Archive for ‘myth’

May 13, 2014

Joanne M Harris, The Gospel of Loki

I wanted this to be so much better than it was. Reviewed for TSG.
Meanwhile, my ongoing love affair with parentheses has reached the point where I have now begun a review with one.


(Very) broadly speaking there are a couple of different forms that mythical retellings take. The first of these is simply to educate; for children (or adults) who have not learnt these stories, or this particular set of myths, from story-loving grandparents or however else this sort of thing is passed on from one generation to another. You might call this the Amar Chitra Katha model; there’s a famous story that Anant Pai started the series because he was shocked to discover Indian children who knew more about Greek or Roman mythology than about myths born on the subcontinent. Retellings of this sort tend towards the uncontroversial; a universally accepted version of the stories that doesn’t offend anyone (or anyone with the numbers or clout to have it stopped).

At the other end of the spectrum is the retelling that assumes its audience to already be familiar with the broad outline of the story (possibly through reading the sort of basic mythology above) and uses this assumption as an excuse to explore, tease out nuance, be provocative. It refers not just to the myth itself but to the centuries of meaning that have been added to it; uses the weight of its original story in its favour. To rewrite myth is to start off with really powerful tools.

Joanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki is in a rather strange position, in this respect. On the one hand, the Norse myths are still less universally known than the Greek or Roman, and there’s probably an argument to be made for straight retellings of the myth, even at a time when certain Marvel comics-based movies have made one form of these characters particularly popular. Harris has written two young adult novels set in the aftermath of Ragnarok (The Gospel of Loki narrates the events leading up to it); it’s clear that she has clearly embedded herself deeply in these stories, but also that she’s willing to play with them.

And Harris chooses Loki for her narrator.

In Loki, Harris has the ultimate in unreliable narrators. Loki is a trickster god, the father (and mother) of lies, as he reminds us in the foreword; he is wildfire, a being born of chaos. To choose him to tell a story is a brave choice, and opens up almost unlimited possibilities for what can be done with the narrative, even when, with this myth more than most, the ending is so constantly present, and so inevitable.

There’s playfulness and some deliberate subversion in the title; early on Loki speaks of the religion that would, “five hundred years later or so, […] supplant us; not through war, but through books and stories and words” and it’s tempting to see in this a suggestion that this religious future has affected this book, this story, these words. The gospel (literally “good news”, but so embedded in its Christian context that it’s all but inextricable) of Loki, the father of lies. In his early descriptions of himself Loki often stresses the connection with Lucifer (Harris is, of course, far from being the first writer to make that connection), even calling himself “Light-Bringer”. A scattered reference to Pandaemonium (a name invented, of course, in another great mythic retelling), a narrator who swears by Gog and Magog, the lovely, stained glass-effect cover. But then we’re told that The Gospel of Loki is a rough translation of Lokabrenna; “bręnna”, it turns out, is “to burn”. There’s so much going on here; enlightenment and lies and destruction and religious truth all wrapped up in two alternate titles.  It’s enough to make you expect great things.

Yet, what we get is disappointingly tame. Each chapter of the first section begins with a warning against trust (“Never trust a ruminant”, “Never trust a lover”, “Basically, never trust anyone”). The Father of Lies turns out to be surprisingly trustworthy; barring one or two incidents in which he lies only to explain the lie a few pages later, Loki’s version of events isn’t really that different from what he describes as the “authorised” version.

“there was something magnificent in the Old Man; something noble and melancholy that might almost have touched my heart.” One of the things that most appeals about the Norse myths is the vastness and doomed-ness of them. I love them for it, but it’s tempting also to puncture that sense of importance, possibly by highlighting the sillier portions of the myths, or simply by adopting an irreverent tone. Loki is mostly petulant here, and often with good reason, but his flippant accounts of the residents of Asgard are often excellent—I’m particularly fond of a throwaway description of teenagers (human and werewolf) which includes the phrase “buttock sandwich”. There are dutiful references to that one time Thor had to dress in women’s clothes and that other time Loki had sex with a stallion and gave birth to a foal of his own. Yet it’s still more pleasantly scandalous than transgressive.

There’s a place for safe-but-slightly-irreverent retellings, and perhaps to be disappointed in this book for not being more than what it is is unfair. But The Gospel of Loki repeatedly insists on the power that stories have, on how they shape worlds and destinies. “Words are the building blocks of Worlds; words and runes and names”, we’re told, and elsewhere:

Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead. And that’s why the King of Stories ended up being King of the gods; because writing history and making history are only the breadth of a page apart.

We’re told of the transformative power of myth, we’re given a narrator who is born out of the same chaos as the words he wields. High expectations only seem fair.

Perhaps there’s another clue in that title, Lokabrenna. It’s almost as if The Gospel of Loki were setting itself up to crash and burn.


It’s also worth reading Liz Bourke’s review here; Liz also initiated a discussion elsewhere on the meaning of “Lokabrenna” that made me look for more information, and that influenced how I read it here.
April 9, 2013

Amruta Patil, Adi Parva

My review of the first volume of Amruta Patil’s version of the Mahabharata was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian. Here it is, with more pictures–though said pictures were taken with my awful cellphone camera, since I was too lazy to make the trip downstairs to the scanner.



“We are an unbroken lineage of storytellers nested within storytellers. When I open my mouth you can hear the echo of storytellers past.”

Copyright law is entirely unequipped to handle an epic storytelling tradition. Harper Collins’ sumptuous edition of Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva wisely proclaims itself to be “via” rather than “by” Patil, but the copyright page has all the usual wording asserting the writer and artist’s “moral right to be identified as the author of this work”. It’s fitting in a way that this conflict between a single author/single version of the story and the vastness of the whole should play out in this book’s paratexts, when the question of what aspects of the Mahabharata are told, and how they are interpreted, is such a major part of Patil’s book.

Because the sheer scale of the Mahabharata is something of which Adi Parva is constantly aware. To get to the beginning of this story, Patil has to begin with the origins of the universe. At one moment the whole is played out with the whole of the cosmos as its canvas, at the next, at a microscopic, cellular level. In a stunning spread the conflict between the cosmic dog Sarama and king Janmajeya is depicted with its main characters portrayed as constellations. But we also hear of rishis whose role is to “intervene with the necessary genetic data” (read: sire important children), and the universal conflict between good and evil is illustrated through the positive and negative charges in an atom. Ganga likens the story to the Indrajaal, the net of rubies that extends infinitely in all dimensions, and each of whose gems reflects all of the others.

Ganga is the sutradhaar for this part of the story,though we are informed that Ashwattama will be telling the next part. Emerging in the dusk in a small town square near the place where Janmajeya is holding his snake sacrifice, Ganga’s story has attracted a small crowd of listeners. But this is no spellbound audience, staring with eyes open and mouths shut. Her listeners have their own opinions – on her appearance or the propriety of a woman wandering about alone at this time of the day, but more importantly, on the story itself. “Is there a curse coming up? I sense a curse coming up”, complains one woman. The abundance of blessings and curses are “to distract from a plot full of holes”, complains one moustachioed gentleman, adding “I write plays for a living” to give his remarks more weight. (“How can anyone make a living writing plays?” asks an old man, with some justification.) Audience members complain that the asuras get given a raw deal in some situations, that women aren’t given their due in retellings. They also bring the story back down to earth when they request, for example, that more stories about dogs be included.

Patil has claimed elsewhere that she had to learn to paint for this book. Adi Parva is gorgeous, shifting constantly from watercolour to charcoal to pencil to collage with a range of styles on display. There’s a knowing use of familiar iconography as well. A page depicting the serpents about to be victims of Janmajeya’s sacrifice has them against a whimsical board game background of ladders. An apsara rising from the water to disturb the peace of yet another meditating rishi (as the text notes, this is something of a recurring motif in the epic) is a clear reference to Botticelli’s Venus. Blue gods and grey-brown asuras are a part of a visual tradition perhaps best known to modern readers in the form of Amar Chitra Katha. Though there’s very little sense, at least so far (Patil has indicated that there will be at least one more volume) that this iconography is being interrogated.

Then too, as much as the structure of Patil’s rendition seems to leave space for a multiplicity of interpretations, there can be only one sutradhaar. Her Ganga often shuts down avenues of debate, apoliticising the story to some extent and dismissing an audience member’s attempts to do the opposite as “partisan politics. Which is all very well, and one might argue that the last few years have seen a number of retellings of myth that examine these areas of the epics. But to bring them up and refuse to address them does this book no favours.

“In any case, you are not held captive by old narratives. Tales must be tilled like the land so they keep breathing. The only thing you owe allegiance to is the essence.”

There’s much to be said here about which versions of a tale are retold and disseminated, and how “write your own” is sometimes too glib a response. But Patil’s faith in the myth shines through; if any story can stand up to infinite retellings, it is this one.



June 14, 2012

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

This weekend’s Left of Cool column was on Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

I shrink instinctively from, yet am intrigued by Mason’s research: he claims he is “interested in scientifically [...] understanding thought with computational precision” (from here) and his thesis appears to have to do with computational linguistics and metaphor (the introduction to the video below elaborates a little on this).

The Lost Books of the Odyssey blew me away. Since I read it I’ve been looking for everything by Mason I can find – David Hebblethwaite pointed me to his story (a retelling of the Narcissus and Echo myth) in the inaugural issue of Night and Day and Guernica published “The Machine Edda” some years ago. Apparently Mason is now working on a version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Too often books that are this clever (and I wonder how computer scientists feel about the term ‘postmodern’?) get characterised as rather cold and heartless, and those of us who love them find ourselves making excuses, showing how human the characters are, how moved we were. And there are certainly moments in The Lost Books of the Odyssey where I was moved. But what is more important is this- the implication that the exhilaration that comes with brilliance isn’t unfeeling and detached, a product of our uncommitted times; or if it is, that it’s also old and primal and something that humans have been doing (and loving) for centuries.


A version of the column below.


 “Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer.”

Nothing about Homer’s Odyssey is straightforward. The poem tells of Odysseus’ voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan war, yet it does not start at the beginning of his journey. Homer opens the story after Odysseus has spent several years on the island of Calypso. We only learn what has happened so far when he escapes to the court of the Phaeacians and narrates the story of his own adventures. It is Odysseus’ account of his own journey that takes up most of the poem.

Meanwhile, his son Telemachus searches for news of his father. In doing so he hears of other Greek heroes who had fought at Troy. As a result the Odyssey is a story made of stories – stories told by Odysseus, stories told to Telemachus.

It is entirely fitting then that Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey should be a meditation on how stories work. The premise of Mason’s work is that Homer’s Odyssey is the only surviving account of a much more widely written story. “Nearly three millennia ago a particular ordering of these images crystallized into the Odyssey as we know it, but before that the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck.” The Lost Books of the Odyssey claims to be a recently discovered set of forty-four variations on the story.

What Mason presents us with, then, is a series of remixes and “what if?”s. It’s a brilliant conceit for this particular epic, and Mason unrestrained in what he does with it. One story, which takes place in a sanatorium, reads almost as science fiction. One has Achilles fighting Asian gods (“white-tusked demons” and “mad-eyed devas”). Another has him as a golem, and there’s an entire chapter about the history of a chess-like game in which Mason may be comparing Kshatriya war tactics to Sanskrit grammar.

Many of the stories take stories themselves for their subject, thus creating a kind of meta-meta-narrative. In some, as in the fragment above, Odysseus himself is the storyteller, knowingly or unknowingly manipulating his own story. One piece deals with a Phaeacian belief that we are all characters in somebody else’s tale. In another Odysseus exists almost outside the narrative—he has read the Iliad, and while the story of the fall of Troy repeats itself over and over, only he and Helen remember its past cycles. A piece entitled “The Book of Winter” plays brilliantly on Odysseus’ ruse of renaming himself “nobody” to escape Poseidon’s wrath; here, to escape the sea god once and for all he obliterates himself completely. The narrator of this section has no name and no memories—occasionally he reads an account of his own life and remembers who he is for a brief moment.

Most of these stories have footnotes which add to the conceit. At one point Mason’s compiler offers a scientific explanation for stories of Cyclopes; at another he comments on the probable age of a fragment. It’s easy to forget that the whole thing is a fiction; this account of how a story might develop over time is utterly plausible. Sometimes it feels as if Mason is tapping into our vast, shared reservoir of Story – and making of this reservoir is a tangible, knowable thing.

There’s beauty here, and heartbreak. An account of Medusa, who craves company but finds only an increasing collection of statues. Achilles, who has defeated the gods in his search for a worthy opponent and now sits on their throne wishing he had never been born. Yet what you really take away from The Lost Books of the Odyssey is the exhilaration that comes from something really clever. Odysseus would know the value of that feeling.


Mason reads from some of his stories in the video below:

May 21, 2012

The hats of Immortals

People who were following me on twitter on the day I first watched Tarsem Singh’s Immortals will know that I fell in love with the film, for values of love that involve huge amounts of laughter, utter bewilderment and genuine aesthetic appreciation. I watched it for the second time today, and those feelings have intensified. It’s a beautiful film, and also a ridiculous one. And it contains much in the way of headgear.

I mention this because Mickey Rourke’s helmet (he plays Hyperion, the villain of the piece) is one of the things most people notice about the film. It is a remarkable item.

Hyperion has just killed someone. He does not intimidate.


But the film is aware of this. Early on, as Henry Cavill’s Theseus teases his mother Aethra (Anne Day-Jones) about her religious beliefs, pointing out that their priest wears a silly hat. He does. It has multiple little lights on it.

Like a miner’s hat, but before batteries.

Silly hat representation is skewed towards the men, but Freida Pinto and her sibylline sisters get personalised red lampshade headdresses at one point.

No two are alike!

I’m not even touching the Minotaur helmet that plays quite a big role.

The Gods get the best hats, though. Here is a representative sample. Note that Athena’s is the least interesting.




Then again, this means we can have scenes like this. Which would make everything worth it, even if the hats were not an end in themselves.

Zeus versus -we think- Ares


[This next bit is possibly a spoiler. Be warned.]

At the end of the film, we’re treated to a series of artistic representations of the events of the film, the idea being that some version of them will pass into myth (hence the guy-with-bull-helmet turning into the Minotaur, see?). So what aspects of Hyperion does Singh predict will pass into legend?

He’s probably right, too.

Yes, the bunny ears.

May 14, 2012

Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

It’s a good thing the Left of Cool columns aren’t technically reviews, because while I liked The Song of Achilles very much, I think I sound more overwhelmingly positive than I truly was. As I say in this weekend’s column, there are things that feel rather anachronistic – I wonder how much of that is due to the treatment of certain issues than the issues themselves, and also how much of that treatment is imposed upon the text by its being a novel.

The Song of Achilles is narrated by Patroclus, and at the end we discover that he has an audience in Achilles’ mother Thetis. I found it interesting to discover at this point that Patroclus has an agenda – he’s specifically trying to make the record of Achilles’ life not about the number of people he kills. And then there’s Homer with the wrath/rage/anger (depending on what translation you favour) and that’s the iconic opening line.



Homer set his epic at the beginning of the end. The Greeks and Trojans have already been warring for close on a decade at the beginning of The Iliad, yet the outcome of the war remains undecided. The stalemate can only end when Achilles rejoins the war and kills Hector. “Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles”, begins my translation of the text. Achilles’ anger is at the centre of the epic, and it is strongest when he loses the man he loves most, Patroclus.

Reading Homer for the first time it’s rather disorienting to see how this love is taken for granted. Of course Patroclus is concerned for his friend’s honour; of course Achilles’ grief at his death should spur this destructive passion. The moment in which Achilles discovers his friend’s death is one of the most powerful in the epic and it transforms this rather unsympathetic man into someone who matters to us. It’s probably a bit ridiculous in the face of all this to debate how far the love between these two men (if indeed they existed) was romantic; interpersonal relationships have changed out of all recognition over the centuries. But if there’s a love story at the heart of the epic, surely this, rather than the Helen-Paris liason, is it.

Madeline Miller’s Orange prize shortlisted The Song of Achilles retells the love story between the two men in Patroclus’ voice. An early incident in the book has a prepubescent Patroclus travelling to the court of Laertes to ask for Helen’s hand. It is here that Patroclus meets many of the major players in the war that is to come; Agamemnon, Menelaus, most importantly Odysseus.

But the war seems far away for a great deal of the book as Patroclus is exiled to Pthia, as the two boys are sent to Chiron for training, as they fall in love. For someone unfamiliar with the source texts Miller’s lyrical prose would still be a revelation, but there’s a particular delight in noticing how its cadences and many of its metaphors echo Homer. Achilles’ eyelids are the colour of the dawn sky; Zeus’ thunderbolts “still smell of singed flesh and patricide”.

In keeping with the traces of Homer in the prose, the book is full of people telling stories of other heroes. We who know Achilles and Patroclus’ fates see a number of ominous parallels – Hercules’ guilt over the death of his wife (is it worse to be the one who dies or the one who must live on?); Meleager’s wife Cleopatra who convinced him to put aside his pride and fight for his people (“Cleopatra, Patroclus. Her name built from the same pieces as mine, only reversed”). “Name one hero who was happy”, demands Achilles early on, and the burden of his greatness hangs over the relationship thoughout. This is as much Greek tragedy as it is Greek epic – with immortality comes early death, but Achilles could never have chosen otherwise. Related to this is his contentious relationship with his divine mother Thetis, whose ambitions for her son are countered by her bitterness at the shortness of human life.

The greatest tragedy of all is war itself. The Song of Achilles drives home just how young some of these soldiers must have been – Achilles is sixteen or seventeen when he fathers his son and barely eighteen with thebeginning of the war. Patroclus speaks of Chiron’s students, “boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder”. Perhaps there’s a little too much applying of modern ideas here – Homer describes the horrors of war in moving, awful detail, but there’s an underlying sense that war is an inescapable way of life that is absent in Miller’s work. Some of Patroclus’ ideas on the rights of women, though distinctly welcome, also feel rather anachronistic.

But at its best The Song of Achilles manages to combine the immersive, character-centric structure of the novel with the music of the epic. It left me elevated and grieving.


January 6, 2012

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana

There’s lots of Ramayana-related literature coming out at the moment. The thing I’m most looking forward to is Zubaan’s Speculative Ramayana anthology (not least because I’m in it), but there are also Arshia Sattar’s book, the furore around the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay, various people angsting over Sita Sings the Blues, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole (I don’t have this yet, but it looks beautiful), and others. I spent a big portion of my New Year’s Eve arguing for the Ramayana’s complexity – my interest in it has begun to feel proprietorial – and this flowering of derivative works is a strong argument in its favour. The pick of them so far (for me, at least) remains Sattar’s, but I think I’d have to write a separate piece on that later. For now, last week’s Sunday Guardian review of Arni and Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana.


In Lost Loves, her collection of essays on the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar suggests that many retellings of the epic “are prompted by those aspects of the text that have made the tradition uncomfortable, for example, the times when Rama acts unrighteously and violates dharma.” This is a big part of the reason that there are so many feminist retellings of the epic – Sita’s fate is, by any yardstick, unjust. Following her husband into exile out of loyalty, she is kidnapped and held captive as part of a feud in which she has played no active part. Upon being rescued she is accused of being unchaste and even after proving herself pure (the idea that she should have been considered guilty if her kidnapper had raped her is itself vile) she is banished in order that her husband’s kingly status not be besmirched. Rama’s treatment of Sita may be the right thing to do for the kingdom, but at a personal level it is a horrendous betrayal.

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana opens at the moment when the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her current plight, she tells the story of the events leading up to this point.

Sita is offstage for many of what we might consider the main events of the Ramayana – Rama’s search for his wife, the building of alliances and formation of an army, the journey to Lanka and the war itself. One result of shifting the narrative voice to Sita, then, is that these events are telescoped through multiple perspectives – first Hanuman, then Trijatha (Vibhishana’s daughter) fill in for Sita the gaps in her story. This often creates an interesting ambiguity. For example, in telling the story of the death of Valin and the crowning of Sugriva, does Rama’s devotee Hanuman really focus on Tara’s anger and grief at the loss of her husband and at being bundled from one king to another, or is this Sita’s extrapolation (bearing as it does some resemblance to her own fate)?

The extra layer of commentary that these multiple voices adds also allows the text to describe certain acts as outright wrong – the killing of Indrajit for example – something that might have been didactic were it not in the context of a centuries-old tradition of glossing over these sections in mainstream accounts. Though Sita is quite capable of making these judgements on her own; of the Surpanaka incident she claims that “an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped him. Instead, he spurred him on”. Sita’s voice is a strongly feminist one, and throughout she empathises with the other victimised women in the story – Surpanaka, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. It’s a position that sometimes lacks nuance (the “war…is merciful to men” section quoted on the back cover is an example of this). But the polemic is a style in itself, and this one is, for the most part, handled with style.

Of course Sita cannot be the narrator of the whole of her story, since someone has to tell how it ends. When her story reaches the point of her abandonment in the forest (the point which forms the frame narrative for most of the book) it is taken up rather abruptly by a third person narrator. This narrator (possibly Valmiki himself?) tells of Sita’s refuge with Valmiki, the birth and education of Lava and Kusha, and finally the events that lead to Sita’s final encounter with her husband and her departure from the world. It’s hard to see how this particular narrative shift could have been avoided but it is a shame – this last section lacks the layered thoughtfulness of the earlier parts.

Moyna Chitrakar is the real star here. According to the afterword, Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written, and it’s obvious that the art is at the heart of the book. Chitrakar is unafraid to play with the panel layout, and often focuses on startling images. The entire book begins with an unusual dramatis personae. The sequence in which Sita arrives in Lanka and refuses to marry Ravana is told in three panels with no human (or divine, or rakshasa for that matter) figures – one depicting the waves of the sea, one the ornate architecture of the city, and one a tree in the palace gardens. Earlier, when Surpanaka gazes upon Lakshmana’s beauty, the artwork objectifies him with her, actually labelling those of his attributes that are most desireable.

In some ways, of our two great epics the Ramayana is even better suited to retellings than the Mahabharata. This is partly because the former has a more contained story to work with, partly because its protagonist is still held up as a moral ideal in ways the latter epic has been spared. Sita’s Ramayana is part of a strong tradition of feminist retellings, yet it manages to feel fresh and to stand up to them.



December 11, 2011

Jeanette Winterson, Weight

A twitter conversation with Maureen Kincaid Speller about Laika stories reminded me of Weight, which I’d read when it came out and remembered very little about. A reread confirmed that it was one one of Winterson’s lesser works, but I find the larger Canongate series of which it’s a part fascinating.

A version of this appeared in this week’s Left of Cool column for the Sunday Guardian.



There’s an Angela Carter quote I keep coming back to in relation to retellings of myths or folk-tales. “Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?” Carter herself is famous for the brilliant The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories that reimagined a number of classic fairytales. Most myths and legends don’t have a definite original form. Even those that are credited with some sort of canonical version may be retold in countless ways – as anyone familiar with A.K. Ramanujan’s  essay“300 Ramayanas” and the recent controversy around it will be aware.

The Canongate Myth series began in 2005. This project involved the rewriting of various myths from various cultures by modern authors. The series has included writing by Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, a take on The Odyssey), Philip Pullman (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) and A.S. Byatt (Ragnarok: The End of the Gods) among others.

Jeanette Winterson’s Weight was one of the earliest books in the series. The author takes on the myth of the Titan Atlas, who in Greek myth supports the Cosmos on his shoulders, and Heracles, the son of Zeus. In received versions of the myth these characters meet one another when Heracles is ordered (as one of his twelve labours) to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were Atlas’ daughters, and Heracles offered to relieve Atlas of his burden for a while so that the Titan could get the apples for him. Atlas planned to abandon Heracles and leave him holding the world, but Heracles tricked him into taking his burden back.

One thing that becomes clear in Weight is how myths can be made universal – Winterson’s version of the Atlas and Heracles story has plenty of connections to Christianity as well as references to the author’s own life. In Winterson’s story, Atlas and his daughters were cast out of the garden for eating of the forbidden fruit. As in the Bible a serpent plays a role – here it is the dragon Ladon who guards the tree. The fruits are heavy because they contain “knowledge of past and future”. Atlas’ burden has a Christlike feel to it. This is clearest in what to me is the most memorable section of the book, though a short one; Atlas finds himself a companion. It is Laika, the dog sent into space by the Russian space programme in 1957. Laika was sent up alive and was expected to die; most children, hearing this story for the first time are properly horrified. So is Winterson. “She was a good dog, a faithful dog, a trusting dog, who loved her master and obeyed him when he put her inside a tiny capsule and strapped her so that she could not move.” And “Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog”. Laika’s fate is the world’s guilt, and Atlas bears it for us.

Laika and space travel might seem incongruous here, but they are not. Weight is about myths, but Winterson’s world is a very physical one. Atlas’ account of the cosmos he holds up begins with the Big Bang, and travels through the evolution of life on earth. At one point he speaks “as the dinosaurs crawl through my hair”.

Jeanette Winterson’s most frequent subject is Jeanette Winterson . Her first book was semi-autobiographical, her most recent a biography, and she usually uses the first-person voice. This is not a criticism – part of the point of rewriting stories that people know is that we already have the ‘original’ story in our heads, adding another layer to the telling. Winterson quotes herself (the phrase “empty space and points of light” in this book, for example, first appeared in her Sexing the Cherry); she compares Heracles’ relationship with his parents to her own. In doing all of this, she turns her life into a similar ur-text for those of us who know her other works.


December 2, 2011

Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men

Or: in which I manage not to refer to James Wood and “hysterical realism”. A version of this appeared in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian here.



In Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men the desert is not a featureless place. It becomes the subject of Native American myth; the setting for conflict between white men and Indian tribes; the location of a cult striving to make contact with aliens. It is the site of visions for a Mormon miner and an Aragonese friar separated by a century, and of military exercises for the U.S Army. The Pinnacles, a rock formation comprising three columns, to the priest symbolise the holy trinity and to the locals a gateway between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is, in short, the backdrop for a history of the United States, from “the time when animals were men” to the present.

If there is a central strand to this polyphonic novel it is the story of the Matharus. Jaz (Jaspinder) Matharu is the son of Punjabi immigrants who disapprove of his marriage to the Jewish-American Lisa. Despite this, the couple seem happy until the birth of their son Raj. Raj is autistic, and the attendant difficulties this brings put a strain on the relationship. Then on a trip to the Mojave Desert Raj vanishes from his stroller.

Raj is not the first vanished child in the story. In the late 1950s Joanie Roberts, a member of the Cohort guided by the Ashtar Galactic Command, cannot locate her daughter Judy among the crowds camped around the Pinnacles. Judy had last been seen talking to a strange glowing boy. In the 1920s the sight of a white-skinned glowing child walking with a Native American man leads to accusations of kidnapping and a group of white men gather to chase this man and hunt him down. There is another child involved – this particular victim is chosen in part because he has fathered a child on a white woman.

Without this background of missing children (both glowing and otherwise) the story of the Matharus is still a fully realised one. We switch between the perspectives of Jaz and Lisa, seeing them from inside and out, realising that they each have their prejudices and irrationalities. With Raj’s disappearance the couple is subjected to a media circus – complete with badly-punctuated, rage- and conspiracy-filled youtube comments, talk show hosts who complain that Lisa is insufficiently emotional*, suggestions that the parents were to blame and that the couple, being wealthy New Yorkers, are fundamentally unsympathetic. Kunzru is presumably invoking the media discourse around the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007. Lisa deals with the situation by turning to spirituality. Jaz’s reactions to his son are entirely plausible within the framework of a realist narrative. Theoretically one could ignore the aliens completely.

But it would be a terrible shame to overlook the rest of the book in favour of the Matharu plot thread. Kunzru’s ability to switch registers between eighteenth century priests, twenty-first century pop stars and everything in between is truly impressive and fully on display. It’s not entirely clear what some of these characters, particularly the pop star, add to the plot. Yet the very fact that there are so many points of view adds to the presentation of the pinnacles as a sort of palimpsest of (mostly paranormal) meaning.

A minor but important aspect of the book is Jaz’s Wall Street job , which involves working with a computer programme called “Walter”. Its inventor, a Kabbalah enthusiast named Cy Bachman, claims to be searching for “the face of God”. Walter connects everything, bringing together seemingly random and unrelated events and points of data.  Even the unbelieving Jaz begins to think that these are part of a larger pattern and that he is meddling with something fundamental – he thinks he may have caused the collapse of one country’s economy, and the Wall street crash follows soon after. But are Walter’s data points really part of a larger pattern?

This stringing together of seemingly random events to create a meaningful whole might work as a metaphor for this novel. As might the act of “running the old way”, a talent possessed by Mockingbird Runner, the man chased across the desert. As he runs, his strides lengthen so that the footprints his pursuers find are impossibly far apart. But the footprints are part of a single trail. This is a book filled with people looking for patterns. And weaving all these disparate stories together are two figures; Coyote, the malevolent trickster figure of Native American legend and (as far from local as anything could get) the glowing alien child.

The Balzac quote with which Kunzru begins his book (and from which he gets his title) is apposite. In the desert there is everything and there is nothing. We make meaning, or we don’t. And so Kunzru is able to end his book by saying of the desert, which has been at the centre of multiple grand narratives that “there was nothing out there at all”. 

* For Indian readers, there’s a bit of a parallel here to some of the criticism directed at the mother in the Aarushi Talwar murder investigations.
June 16, 2009

Unnecessarily long and disjointed thoughts on Tolkien (part 1)

(I cannot guarantee that I will subscribe entirely to this post tomorrow)

China Mieville on Omnivoracious provides us with some Perhaps In Some Cases Somewhat Insufficiently Stressed Reasons We Should All Be Terribly Grateful To Tolkien:

For some of us, there’s always been something about this tradition–and it’s hard to put your finger on–vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were ‘as cold as their marble’.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies–Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.

(Unrelated: Mieville is a Garner fan. *squee*)

A few months ago, Richard Morgan wrote this post about Tolkien’s work (well. Lord of the Rings) and said some interesting things. And he’s right up to a point – that line from Gorbag opens up a whole new set of possibilities. I want that story, I want to know what life is like in inner city Mordor, I want to know what it means to be an orc, and ugly, and evil (but not with free will, or presumably some orcs would choose not to be evil – and if you don’t have free will can you be evil?). Tolkien chooses not to tell it.

There are other stories he chooses not to tell. The blue wizards, Alatar and Pallando – I could have done with a bit more about them. The East in general. What was happening to the less-Caucasian men while the Numenoreans were busy enacting the Atlantis myth. Haleth (who is kickass). Maybe some more actual soldiers in the war – that dead guy from Harad who Sam feels sorry for for a few minutes. He did actually start writing one story I wanted to read – “Tal-elmar”, set in Middle-earth when the Numenoreans begin to return. It is quite possible that if he’d gone on with it he’d have screwed it up and been hopelessly racist (more than the story already is, I mean) and I’d be very annoyed. It’s unfinished, though, and so certain possibilities are left open.

I actually subscribe to most criticisms of Tolkien. Including this one, also by Mieville. And bits of this one by Moorcock. And of course I did not know the man personally, have no real access to his mind, and cannot know what he was aiming for when he wrote what he wrote.

But more and more I find myself seeing him as a man who was really into structure. The Silmarillion is an obvious example of this. It’s not the history of a race, it’s a mythology. It is told in exactly the way such a mythology would be told. The minute you come to that conclusion, you’re asking who the “teller” of the Silmarillion is. And it’s no longer how Tolkien envisioned the history of the elves, it’s how Tolkien thinks the elves would tell their own history. This is probably obvious to many of you, but it took me about 10 years to figure out.

The Lord of the Rings is, as Morgan says, about “the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh – and guess who wins)” (and at the risk of being attracting his contempt I’m willing to admit that I find that stirring and often moving) because that’s the sort of text it is. That’s the structure it’s modelling itself upon. Very rarely do I feel any deep interest in all these noble people, because it’s not really about them. And things like realworld racial issues, realworld gender issues, realworld class issues; those things that affect so many actual people may have no place in this grand Good vs Evil narrative, and black and white as colours for your characters can be Archetypes if you’re willing to not think about their implications for actual people of colour. So when he leaves out the stuff that’s actually happening in the world he’s living in, I’m not sure if it’s because he’s “in full, panic-stricken flight from it”. You could criticise Tolkien’s choice of this form - it’s probably easier to choose a literary form that allows you to ignore this stuff if you’re a white dude in Britain. But having chosen it, you would hardly expect the books to offer any deep insight into the human condition.

What interests me is actually how much he allows to slip through the cracks.

Take the battle in The Two Towers, between the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings. Saruman has fired up the Dunlendings by reminding them that the Rohirrim took their land centuries ago (The movie version shows this bit rather well, incidentally). Tolkien never addresses this or tries to prove that the Rohirrim were justified, or that Gondor had a perfect right to take land from one group of people and give it to another. Now you could assume that this is because it’s self-evident within the text that Gondor and Rohan have a right to do whatever they like (also the Dunlendings are kind of swarthy). But it’s open; an accusation has been made and not disproved, the Rohirrim are no longer unstained, and the Dunlendings might actually have a point.* That’s pretty big.

And there’s that bit Morgan points to, where the Orcs turn human, just for a moment. And (however much he may fail at women in general) Gandalf explaining to Eomer that Eowyn’s life was actually not that much fun. And the deliberate use of Merry and Pippin who, when they’re not being the comic relief, are the most human things about the text. It’s not enough, but that it’s there at all frequently fascinates me.

Which would probably be a good reason for me (an adult) to read “something like that” even if it didn’t move me as much as it so often does.

(Part 2 will follow, containing my own list of things to love Tolkien for and insightful insights into the trouble with literary criticism about the man! Eventually.)

* I’m not going to talk about Tolkien and colonialism here. Mainly because I recently wrote a 7000 word paper on it, and anything less than 7000 words would seem simplistic and not really what I want to say. But I do recommend that you read (if you can) Elizabeth Massa Hoiem’s “World Creation as Colonization: British Imperialism in “Aldarion and Erendis”” in Tolkien Studies Vol.2. It’s rather excellent.

April 27, 2009

Toothsome things

I have watched two movies related to teeth and biting in the last ten days or so.

Last saturday night involved Teeth. I was a bit…dubious about this movie, despite the fact that a friend had said she liked it. I wasn’t sure how they were going to use the Vagina Dentata trope.
It turned out, though, that they used it pretty well. The reasons for Dawn’s condition are never made clear – both the nuclear power plant (which may or may not be the cause of her mother’s cancer) and a class on evolution offer potential explanations. What is made clear though, is the way in which the myth works culturally. As Dawn begins to do her research she learns that the vagina dentata myth exists across multiple cultures[1], and that it is frequently seen as a symptom of fear around women’s sexuality.

Dawn’s own society isn’t much of an exception. Pictures of female genitalia in her class’s textbooks are covered by gigantic gold stickers (because women have a natural modesty) and Dawn herself is a member of a group promoting abstinence. It is only after she has bitten off one penis, one set of fingers, and had consensual sex for the first time that she is even able to properly look at herself naked in the mirror. The moment at which she first looks at a diagram of the vagina is accompanied by revelatory music. Her unfamiliarity with her sexual organs is also seen to place her in danger – realising that she has no idea what is happening a doctor sexually assaults her.

I found it rather worrying that every man Dawn meets (apart from her step-dad) is either a rapist or just generally an arsehole. Within the space of a couple of days, she is raped by a classmate and then a doctor, manipulated into sex by a male friend who only wants to brag about it to his friends, has sex with her step-brother, and while hitchhiking runs into a driver who also seems to plan to rape her. Teeth presents us with a universe where there are very few nice men.

Sex is still positive, though, even if the men Dawn could conceivably have it with (the film is entirely heterosexual) are not. She is shown to enjoy consensual sex, and also to admire her naked body in the mirror. Neither of these things happen until she has discovered her teeth.

A few days after Teeth I finally watched Let The Right One In which seems to have released months ago everywhere else. People have been gushing about it all over the world[2] and there’s little I can add, but go and see it if you haven’t yet. It’s beautiful, quiet (we only realised later how sparingly music had been used), and one of the most honest vampire films I’ve ever seen. By which I mean that if you’re in love with a vampire you probably need to deal with the whole killing and draining blood thing, and that the blood-bespatteredness can be really unattractive rather than sexy (Oskar and Eli’s first kiss comes right after Eli has feasted on someone and is dripping with blood. Twilight this isn’t.

I’m told that a lot of what the movie makes ambiguous (the gender identity of Eli, the status of Hakan) is more clearly spelt out in the book. I don’t think I’ll be reading the book, because I don’t want to know. The ambiguity is what made this film for me – like Oskar, the viewer begins to accept all these odd things without questioning. Will you go out with me? he asks Eli, specifying that he wants her to be his girlfriend. “Oskar, I’m not a girl” she replies; a beat later he replies with “but are we going steady or not?”

I will, however be watching the English adaptation of the story, which will be produced by Hammer films. I look forward to seeing what they make of it.

[1] Including our own. (via my PL)
[2] The Bitch magazine review raises the issue of how LTROI fits into a feminist horror tradition (which I think already exists). I think it does, and this is one of the reasons I think the two movies fit together as part of the same post. Besides the teeth of course.