Friday, August 24, 2012

A Gate at the Stairs - Lorrie Moore

Early on in Lorrie Moore's 'A Gate at the Stairs', Tassie goes to her hometown for the Christmas holidays. Her younger brother Robert comes to pick her up and Tassie tells us a bit about their relationship which ends with her saying "in fact when I thought back to our many years together, he was, essentially, always nice to me,.. The words 'essentially, nice' are the key here. The entire relationship in encapsulated in 2 words, a relationship that is neither outwardly very sentimental nor a one with sibling rivalry, just your normal everyday brother/sister relationship. This brevity is the hallmark of Moore's writing. There is no in your face brilliance to take your breath away, the prose is unassuming,  even almost shy to come in the spotlight.The words are like pearls which are silently gathered together to form a beautiful necklace and you see only the completed necklace but never the process of making it. We never realize where Moore is taking us until the sentence ends and then it hits us like "mmm, how did she do this, how did she take us to this place without us even noticing it a bit".

Starting from the events of 9/11 the book traces Tassie's life for about a year and a bit after that. Tassie is 20, from a provincial place, now studying at Troy (not that Troy). The college being her first experience alone and with the real world, away from her home, she is y pretty much like any 20 year old, unsure about her studies, body, future, unsure about how even to communicate in general with others, afraid she would either seem too casual and offend others or be at the other extreme and repulse them, home. As Tassie says 
"I too often found myself having to do, to find a language, or even an octave in which to speak.".  Tassie gets a job as a baby sitter for Sarah and Edward, a white couple who are planning to adopt a baby. They do adopt a Afro-American child. At this point, you are probably wondering, "Oh no, not another coming of age story, where the protagonist, undergoes life changing experiences, has a moment of epiphany which transforms everything." You would be only partially correct in thinking so. It is not your usual 'bildungsroman' novel. Yes, Tassie undergoes some experiences, but it's also a novel about what she sees other people experiencing and it's impact on her. And it's also in a way a novel about the coming of age of a country after 9/11, a country that couldn't just believe what had happened, couldn't believe that they could be hated so much by others, couldn't believe that the 'American Dream' could be snuffed out in an instant. 

As Tassie baby sits Mary who has been adopted by Sarah/Edward, she sees a side of society she was not exposed to. A group of youths pass her by in a car and one of them shouts 'nigger' shocking her. It's not always the explicit manifestation of shock shown by people on seeing a white girl going out with a Afro-American kid. In some cases

"Few people were on the street, but the ones we passed smiled at me, then looked at Mary-Emma and then back at me, their expressions not exactly changed but not exactly the same: upon seeing us together, our story unknown but presumed, an observation and then a thought entered their faces and froze their features in place."

The last lines with 'presumed', 'observation', 'thought entered', tell the whole story, a story of discomfort about interracial relationships even in the new millennium, a story about otherwise law-abiding, good citizens who do not have any outward racial hatred, but cannot digest even the thought that a white girl could be the mother of a Afro-American child. And it's a paradox that this is all happening when the country is said to be fighting a war against bigotry (of religion), when at the same time there is an internal battle within the country against a bigotry of a different kind (race/color).  All these  subtle changes in the expressions of the people seeing Tassie and the kid are brought out even more subtly by Moore without any pontification. This is the type of writing that elevates a story from being merely good. Moore captures all the minor changes in expression, the slight hesitation before one speaks, the sudden silences and even the changes in the cadence of speech to tell us everything we need to know without mentioning them openly.

Though the book is entirely from Tassie's viewpoint Sarah and Edward too take their own shapes as viewed by Tassie. From the beginning there is a hint of a restlessness, a unknown X factor in the couple's relationship though they seem to be no better or worse than any normal couple. Then we are told something about them which shakes us up. Something that one does without even realizing what it could result in, something that actually should not have resulted in what happened, but due to bad luck/destiny whatever you call it, that something results in an event that never goes away and you are doomed to carry it around like albatross around one's neck, always thinking about "what might have been" or "if I had not done that".

9/11 is present throughout the book. However it's not like 'The Terrorist' (Updike) or 'Falling Man' (Don Dellilo) which are about people directly affected by 9/11. It's about the common people who are changed by the aftermath of 9/11, while being not directly impacted by it. When 9/11 first happens, it "seemed both near and far" to Tassie. Later, in the January of the next year when Tassie has to take a flight the first worry she has is about whether it could get hijacked. When asked about her perfume, an aromatic oil called 'Arabic Princess' she tells that she doesn't know the name, as she thinks it would be unwise to tell it. Later when her brother volunteers to join the army, her first thought is of Afghanistan. Make no mistake, this is an anti-war novel though the message is subtle as the entire novel. There are references to anti-bush demonstrations and other minor things which indicate that. Like, towards the end there is a scene where Tassie and her family see a news report of all volunteers (youngsters) who have died in Afghanistan. Youngsters, most of whom wouldn't have any ideology of any sort, who could have joined the Army for the minimum period of service which would entail them government scholarship for their future studies after their short army service. They are as much bystander victims of the war as the people of Afghanistan. If Dellilo and Updike tried an intellectual (I hate this word, but can't find a better substitute for it) and worldview understanding of 9/11 from the view of persons directly involved in/by the act, Moore places it within the framework of the lives of everyday Americans.

Just when you think that the writing cannot get any better, Moore goes one step ahead in the last 50 pages. It's a veritable tour-de-force in the last section, both in terms of writing as well as the emotional heft it has. There are about 10 odd pages where there is just the description the rural countryside as Tassie goes on walks and rides, through the woods, farms etc. There is no other character and no dialogue, like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, the difference being that the landscape is beautiful here. Not for one page or paragraph does it get boring. And Tassie's emotion just before the end, at this point the arc of her life becomes the same as Sarah/Edward, an irreversible arc due to something one does (or doesn't do) at a certain point of time.
The novel has been variously described as haunting, hilarious, poignant etc. It is all of them yes and more. The only thing I can add to it is by saying that the writing is delicious, you can relish each sentence as if relishing your favorite meal, munching every sentence until the entire flavor enters into you. It's not a slow or sluggish novel, but it cannot be read hastily, it's to be savored, during the reading as well as after it. I had read only a short story of her in Granta anthology, which made me look out for her other works. This novel has made me crave for her entire oeuvre. And to think that Moore is mainly thought of a short story writer and not a novelist. You can read Moore excellent story 'People Like That Are the Only People Here' here.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The tide of battle turns - Book 8 -Zeus gets into the act

The last we saw of the Trojan war was that the Greeks had offended the Gods. Now as dawn breaks out, Zeus gathers all the immortals and sends them a clear message about what he is about to do. The beauty of this stanza is not what he says, but how he says. It is direct, unambiguous with a clear threat to anyone who may go against his plan.

"Now as the Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth
Let no lovely goddess - and no god either -
try to fight against my strict decree.
All submit to it now, so all the more quickly
The beginning itself makes his intentions clear, he will not brook any opposition. And if some one does oppose him

"back he comes to Olympus, whipped by the lightning,
eternally disgraced. Or I will snatch and hurl him
down to the murk of Tartarus half the world away,
then he will know how far my power tops all other gods

Zeus finally ends his warning with a reminder that

"But whenever I'd set my mind to drag you up.
in deadly earnest, I'd hoist you all with ease,
you and the earth, you and the sea, all together,
then loop that golden cable round a horn of Olympus,
bind it fast and leave the whole world dangling in mid-ari
that is how far I tower over the gods, I tower over men."

We can split the entire stanza of 30 lines into 3 parts, the first one with the direct message, the second one being the threat of what would happen if Zeus is opposed. But what use is a threat if the person threatening is not capable of carrying it out? Would the person be respected. No, it would be treated as empty boasting. That's not the case with Zeus and to drive home the point that he cannot be disobeyed he mentions in the third part about his unlimited power, a reminder to the other Gods. This third part is what actually seals the deal. Any God who may have had any idea to oppose him would surely have decided against it hearing the above lines. Homer could have easily compressed the entire 30 lines into one third of it and conveyed the same message. But would it have had the same impact, no, that's why the detailed threats and punishments.

Also note the reference to Dawn as a 'her'. It is the same throughout the poem and is consistent with other ancient civilizations, like say in India where Usha/Ushas refers to the goddess of dawn. 

Hera and Athena of course are not happy with it, but have to go along because there is no other way out. So Zeus sets out from Olympus and reached the Gargaron peak where he can view the battle. The days battle begins and is on an even keel when Zeus decides at noon to alter the balance. And how does he do that? He does it in style.

"But once the sun stood striding at high noon,
then Father Zeus held out his sacred golden scales:
in them  he placed two fates of death that lays men low-
one for the Trojan horsemen, one for Argives armed in bronze-
and gripping the beam mid-haft the Father raised it high
and down went Acahea's day of doom, Achaea's fate
settling down on the earth that feeds us all
as the fate of Troy went lifting towards the sky."

That's it, the fate of the Greeks has been sealed for now. Just visualize it, the God of gods, the alpha male(god) on a mountain top, the sun shining down at noon. He takes out his golden scales, which would also be glistening in the sunlight. Life and death to decided on the scales of Zeus, who then

"..Zeus let loose a huge crash of thunder from Ida
hurling his bolts in a flash against Achaea's armies."

the Greeks are stricken with terror seeing it. Odyssesus, Agamemmon and the other warriors run away. Even Great Ajax, warrior par excellence is not immune to it. The battle is now a rout with the Greek army in complete disarray. But Diomedes and Nestor decide to fight back and launch a counter attack. It would have succeeded but for Zeus, who has decided that victory would go to the Trojans. So

".. Zeus let loose a terrific bolt
and blazing white at the hoofs of Diomedes team
it split the earth, a blinding smoking flash-
molten sulphur exploding into the air,
stallions shying, cringing against the car-"

team - This term refers to a group of horses in the poem, typically a chariot drawn by horses.

This is the final straw the breaks the resistance of the Greeks, because one can fight the Trojans to the end and hope for victory, but what chance does one have against the thunderbolts of Zeus. Nestor is the first person to recognize this and alerts Diomedes who reluctantly retreats. Hector on seeing the sudden turn of events taunts Diomedes and urges his troops to take advantage of this breakthrough. As the Trojans plow through the Greeks, Agamemnon pleads to Zeus saying

"Not once,
I swear, did I pass some handsome shrine of yours,
sailing my oar-swept ship on our fatal voyage here,
but on each I burned the fat and thighs of oxen,"

Zeus relents and decides that the Greeks must be saved. So he rouses the war lust of the Greeks now and they fall upon the Trojans with renewed vigor. In Book 7 I had mentioned Zeus as puppeteer making everyone dance to his tunes. This book is an example for that, first he decides that Trojans will win, then on hearing a plea supports (temporarily) the Greeks so that they are not completely decimated. But though the Greeks are not destroyed it is clear that they are losing the battle.  Hera on seeing this cannot control herself and starts with Athena from Olympus to help the Greeks. But can anything escape from the Father? Zeus sees it and sends a strong warning saying 

"I'll maim their racers for them,
right beneath their yokes, and those two goddesses,
I'll hurl them from their chariot, smash their car,
and not once in the course of ten slow wheeling years
will they heal the wounds my lighting bolt rips open."

Maiming, hurling from chariot, hurting them with lightning which will take more than 10 years to heal. This is not a threat Zeus tells to a third person, but to his own wife/sister and daughter. If he is so tough on his own family, what hope do mere mortals have when they offend him? Hera wisely decides to back off saying

"Men - let one of them die, another live,
however their luck may run. Let Zeus decide
the fates of the men of Troy and men of Argos both,
to his deathless heart's content - that is only right."

You can sense the pained resignation of Hera from what she says. It is a state where one has fought the good fight, but has finally come to understand that it's futile to continue as only defeat is going to come and withdraws from it sorrowfully, neither able to give up the fight completely nor able to continue with it any longer. Meanwhile the Trojans continue with their decimation of the Greek armies who are saved by the onset of night as the battle has to be stopped. Both the armies retreat back to their positions. The books ends with a beautiful visual of the Trojan army waiting in the night for the next battle.

"A thousand fires were burning there on the plain
and beside each fire sat fifty fighting men
poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats
and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots,
stallions waited for Dawn to mount her glowing throne."

Nothing to say about it, just need to imagine the scale of Homer's visualization in one's mind. Haven't all armies across the ages done the same thing, waiting by the fire in the night, waiting for the next battle, enjoying the food at hand for who knows whether they would be alive the next night.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ajax duels with Hector - Book 7- The Greeks offend the Gods

Zeus the puppeteer 

We know that Zeus is the supreme power, lording it over the mortals and even the gods. He could be said to be the god of the gods. But the official pecking order of the Gods does not designate him as the supreme power. When Zeus overthrew Cronus with his brothers/sisters, the sky and heaven were to be in his control, the seas under the control of Poseidon and the underworld to be under the power of Hades. So theoretically Poseidon and Hades are the equal of Zeus. The earth was supposed to be common for all of them. But throughout the Greek myths we can see that this agreement is not followed always. It is Zeus who wields the most power even in the earth and in some cases in the seas and underworld too. Though the earth is said to be common, if Zeus does not agree with what a God wants to do a mortal there, then he will intervene and stop it. But on the other hand once Zeus has decided on a mortals fate no God can intervene. It doesn't mean that the Gods are totally subservient to him, they are many times on the verge of the revolt. But they finally desist from fighting with him explicitly as they know that he will finally outwit them somehow. We see several Hollywood movies where Hades and Poseidon are revolting against Zeus. In these Zeus is shown as a benevolent god who is under threat from the other unscrupulous gods. But that's not the case. The gods are not better or worse than each other. In fact one could term Zeus as a despot who rules over the entire universe with an iron hand.

The reason why Zeus wields so much power even over the other gods is that he is not just a brute who wields his thunder and destroys everyone. He is a cunning god who uses his brains as much as he uses his brawn. You can read innumerable instances of Zeus use his brain to outfox the mortals as well as the other gods. He even manipulates the other gods into doing what he wants without they themselves realizing what they are doing. On the other hand one cannot see such cunning in say Hades or the other gods. Zeus too is sometimes outwitted by the gods (particularly Hera) but they are far and in between. That's why the gods themselves refer to him as 'father' a term of endearment and respect rather than implying any such relationship.

Hector's Challenge

At the end of book 6 we saw Hector returning back to the battle field. Athena starts to go to Troy to encourage the Greeks when Apollo stops her. He proposes that a duel be fought on that day so that the armies can recover for the full battle next day. For this he chooses Hector from the Trojan side. Athena agrees and conveys the gods thoughts to Helenus son on Priam. On hearing that he encourages Hector to challenge the Greeks for single combat which he does saying

"let one whose nerve impels him to fight with me
come striding from your lines, a lone champion
If that man takes my life with his sharp bronze blade,
he will strip my gear and haul it back to his ships.
But give my body to friends to carry home again,"

Here is another instance of a warrior being more afraid about his fallen body being desecrated than about the fact that he would be killed. On hearing the challenge

"A hushed silence went through all the Achaean ranks,
ashamed to refuse, afraid to take his challenge..."

The reason being that they are aware of Hector's great strength and deserved standing as the best Trojan warrior. Anyone who goes into the battle would not be sure that he would return from it because

"Even Achilles dreads to pit himself against him
out on the battle lines where men win glory-"

But Nestor, an old warrior who acts as the Greeks main counselor boosts up their spirits and they decide to draw lots to select the warrior to fight Hector. As the lots are being drawn the warriors pray  

"Father Zeus, let Ajax win, or Tydeus son
or the proud king himself of all Mycenae's gold!"

Tydeus son - Diomedes
Mycenae - Capital of Agamemnon. Mycenae's king refers to him

The first line shows that only Ajax of Diomedes is capable to holding his own against Hector. The second line is a wickedly funny line which wants Agamemnon to be chosen. Agamemnon obviously is not a match for Hector, so why do they want him to be chosen. Maybe they want Agamemnon for once to get into the heat of the battle and suffer, maybe they want the whole thing to end which would happen if Agamemnon fights Hector because in that case there is only one result possible.

The Duel

Ajax is chosen to fight Hector. Ajax is confident of his strength but is realistic enough to know that it is the gods who finally decide the fate of the battles because he asks the armies to pray for him. Ajax marches towards the Trojans and on seeing him

"but terrible tremors shook each Trojan fighter's knees-
Hector himself, his heart pounding against his ribs."

This is a common among all the warrior in the poem. We do not see them as merely fighting machines with no emotions at all, let alone fear. All of the warriors feel fear at one point of another, they want to run back from the battle, even the bravest and strongest like Hector, Diomedes and Ajax. It is the the gods who instill confidence in them so that they are ready again to do battle. This is more realistic than seeing emotionless creatures butchering one another. Hector and Ajax then proceed to battle 

"and went for each other now like lions rending flesh
or a pair of wild boars whose power never flags."

It is a battle that could have gone either way. But any one of the warriors dying was not the result that the gods desired as they wanted this battle to be a kind of stop-gap arrangement. So as the battle reaches the critical stage and Hector falls down the gods intervene along with people from both armies who urge both

"No more, my sons-don't kill yourselves in combat!
Zeus who marshals the storm cloud loves you both.
You're both great fighters-we all know that full well.
The night comes on at last. Best to yield to night."

Both men agree and part giving each other gifts. Both armies are pleased with the result. Though no definite victory was achieved they are happy that at least there was no major setback to the current situation. 

The proposal of the Trojans

As the Trojans gather in their city, it is suggested that Helen be sent back to the Greeks as they have broken their sworn pact. This is the first time in the poem where a Trojan has said out in the open that Helen be returned, earlier too there were murmurs but nothing was said openly. Paris of course refuses this proposal 

"I say No, straight out- I won't give up the woman!
But those treasures I once hauled home from Argos,
I'll return them all and add from my own stores."

With no other option this proposal is accepted. A messenger is sent to the Greeks with this proposal and also asking for a temporary truce while the fallen warriors are given a proper funeral.

The funeral for the warriors

In the meantime, a feast is given in honor of Ajax. Nestor also advises them to seek a truce with the Trojans so that the fallen warriors can be given a proper funeral. He also wants the Greeks to build a rampart which would serve as a bulwark against the advancing Trojan armies. The emissary of the Trojan relays their proposal. The part about taking the gold and leaving is rejected, but the Greeks agree to a truce while giving funeral to the fallen warriors. So in the morning the two armies meet and the Trojans

"And hard as it was to recognize each man, each body,
with clear water they washed the clotted blood awy
and lifted them into wagons, weeping warm tears"

and returned to Troy, while

"And just so on the other side Achaean men-at-arms
piled the corpses on the pyre, their hearts breaking,
burned them down to ash and returned to the hollow ships."

A scene of pathos, men with no direct stake in the battle but still fighting due to their alliances with the great kings and dying thousands of miles away from their near and dear ones, no one other than their fellow warriors to weep over them. Even that is difficult as it is very hard to identify the body. There is not even a separate funeral for them, it is a mass funeral wherever everyone is lumped together. What would have run thorough the minds as the 'dark' came over them, would have had time for one last thought about their wives, children, homeland before the dark consumed them totally?

The mistake of the Greeks

After the funeral is over the Greeks quickly build a bulwark

".. threw up looming ramparts quickly,
a landward wall for ships and troops themselves,
and amidst the the wall built gateways fitted strong
the men dug an enormous trench, broad and deep,
and drove sharp stakes to guard it."

It does seem a good idea by the Greeks and an excellent defensive position. So mistake did they do? Well they did the cardinal sin of not offering any sacrifice to the gods before starting the work. As I mentioned in the previous book, offering to the gods is a very important concept for the Greeks and any slackening in it will be dealt with severely by the Gods, who are always watching the mortals. It doesn't matter that in this case, the Greeks are in a great hurry to get their defenses up before their next battle and it is a valid reason for forgetting about making offerings to the Gods. A mistake is a mistake whatever the reason be and there has to be suffering as a result of it. 

Poseidon comes to Zeus complaining that

"Father Zeus, is there a man on the whole wide earth
who still informs the gods of all his plans, his schemes?
Don't you see? Look there-the long-haired Achaeans
have flung that rampart up against their ships,
around it they have dug an enormous deep trench
and never offered the gods a hundred splendid bulls,
but its fame will spread as far as the light of dawn!
And men will forget those ramparts I and Apollo
reared for Troy in the old days-
for the hero Laomedon- we broke our backs with labor."

This is a very funny stanza, where you see Gods whining like kids about the actions of mortals. Gods who are supposed to be beyond all the normal human emotions like jealousy, anger etc are behaving like kids, that too Poseidon the god of seas and causer of earthquakes who in some ways is an equal of Zeus himself. And the last lines in the stanza where he says that this rampart will be more famous than the one that he built, reek of sheer jealousy. Why is such a powerful god jealous of something that man creates? Seeing such a powerful god demean himself like this is a bit comical actually, but this serves as the perfect example of how seriously the Gods take themselves and the sacrifices to them. Zeus, fed up with the cribbing of Poseidon shuts him up saying

"you with your massive power, why are you moaning so?
Another god might fear their wall - their idle whim-
one far weaker than you in strength of hand and fury.
Come now, just wait till these long-haired Achaeans
sail back in their ships to the fatherland they love,
then batter their wall, sweep it into the salt breakers
and pile over the endless beach your drifts of sand again,
level it to your heart's content-the Argive's mightly wall."

The last lines are important they give us a clue that the Greeks may finally travel back to their fatherland which implies that they may be the victors of the battle (or they could be running away). But most revealing is the manner in which Zeus describes how the rampart would be flattened by Poseidon. 'Batter', 'sweep','pile','level it to your heart's content' are the words used and it tells us about the suppressed rage that is to be let loose once the battle is over.

Meanwhile the Greeks go to their tents after building the rampart and have a feast all night where

"They flung wine from their cups and wet the earth
and no fighter would dare drink until he'd poured
an offering out to the overwhelming son of Cronus."

Alas, it is a bit late for the Greeks to start making offerings to the Gods as they have already displeased them and 

".. all night long the Master Strategist Zeus
plotted fresh disaster for both opposing armies-
his thunder striking terror-
and blanching panic swept across the ranks."

Let's see what diabolical plan Zeus has in his mind in the next book.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Super-Cannes - J.G Ballard

Lets travel briefly from the battlefields of Troy to a battlefield of a different kind. Welcome to 'Eden-Olympia' a very high tech business/residential park which is, as the resident psychiatrist at Eden says 

".. isn't just another business park. We're an ideas laboratory for the new millennium"

Beautiful well furnishes offices, excellent  residences to with state of the art furnishing, lots of recreational facilities and to top that the park is situated on the hills above Cannes. So it is a veritable modern day Eden right? Hold on, there's a catch here. What is 'Eden' if not an utopian ideal, a dream actually, a dream which can be conceptualized but never come true because as we know there is always a serpent lurking around in it which throws all the plans off gear. So is there any such serpent lurking around in Eden-Olympia and if so what is it? Well for starters, a doctor in the park 'David' had gone apparently crazy, going on a killing spree in the park and finally been killed himself. Was the killing a one off thing or a sign of things in the park? It is to replace his position that Jane a doctor and her husband Paul (elder to her by quite a bit) come to Eden. 

This is by no means a futuristic novel, which can said to occur 20-30 years later. This is in the now and here, this could be a story (a little less magnified than in the novel) which happens in any of the innumerable tech parks dotting the landscape of many countries. A landscape and an environment where the first task of the employers is to

".. make the office like a home - if anything, the real home.".

If that's the case, what about their actual homes? They are in Ballard's words

"Service stations, where people sleep and ablute. The human body as an obedient coolie, to be fed and hosed down, and given just enough sexual freedom to sedate itself."

There is an air of invisible malevolence that is present throughout the novel, right from the novels beginning when Jane and Paul are in the same house that David lived. Is it a random act or is there anything sinister behind it too. There is an intriguing sub-text to it, in that there is a hint that Jane and David may have been lovers once (Jane insists it wasn't anything serious), but Paul seems to thinking about it a lot, maybe even obsessed about it.  As Jane settles down into her work, Paul having nothing much to do starts poking into the events on the day that David lost it. Is that mere curiosity or the obsessive need to find more about his wife's (alleged/imagined) lover? As Jane and Paul becomes obsessed with work and David respectively their lives spiral out of control and they are caught in a vortex which is not of their making, but which still sucks them in. 

Mystery/Thriller writers can take a leaf (or an entire tree even) from Ballard. The way he heightens the suspense is excruciating but exciting at the same time. Even the beautiful landscape of Eden-Olympia seems to have been infected with evil and becomes scary, like when Paul goes on a walk and finds all the tennis courts and other recreational facilities empty. There are no people at the banks of the ornamental lakes constructed. When you see an unoccupied natural wood/lake you don't see it as odd, but when you see something that has been constructed especially for the purpose of human entertainment, but has been left unused it kind of makes you think about the people Eden-Olympia. 

There is a very sutble inversion of the normal mystery novels. In them the novel is structured on the unraveling of the mystery, like say you have a veil and it is slowly opened showing what is inside it bit bit bit. Here it is the reverse where Ballards constructs the mystery first for you, brick by brick or the pieces of a jig jag puzzle, where you start from nothing and end up with something. Now, both seem similar and yes the end result of both are the same, but the experience you get on reading it is completely different. For instance in the conventional novels as it progresses you mind gets clearer and clearer as to what the novel is about. But in this novel, as the pieces are assembled, a picture come into view which keeps changing shape as new pieces are being continuously placed. So you are no clearer than you were at the beginning. This is what I referred to as excruciating suspense, you think you have a clear vision, but the next piece of the puzzle changes the shape dramatically. It's as if all the people there have masks and not just one. Peel of one mask and the other is visible and so it goes on and will Paul ever be able to get to see the actual face?

The writing is crystal clear  and for all the mysteries/twists that the novel gives the pace is languid but never lagging at any point. It is incredible that  such a even paced novel in terms of events can be so captivating, much more than books that have a murder in every other page. But to term this as a thriller/mystery novel would be wrong as this is one of those works that transcend genres, it is a mystery and a novel of ideas at the same time, ideas that can come true and for that all the more disturbing. To borrow and rephrase from Mohammad Ali, the prose "floats like a butterfly but stings like a bee"

The most important thing that the novel warns us about is that man is to be feared the most when he is at his sanest (and wants to preserve that level of sanity). A man's capacity for destruction when he is (supposedly) completely sane can never be underestimated, as we see from the actions of the people in the novel. Here destruction does not refer to large scale violence and bloodshed only, but also mental violence, a violence of the mind that trivializes and even justifies the physical violence that the body does. That is the even more dangerous violence because it is the mind that drives the body to behave as it does. That's why a despot can order a genocide and give hundreds of reasons for it. The reason could be absurd to us but it would be perfectly logical to that person however twisted it may seem to us. Perfect sanity is the point of highest insanity and it cannot be differentiated. In contrast a person in the grip of supposed insanity could soon  come to his senses. That's why when a young man kills an old lady with the logic that her money would be of better use him, he himself starts rejecting that notion soon enough and becomes a victim of his own mind. You would never such vacillation in the minds of the sanest. Ultimately at the end of the novel you end up with the age old question of what is sanity and insanity and where do the twain meet and diverge?  The novel doesn't provide us any answers but gives us a lot to think about.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Hector returns to Troy - Book 6 - Hector the family man

The Truce erupts in war - Book 4
Diomedes fights the gods - Book 5 

At the end of the previous book we saw that the gods had retired to 'Mount Olympus' and

"So the clash of Achaean and Trojan troops was on its own,
the battle in all its fury veering back and forth,"

The back and forth is the key here, it tells us that both the armies were pretty much evenly matched and that's why the war has gone on for 9 years with no clear cut victory for either side. Even with the greatest warriors like 'Achilles' and 'Hector' on either side, the difference makers are the Gods and not the mortals. It's the mindset and wish of the Gods at that time that determines victory or defeat to either of them. Otherwise the result of the battle is too close to call. 

One thing I didn't mention in the earlier books is about the conversations the warriors have before starting their combat. Now I cannot imagine the warriors conversing at great length as they would all be full of blood-lust by then and the only sounds one can imagine is the grunting and moaning as their swing their weapons. One has to take this as the artistic/creative license of Homer when Diomedes and Glaucus converse and Glaucus says

"High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask about my birth?
Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
and the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away."

Such philosophical musing in the heat of battle? No away, but it adds poignancy to the battle and the lives of the warriors doesn't it? (The telling of 'Bhagwad Gita' and conversation between the warriors at Kurukshetra during the heated battles comes to mind). Homer also uses his creative license to tell short histories about the warriors fighting. By no means it is full and in most cases it is a reference of names, events and places only 3-4 lines like when he mentions that Euryalus

"... went for Pedasus and Aesepus, twins
the nymph of the spring Abarbarea bore Bucolion...
Bucolion, son himself to the lofty King Laomedon,
first of the line,...

The twins are actual the ones in the battle, but mention is made of his parents and his Grandfather too. A short genealogy itself is constructed here. This is an example of the minute detailing of the poem which acts as a form of historical documentation too (it's up to us to separate the myths from the facts). But this could be a bit confusing as you could get diverted by other warriors and events in the past. But thankfully, the translators have added notes at the end which explain a bit more in detail about what is described in the stanzas. If you are further interested you could look them up in other resources. 

Not all close range battles in the poem results in death. Capturing someone alive as prisoner can be lucrative too, as one can get lots of ransom for returning the prisoner alive. We get a lot of references to such ransoms paid in the past 9 years of the war and also see warriors ready to pay it to save their lives as 'Adrestus' who is caught by Menelaus says

"Adrestus hugged his knees and begged him, pleading,
Take me alive, Atrides, take a ransom worth my life!
Treasures are piled up in my rich father's house,
bronze and gold and plenty of well-wrought iron-
father would give you anything, gladly, priceless ranson
if only he learns I'm still alive in Argive ship!"

War is generally seen a glorious thing bringing great honor to the victor and in times to the vanquished too. We don't generally read about say, how the armies sustained themselves during it or how were the salaries of soldiers paid etc. In the above stanza, we see the business side of things in the war where as much as the Greeks want to destroy Troy (seemingly to uphold their honor) it is also a way of getting treasures from it. But alas, sometimes the rage of the warriors is too much that the thought of ransom cannot stop them from killing as Menelaus does now saying

"Ah would to god not one them could escape
his sudden plunging death beneath our hands!
No baby boy still in his mother's belly,
not even he escape - all Ilium blotted out,
no tears for their lives, no markers for their graves!"

(Illium - Troy)

The third and fourth lines in the above stanza shook me up more than the actual killing. If one listens, he can hear the echo of Menelaus's words even today. Don't we read about even foetus being pulled out and destroyed during ethnic/communal clashes? Even when you take into account mankind's unlimited capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others, even if you are cynical about it, the above lines will surely disturb you. When we talk about legacy and heritage of countries, one should be honest enough to include legacies such as these which spare no thought even for unborn children. Further in the book we will come across another mention of the side-effects of war, in this case on women.

The Greeks and their sacrifices of the Gods

As the Greeks seem to be gaining an upper hand, Hector is advised to go to Troy and ask his mother to pray to Athena, giving her offerings of 

"and take a robe, the largest, loveliest robe
that she can find throughout the royal halls,
a gift that far and away she prizes most herself,
and spread it out across the sleek-haired goddess kness.
Then promise to sacrifice twelve heifers in her shrine,
yearlings never broken, if only she'll pity Troy,"

The concept of 'sacrifice' is very important to the ancient Greeks (and of course to all ancient communities). When you are starting something new or completing something successfully or wanted something to turn in your favor, the Greeks always invoked the Gods  making sacrificial offerings to them. Not just even, even when a feast is being held the first offering is to the gods. Now, the offerings too have to be of quality good enough to satisfy the Gods, if it's a feast the best roasted parts of the meat and the purest wine is given to the Gods and only the rest is consumed by them. The Gods themselves look upon these sacrifices as very important and necessary. The slightest misstep by the mortal while making the sacrifices can result in great misery brought upon them by the Gods. It's not necessary that you totally forget about the offerings to be done, even if the offering is of poor quality you are doomed.

Hector the family man

Hector goes back to Troy and asks his mother to make the offerings to Athena and goes to meet his wife 'Andromache'. His wife is not in their house, she has gone to the gates of Troy to watch the battle 

"because she heard our men are so hard-pressed,
the Achaean fighters coming on in so much force.
She sped to the wall in panic, like a madwoman-"

Hector goes to the gates and meets his wife and his son who is

"in the first flush of life, only a baby,
and radiant as a star"

This is the first time in the poem where the misery of the Trojan women, under siege for 9 years, not knowing whether their husbands, sons would come back at the days end, always under a state of insecurity, not knowing what is going to happen to them, is bought out, when Andromache

"pressing close beside him and weeping freely now,
clung to his hand, urged him, called him:Reckless one,
my Hector-your own fiery courage will destroy you!
Have you no pity for him, our helpless son? Or me,
and the destiny that weighs me down, your widow"

She has already lost her fathers and seven brothers who were butchered by Achilles. Hector consoles her saying that he has to fight for his country saying

"But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward"

What Hector says next is very poignant. He says that he knows that Troy would fall one day and everyone killed, but what hurts him most is not that because

"That is nothing, nothing beside your agony
when some brazen Argive hales you off in tears,
wrenching away your day of light and freedom!
Then far off in the land of Argos you must live,
laboring at a loom, at another woman's beck and call,
fetching water at some spring, Messeis or Hyperia,"
And a man may say, who sees you streaming tears,
There is the wife of Hector, the bravest fighter
and the fresh grief will swell your heart once more,
widowed, robbed of the one man strong enough
to fight off your day of slavery
let the earth come piling over my dead body
before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away!

Words that are true even today and one has to read it in conjunction with what Menelaus says about killing even unborn children, to get an idea of the utter destruction that war causes. Men at least get a closure even if they die in the battle, it's the end, their final act in the play of life. But not so for women and children. They are what is termed simply as 'Collateral damage' of the war, not taking part in it but suffering a great deal during it as well as after the end of the war. Isn't taking the women of the defeated countries as prisoners for sexual abuse, menial jobs a long standing tradition(?) maintained by all us honorable men (and warriors?). Don't we see and read that the things that happened to Trojan women happening even today in many parts of the world. It has happened before Troy, in Troy, has been happening in all the other wars after that and will happen in the wars to come too. 
'The Iliad' for all it's terrible description of violence doesn't ever glorify it, it states a way of life at a particular point of time, giving us multiple views of it. So when warriors fight for their glory, the suffering of women is told as a counterpoint, a warning even to the listeners. When a work of art comes into the public domain, we cannot estimate it's impact, its greatness. The ultimate recognition of a work comes over ages (i.e) due to the timeless quality of the work, a quality which makes someone like me reading this poem a couple of millennium after it was composed, relate to it. 

Achilles and Hector

This passages also shows us a crucial difference between Achilles and Hector. Both are the greatest warriors on either side, both have families, have their loved ones yes, but one cannot even imagine Achilles saying something like this to his beloved. Can you imagine Achilles doing as Hector does when

"and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods:
Zeus, all you immortals!Grant this boy, my son
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
and one day let them say, 'He is a better man than his father!-"

Yes, Achilles is so fond of Patroclus that he causes great devastation in the later books to avenge him. But one cannot imagine him wanting his son to be better than him and if some actually referred his son like that, Achilles would have probably gone to battle with his own son. He is a warrior over and above everything, who feels home most in a battle field where there is always a chance to garner glory. That's why he cannot (or doesn't want to) lead the Greek expedition. He is a king, but a soldier first and foremost. Diplomacy, tact and the day to day acts of governance  would bore him after a while and he would off looking for a new battle. But Hector is not like that, he is as much a family man as he is a warrior and because he is a family man, he is plagued by thoughts of his family suffering. He is also not a warmonger, he is always for letting Helen go back to the Greeks and putting an end to the war, but since Priam loves Paris so much and cannot deny his wish, Hector fights as he has to obey his king. He would have been the perfect successor to Priam, a great warrior and diplomat at the same time, but alas destiny has other plans for him.

After consoling his wife Hector returns back to the battlefield and on the way he meets Paris and tells him

now for attack! We'll set all this to rights,
someday, if Zeus will ever let us raise
the winebowl of freedom high in our halls,
high to the gods of cloud and sky who live forever-
once we drive these Argives geared for battle out of Troy!"

And so the brothers head off to war again and the book ends. There is a very interesting thing to note about this book, about it's tone and length. By far this is the shortest of the 6 books we have seen so far. The tone is mild when compared to the previous ones which had either mental or physical rage and the resultant violence as their running thread. Here too there is a description of battle, but the scene shifts soon to Troy where there is a lot of poignant moments. One can imagine Homer taking a breather from the high octane events of the previous books gathering his energy, while the listeners who would have been holding their breaths listening to the previous books, would have given a sigh and relaxed a bit. But it's only like the lull in the storm as we'll see in the next books.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Diomedes fights the gods - Book 5 - The gods and their proxy battles

A note on the violence in the poem

In Book 4, we saw that the battle had started and battle means violence and bloodshed. So from book 5, there is a marked shift in tone and there are a lot of disturbing events described. It sounds crude and inhuman when I say this, but war today has become kind of sanitized than it was say a 100 years ago. Actually, ever since the advent of archery as a major component of the army, close range combat has gradually become reduced. And with the advancements(?) in air warfare and long range missiles, it can be said that very rarely do close range face to face combat happen. A soldier 1000 miles away in another continent can be vaporized in a few minutes, not knowing why and who did it, actually probably not even feeling anything at all. One moment he is there, the next he is no more. Yes, modern warfare does not make the end result any less gruesome, but  we cannot even imagine something like 'Battle of the Somme' (during WWI) now. The period of 'The Iliad' was one of pretty much primitive (from today's standards) weaponry. Most of the battles happen using the spear, axe, sword and in some cases even rocks. Archers are mentioned but in brief. But the battle happens in extremely close range, where you can feel the breath of you opponent on your face. And so, in keeping with the times Homer does not spare anything while describing the battles. The descriptions are  extremely violent,gruesome but none of it is gratuitous whose aim is to only shock the listener. The violence is in par with the times when men (giants actually) fought in close range in great anger and in some cases terror, which can cause even more violence than mere anger. This has to be kept in mind when a violent death like

"With that he hurled and Athena drove the shaft
and it split the archer's nose between the eyes-
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw
and the point came ripping out beneath his chin"


"the famous spearman struck behind his skull,
just at the neck-cord, the razor spear slicing
straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue-
he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze."

is described. Tongues, chins cut into two, noses, teeth broken, definitely not for the squeamish listener (reader). Bronze seems to be the preferred metal for the weapons as it is described in most places, with very few references to Iron, giving an indication that the period described in the poem belongs to the bronze age. There are also few references to Gold and we come to know that it was even then highly valued. 

Another thing to be noted during the description of battle and death is that there is almost no glorification of the dead warriors, no mention of a glorious after life, like say the 'Valhalla' of the Norse mythology, a great hall where the fallen warriors in combat are taken to. Here once the darkness takes over the warrior that's it, it's the end, nothing more and nothing else. The standard life cycle of a warrior is accepted as one where he kills other warriors until the day he himself is killed, as Homer tells us about 2 Greeks 'Orsilochus' and 'Crethon', both in the prime of their youth and

"Fresh as two young lions off on the mountain ridges,
twins reared by a lioness deep in the dark glades,
that ravage shepherd's steadings, mauling the cattle
and fat sheep till it's their turn to die - hacked down
by the cleaving bronze blades in the shepherd's hands.
So here the twins were laid low at Aeneas hands,
down they crashed like lofty pine trees axed."

Life among the men is equated to the life among animals, where you kill until you yourself are killed. This is the destiny of a warrior. But there is another interesting thing to note in the above stanza. In this, as well as in other stanzas, the similes used mostly refer to 'mountains', 'shepherds', 'goats', 'goatherds', 'mountain lions' with very few references to farmers. This again indicates that the community then was probably a predominantly 'pastoral' (with emphasis on livestock) one rather than an agricultural (growing crops) one. 

Though there is no glorification of death, there are a couple of things that a warrior fears most on his death. Death as such does not faze him much as he knows it will happen eventually, neither does he think about the after life. But what about his family, his parents, wife, children and other loved ones hundreds/thousands of miles away, waiting anxiously for his return. He is never going to see them again, his body one among the many clustered in the battle field, his family will not even get to see his remains. This is one of the great sorrows of the war as Homer tells us of a father who loses his two sons

"The son of Tydeus killed the two of them on the spot,
he ripped the dear life out of both and left their father
tears and wrenching grief. Now he'd never welcome
his two sons from war, alive in the flesh,
and distant kin would carve apart their birthright"

A sobering thought that is bound to reduce the heady intoxication and blood lust that war can provoke in one. The other fear a warrior has is probably more terrifying to him, it is the fear of the enemy desecrating his body after his death, tearing away his armor and weapons, stripping bare of any pending dignity that he may have after death. It is also paradoxically what a warrior wants to do when he kills someone, he wants to strip of the armor, shield and other weapons but is very afraid that the same thing would be done to him and tries to avoid it, going as far running back to his tent to die in peace and dignity. Here he is not worried that he is going to die, but rather he is kind of happy that he body will not be violated. Throughout the poem it is a code among warriors to help retrieve their fallen friend's body and ensure that no harm is done to it as Aeneas the Trojan warrior does when his friend dies.

"Aeneas sprang down with his shield and heavy spear,
fearing the Argives might just drag away the corpse,
somehow, somewhere. Aeneas straddled the body-
proud in his fighting power like some lion-
shielded the corpse with spear and round buckler,
burning to kill off any man who met him face-face-face"

A noble deed from Aeneas wanting to preserve the corpse, but it can be counter productive too as he himself is hurt badly in his attempt in doing so. Today it may all seem silly to us, all this desecration of the corpse, but when one thinks of all the advanced methods of killing that we have no got, we understand that we are no less violent or more civilized than the ancient Greeks.

Book 5 - The Gods battle it out 

The battle is on and we know that Hera and Athena are on the side of Greeks while Apollo and Aphrodite support the Trojans. Ares is concerned only with his blood lust and has no permanent affiliation. Zeus of course has his own plans. Now, Athena goes to Ares and convinces him to stay away from the battle saying

"why not let these mortals fight it out for themselves?
Let Zeus give glory to either side he chooses.
We'll stay clear and escape the Father's rage."

So Ares backs off. Athena is not known as the God of war strategy for nothing as after convincing Ares, she goes ahead to give her support to Diomedes and

"She set the man ablaze, his shield and helmet flaming
with tireless fire like the star that flames at harvest,
bathed in the Ocean, rising up to outshine all other starts.
Such fire Athena blazed from Tydides head and shoulders,
drove him into the center where the masses struggled on."

(Tydides refers to Diomedes, son of Tydeus. In many cases, the same person is referred to by his name or a variation of his father's name)

Strengthened by the goddess, Diomedes wreaks havoc among the Trojans killing with impunity. Athena gives him full freedom except to fight the gods themselves, even in that, allowing him to hurt Aphrodite if need be when she says

"you must not fight the immortal powers head-on,
all but one of the deathless gods, that is-
if Aphrodite daughter of Zeus slips into battle,
she's the one to stab with your sharp bronze spear!"

Here we see the extent of jealousy and hatred among the gods themselves as they use the mortals as pawns to the their scores. So Diomedes even hurts Aphrodite when
"He gouged her just where the wristbone joins the palm" and even taunts her

"Daughter of Zeus, give up the war, your lust for carnage!
So, it's not enough that your lure defenseless women
to their fighting? Haunting the fighting are you?
Now I think you'll cringe at the hint of war
if you get wind of battle far away"

She is saved by Apollo. Aphrodite then does what even the gods do when they are hurt (i.e) go to their mother for consolation. So does
"The deathless Aphrodite sank in Dione's lap
and her mother, folding her daughter in her arms,
stroked her gently, whispered her name..."

This is a touching scene, a hurt daughter (even if she is a goddess) being consoled by her mother and it makes feel good when we see that the gods themselves are in need of consolation sometimes.

Apollo then enters the battle on the Trojans side and Diomedes thinks of backing off as he knows that fighting the gods will only result in his downfall, even if Athena supports him now. Wise move by him. Apollo then saves the Trojan soldiers and then goes to Ares asking him to re-enter the battle asking him to assault Diomedes. Ares, always on the lookout for a battle and bloodshed complies and joins the battle again. Now with Ares on the Trojans side, the battle is more even. Diomedes however proceeds further until he comes face to face with Ares,

"Ares there-
and for all his war cries Diomedes shrank at the sight,
as a man at a loss, helpless, crossing a vast plain
halts short at a river rapids surging out to sea,
takes one look at the water roaring up in foam
and springs back with a leap. So he recoiled,

The beauty here is how Homer describes the manner in Diomedes backed up, the image of a sudden powerful flow of water and the shocked man recoiling. The whole poem is full of such terrible beauty, where you know what you are seeing is terrible, but one from which you can't take your eyes off.

As Diomedes backs off not wanting to fight Ares, the Trojans now gain the upper hand. Will Hera allow it? Not at all and she tells Athena to go to the Greek's aid. Both of them get ready and there is a incredibly descriptive stanza that shows us how Athena wears her war gear.

"Then Athena, child of Zeus whose shield is thunder,
letting fall her supple robe at the Father's threshold-
rich brocade, the stitched with her own hands labor-
donned the battle-shirt of the lord of lightning,
buckled her breastplate geared for wrenching war
and over her shoulders slung her shield, all tassels
flaring terror-
Then over her brows Athena placed her her gold helmet
fronted with four knobs and forked with twin horns,
engraved with the fighting men of a hundred towns.
Then onto the flaming chariot Pallas set her feet
and seized her spear - weighted, heavy, the massive shaft

Whew, the archetypal Amazon. Xena, who is she? When Athena gets ready for battle no one can match her. Hera then goes to Zeus complaining about Ares.

"..Father Zeus, look-
aren't you incensed at Ares and all his brutal work?
Killing so many brave Achaeans for no good reason,
not a shred of decency, just to wound my heart!
the goddess of love and Apollo lord of the silver bow:
they loosed this manic Ares - he has no sense of justice.
Father Zeus- I wonder if you would fume at me
if I hurled a stunning blow at the god of war
and drove him from the fighting?

Look at her cunning. When she and Athena kill Trojans it is for a good reason, but when their side is at the receiving she goes complaining to Zeus. For all the power of the gods, they all submit to Zeus, that's why she asks his permission to fight Ares. Zeus then allows Athena to fight Ares. Athena then wants Diomedes to fight Ares, which he refuses as he does not want to fight the gods. Here comes a comical stanza where Athena abuses Ares as

".. Just look at the maniac,
born for disaster, double-dealing, lying two faced god-"

Emboldened by Athena, Diomedes does fight Ares and attacks him with his spear
"deep in Ares bowels where the belt cinched him tight."

Ares is hurt and now it is his turn to go running to Zeus complaining that 
".. Father Zeus,
aren't you incensed to see such violent brutal work?
But that girl-
you never block her way with a word or action, never,
you spur her on, since you, you gave her birth
Just look at this reckless Diomedes now-

This above stanza is pretty much what Hera complained to Zeus, with only the characters complained about changed. This gives a taste of reality among all the gods, thunder etc, a feeling of comfort that the family of the gods have the issue sibling rivalry, jealousy like that of the mortals and in both cases, they all go the Father/Zeus to solve their problems. But Zeus, that cunning god of gods, he must have enjoyed a hearty laugh seeing the gods fight it out on behalf of the mortals, seeing his plan proceeding just as he planned. However, he does not care much for the wounds of Ares and orders him to get treated, not much compassion from his for his son of whom he says

"You-I hate you most of all the Olympian gods.
Always dear to your heart,
strife, yes, and battles, the bloody grind of war.
You have your mother's uncontrollable rage - incorrigible,
that Hera-"

Even while scolding other, Zeus cannot stop taking a dig at his wife Hera :). Hera and Athena also return to the heavens having successfully stopped Ares. Now that the gods have had enough of their proxy battles and withdrawn, it's up to the mortals now to fight without any help from the gods. How will the battle now turn?