“So tribe on tribe, pouring out of the ships and shelters,
marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook,
tremendous thunder from under trampling men and horses
drawing into position down the Scamander meadow flats
breaking into flower—men by the thousands, numberless
as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring.”
The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles)
It almost didn’t happen.
I mean, it was that close.
I’d checked into some bus tours to Troy before we left home. I knew there were day trips from Istanbul and they weren’t cheap. But we decided to wait to actually book the Troy excursion until we got to Turkey—I think we held out hope that our hosts would know the best and cheapest method of getting there. In retrospect, maybe not the wisest course of action.
As it turned out, neither of our Istanbul hosts had contacts in the travel industry, so with the help of Sherron’s cell phone (and a good wi-fi connection), I started searching for tour operators that included Troy in their itinerary. There were a few and, as I feared, they turned out to be quite pricey; indeed, too pricey for my tastes. I started pondering the possibility of leaving Turkey without seeing the plain of Scamander and the remnants of the Scaean Gate—I have to say, it didn’t sit well with me.
I read Peggy Albion-Meek’s The Great Adventurer, a young adult re-telling of the story of Odysseus, when I was nine years and was enraptured.
The prolonged siege of Troy figures prominently in the book, the wily King of Ithaca responsible for coming up with the scheme that finally breaks the stalemate. Other famous figures put in appearances and I soon developed a loathing for the haughty Agamemnon, while cheering as the god-like Achilles hacked his way through half the Trojan infantry, displaying a bloodlust that made even the mighty Hector quail before him.
Troy, needless to say, holds a special place in my heart. I’d put it right near the top of my “bucket list”. But it seemed like fate was intervening and unless I was willing to pay an arm and a leg, Troy might be out of reach.
Then, a sudden breakthrough.
A communication from one company confirmed a coach was available, quoted a fee that seemed reasonable…was I interested?
The mode of conveyance was a comfortable Mercedes mini-bus, extra spacious because there were only about six or seven other people accompanying us (most of them bound for the nearby the Gallipoli battlefield, not Troy). It was a lengthy drive, down the Anatolian coast, and at one point we had to ferry across the Dardanelles to get to Canakkale on the other side, where a different bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Troy.
And there it was. And there I was, standing amidst the weathered, crumbling remains of a place I’d dreamed about since childhood. Well…
A peak moment. Who would’ve believed it possible?
Because of the iffy political situation in Turkey (see: previous post), tourists were in short supply and, except for a German documentary film crew, we had the site all to ourselves.
Uran Savas is the most engaging, charming, knowledgeable guide I’ve ever encountered. Uran combines a winning personality with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Troy and its physical environs—he knows every square foot of the place. Uran led me around the extensive ruins, which span thousands or years, each layer revealing insights into the lives or ordinary Trojans and their ruling elites. In all, there were at least ten separate cities built on this site, ten separate eras represented. Uran could point out sections of wall denoting each of these eras, his erudition and quick wit constantly in evidence. Despite the blazing heat, he set a leisurely pace, not hurrying, pausing to point out certain landmarks or patiently respond to my seemingly constant questions.
Sherron hung back, taking pictures, including one of my favourites, where I’m touching a portion of a wall that dates back to Homeric times. That’s a keeper.
As a bonus, Uran introduced me to a good friend, the man who happens to be in charge of the on-going digs at Troy, Dr. Rustem Arslan. He answered a couple of my stammered queries and posed for a picture with us, before hurrying away, back to his duties.
End of a perfect day. Oh, except for that interminable drive back to Istanbul. All and all, it amounted to a time-consuming, wearying interlude—let’s see, we were picked up around 5:30 a.m. and dropped off back in Istanbul shortly after 10:00 p.m. Wow. Time-consuming, indeed.
We left Istanbul the next day, after ten days so confident of our grasp of the city’s commendable public transportation system we travelled to Kemal Ataturk International Airport via cab, ferry, bus and monorail, arriving on time and hardly frazzled at all.
We flew out of Istanbul shortly before 5:00 that afternoon. I realize I’m skipping a lot in this account, due to space constraints (like dealing with the persistent, ingenious carpet salesmen or meeting the remarkable Emin Senyer, a preeminent performer of Karagoz shadow puppet theatre), but that’s unavoidable. We must push on to Prague.
Yes, Prague. By reputation, one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Boasting every modern convenience while, simultaneously, possessing a lengthy, storied past, the region frequently playing a crucial role in 20th century European politics.
One thing we immediately noticed was that it was a lot cooler and drier than Greece and Turkey. Almost like back home.
Prague was the one city both Sherron and I had at the top of our lists when we were planning our proposed Grand Tour of Europe. We felt drawn there, for a variety of reasons. To me, it’s the home of Kafka, Hrabal, Meyrink and the Capek brothers. A veritable hub of surrealism and the macabre and ground zero as far as alchemy and the black arts are concerned.
For my dear, puppet-crazed wife, Prague’s status as one of the world’s hotbeds for hand-carved wooden marionettes, not to mention innovative theatre and film, made it an irresistible destination. And there was one other attraction:
We spent over a week at a small penzion a half-hour from Prague, where Sherron took part in a workshop led by Michaela Bartonova. Michaela has a long and impressive résumé as a puppeteer and master instructor. Her students come from around the world to work with her and learn from her methods. This year’s attendees included participants from Canada (us), Israel, Spain, Hungary. And they were all sweet, wonderful people; we bonded with them, had many great, raucous conversations after each day’s session was over.
While Sherron was off designing and carving her creation (from linden wood, the Czech Republic’s national tree), I kept myself busy by journaling, reading, writing poems and hanging out with Zsolt–whose wife Aggie was taking the workshop for the second year in a row–and their kids, Philip and Heidi. We had a ball together and the week seemed to zip past.
I think the only thing we didn’t manage while we were in Prague was catch a glimpse of Jan Svankmajer, the legendary Czech animator. It would have been delightful to spend an hour or two in his studio or watching him at work on his latest effort, an adaptation of a Karl Capek story that was financed through crowd-sourcing.
Visiting Kafka’s grave and the museum in his honor were high points, as was the hour or so we spent in the Communist Museum (more properly titled The Anti-Communist Museum). Trying my first shot of absinthe…guzzling Czech beer…seeing a genuine Toyen painting…
A stop of the Millennium Gallery (not far from the Kafka Museum), introduced me to the work of Jiri Sozansky. Ondrej, a fellow fan of the macabre, showed me a number of prints by Sozansky, briefing me about the artist, a man who deliberately inhabits the far fringes of Czech art; I couldn’t resist bringing one of his pieces home with me. Very disturbing, unnerving stuff; not for all tastes. Search him out, he’s amazing (you’ll find one of his short films here).
What I won’t miss are those wicked, uneven cobblestone streets. For a metropolis renowned for being “walking city”, Prague’s city fathers couldn’t have picked a worse road surface. After the first few days traipsing around, my lower back and hips were in rough shape. Stretching and anti-inflammatories helped, some.
That said, I’ll put up with the cobblestones, endure the natural surliness that seems to be part of the Czech national character, I’ll even forgive the less than thrilling cuisine—
But how do they tolerate the tourists?
Yes, the tourists. Out of the various spots we visited in Europe, they were at their worst in Prague (particularly in “Old Town”). Swarming and pointing and gawping and barking at each other in a dozen different languages and dialects–and you could tell what they were saying always amounted to little more than: “Lookit that, honey, ain’t it neat?” Snapping selfies at every opportunity, imbuing each and every street corner or jutting steeple with significance. I was seated at a small diner and watched as a tubby, rather bookish fellow a few tables away took a picture of himself with his plate of food.
Selfies at a wall dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Selfies in Wenceslas Square. Selfies framed in front of one of the innumerable castles or cathedrals…
I hate tourists and tried very hard never to act like one. We usually shunned areas where there was a high concentration of idiot foreigners but sometimes they were unavoidable. Streaming down the winding, constricted sidestreets, moving in groups, often consulting handheld gadgets, heads swivelling back and forth, eagerly seeking out the next attraction or point of interest.
Prague, you old whore
coquette of Mitteleuropa
adorned in gothic finery
enduring the rough pleasure
of marauding hordes
secretly derisive of their
offering your best
most familiar features
while assuring each of them
you’ve never done this before.
Every so often, Sherron and I would consciously try to slow things down, take a moment, seat ourselves on a bench or at an outdoor café and just look around, absorb what we were seeing, the little details that we might revisit later, in recollection. Trying to retain the strongest possible impression of that locale, that instant in time.
Who knew if we’d be able to manage another trip of that magnitude? Was it likely, given our financial situation? And maybe that’s why for us it was never about rushing around, patronizing all the usual tourist traps, checking them off our list and then moving on. Never stopping to reflect, experiencing Europe on the fly, through the window of a car or bus, doing our level best not to interact too much with the locals…
Interact we did, chatting with folks from every walk of life, people who quite often weren’t shy about sharing their views with us, once they realized they had an attentive, appreciative audience. We tried to be open, receptive, patient…and were rewarded with some memorable encounters and exchanges. Mustafa, one of our guides on the bus to Troy, so passionate and knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history, comes to mind; and what about Anke and Dick, Alex and Suzanne, Michaela and Ralph and Uran and Zsolt and Aggie and Emin and Ali and Eva and so many others. They shared their stories with us, welcomed us into their lives and homes, offering fresh perspectives, opinions that often didn’t jibe with what we were hearing back home.
That is the greatest benefit of traveling to a distant land and no virtual environment, no documentary can come close to emulating the experience of physically being there, at Mycenae or Epidaurus or Troy…or even buying bottled water from a cheerful vendor not far from Galata Tower.
Feeling the ground beneath your feet, hot sun directly overhead, the welcome chill of the plastic bottle against your skin. Knowing this is real, an authentic moment.
Turning to each other, clasping hands, conscious of the adjacent funicular tracks. The vendor wants to know where we’re from.
“Canada?” He grins. “Very far. Welcome! Welcome!”
Bidding us good day and waving once we’re underway, another smiling face, another encounter to add to our scrapbook, situated alongside brochures, ticket stubs and a smooth, streaked pebble collected from the beach at Kiveri.
Mementos, when photographs no longer suffice.
The final two lines of my travel journal, composed upon our return to Canada:
“For a time, I was able to forget who I was, see the world through young and innocent eyes. What do you call that, except a blessing?”
***Reviews of new books by Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Alessandro Baricco & James Othmer ***
Meet J.P. Yates, noted prognosticator and forecaster of things to come. His presence at conferences and corporate retreats is de rigueur, his opinions on THE NEXT BIG THING much sought after by world leaders and gilded CEO’s. But Yates, as our story begins, is suffering a crisis of faith: he no longer believes the future can be predicted and he’s tired of all the moral and philosophical compromises he’s been making in order to secure his lofty position and cozy lifestyle.
Not only that, but his fiancé has just dumped him. And. He. Never. Saw. It. Coming. A futurist who’s, yes, short-sighted. From the moment Yates opens the “Dear John” letter on the plane, everything starts to fall apart. A fierce bout of boozing leads to a rambling, incendiary speech before the well-heeled and well-connected in South Africa. It’s an attempt to commit professional suicide and it nearly succeeds. The next thing he knows, he’s getting stomped in his hotel room, shunned by colleagues and approached by two scary operators who claim to represent American corporate interests. Their names are, get this, Johnson and Johnson.
Mr. Othmer misses few opportunities to lampoon and skewer Western culture and its metastacizing tendencies. Nothing is too sacred and the level of cynicism is refreshing. In a not so subtle swipe at entities like the Gates Foundation, one of Mr. Othmer’s characters observes:
“(These) billionaires make me sick. They think now that they’re rich, they can satisfy their egos, alleviate their guilt, by thinking their accidental windfall somehow means they’re geniuses, cosmically ordained and therefore eminently qualified to solve the world’s problems—AIDS, loose nukes, illiteracy. They’re delusional enough to think that they matter more than others in a larger sense. They think, Now that I’ve made billions on a search engine that can locate highly specialized subgenres of kiddie porn at thrice the speed of light, I’m going to teach the world to read. When in truth they’re rewriting history to say that their original business models, the ones that made them obscenely rich, were not driven by greed and hubris but by some larger calling to transform the world.”
Zang. Somewhere Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut and H.L. Mencken are clapping and whistling in approval.
Yates can no longer serve the interests of consumerism and has no desire to advance the cause of the type of people the Johnsons work for. He wants out of the rat race, frustrated by his “lack of ability or desire to change the world”. But the Johnsons aren’t easily dissuaded and soon Yates finds himself jetting around the globe on some obscure mission for his spymasters, having close encounters with an Inuit fish-woman in Greenland and a fascistic telecom king on his island hideaway in Fiji. He witnesses a car-bombing in Milan and narrowly escapes death in the Middle East.
The Futurist is well-paced, cleverly scripted, as bitter as poisoned water. Mr. Othmer is a skilled and fearless author. Yates, despite his attendant flaws and weaknesses, is an endearing and credible creation. He truly wants to be decent, the kind of person his sturdy, honest father would respect. At its core, the novel really represents his pursuit of happiness, a calm, clear refuge in the eye of a monster hurricane, primal forces rushing safely by.
We look to the future for redemption, often forgetting to register the sins we’re accumulating here, now, acts of malice and negligence that make the notion of salvation seem so attractive…and so fleeting.
Chuck Palahniuk has made a career out of fearlessly going where no one has dared or wanted to go before. In his best novels—Fight Club, Choke and Lullaby—he traverses these dark countries with bravado and imaginative leaps that are truly admirable. His nonfiction essays, collected in Stranger Than Fiction, reveal a man who is not afraid of casting that same unsparing glance at the real world and the places he comes from.
Rant, his latest novel, is composed of reminiscences and testimonials from over fifty individuals, each of them adding a piece to the puzzle that was Rant Casey. The opening line is a killer: “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead”. The men and women offering their views are drawn from every period of Rant’s life and provide conflicting versions of events. Some prove to be unreliable, self-serving narrators, if not outright liars. Then there are those who have formed a kind of latterday cult, with Rant Casey playing the role of unlikely savior. Collectively these people provide a tantalizing, if inconsistent, portrait of a very unique specimen of humanity:
-as a child Rant loved to stick his hand into any hole he could find and hope something would bite him
-the young rascal also concocted a money-laundering scheme using stashes of found coins and enlisting the help of…the tooth fairy
-he became infected with a virulent form of rabies and knowingly, enthusiastically spread the contagion to others
-at some point he stumbled across a method of defeating the “grandfather paradox’, learned how to travel in time and, oh yeah, possibly achieved immortality
In short, this Rant Casey fella was one unusual hombre.
Rant is, at times, compelling and chilling, depicting a plausible, unsettling view of the near future, a society where from infancy people are fitted with ports to “boost” sensory experiences recorded by others. It is a decidedly dystopian world where curfews divide “nighttimers” and “daytimers” and a segment of the population “tag” (crash) vehicles to get their kicks. It is a vision that will strike a resonant cord with fans of David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard and, possibly, William Gibson.
But the final section of the book is confusing as Rant’s time travel scheme is debated and fleshed out by his acolytes and detractors. In a book so grounded in tactile sensations and spasms of gritty realism, the notion seems far-fetched and out of place. I also think that the voices of those testifying aren’t distinctive enough, they should be more dissimilar in cadence, tone and word choice. As a result they are often indistinguishable and that gives the book a one-dimensional feel.
Mr. Palahniuk is an writer of unquestionable skill and originality, his body of work provides ample evidence of his twisted talent. But in his last two efforts in particular, Rant and Haunted, we see a man trying perhaps a bit too hard to top himself. In the case of Haunted, he spared no detail, presenting us with scenes of graphic carnage and depravity that, ultimately, undermined the author’s best intentions. Rant is a creation of a different order and, while nowhere near as intense, it lacks a central core. It is a conceit, a concept rather than a fully-fledged novel.
The problem may lie with the format he has chosen. An account that features over fifty characters, offering a myriad of opinions and speculations, is bound to be unfocussed, lacking coherence. While no one expects a Chuck Palahniuk novel to boast a conventional narrative, peopled by folks we interact with every day, we do expect a good, entertaining read. Rant doesn’t fit the bill. As an exercise it is of interest but as a book it is a cold, uninvolving reading experience.
How dare Alessandro Baricco. The nerve of the man.
He has taken an acknowledged world classic and, gulp, tampered with it. Shortened it, hacked it to pieces. Cut out anything to do with the gods, pared scenes down, added narrative subjectivity and, worst of all, included additional material.
But despite his abominable behavior, this annoying display of chutzpah, Mr. Baricco’s Iliad works. Not always, there are modernistic interjections that annoy, as when Odysseus pipes up during one exchange: “We’ll let him go and when he gets closer we’ll jump him, all right?” (Pg. 67). How much of this is attributable to Mr. Baricco and how much of the fault lies with his English translator is debatable. Robert Fagles, my favourite translator of Homer, has been taken to task for committing similar sins. But the source material is so strong, the power of Homer’s original vision so sweeping and compelling that even this condensed, tarted up version draws the reader in and holds their attention to the last page.
Dividing the book into sections, each narrated in the first person by one of the principals was a risky move but it does have its merits. The characters, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses assume a more solid shape, shedding some of their mythical status. Odysseus, Priam, Agamemnon, Hector and Achilles are humanised, rendered more familiar to modern eyes and ears. Deleting the gods and emphasizing the human nature of the conflict imparts more emotion and real blood to the battle scenes.
Alessandro Baricco, it must be said, has his detractors. Many consider him a poseur, his works derivative or (tut tut) self-consciously “artsy”. I am familiar with him mainly because of his 2003 collaboration with the French musical duo Air. “City Reading” was a spoken word album (the translation, again by Ms. Goldstein, printed in the accompanying liner notes) set to music. It was a Western, a classic revenge fable with a twist ending.
I enjoyed “City Reading” and, despite some quibbles, I find much to praise in An Iliad. The end notes for the book are illustrative, as when Mr. Baricco elaborates on why Homer’s account of the siege of Troy retains its relevance to modern readers:
“The beauty of war…expresses its centrality in human experience, conveys the idea that there is nothing else, in human experience, that enables one to truly exist. What the Iliad perhaps suggests is that pacifism, today, must not forget or deny that beauty, as if it had never existed. To say and to teach that war is hell and that’s all is a damaging lie. Although it sounds terrible, we must remember that war is hell—but beautiful. Men have always thrown themselves into it, drawn like moths to the fatal light of the flame. There is no fear, or horror of themselves, that has succeeded in keeping them from the flame, because in it they find the only possible recompense for the shadows of life. For this reason, today, the task of a true pacifism should not be to demonize war excessively so much as to understand that only when we are capable of another kind of beauty will we be able to do without what war has always offered us.”
Poseur? Maybe. But he makes an excellent point, don’t you think?
A rather modest offering from Haruki Murakami, nowhere near as metaphysical, surreal or genre-bending as most of his other efforts. Which is not to say After Dark isn’t an agreeable and thoroughly literate tale, it just doesn’t have the scope and virtuoso stylings of previous novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or, most recently, Kafka On The Shore.
Told in interlocking narratives, After Dark details one late fall night in Tokyo, as seen through the eyes of a variety of characters, some likable, others exhibiting sociopathic or criminal tendencies. Occasionally, Mr. Murakami employs a brilliant point of view shift where we float above the action like an invisible, omnipotent camera—it allows a cinematic overview, a device Mr. Murakami uses sparingly but to good effect.
There is something magical going on in Tokyo on this particular evening and the author gives us a hint when he writes that some locations and enchanted hours “open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light. None of our principles have any effect there. No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or where they will spit them out” (pg. 168).
Ari Asai had slipped into one such dark place. One day she announces to her family that she is going to sleep and doesn’t appear to wake for two months. Her family holds out slender hope for her eventual recovery and the reconcliation her younger sister tries to initiate in the closing pages of the book is a moving scene. But before she climbs into bed with her ailing sister, nineteen year old Mari Asai traverses midnight streets, experiencing aspects of life previously denied her. She visits a “love hotel” and gets to know some of its denizens, rekindles a relationship with an aspiring jazz musician and has a brush with the Japanese underworld.
This is modern myth-making, possessing “equal levels of sorcery and functionality. It has been handed down from ancient times with darkness and sent back from the future with light” (pg. 49).
Mr. Murakami, like German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, can take a tale that is essentially a melodrama and infuse it with depth and textures that enable a rather simple story to transcend sentimentality and treacle. While the conclusion of After Dark is affirming, it does not tie up every loose end, resolve all the story threads or punish the guilty. That is to his credit.
After Dark is an excellent introduction to the work of this Japanese master and will undoubtedly lead astute readers to more challenging—and rewarding–efforts in his canon. It is not as intellectually demanding or menacing as some of his darker, more substantive efforts. Its charm is undeniable, however, and while it casts a brighter, cheerier light than many of his other works, it also presents an interesting contrast and shows Mr. Murakami to be an author of many moods and depths. So much the better.