Tuesday, March 29, 2022

a short interval where I interpret the internet

Same as last time, just a few follow-up thoughts after the last book review

Firstly, I follow Flags Mashup Bot on Twitter because I have a nerdy fascination with flags (I follow a few map-related accounts for a similar reason). Basically that account produces flags of imaginary countries by combining the colours and names of two existing countries and their flags. Here's a thing they came up with a couple of days ago:

One for the coincidence OR IS IT files (the answer as always being: yes; yes it is). It turns out the Ul Qoma flag is a fairly regular featuree as an ingredient; presumably there's just a database of flags that the bot randomly chooses from. But (and I'm sure you're ahead of me here) in what sense is there actually a flag of Ul Qoma? 

Fortunately for the purposes of this post, and also for the theory that 90% of Twitter interaction is just bots interacting with and retweeting each other, there is a counterpart bot called Original Flags Bot which replies to each of the mashup tweets with images of the original flags. The Ul Qoma one is the one on the left. 
A bit of Google image searching turns up this page which seems to suggest that the flags (there is a Besźel one as well, though it doesn't seem to be in the mashup database) were cooked up for the 2018 TV adaptation, which is the explanation that makes the most sense, on reflection.

Another thing I noticed from reading The City & The City was the regular use of the word "interstices"; it's a good word and describes the notion of unseen things lurking in unsuspected spaces pretty well, this being one of the novel's major themes. I think most people know how to pronounce "interstices"; emphasis on the second syllable, in-TERSE-tiss-eeze. What was less familiar to me was the use of the singular form of the noun. Challenge number one here is: what even is the singular form of "interstices"? I think if you'd asked me a couple of weeks ago I would have said: actually I dunno, is it one of those words ending in "x" that gets an "ices" in the plural form? Like, say, "matrix", or "index"? So maybe the singular form is "interstix" or "interstex" or something like that? Not a completely ridiculous thing to imagine, but, as it happens, wrong: the singular form is "interstice". But how are we saying that? Surely not in-TERSE-tiss-ee? But, equally, surely not IN-terst-ICE either?

Well, it turns out it's in-TERSE-tiss. I think this is counter-intuitive for a couple of reasons; firstly that I still have the residual sense of saying something like "matrice" or "indice" which would be obviously wrong, and secondly that most three-syllable words that start "inter-" have the emphasis on the first syllable rather than the second, like "interview", "internet", "interval", "intercom", and so on. "Interpret" is the only other obvious example I can think of of such a word where the emphasis falls on the second syllable.

Monday, March 28, 2022

the last book I read

The City & The City by China Miéville.

Evenin' all. The name's Borlú: Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. Yeah, I guess I'd call myself a maverick cop: don't always play by the book, but - dammit - I get results. Where? Well, I'm in Besźel, but there's another city as well - a city (takes drag on cigarette) .... OF THE MIND. Though, erm, also totally real (coughs). Anyway, I'm going to hand you back to your blogger now. No further questions; mind how you go.

Um, thanks. So we're in Besźel, a rather run-down city-state on the far Eastern edges of Europe, probably somewhere in the area occupied by Romania and Bulgaria, and Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad has been called out because, well, there's been an extreme crime. Murder, in fact: a young woman found dumped naked under an old mattress on a piece of waste ground next to a newish housing development. But who is she? And why was she killed? 

Borlú finds it frustratingly difficult getting his investigation off the ground, even the basic stuff like finding out the young woman's name. He soon realises that this is because he's starting his investigation in the wrong place. We need to do a wibbly-wobbly dissolve here for a bit of exposition. The city-state of Besźel, it turns out, occupies only a portion of the larger physical city where it is located. The other half(ish) of the physical city is occupied by the neighbouring (and rather more affluent) city-state of Ul Qoma, with a complex and circuitous border dividing the two, including areas of "cross-hatch" which are in both cities at once. But you can't just walk from one to the other, my goodness no; well, in fact you can in that it is physically possible, but it is forbidden in the strictest terms and if you do you will attract the attention of the shadowy organisation called Breach who police these things in a very robust way. 

For that reason Besźel and Ul Qoma natives are conditioned from birth not only to avoid the possibility of physical breach but even to "unsee" things right in front of them which are in the "other" city. Even waving at someone across the city boundary, or reading a street-sign, admiring a building - these are all acts of mental breaching which run the terrible risk of bringing Breach down upon you, something you emphatically do not want.

Anyway, it turns out that the murdered woman is Mahalia Geary, an American student based in Ul Qoma and heavily involved in various archaeological digs there. But why would someone kill her? Well, it turns out that she was involved with various shady unificationist groups in both cities - people who, as the name suggests, want an end to the segregation of the city. In order to continue his investigation Borlú finds himself having to cross into Ul Qoma by the only legally permitted method, crossing at the single border point under Copula Hall, a building existing simultaneously in both cities. It's not quite as simple as that, though, as after a lifetime of studiously unseeing everything in Ul Qoma he now has to undergo a rigorous and intensive acclimatisation programme to teach him to flip all that on its head and instead unsee everything in Besźel. 

On hooking up with some of Mahalia's associates - both the respectable kind at her place of study and the sketchier kind who shared her subversive views - Borlú becomes convinced that she was murdered because she knew something, something about the city, something that she was not meant to have known. But what? Could it be connected to her work on the fringe theory that there is actually a third city, Orciny, invisible to both Besźel and Ul Qoma and secretly controlling both? 

Eventually things kick off when Borlú tries to smuggle Mahalia's friend Yolanda over the border back into Besźel and a sniper picks her off with a head-shot at the checkpoint. But she was in Ul Qoma and the shooter was in Besźel, so whose jurisdiction does it fall under? And since the murder occurred across the legal border boundary, no breach has technically occurred, so there's nothing for Breach to be interested in. Borlú soon solves that problem by chasing the sniper and shooting him. Trouble is the shooter is in Besźel and Borlú is in Ul Qoma, so this is an act of breach, and sure enough almost immediately various shadowy figures appear as if from thin air, seize Borlú, tranquilise his ass and spirit him off to a mysterious location for interrogation. 

Once in the clutches of Breach Borlú soon realises that they are just a bunch of guys, albeit deadly combat ninja stylee ones, and moreover guys who are quite interested in what Mahalia knew, and Borlú now knows, which is why he hasn't just been summarily rubbed out and dumped in a canal like some of the more commonplace breachers. Some further detective work (facilitated by Breach's near-limitless powers within the city boundaries) reveals that the whole Orciny thing is a fairy-tale (if there is a shadowy third city it is Breach itself) designed to cover up a much more mundane scheme of corrupt selling-off of archaeological artefacts to large corporations, a scheme involving various high-ranking Besźel government officials who will stop at nothing to avoid capture, even arranging large-scale breachings and plunging the whole city/cities into anarchy. 

As with many mystery thrillers the pay-off here (i.e. wherein the solution to the mystery is revealed) doesn't really match up to the build-up (it's some fairly vanilla cheesy corporate evil), but by the time we get to it (and all the various climactic explosions and shootings) that doesn't really matter as that's not what the book is about. What it is about is the perfection of the central conceit of the two cities, their geographical intertwining and the conditioned behaviour of their respective inhabitants. This is the sort of idea that constantly teeters on the edge of absurdity - the reader, in a way, is having to do their own "unseeing" to avoid the whole fragile construction shattering under the strain of its own implausibility. There are a few jarring moments when foreigners visit the cities and start galumphing about breaching left right and centre like a herd of bleedin' elephants where there is a danger of the reader taking a step back and saying: yes, actually this is a bit silly, but generally the reader is kept securely tethered to the central premise, something that takes considerable authorial skill and discipline.

No doubt there are a few metaphors being played out here: the fundamental absurdity of arbitrary lines on a map as dividing lines between groups of closely-related people on the ground, totalitarianism and the desire to control even the near-unconscious thought processes of your citizens (so echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course), but also the "unseeing" that most of us do every day (or at least every day during non-pandemic conditions when we're free to roam the streets) of litter, dogshit, homeless people, conflict, harassment, etc. 

The most important thing to take away here, though, is that this is an absolutely terrific read for anyone even slightly interested in boundary-pushing fiction, mystery thrillers, or really just fiction in general, and I recommend it highly. Here's a brief interview with the author wherein he gives a potted summary of the plot.

The City & The City was adapted into a four-part TV series in 2018 starring David Morrissey (a former featuree here) as Borlú; obviously the key question you'll be asking is: how do they render the "unseeing"? And the answer is: with some blurring, like this. That works OK as far as I can see, though as it happens the mental picture I had was of the "other" city sort of receding to a lower-contrast, lower-brightness washed-out near-monochrome. Potayto potahto though, innit.

The City & The City also won a host of science fiction and fantasy awards - even though, unlike Miéville's earlier work, it arguably contains almost no elements of either genre - including the venerable Hugo Award, the other recipient of which to feature on this blog was The Dispossessed

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

shocking news

A couple of quick follow-ups (follows-up?) to the My Abandonment post:

You'll recall my slight bafflement at the odd but pivotal episode in the book where Caroline and her Dad stumble upon an odd little makeshift building where they meet another odd couple (a woman and a boy), get agreement that they can stay the night, and then find the following day that the woman has killed Dad while Caroline and the boy were out sledging (no, not like that). Well, it turns out that Peter Rock's earlier novel The Bewildered featured a group of people who steal copper wire from power lines and have some sort of odd addiction to being in close proximity to high-voltage lines and even getting electric shocks. So I think those in the know (i.e. who've read the earlier book) are meant to draw the inference that the couple here (and their odd dwelling place - the Shock Shack, the Yurt of Hurt, the Shed of Dead, if you will) are perhaps characters from the earlier book and that their odd behaviour and baldness is a side-effect of extended proximity and occasional zappings. This newspaper article reproduced on Rock's website alludes to links between the two novels as well. 

I should add that while I try not to be a language prescriptivist the repeated use of the word "electrocution" to describe the receipt of non-fatal electric shocks made my teeth itch a bit, as the word as originally coined in the late 19th century was a portmanteau of "electricity" and "execution" and specifically referred to an electric shock resulting in death. Buuuuut language evolves and all that stuff and I note through gritted teeth that some (though not all) dictionaries now allow "death or severe injury" as a possible outcome. 

Lastly, I note from the Kirkus review I've already linked to that one of the main protagonists of The Bewildered uses Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea as a sort of life guide, which seems like a generally bad idea.

Monday, March 21, 2022

the last book I read

My Abandonment by Peter Rock.

Caroline's Mum has died, so now she lives with her father. Not that unusual, of course. And where do they live? Weeeeell slightly unusually they live in a series of makeshift shacks built from tarpaulins, branches and bits of moss in the vast area of Forest Park on the edge of Portland, Oregon. A thrilling environment for a thirteen-year-old, though, right? Well, yes, in some ways, although there are the mundane day-to-day concerns of keeping dry and warm, not getting assaulted and/or murdered, finding somewhere dry and secure to keep your stuff (or enduring having to carry it around with you) and not being discovered by the authorities, who take a dim view of this sort of thing.

Discovery is also a risk when Caroline and her father have to make their regular trips into the city (which is fortunately only a short walk away over the St. Johns Bridge) to buy food and supplies and also to collect and deposit Dad's monthly veteran's pension cheques, their only regular source of income. But you've got to eat, and while Caroline maintains a little vegetable patch in the forest that doesn't feed them both, and similarly while she and Dad are pretty crafty with the old Swiss army knife it's pretty difficult to whittle yourself a new pair of shoes out of tree bark when the old ones wear out. 

Nonetheless Caroline and Dad have managed to exist like this for about four years, since they were reunited in initially rather vague circumstances following Caroline's stint with some foster parents. But all good things come to an end, and, following a chance encounter where Caroline is spotted in the vicinity of their current lodgings by a jogger, The Man turns up, tooled up and in intimidating numbers and Caroline and Dad find themselves carted off to a place of confinement and questioning where they are kept separated from each other.

Caroline is placed in the care of some people who seem nice but are very curious about the exact details of her life in the forest with Dad and keen to determine how she's managed without formal education (answer: pretty well, as she's acquired a set of encyclopedias, so she's pretty much on top of any subject starting A to L). As apparently sympathetic as they are to their situation they aren't about to allow them to continue living in the forest; instead they arrange for Dad's practical outdoor skills to be put to use by finding him a job on a horse ranch, a job that comes with living quarters provided and the prospect of Caroline attending school like "normal" people. 

It is here that some cracks start to appear, in particular in Dad's psychological state - we already know he is a veteran and seems to be suffering from some form of PTSD, and he has constant dreams about helicopters from which he awakens in an agitated state. Nonetheless he is diligent about his work and Caroline is happy exploring the ranch and making plans for going to school. Then one night Dad decides that it's time for them to pack their bags, slip away and jump on a bus to who knows where. An escape from the gilded cage and the prying eye of The Man? Or a spectacular pissing on one's newly-acquired chips? You decide.

Things get more chaotic from here on - Dad and Caroline spend a period squatting in a condemned hotel block for a while and Dad accepts some shady and mysterious work from some shady characters to beef up their savings. Eventually it is decided that it's time to get out of the city and forage for nuts and berries in the countryside. It turns out that it may not have been the best time of year to make this decision, though, as once they've taken a bus journey into central Oregon Caroline and Dad soon find themselves trudging through snow and having to spend a series of fairly miserable nights either in the open or breaking into uninhabited buildings for shelter. This culminates in the bizarre episode where Caroline and Dad break into some sort of remote hut, powered by some sort of Heath Robinson series of wires spliced off a nearby power-line, only to find it already occupied by a woman and a boy, both A Bit Strange in some indefinable way - after it is agreed that they can stay the night Dad suggests that Caroline take the boy out to play in the snow in the morning so he and the woman can have "a chat". It's unclear whether Dad was expecting any jiggy-jiggy but that's not what ensues, or maybe it is and then an argument breaks out - either way when Caroline returns to the hut (meeting a hastily-departing woman on the way) she finds Dad entangled in the wires and clearly dead from a massive electric shock. 

After dragging his body to a more appropriate final resting place (a nearby cave), Caroline sets off on her own. She still has some of Dad's money (and access to future cheques until such time as the authorities learn of his death), but will she be able to manage without him? Or will she be better off without his increasingly erratic guidance?

I mean, PLOT SPOILERS and all, but the ending is more upbeat than you might expect from what's gone before: Caroline treks all the way to Boise, Idaho to revisit her childhood foster home and ponder on some of the questions raised (or, rather, implicitly invite the reader to ponder on them), like: why was Caroline put into foster care in the first place? Is the sister she grew up with, who she knew as Della, actually her real-life sister, as Dad had suggested? And given that he'd basically just turned up out of the blue one night and spirited her off, can we be sure he was actually her father after all? And what of her mother? None of these questions is answered in any definitive way but Caroline departs satisfied, returns to rural Oregon and finds herself an outdoorsy job that enables her to live as she wants.

My Abandonment is based on a curious real-life case from 2004 where a fiftysomething man and his daughter were discovered living in Forest Park in circumstances very similar to those described in the book. According to the news articles collected on the author's own website, the real-life story ends at the point the pair did a runner from their post-forest accommodation. Who knows what happened to the real-life pair after that, but this is the point in the fictional version where things really start to unravel, mainly through Dad's increasingly suspect decision-making and Caroline's growing awareness that he is not the rock-solid infallible life guide she'd always thought he was when she was younger. What was wrong, she thinks, with the nice little life we were starting to settle into at the ranch? I could have made some friends at the school. Would that really have been worse than dodging drug dealers in a derelict hotel, or shivering in a snowy field? Is this "freedom"? Is being warm and comfortable really so bad?

The circumstances of Dad's eventual demise are a bit odd, to say the least. I'm not sure what we are to make of the pair they meet in the little yurt with the power hook-up, who they assume are mother and son but turn out not to be. Why do they talk so strangely? Why are they both bald? What happened inside the yurt while Caroline was outside in the snow? How come the woman is so casual about having just committed a murder? The whole episode just seemed to have a slightly incongruous tone in comparison to the rest of the book. I suppose I should add that the ending seems slightly implausible as well, Caroline managing to re-integrate herself into society somewhat is a nice satisfying conclusion to her character arc but you can't help feeling there'd have been more difficulty involved in doing something as basic as applying for a library card if you'd basically disappeared from society for several years, and if you provided your real name or some real documents that would surely invite the possibility of setting some alarms off at whatever government agency prised her and Dad out of the forest camp in the first place.

You're inclined to let Caroline off, though, because she is a very appealing central character and you are rooting for things to work out for her. She's somewhat reminiscent of Ree in Winter's Bone: undemonstrative and a bit quiet to start with but developing a steely self-reliance as she gets older. The father/child relationship with the father's death at the end is also reminiscent of The Road, although the father here is a much more ambiguous character. The doomed desperation to stay away from any reliance on "society" with its money and television and cheeseburgers and squalid moral compromises is also slightly reminiscent of The Mosquito Coast (whose father figure also dies at the end).

The key with a novel written from the viewpoint of a thirteen-year-old girl (she's about seventeen by the epilogue at the end) who's obviously very bright but has had a rather unconventional upbringing is to make her voice convincing, something that will go unnoticed if you do it right, but will be jarring if you get it wrong. I think it's pretty well done here, Caroline being fairly naïve about many things and (at least at first) unquestioning about some of the odder aspects of her situation, and occasionally reeling off factoids and definitions that she's obviously memorised out of one of her encyclopedias. 

Some reservations about unanswered questions aside (mainly relating to Caroline's earlier childhood and the fatal interlude at the House Of Electric Death) this is powerful and engaging stuff, grappling with tricky questions about parenthood, trust, freedom and acceptable levels of state intrusion into people's lives, or, to look at it the other way round, the state's duty of care to prevent people fucking up their lives and the lives of their children. 

My Abandonment was adapted into a film called Leave No Trace in 2018, which appears to take some considerable liberties with the later stages of the plot, including leaving out the father's death. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

the last book I read

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan.

Hannah Payne is red. It's not a metaphor, still less a touch of sunburn, but instead evidence that she has been melachromed, a punishment meted out to criminals to ensure their instant recognisability by other, law-abiding members of society. Presumably in this vaguely dystopian future world, which appears to be both post-apocalyptic (Los Angeles has been taken out by some sort of nuclear device) and post-pandemic (a now-concluded virus outbreak that left a large percentage of the population sterile) prisons are a bit of an administrative headache and well, if members of the public decide to CLEANSE THE STREETS by knocking off a few melachromed individuals, no-one's going to judge them too harshly.

Especially the reds, red being the colour reserved for those convicted of killing - more minor crimes get yellow, the weird sex stuff gets blue, maybe purple for minor insurance fraud, teal for parking offences, I dunno. Anyway, Hannah's conviction wasn't for just your commonplace killing, but for having an abortion - an emotive and reviled crime in this society for a number of reasons; firstly there's been an uptick in religiosity as is standard in the wake of apocalyptic events, secondly the pandemic and the uncertainty over whether the human race would even survive has made voluntarily terminating a pregnancy a taboo act. Hannah's situation was somewhat complicated by her lover and the father of her child being one Aidan Dale, family friend, famous television evangelist and general pillar of American society, Hannah's sentence (i.e. the amount of time she has to walk around glowing like a just-cooked lobster) being increased by her refusal to name him during her trial. 

So here she is, released after a period of solitary confinement after the melachroming process and back out on the streets. Her father (unlike her mother, who has disowned her) is still looking out for her and books her into a sort of halfway house for melachromed women. Dad seems to genuinely have Hannah's best interests at heart but this turns out to be a terrifyingly fundamentalist (with the emphasis on the "mentalist") religious sect with a ruthlessly cruel and repressive regime just crying out for a climactic scene where Hannah throws off its shackles, throws a washstand through a window and flees, and sure enough that's what happens, more or less. 

While in the clutches of the sect Hannah has at least made a connection with someone she trusts, fellow red Kayla, and she tracks her down just in time to find her being dumped by her boyfriend and ripe for joining forces and facing an uncertain future together. A future that looks even more uncertain when Hannah and Kayla are abducted from a parking lot by some mysterious masked kidnappers. However it turns out that these may be the good guys after all, and were a few minutes ahead of some properly nasty vigilantes intent on either summarily rubbing them out or selling them into slavery.

Hannah and Kayla's abductors turn out to be the Novembrists, a radical group defending women's reproductive rights and therefore with a particular interest in Hannah's case. They provide escape routes to Canada (where more relaxed laws apply) for women in Hannah's situation but are ruthless of disposing of anyone they deem not to be of interest, i.e. Kayla. Hannah, however, finding some untapped reserves of assertiveness after a life of meek compliance, insists on Kayla coming along too.

The escape route to Canada from Texas involves various handovers between sympathetic groups administering various safe houses on the route north. Hannah and Kayla come a cropper at the first hurdle, though, as the charming Stanton who operates a safe house in Mississippi turns out to have a sideline in occasionally turning over the more attractive female escapees who pass through his hands to the highest bidder for a bit of the old sex slavery. Fortunately, just as Hannah and Kayla are being drugged and spirited away onto a boat to who knows where the Novembrists screech up and effect another nick-of-time rescue, though this time only of Hannah. In the aftermath of this Hannah is having none of this safe house nonsense, being handed around like a sack of spuds, and demands to be provided with the means of effecting her own escape. Reluctantly Simone, the head of the Novembrist operation, agrees to provide a vehicle and some supplies. 

Hannah has promised to adhere to the route they'd planned, but deviates in the vicinity of Washington DC for a brief and bittersweet reunion with Aidan - bittersweet because she realises he can't come with her and she has outgrown her need for him anyway. She then proceeds to a remote border location, abandons the vehicle and sets off through the snowy forest in the hope of linking up with the Novembrists' Canadian counterparts. 

This is first and foremost a book that invites comparison with a host of other books - most obviously for sophisticated literary types in smoking jackets who are not ignoramuses like me who think erudite is a kind of glue, it's a futuristic re-working of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, with lots of echoes from the main protagonist's name (Hannah Payne/Hester Prynne) onwards. It's also reminiscent of several seminal works of dystopian fiction, most obviously The Handmaid's Tale for the whole post-apocalyptic sterility thing and the intense focus on women's sexuality and fertility, The Chrysalids for the knowledge-denying religous sect and the long dangerous flight into exile under the guidance of a mysterious resistance group and perhaps Never Let Me Go for the slightly hand-wavey approach to describing any of the science underlying the central plot points. In particular the whole business about the implants which enable Chromes to be tracked and the corresponding jamming devices that the rebels have, and the need to get your melachroming topped up occasionally to prevent a descent into mental fragmentation and unrecoverable madness, seem to be occasionally forgotten and then remembered again according to the demands of the plot. It's unclear, for instance, how the topping-up is going to work once Hannah gets across the border into Canada and goes to ground there.

My main criticism here is that, oddly for a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, it's all a bit nice. What I mean by that is that despite the threat of a whole host of nasty types (including The Fist, a Chrome-hunting squad of which Hannah's brother-in-law seems to be a member) Hannah seems to drift along being conveniently rescued in the nick of time from various situations: the parking-lot abduction, the sex-slavery abduction in Mississippi. It was the Novembrists coming to her rescue on both those occasions, but there is also the kindly female priest who offers shelter and a nice glass of single malt as Hannah is trudging through the ice and snow for her final meeting with Aidan, and, most absurdly of all, the message from her Canadian rescuers right at the end that says yes, you're safe and oh, by the way, we've had word that your mate Kayla, last seen on a speedboat with her rapey kidnappers while in the early stages of Chrome-withdrawal mental fragmentation, is Absolutely Fine and safe and will be joining you shortly. It is also almost beyond the stretchiest bounds of plausibility that she could have arranged her last night of bittersweet valedictory boning with Aidan via electronic messaging without it being snooped by the authorities, who are ALL ABOUT the intrusive monitoring outside, apparently, of this one narratively-necessary circumstance.

It's bold, especially for an American, to write a novel whose plot revolves around abortion and to basically take the position that, well, it's not without some moral considerations but the overriding point is that it's a woman's choice and should remain one she can freely make. Indeed it's sometimes a bit bluntly polemical and heavy-handed in pursuit of this point, although I think this Washington Post review is a bit harsh:

primarily agitprop: ham-handed, disrespectful and quite dumb in places where it should be smart

I should say, as a counterpoint to all this, that it's very thrilling, Hannah is an appealing protagonist and it's an ideal quick read for someone who's just spent a month or so digesting Nostromo. I can't see an overriding reason to read this in preference to any of the other dystopian novels listed above, though, assuming you haven't already.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

the last book I read

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.

Welcome to the Republic of Costaguana, in some fictional South American location but most likely somewhere on the Pacific coast occupied by real-life Colombia. If you don't like the weather, well, there'll be some different weather sweeping down from the coastal mountains in a few minutes; if you don't like the government, well, pretty much the same rules apply. We are in the coastal town of Sulaco, largely cut off from the rest of Costaguana by a high mountain range, and mainly accessible by sea. 

People in Sulaco are generally just regular people trying to get through the day and make a living; those that aspire to greater things have a problem to deal with: you probably need help from the government, or at least some sort of understanding that they'll leave you alone and let you get on with your business. The trouble is, if you yoke yourself too explicitly to one particular governing regime, you'll be in a slightly awkward position when a different governing regime comes along, with the usual ruthless purges of those felt to be too inflexibly loyal to its predecessor.

Case in point: Charles Gould, English by blood but born and raised in Costaguana, owner of the San Tomé silver mine and very keen to see it productive and turning a profit. Trouble is, you can't run some massive industrial operation involving excavating most of the inside of a mountain without it attracting attention. Nice silver mine you've got here, shame if it was to CATCH FIRE, and so on. Gould has come to an arrangement with the current regime, but then the inevitable glorious revolution happens and all bets are off. In a panic Gould decides to take all the stash of silver ingots that he's been keeping in a Sulaco dockyard warehouse and get some trusted men to take them off in a ship and hide them somewhere more discreet. These trusted men turn out to be Giovanni Battista Fidanza, expatriate Italian, Capataz de Cargadores (i.e. head longshoreman), local legend, widely known to most as Nostromo, and, less obviously, Martin Decoud, Frenchman and editor of the local newspaper. 

Nostromo and Decoud take a shitload, sorry, shipload of silver ingots away from Sulaco but on their way out towards the open sea have a close encounter with an incoming ship carrying some advance troops from the new regime and have to make an emergency landing on one of the Isabels, the island group that guards the entrance to Sulaco harbour. Nostromo swims all the way back to Sulaco, leaving Decoud to guard the silver and generally contemplate the futility of existence in solitude. 

The new regime's reign of terror is mercifully brief and is brought to an end by another glorious revolution sweeping over the mountains and liberating Sulaco, just as certain high-profile residents (Charles Gould, for one) were about to be strung up for being insufficiently deferential and (in Gould's case) not handing over the deeds to the mine. The story has got about that the boat carrying the silver sank after the collision, which means no-one's expending much energy looking for it. Now obviously Nostromo could tell the authorities where it is, but he's a bit put out at the lack of recognition for his heroics and decides not to. You can't just wander into town with a coat full of silver ingots with Property of San Tomé stamped on them and expect to be able to exchange them for various consumer goods without arousing suspicion, though, so Nostromo hatches a plan of gradually spiriting them away by sea to distant ports and exchanging them there. 

This all works OK for a while, but it's slow. So you can imagine Nostromo's dismay when plans are hatched to built a ruddy great lighthouse on top of the Great Isabel where most of the silver still resides. Nostromo is nothing if not resourceful, though, and contrives to have his old friend Giorgio Viola installed as lighthouse-keeper, which gives him a pretext to sail over and visit, especially as it's always been assumed that Nostromo will marry Viola's elder daughter, Linda. 

So, everything's fine, then? Well, no, as having hung out with the Viola family a bit Nostromo decides that actually Linda is a bit feisty for his liking and that actually he'd prefer her younger sister Giselle, more delicate and pale-skinned and apparently timid and demure, though with just a suspicion of ABSOLUTE FILTH on the quiet. An unfortunate incident ensues where Nostromo sneaks along the beach to Giselle's window for a night-time assignation and is shot by her father, lingering long enough to be transported back to Sulaco for some mournful farewells before expiring.

This is the first Joseph Conrad book I've ever read (although he did get a brief tangential mention here), and I picked up my Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition for a couple of quid in a charity shop for £2 several years ago. If I'd read Giles Foden's lengthy Guardian Conrad profile wherein he describes the forbiddingness of Conrad's prose and of Nostromo in particular ("probably the most difficult to read of all Conrad's novels") I might have had second thoughts about the whole affair, and overall I'd say that would have been a shame, for all that I do see what he means. There are sections describing the political backdrop to the events in Sulaco that are pretty daunting walls of text; equally, though, some of the sections describing Nostromo and Decoud's seafaring adventures are genuinely thrilling. You'd have to say the overall tone is generally fairly pessimistic, though, all the characters being eventually corrupted either by political ambition or simple greed, even, eventually, Nostromo himself. The few characters who are sympathetically portrayed get a pretty raw deal as well, most obviously the fragrant and lovely Emily Gould, wife of Charles, of generally saintly disposition and well-disposed towards the poor and underprivileged. It's made clear, though, or as clear as it can be in a novel published in 1904, that she is keen to have children and keen for A Portion in a more general sense but is Not Getting Any because old Charles is off tending to his mine workings instead of, as it were, detonating something in, if you will, her tunnel.

You will recall a couple of lists of reading Projects that I shared on Twitter over the course of the last couple of years, and that Nostromo appeared on both lists, along with a few others. 

The other thing I was put in mind of on reading this, with reference to the regular changes of governing regime in particular, was the Tintin book The Broken Ear, which features a running joke about the regular changes of regime in the republic of San Theodoros:

The other bit of cultural overlap here is with the Alien movies, the first of which features a ship called the Nostromo, and the second of which features a ship called the Sulaco

Thursday, March 03, 2022

vloody near volodymyr

Never let it be said that Electric Halibut doesn't surf the bleeding edge of the Zeitgeist; as if to prove that point today's post is so topical it hurts, and it makes the following highly relevant geopolitical slash sporting point: former actor - whose previous roles included the voice of Paddington Bear and, erm, the President of Ukraine - and current President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy looks a bit like England scrum-half and (as of last weekend) caps record-holder Ben Youngs.