screenplay (also by Kim) is based, is called 무진기행, or ‘Journey to Mujin’.

**Here, in addition to the visual echo of his mother’s funeral, the bell that we hear echoes the clock chimes heard while Gi-jun lies sleeplessly in bed. Is there a suggestion that Gi-jun’s mother may have turned to sex work in order to bring him up?

The Interpreters (1965, Wole Soyinka)

A work of considerable brilliance, Soyinka’s witty, troubling satire on post-independence Nigeria follows five close friends, all of them educated, articulate young men who have spent time abroad and now struggle to find their bearings in a society afflicted by greed, apathy and selfish ambition. The five young men are Egbo, a civil servant fascinated by power; Sagoe, a caustic journalist with a scatological obsession; Kola, an artist doubtful of his own abilities; Sekoni, an earnest, stuttering engineer; and Bandele, a mild-mannered academic. The capital Lagos and the university city of Ibadan are the twin settings of the book, the action alternating between the respective centres of political and intellectual rot. Various grotesques and marginal figures compete for narrative attention and offer counterpoints to the experiences of the five bright young men who might suppose themselves vital participants in, or trenchant observers of, their country’s future. Kola is at work on a vast canvas portraying friends and acquaintances in the guise of folkloric and supernatural beings, intended as some kind of statement on modern Nigeria, except that Kola isn’t quite sure what that statement amounts to. Kola’s project comments on Soyinka’s own, except that the book is not weakened by artistic uncertainty, but rather is deliberately and captivatingly diffuse, oblique and exploratory. This is not a satire of confident diagnosis and haranguing denunciation, but of misgivings, queries and compassionate scepticism.

The meandering fifth chapter is a good example of Soyinka’s probing, digressive approach. Beginning with Sagoe hungover and argumentative in his girlfriend’s flat, it continues with a fantastic conversation with a dead man who emerges from a wardrobe; there is then a flashback to Sagoe’s first day at work, when he regales a subordinate with a long disquisition on his ‘Voidant’ philosophy (concerned with shitting: ‘Voidancy is the last uncharted mine of creative energies, in its paradox lies the kernel of creative liturgy―in release is birth.’); it then moves back a week to the day of his interview (a farcical affair), with a brief German detour to take in the past visit of the newspaper’s managing director; next it switches to two days after the interview, when he is invited to offer a bribe in order to secure the job; there follows a reminiscence from Sagoe’s childhood, before the chapter returns to the aftermath of the interview, which ends in further farce. This is the longest chapter in the book, and it is fitting that Sagoe should be its focus, for he is perhaps the most dominating character, and his pungent mockery is a major voice in the novel. It is Sagoe who provides the comic highlight when he later attends an awful party with Egbo, Kola and Bandele, the atmosphere thick with the pretensions of university bigwigs and social climbers, preposterously aping their former colonial masters (there is even a cat with an alleged allergy to Africans). Sagoe, incognito and emboldened by drink, starts throwing plastic fruit out the window in disgust; he is challenged by Pinkshore, an obnoxious Brit, and Mrs. Oguazor, hostess and wife of a newly appointed professor. Soyinka’s background as a dramatist is evident in the hilarious dialogue:

  ‘Before the party ends, may I offer my congratulations to you for the appointment of your husband to a professorship?’
‘That is kind of you but would you mind telling me . . . ?’
‘I see now why it’s a tuxedo party. That kind of event deserves nothing but mourning dress.’
‘Just tell me who you are and why you have been throwing the decorations through the window.’
‘But I told you, madam, I am the UNESCO expert on architectural planning.’
‘Frivolity,’ and she gave a dead stare, ‘does not amuse me.’
‘He must be drunk, Mrs Oguazor,’ said Pinkshore.
‘That is a lie, you anaemic Angle.’
‘To what department do you belong sir?’
‘Architecture.’
Very sharply she retorted, ‘There is no department of architecture in the university.’
‘I am hardly surprised madam. Just look at the buildings, enh? Work of amateurs!’
‘Will you please . . . ‘
‘Of course your own house is very charming. Obviously an outside job.’

As funny as Sagoe’s disruptions are, however, Soyinka refuses to make him any kind of hero or spokesman. His eye for dishonesty and hypocrisy may be acute, but his crusading instincts are smothered by media corruption, and he rarely transcends the clownishness for which Pinkshore condemns him; his disruptions are limited and ineffectual. The society whose pervasively venal mediocrity Sagoe would ridicule and denounce can accommodate and neuter even tricksters and gadflies like him. Moreover, it is never clear that Sagoe’s mockery and indignation are underpinned by a firm set of values or penetrating social analysis; it is never clear that he knows what kind of society he would like to see established in place of the current one. The same is true of his friends; all of them are too wrapped up in their own concerns and narrow interests to be capable of a wider vision for their country and for Africa―only Sekoni comes close, and he is first ignored as eccentric, then confined as insane. Darker aspects of their characters such as sexism, homophobia, class condescension, sexual egotism (the five men do not display all of these flaws equally) point to grave deficiencies of a generation of educated men. It is, in Soyinka’s telling, a dangerously masculine, even masculinist, generation, not necessarily more inclusive and egalitarian than its elders. Women, foreigners, albinos, gays, petty criminals, the uneducated, those of mixed race: Soyinka gives all of them voices, so that this is not simply another study of young intellectuals adrift*. Part of the diagnosis seems to be that meaningful national progress is impossible so long as so many people are marginalized and discounted.

As with another African novel, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, there is a preoccupation with excrement, although here it is less of a dominant theme. Sagoe’s philosophy of Voidancy may be absurd, complete with absurd factionalism (‘You are a bourgeois Voidante, they yelled―you know how the French love polemics―and I replied, and you are Voidante pseudo-negritudinists!’), but shit is a serious matter, and the inability of state and society to deal with it safely and hygienically is both an emblem of institutional failure and a specific, grievous example of it. Soyinka brings together this theme with two others: a toothless media and a dismal attitude to road safety and maintenance:

Round the corner of the Renascent High School it lay, some yards from the first bus stop entering Abule Ijesha. Sagoe encountered first the deserted night-cart and trailer; some distance behind, its contents were spread on the road. To reconstruct the accident―the enormous porthole had flown open and the driver had not stopped fast enough. Over twenty yards were spread huge pottage mounds, twenty yards of solid and running, plebeian and politician, indigenous and foreign shit. Right on the tarred road. Nwabuzor by some curious reasoning expunged his pictures from the page, said they would offend the general reader. ‘But it is there,’ said Sagoe, ‘that shit is still lying there on a main road, in front of a school, in a residential area!’ And five days later Sagoe returned to it in flagellating pilgrimage, took more photos to show Nwabuzor, who could not be persuaded to go himself―and still it reigned supreme, tyrannous. Diminished admittedly―dogs have peculiar tastes and some drivers were not quick enough and churned through it―but typhous as ever, unified in monochromatic brown.

This shit is of the people, from the people―perhaps even a perverse model of unity to which a divided society might aspire (‘plebeian and politician, indigenous and foreign’). It is also a kind of religious shrine (Sagoe’s ‘pilgrimage’), and wields tremendous secular authority (‘it reigned supreme, tyrannous’), but whatever the comic and symbolic power of faeces, Soyinka does not let us forget the real-world problems it brings (the threat of typhus). Finally, there is the visual force of the image, its disgusting grandeur. It is enough to make Voidancy seem almost like a valid system of thought.

 

*Soyinka is artist enough to avoid idealizing his marginalized characters. One remarkable and complex chapter, for example, is an encounter between Sagoe and Joe Golder, a gay, mixed-race American academic. The third-person narration adopts Sagoe’s perspective, and through this it criticizes Golder’s touristic obsession with African men, which reduces them to exotic sexual objects; at the same time, the narration exposes Sagoe’s own bigotry and extends sympathy to Golder and his complicated social situation.