Between absence and presence

A reading of Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

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This is Mr Murakami’s latest work, published in Japan in 2017, and translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen (I guess: a tour de force). First of all, I must say that, in my view, this is Mr Murakami’s most accomplished work thus far, a fascinating, troubling and at time challenging novel. To be sure, long haul readers will find there a familiar atmosphere, but also the unknown. I will not spoil anything, but mention some ideas and metaphors.

There is a young artist, a portrait painter, and his beautiful, estranged wife. There is a, now dead, beloved little sister. There is  a lone timber house, high up in the mountains, which belongs to a famous old painter. There is an owl in the attic. Across the valley, there is a big, strange house, with a stranger owner.

The young artist teaches drawing at a local school. He lives on his own, in the timber house, with the owl in the attic, visits the attic, walks in the woods. Behind a little shrine he discovers a pit, the pit in the woods. There is the start of the quest, with a surprising painting, and a bell.

There is Vienna, at the time of the Anschluss, there is the war in China, but this is the past, with deep consequences for the present. The old painter is famous for his classical formal Japanese paintings, but this one painting…

The novel oscillates between dream and an even more unfathomable reality. There is a lovely, pubescent young girl, her beautiful aunt, and two portraits, or is it three?

Once started this, as with all of Mr Murakami’s work, the book becomes desperately addictive: one dreads the prospect of finishing the book.

Yet the quest has to be completed, through sacrifice and ordeal.

I must add a warning: if readers wish to cross the river, between absence and presence, they must pay the ferryman. So, have your penguin ready!

That’s about the size of it.

Image: der Zeichner (the young draughtsman) by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

T-Rain, and a girl named Zula: a reading of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde #amreading

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Every other thing that he had done for the company – networking with money launderers, stringing Ethernet cable, recruiting fantasy authors, managing Pluto – could be done better and more cheaply by someone who could be recruited by a state-of-the-art head-hunting firm. His role, in the end, had been reduced to this one thing: sitting in the corner of meeting rooms or lurking on corporate email lists, seeming not to pay attention, growing ever more restless and surly until he blurted something out that offended a lot of people and caused the company to change course. Only later did they see the shoals on which they would have run aground if not for Richard’s startling and grumpy intervention.”

Reamde is a tough, long, and interesting novel. I had to interrupt my reading several times during this year, and this made following the plot as hazardous as the story itself. I acquired Reamde initially as an e-book. The version I had was poorly edited, and after some four hundred pages I could no longer find my way through the various geographies and characters. Finally I purchased the paperback (in the Atlantic Books edition available in the UK.) This helped me to come back on tracks, as the good ones were getting deeper into serious trouble, and the bad ones were… getting more horrible than ever.
Richard Forthrast is a wealthy entrepreneur, and the soul at the core of T-Rain, a world-class multiplayer (MMORPG) game and metaverse, that transcends all predecessors. Richard is the head of the Forthrast clan, an expanded family of gun-totting characters who include his adopted niece, the beautiful Zula, a refugee from Erithrea. The world of T-Rain is, one day, disrupted by the double event of an internal war – the Wor – and the advent of what turns out to be a deadly virus, Reamde. The plot then develops into two parallel, but eventually convergent, lines: what happens in T-Rain, and what happens in “reality”: much of the book’s interest arises, in this reader’s view, from this double narrative, the journey in T-Rain, and the journey in this world, from Idaho to the Philippines, via China and various airfields and oil tankers, and back again, as Bilbo Baggins used to say. Both are rich in deadly traps, of the explosive and other varieties, such as magic spells.
A good first tier of the book is devoted to a description of T-Rain, its design, history and creators, a medley of British and US genial weirdos, recruited by, and under Richard’s influence. I must admit having lost the thread more than once (a fuller understanding would require a second reading, at least.) The real world’s thread centres on Zula and her companions, and their odyssey. For Reamde, the virus, cuts across the machinations of a criminal gang from the East, whose extortion racket is disrupted by the virus. The consequences of the gang’s brutal intervention, and a chance meeting with a bunch of jihadists, make up the second half of the novel, as the separate trails slowly converge back to the US-Canadian border, and Richard’s eagle nest.
There are hints of Snow Crash, Stephenson’s earlier novel that introduced a proto-virtual world, and multiple references to the world of hacking and virus developers. There are peripheral characters, some roughly inspired by the “war on terror”, and of course, the very nasty, and yet noble jihadist, the infamous Jones.
I only caught up with the female characters, all three of them, once I had acquired the paperback, having to backtrack through the 1044 pages! I think, now, that sometime I will re-read Reamde, when I have some uninterrupted three or four weeks of quiet vacation (maybe when we visit Seattle?) Stephenson lives in Seattle and his geographical knowledge of the region is evidently vast. I struggled with the trails through the mountainous area above Richard’s Schloss! A map would be as useful to the reader as it would be to Zula and her friends.
Reamde is, in turn, hilarious and tragic, a great read, and a milestone for Stephenson’s aficionados.

Photo: [By Ryan Somma – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ideonexus/6191024454, CC BY 2.0, Link]

My reading of Cryptonomicon

#AtoZChallenge: April 27, 2013 ~ Xanadu

Xanadu

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree :

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Xanadu

Xanadu (here called Ciandu, as Marco Polo spelled it) on the French map of Asia made by Sanson d’Abbeville, geographer of King Louis XIV, dated 1650. It was northeast of Cambalu, or modern-day Beijing.

Xanadu, or Shangdu, was the summer capital of Kublai Khan, Mongol emperor of the 13th century AD, and founder of the Yuan Dynasty of China.  His empire reached from the Pacific to the Black Sea, from Siberia to Afghanistan, covering one fifth of the world’s inhabited land area at the time. He founded Dadu (now Beijing) in 1272.

He himself is quoted in Marco Polo’s  account of his travels (1275-1292) to China, and his summer gardens in Xanadu are the subject of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem Kubla Khan.

“And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between north-east and north, you come to a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning. There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

Round this Palace a wall is built, inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. Of these there are more than 200 gerfalcons alone, without reckoning the other hawks. The Khan himself goes every week to see his birds sitting in mew, and sometimes he rides through the park with a leopard behind him on his horse’s croup; and then if he sees any animal that takes his fancy, he slips his leopard at it, and the game when taken is made over to feed the hawks in mew. This he does for diversion.

Moreover [at a spot in the Park where there is a charming wood] he has another Palace built of cane, of which I must give you a description. It is gilt all over, and most elaborately finished inside. [It is stayed on gilt and lacquered columns, on each of which is a dragon all gilt, the tail of which is attached to the column whilst the head supports the architrave, and the claws likewise are stretched out right and left to support the architrave.] The roof, like the rest, is formed of canes, covered with a varnish so strong and excellent that no amount of rain will rot them. These canes are a good 3 palms in girth, and from 10 to 15 paces in length. [They are cut across at each knot, and then the pieces are split so as to form from each two hollow tiles, and with these the house is roofed; only every such tile of cane has to be nailed down to prevent the wind from lifting it.] In short, the whole Palace is built of these canes, which (I may mention) serve also for a great variety of other useful purposes. The construction of the Palace is so devised that it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity; and it can all be taken to pieces and removed whithersoever the Emperor may command. When erected, it is braced [against mishaps from the wind] by more than 200 cords of silk.

The Khan abides at this Park of his, dwelling sometimes in the Marble Palace and sometimes in the Cane Palace for three months of the year, to wit, June, July and August; preferring this residence because it is by no means hot; in fact it is a very cool place. When the 28th day of [the Moon of] August arrives he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace is taken to pieces. But I must tell you what happens when he goes away from this Palace every year on the 28th of the August [Moon].” ~ Marco Polo (1298)