25 May 2009

Review: Companions on the Road

This book features two short narratives--Companions on the Road and The Winter Players--set in undefined fantasy realms. Companions on the Road begins at the end of a long military campaign, the first, the warrior Havor has just finished a campaign, when through a series of events, he joins with Feluce the rogue and Kachil the brigand to seek out treasure hidden in the dungeons of Avillis. But instead of a lengthy dungeon hack, the three promptly find the treasure they are seeking. And that's when the story really gets going. The three soon learn that they are being followed by something all of their battle experience has not prepared them to face, something that stalks and kills as subtly as it does relentlessly. Lee combines heroic fantasy with horror elements in a tense race against time.

The second story, The Winter Players, features the priestess Oaive, who guards the Mysteries of the Shrine. One day a wolf-like stranger comes to town, offering to buy one of the objects, which Oaive refuses to do. When the stranger returns, a confrontation ensues in which she learns that the stranger is more than he appears to be. Difficult choices and a perilous chase ensue, as the stranger leads Oaive onward towards an even greater danger. While Companions wove horror elements into its fantasy tale, Players' fantasy incorporates questions of free will and destiny, endless cycles, and a feel for the folklore of lonely fishing villages.

While slightly different in theme, both or excellent works of fantasy, told with Lee's consummate skill for character, setting and pace.

20 May 2009

Ocampo: Visiones & El lecho

It's unclear if these two stories are meant to be linked. They have very little thematically in common, except for a certain morbid quality, though the one element that seems to link them is significant enough that the latter (El lecho) may be intended as a febrile vision from the former (Visiones).

Visiones is the story of a woman who wakes up in a hospital bed. It's unclear why she's in the hospital or how long she has been there. Her consciousness is fractured, she believes she has awoken in her own bedroom, and so she is confused by the fixtures and objects in the hospital room. The interactions with the nurse are strange, but the nurse reassures her she will get better. As the story reaches it's conclusion, the narrator begins to think of beds (lechos), their relationship to birth, sex, life, and death.

The story that follows, "El lecho" ("The Bed") is a brief story of a couple, whose relationship has its troubles but who find an escape from their problems when sharing a bed. One day in bed, the woman smells smoke and suggests a fire. The man says it is an olfactory illusion. The woman says she hears the fire, which sounds like a flowing river. The man says it is auditory illusion. When they both see that the room is brightly lit by the blaze, the woman says that if they hold each other tight, the fire will only burn their backs. The man says they will be burned throughout. And so ends the brief and creepy fever dream.

JRS: The Bs

From Balmeek to Bote hona. Some of the more noteworthy terms:

Balmeek is the name of an author who wrote three versions of the story of Sita and Rama. He's included here because the Thuggee allegedly claim him as one of their own. A brief biography follows, detailing how Balmeek was a Brahmin who joined a gang of Bheel robbers after losing his parents. The gang, armed with bows and arrows, would rob and kill travelers. Balmeek was eventually redeemed by an encounter with seven celebrated saints and went on to write mystic texts.

A Google search suggests that Balmeek is an older transliteration of Valmik or Valmiki, aka Bhagwan Valmik, who wrote the Ramayana. There is one sect of Hindus, named Valmikis, who consider Bhagwan Valmik to have been a God and find references to the legend of his brigand past scandalous.*

One question that's intrigued me as I've learned more about the Thuggee is the extent to which Thuggee, as described by British colonial sources, was actually a real phenomena. That there was banditry in pre-British India is inarguable, but to what the extent to which Thuggee represented the sort of singular occupation that required a Draconian response is unclear. What's odd about this entry is that there is no indication that Balmeek (or Valmeek) actually engaged in Thuggee as we understood it. (Or if there is, Sleeman doesn't hint at it.) Neither strangulation, deceiving travelers nor Devi worship are ever mentioned. If the Thuggee themselves were willing to swell their ranks by adopting what appears to have been a run-of-the-mill bandit (albeit a famous one) into their ranks, how reliable are any accounts of their exploits?

Then again, the author of the Ramayana as a Thug might make for a nicely preposterous rewriting of history in a Da Vinci Code-style thriller centered around Thuggee.

Buk,h - Meaning "come" and used by Thugs to get each other to assemble after having separated. Apparently repeated in threes: Buk,h, buk,h, buk,h. A bunch of feared murderers making chicken noises?

Banee signifies blood. That's about it. The noteworthy thing about this entry is that it made me wonder why more references to blood had not appeared. Considering that the use of strangulation is sometimes attributed to Thuggee's mythic origins in the destruction of Raktabija, wouldn't Thugs have more superstitions about blood? And if so, where is the corresponding vocabulary?

Bunij refers both to loot and to potential victims. Does the conflation of the potential victim with the monetary gain to be derived from his destruction strengthen the case for economic motives? I'd say yes, but it's probably not a definite.

Bhurtotee is the rank of strangler. Relates a story, quoted often, about a Thug leader who claims never to have killed anyone because, "Is any man killed from man's killing? Is it not the hand of God that kills him? And are we not instruments in the hand of God?"

Bora is another term that Thugs have for themselves, though apparently not used by the same clans that use Aulea.

Burka signifies a leader of Thugs, though apparently it can be used to denote any Thug of rank. The Ramaseeana goes on to state that Burkas are considered of particular threat, because a Burka left to his own devices could create a new gang. This is another term that doesn't seem to have made it into any of the fiction, which tends to use the term "jemadar" for the leader of a Thuggee gang. (Jemadar is I believe a more generic term that was used to denote officers in the Anglo-Indian Armed Forces.)

Bisul is someone whose clothing makes them a poor target for strangulation, but can also denote someone who was handled badly in the strangulation or a Thug who has blood or other signs on him that might draw suspicion. Similarly, bisul purna means to be handled badly during a strangulation.

Bote hone means to become inveigled or to fall into the snares of a Thug.

19 May 2009

JRS: The As

Starting with Aulae and ending with Ard,hul.

Aulae is the name that Thugs call each other. Oddly, I've never seen the name used in any fictional treatments of Thuggee, even Confessions. (Fictional Thugs are most likely to call themselves, well, Thugs. I've never gotten clear on whether that name originated with the Thugs or if it was originally something they were called by outsiders.)

Per Ramaseeana, it shows up in two salutations: Aulae Khan Salam and Aulae Bhae Ram Ram, the first used by Muslim Thugs and the second by Hindu Thugs. I've seen Ali used in similar salutations, so I wonder if it might be a variation thereof. Interestingly, the word is contrasted with Beetoo, which is meant to denote any non-Thug. That term I've seen used to mean "victim," but I wonder if it may have been misused. (Since there were taboo victims, at least theoretically, non-thug and victim should not be synonymous terms.)

Ard,hul denotes any bad omen. Also called Khurtul. Both terms only in use among Duckun Thugs. (Not sure what's up with the transliteration of Ard,hul, namely the comma within the word.)

Other terms of note:

Agasee denotes a turban. Not that interesting except the entry includes information about how a turban catching on fire was considered a bad omen. ("it threatens a great evil.") I wonder if this was a common occurrence.

Agureea refers to descendants of Thugs who were expelled from Delhi, resided for a time in the district of Agra, before spreading out to the rest of India. The entry is a little confusing, seemingly suggesting that all Thuggee resided in Delhi, though I think it refers to a specific group of Thugs.

Awk,hur denotes someone maimed or deprived of the use of their limbs. (Again the weird comma-in-word.) Maimed people were considered taboo victims, with their murders apparently leading to great calamities.

There are several terms for types of omens, such as thunder without rain, rain out of season, and the cry of a kite.

18 May 2009

Ocampo: Carta bajo la cama

There's a horror trope (named the Apocalyptic Log) in which a narrator continues to write an account of what is happening to them right up to the minute of their own demise. And "Carta bajo la cama," whose title recalls Poe's "MS Found in a Bottle," is one such account. The story is the letter which an unnamed narrator is writing to a friend. She is staying in an isolated house in the English countryside. The other residents of the house have left for the weekend. The narrator begins by discussing the feeling of fear, how it can be enjoyable, but how she prefers to be able to share it. A strange man approaches the house, seemingly a gardener. She then hears a news report about a man who murders women and buries them next to the gardens of their houses. As other signs of the mysterious man's identity as the murderer turn up, the narrator resigns herself to her fate and places the letter under the bed. Overall, it seems like a pretty straightforward execution of a trope, albeit with some odd touches, and the narrator's own interest in their enjoyment of fear almost takes it into a meta direction.

11 May 2009

Ocampo: Magush

The story of a man who meets a youth with the gift for prophecy. The story is plotless and conceptual in a way that could bring up a certain adjective or proper name. (But there's a word that should never be mentioned in riddles about chess.) The youth reads fortunes not in tea leaves or in crystal balls, but in the windows of a building across the street from the shop where he works.

The prophecies that the youth reveals are of a generally negative cast--romantic betrayals, failed business ventures, disloyal friends--and as some of them begin to come true, he seeks out more and more of the boy's predictions. Eventually, the boy reveals to him pretty much all that is in store for him, which leaves the man paralyzed with despair. The boy suggests that in order to have his life, he must let all the things prophesied come to pass. The man does not want to face them, so the youth suggests if he could only get someone else to endure them in his place, he would be free.

The man offers to trade destinies with the boy, and the boy agrees. Yet they both find themselves paralyzed, watching the windows that reveal the prophecy, neither really eager to take up the destiny of the other. It's a pretty interesting spin on the question of whether knowing your own future would be a blessing or a curse, written with a certain haunting quality

10 May 2009

Review: Suite Francaise

Ever since picking up my first work by Nemirovsky last year, I've admired her talent for observing the human condition. There's something about her observation of people and their actions that suggests a balance between optimistic humanism and world weariness. In Suite Francaise, she trains her fine eye on the way that people react, and then adjust, to war, specifically Germany's invasion of France in WWII.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section begins as the news spreads through France that the army has been unable to stop the Germans. With the Blitz heading towards Paris, panic spreads, and people begin to flee to the countryside. Nemirovsky quickly introduces several people, including one family, and the preparations they make to leave. At first, the sheer number of characters made it a bit confusing, but as the story progressed, I got to know the characters better and became able to distinguish them.

As the Parisians flee, they often find themselves in pretty harrowing circumstances. The invasion has thrown things into disorder, and people who've led lives of privilege and prestige suddenly find the charmed existence that they enjoyed has suddenly disappeared. At first the Germans appear only as news on the radio, but then there are bombings and aerial strafing, followed by pitched battles. The story reflects the horror and confusion of war. As the first section ends, the government has fallen, the fighting has ended and people are in the process of putting their lives back together.

The second section begins in the countryside, specifically in one of the villages to which one of the Parisians had fled. The Germans have gone from being an invading army to an occupying one, and in the process have gone from being an amorphous threat to having a very human face. In fact, the presence of all the young men in a village which has seen its own boys killed or taken prisoner gives rise to a strange dynamic of affection and resentment. This section felt even stronger, as Nemirovsky probes all the fault lines, allowing for a much slower boil of conflicting emotions and allegiances.

Because Nemirovsky was sent to the death camps, she never finished the novel, so the second section of the novel ends somewhat abruptly. Though not part of the novel, I couldn't help but contrast Nemirovsky's eye for day-to-day humanity with the sheer inhuman evil of the Holocaust. I also couldn't help wondering how this chronicle of the war, with all its fine detail and observations, would have continued had she lived.

Ocampo: Las Fotografias

Told from the first person perspective of a young woman attending a birthday party for Adriana, a girl who has been in an accident. The nature of the accident is never revealed, but it has left Adriana paralyzed. There's really not much to relate about the story in terms of plot, and it's pretty short to start with. There is a somewhat disturbing (or at least sad) ending that comes as a bit of a surprise.

The story reminded me a bit of Shirley Jackson's short works, especially in its combination of a naturalistic situation and the subtle suggestion of the possibility of something terrible going unsaid. The painful ending emphasized the connection between the two authors. (The narrator actually blames the tragedy to a rivalry she has with another young woman at the party, in a way that seemed narcissistic but which also made me ponder what the implications of that accusation might be.)

07 May 2009

Ocampo: La continuacion

La continuacion takes the form of a letter, one which initially seems to be a Dear John letter. As the letter progresses, we learn that the letter writer also happens to write fiction, and that part of the reason that she is leaving is a disconnect between the writer's fiction and their life. It turns out that the writer has created a fictionalized version of her own relationship in which the genders are reversed. Several times, she refers to this fictional relationship to describe her own feelings. There's a certain ambiguity as to whether she is just using the fiction to express her own feelings, or to whether she is getting lost in the fictional world she's creating to the extent that it seems more real than her own life. As the letter reaches its conclusion, the possibility that the letter might be a suicide note, not a Dear John letter, comes into play. The writer's intent is left ambiguous, which contributes to the haunting quality of the ending.

JRS: Introduction

Sadly, it took me longer than I expected to get through the introduction. I have to confess a lack of time management on this one, where I'd find myself not reading it until late at night. Between the less than compelling nature of the intro and the eye strain of reading a PDF file on a computer screen, I found I couldn't read much of it.

And, frankly, as with the Preface, it's rather clunky for an introduction. I'd go so far as to say it comes off as a collection of notes or a rough draft for Sleeman's memoirs of fighting the Thuggee. Overall, there's not really much sense of narrative or even cohesive theme.

There are some interesting anecdotes, especially lurid ones where British and Indian soldiers, working with an informant, dig up a place where victims had been buried. There are also some rather choice quotes which I've seen elsewhere, such as Sleeman expressing his shock that a group of murderers could be operating in a district he was governing, when he thought he was aware of every last crime. (Though does this say more about Thuggee secrecy or colonial hubris?)

Sleeman does cover the beliefs and behavior of the Thugs, though not in much depth. He actually identifies four names for the deity worshiped: "Devee, Durga, Kalee or Bhawanee." "Devee" is Devi, which is a generic Sanskrit term for a goddess. Durga is the warrior goddess probably best known from the Devi Mahatmya, where she defeats a demon who has rendered himself unkillable by any male, mortal or divine. "Kalee" is, of course, Kali who probably needs no introduction. As for "Bhawanee," who I think would be Bhavani in a more modern transliteration, she seems roughly analogous to Durga or Kali, probably a local (Tujalpur) variation.

Interestingly, Sleeman makes the claim that among Thuggee, belief in the truth of their divine origin and the importance of omens is absolute and universal. For an interesting contrast I recommend Confessions of a Thug, which features a decidedly skeptical Thug. There is also a certain degree of tension between the view, touched on briefly, that Thuggee was motivated purely by religious motivation, and the fact, gone into in a little more detail, that bands of Thugs chose times, routes, and travelers that were specifically likely to yield more loot. (Then again, even among Christians some people, believe that wealth accumulation can serve as an indicator of moral righteousness.)

There is some analytical content, such as the division of Thuggee into seven distinct clans, though there isn't much of a delineation of the clans. (There are also "river Thugs," though their connection to the land-borne kind isn't entirely clear.) Also presented is Sleeman's supposition that Thuggee are descended from certain bands of Persian Muslims who were adept with using leather lassos to catch and kill travelers. It's my understanding that this hypothesis is not given much credence by current scholars, and Sleeman doesn't really marshal much in the way of evidence for it.

Having finished with the introduction, I now move on to the heart of the text: all that funky Ramasee vocabulary. I hope to post a little more frequently on that.

05 May 2009

Ocampo: Extraña visita & La siesta en el cedro

The first two stories in La continuación y otras páginas are childhood stories.

The first is "Extraña visita," in which a little girl named Leonor goes with her father to visit her father's friend, who has a daughter her own age. There's some neat descriptions in this short story, such as the friend being "so tall that he seems isolated from the world by his height" and of Elena, the daughter, having black hair but a face "so transparent that it seemed as if it had been erased." While playing, the girls spy on their fathers talking in the study. (Their sight is distorted by a white curtain drawn across the window.) Leonor gets the impression that her father is crying, but afterwards his demeanor convinces her that she must have been mistaken. They don't go back to Elena's house, and Leonor finds that Elena's face has been erased from her memory. Not much happens, so this story is largely about its use of language and imagery, which it admittedly does pretty well.

"La siesta en el cedro" centers on Elena, who may or may not be the same girl from the previous story. Elena is friends with the gardener's daughters, Cecilia and Esther. Cecilia comes down with an illness which has apparently already killed three other people. Elena doesn't really care--she even drinks from a glass that Cecilia has drunk from--but her parents make sure to keep Cecilia away. Cecilia dies, and Elena goes to vist the family but is disgusted as to the extent that they seem to be getting on with their lives.

There's a certain sadness to both stories, stronger in the second, as well as a sense of mystery. The mystery isn't supernatural so much as a product of the interaction between children and adults. In a way, I'm reminded of Julio Cortazar who also wrote short stories about childhood with their fair share of mystery and sadness.

03 May 2009

Story a Day: Silvina Ocampo anthology

My next Story a Day treatment will deal with Silvina Ocampo's La continuacion y otras paginas, which is a brief anthology of her works, beginning with some stories from Viaje Olvidado.