Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, more thoughts


Today, more thoughts about the first book in Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, “Spring Snow”.

It is difficult to read books by writers such as Édouard Levé, Qiu Miaojin, Sadegh Hedayat, Osamu Dazai or Stig Sæterbakken, all writers who committed suicide, where the characters in their works also contemplate the final act. You bring a pre-conceived thematic notion to their works. Yukio Mishima is no different, his failed coup d’état and ritual suicide – seppuku – always lingering, especially with his final books, the tetralogy being completed in the days prior to his failed attempt to restore the power of the Japanese Emperor.

“Spring Snow”, a slow, contemplative, meditative novel where the narrative arc is simple, also contains a raft of detail about Japanese history, Western influence on their culture and debates about various religious or traditional ceremonies.

It is generally through dialogue that the various opinions and arguments take place.

Early in the novel, Chapter 13, two of the main characters, Kiyoaki and Honda, discuss time, the style of an era (“I’d be more inclined to say that the style of the Meiji era is still dying.”), history and their individual roles in such;

“Europeans believe that a man like Napoleon can impose his will on history. We Japanese think the same of the men like your grandfather and his contemporaries who brought about the Meiji Restoration. But is that really true? Does history ever obey the will of men? Looking at you always makes me ponder that question. You’re not a great man and you’re not a genius either. But, nonetheless, you have one characteristic that sets you quite apart: you have no trace whatever of willpower. And so I am always fascinated to think of you in relation to history.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“No, not a bit. I’m thinking in terms of unconscious participation in history. For example, let’s say that I have willpower –”
“You certainly have.”
“Say that I want to alter the course of history. I devote all my energies and resources to this end. I use every ounce of strength I possess to bend history to my will. Say I possess the prestige and authority so necessary to bring this about. None of this would ensure that history proceeded according to my wishes. Then, on the other hand, perhaps a hundred or two hundred, even three hundred years later, history might veer abruptly to take a course that was constant with my vision and ideals – and this without my having had anything whatever to do with it. Perhaps society would assume a form that was the exact replica of my dreams of a hundred or two hundred years before; history, enjoying the new glory that had been my vision, would smile at me with cool condescension and mock my ambition. And people would say : ‘Well, that’s history.’”

The whole chapter is a debate between the two characters about an era that has passed, about their potential roles in history and ability to influence change. The sceptre of the author’s demands for the restoration of the Emperor in 1970 leaving a shadow over the whole debate.

Another ongoing theme is the influence of the English on Japanese culture, there are many minor references to the Westernisation of ceremonies, or the furnishings, or even somebody preferring billiards to mahjong, there are references to “carefully nurtured “English” absentmindedness” or the keeping of rodents as pets. The triviality of the English influence can be seen in the following conversation that takes place during the blossom festival, between Baron Shinkawa and Count Ayakura, the Baron modelling himself on English culture;

“They tell me, Baron, that you spent a good deal of time in London.”
“Yes, and in London at tea time the hostess makes a great point of asking everyone: ‘Milk or tea first?’ Though it all comes to the same in the end, tea and milk mixed together in the cup, the English place enormous importance on one’s preference as to which should be poured first. With them it seems to be an affair of greater gravity than the latest government crisis.”

In later chapters two Siamese (Thai) Princes spend some time at a summer house with Kiyoaki and Honda and discuss the transmigration of souls, this opens up to Buddhist tales from the Jataka Sutra and then further debate and opinions by Honda on reincarnation;

“There is an abundance of death in our lives. We never lack reminders – funerals, cemeteries, withered commemorative bouquets, memories of the dead, deaths of friends, and then the anticipation of our own death. Who knows? Perhaps in their own way the dead make a great deal of life. Perhaps they’re always looking in our direction from their own land – at our towns, our schools, the smokestacks of our factories, at each of us who has passed one by one back from death into the land of the living.”
“What I want to say is that perhaps reincarnation is nothing more than a concept that reverses the way that we, the living, ordinarily view death, a concept that expresses life as seen from the viewpoint of the dead. Do you see?”

This is a complex work, whole chapters spent on the structure and beauty of blades of grass, large sections dedicated to the motion of waves, the natural world at times being more of an influence than the main human characters.

I can understand why a number of readers find his works “difficult” as the self-reflection, the contemplation is a major feature of the characters. It is a work that I am thoroughly enjoying, even if I cannot help having a pre-conceived set of thoughts about the author’s motivations.


Notes for poems to be found in the desert – another fiction published


More self promotion of my own fiction today.

Last month UK based journal Burning House Press published a call out for “Non-Nonfiction”, it followed hot on the heels of my recent publication in Overland where the submission call out was for fiction disguised as or in the guise of ‘real’ textual artefacts. The Burning House Press edition to be edited by John Trefrey, an architect and writer who edits publications for “Inside the Castle” in Kansas.

The call out was as follows:

This is a program whose texts are overwhelmingly allusive without ever noting their referents, where human beings only exist as ciphers whose names have grammatical value in the text, not because they are especially alluring organisms. Text forms, or formal vehicles of text that are not time-dependent, do not demand causality, for example: exegeses of science or humanities, visual glossaries, catalogs, fraudulent criticism, mythology, lists, curated jargon, directions, instruction manuals, screenplays for natural history documentaries. Texts that revel in language, with the pure fascination of prose, and without the constraint of the human desire to unburden the spirit, yet still with the exceedingly concrete duty of conveying information, albeit desperately, hilariously inaccurate.

I submitted a set of notes for an imaginary collection of poems and I am pleased to say that my submission was selected for publication.

You can read my “Notes for poems to be found in the desert” here.

Hope you enjoy it!!!

Image of Mount Sonder from the Larapinta Trail in central Australia, on the Arrernte lands in the West McDonnell Ranges courtesy of Tania Verbeeck, taken during the yearly charity hike I organised (May 2015)

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, initial thoughts

SPringSnowWith a very specific purpose in mind, but more on that another time, I have commenced reading Yukio Mishima’s final four books, a tetralogy, “The Sea of Fertility”, and today would like to present some initial highlights.

Avid readers of world literature would know about Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide – seppuku, an event that seems to overshadow his significant contribution to Japanese literature. He was considered for the Nobel Prize in 1968, only to see his fellow countryman Yasunari Kawabata take home the gong. It was on 25 November 1970, just  after completing his tetralogy, “Hōjō no Umi” translated as “The Sea of Fertility”, that Yukio Mishima, along with four others, attempted a coup d’état, demanding a restoration of the power of the emperor. The failed attempt ending with the writer’s suicide.

His tetralogy commences with “Haru no Yuki” translated by Michael Gallagher as “Spring Snow”.

Yukio Mishima’s novel is set in 1912, soon after the Russo-Japanese War, and with the westernisation of Japan taking place, the book deals with this pervading sense of change. An important theme when reflecting upon Yukio Mishima’s attempted coup d’état, however I will save these reflections for a later post.

Very much like his earlier novel, “The Temple of The Golden Pavilion” we have a novel steeped in Buddhist reflections, central characters who are contemplative, and even though this work is set before the Second World War it also deals with Nationalist themes. Here we have Kiyoaki Matsugae, a sensitive melancholy boy of eighteen, one of the prominent characters, and another dominant theme in this book is the moon, here is a rather lengthy excerpt, with Kiyoaki front and centre;

At this point, both parents were at a loss for viable topics of conversation and began to flounder, their discomfiture evident even to Kiyoaki. Somehow, however, they finally happened upon the congenial subject of Kiyoaki’s Otachimachi, the divination ritual that had taken place three years before when he was fifteen.
This ancient ceremony fell on the seventeenth of August according to the lunar calendar. A large wooden basin filled with water was placed in the garden to catch the reflection of the moon, and appropriate offerings were made. If the sky was overcast on this August night of his fifteenth year, bad fortune was expected to dog the boy who stood before the basin, for the rest of his life.
As his parents talked, the scene came back to Kiyoaki vividly. Flanked by his parents and dressed in his
hakama, a divided skirt, and kimono blazoned with the family crest, he had stood in the middle of the dew-drenched lawn, the new basin filled with water before him, and a chorus of chirping insects ringing in his ears.
The trees that encircled the now-darkened garden, the tiled roofs of the mansion itself beyond, even the maple hill – the reflection of all this, and more, had been fixed in jagged outline, compressed into the circle of water that was defined by the rim of the basin. That rim of blond Cyprus wood had become a frontier where this world ended and another began. Since this ceremony during his fifteenth year was to determine his lifetime fortune, Kiyoaki felt as though his very soul, naked, had been set there on the wet grass. The wooden sides of the basin expressed his outer self; the disk of water, which they in turn defined, expressed his inner.
Everyone was silent, so the sounds of insects throughout the garden filled his ears as never before. He gazed earnestly into the basin. The water within was dark at first, shadowed by clouds as thick as clustered seaweed. A moment later the seaweed seemed to wave and he thought he had seen a faint glow suffuse the water, but then it faded. He could not remember how long he had waited after that. Then all of a sudden the black water in the basin, which had seemed impenetrably obscure, cleared, and there directly in its center shone a tiny image of the full moon.
Everyone broke into exclamations of pleasure, and his mother, rigid all this time, was greatly relieved and began to wave her fan to drive away the mosquitos swarming around her skirt.
“Oh, I’m so glad! Now the boy will have a fortunate life, won’t he?” she said.
Then Kiyoaki was congratulated by everyone present.
But he still felt a certain dread. He could not bring himself to look up into the sky at the moon itself, the origin of the image in the water. Rather he kept looking down into the basin and into the water contained by its curved sides, the reflection of his innermost self, into which the moon, like a golden shell, had sunk so deep. For at that moment he had captured the celestial. It sparkled like a golden butterfly trapped in the meshes of his soul.

After dinner that evening, where the ritual three years prior was discussed, Kioyaki’s father requests the boy to accompany him on his walk to his mistress’s house and proposes a night out for his son with geishas so he can ‘kick up his heels’, his reply is simply “No, thank you”

The moon was bright, and the wind moaned through the branches of the trees…The hooting of the owls and the wind in the trees reminded Kiyoaki, still wine-flushed, of the branches blowing in the photograph of the memorial service. As they walked through the bleak, wintry night, his father was anticipating the moist warmth and intimacy of the rosy flesh that awaited him, while his son’s thoughts turned toward death.

When he is eighteen years old Kioyaki is concerned about a letter he has sent, and needs to come up with a plan to retrieve the offending letter before the recipient gets to read it;

The night wind howled at the windows of the passageway with its line of dim lanterns stretching into the distance. Suddenly afraid that someone might see him and wonder at his running and being out of breath like this, he stopped, and as he rested his elbows on the ornamental window frame and pretended to stare out into the garden, he tried desperately to put his thoughts in order. Unlike dreams, reality was not so easy to manipulate. He had to conceive a plan. It could not be anything vague and uncertain; it had to be as firmly compact as a pill, and with as sure and immediate a result. He was oppressed by a sense of his own weakness, and after the warmth of the room he had just left, the cold corridor made him shiver.
He pressed his forehead to the wind-buffeted glass and peered out into the garden. There was no moon tonight. The island and the maple hill beyond formed one mass in the darkness. In the faint glow of the corridor lamps he could make out the surface of the pond ruffled by the wind. He suddenly imagined that the snapping turtles had reared their heads out of the water and were looking toward him. The thought made him shudder.

Kiyoaki’s fate appears inextricable linked to the phases of the moon, will this theme continue?

Adam Buenosayres – Leopoldo Marechal (translated by Norman Cheadle)


The Argentine Ulysses?

In “Finnegan’s Wake”, James Joyce describes “Ulysses” as “his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles”, Leopoldo Marechal’s hero, Adam Buenosayres, has a notebook, which is presented in Book Six of this monolith, called “The Blue-Bound Notebook”. However, “Adam Buenosayres” (originally titled “Adán Buenosayres”) is not uselessly unreadable, in fact it is a very complex, many layered work, and it is not simply a “blue book” reference which links this work to “Ulysses”.

As regular visitors to this blog would know, I am, very slowly, looking at the many worlds of Ulysses and books that have been identified as being the “Ulysses” of their nation. Joshua Cohen identified “Adam Buenosayres” as the Argentine Ulysses, and unlike a few other works I have read the parallels here are justified.

The novel is expertly translated by Norman Cheadle (assisted by Shiela Ethier, who is credited on the title page but nowhere else!). Cheadle writes a detailed Introduction and provides 77 pages of detailed notes and a Bibliography, these are extremely handy to decipher a number of Argentine terms or references, and if the comparison to Joyce is considered tenuous then that should be dismissed quickly as the introduction provides a section titled “The Joyce connection and the culture wars”;

Another clear source of inspiration is Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) (p xiii)

This massive novel consists of seven “Books” and an “Indispensable Prologue”, where we learn, on the first page, that the protagonist is dead, after the funeral, Leopoldo Marechal advises us;

In the days that followed, I read two manuscripts that Adam Buenosayres had entrusted to me at his death: The Blue-Bound Notebook and Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia. Both works struck me as so extraordinary that I resolved to have them published, confident that they would find a place of honour in Argentine literature. But I later realized those strange pages would not be fully understood by the public without some account of who their author and protagonist was, so I took it upon myself to sketch out a likeness of Adam Buenosayres. At first I had in mind a simple portrait, but then it occurred to me to show my friend in the flow of his life. The more I recalled his extraordinary character, the epic figures cut by his companions, and above all the memorable exploits I had witnessed back in those days, the more novelistic possibilities expanded before my mind’s eye. I decided on a plan of five books, in which I would present my Adam Buenosayres from the moment of his metaphysical awakening at number 303 Monte Egmont Street until midnight on the following day, when angels and demons fought over his soul in Villa Crespo, in front of the Church of San Bernardo, before the still figure of Christ with the Broken Hand. Then I would transcribe The Blue-Bound Notebook and Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia as the sixth and seventh books of my tale. (pp3-4)

Like Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which focuses on a single day in Dublin, these first five “books” of “Adam Buenosayres” focuses on three days, April 28-30, in an unspecified year in the 1920’s, in Buenos Aires (hence the protagonist’s name). It does say “one day” in the introduction however we also have the manuscripts themselves and, of course, the funeral. But I could rant on for ages about the influences and inspirations, the translator’s introduction to the book most definitely explains it better than I ever could.

As explained by Norman Cheadle, this work could be interpreted as a Roman à Clef, a novel with real life keys overlaid with a façade of fiction. The main characters “carticatures of clearly recognizable individuals”, Luis Pereda is Jorge Luis Borges, the astrologer Schultz being the artist Xul Solar, the philosopher Samuel Tesler is the poet Jacobo Fijman, and Bernini the writer Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz, the protagonist Adam Buenosayres Marechal himself. Buenosayres’ beloved, Solveig Amundsen has been associated with Norah Lange, however this is under dispute. Cheadle says “caution must be exercised when interpreting Adán as a roman à clef. On the other hand, it can be read as a Kűnstlerroman whose most obvious model is Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, though these two subgenres can hardly account for the novel in its totality.”

A work so rich in literary styles it requires a serious commitment if you want to enjoy its riches, it is a book that demands many readings, and the rewards for complete immersion and further study would obviously be many, however Norman Cheadle greatly assists any reading with his detailed notes.

He haunted the night because, in his era, the torch of daytime incited a war without laurels; it raped silence, it scourged holy stillness. Daytime was external like skin, active like the hand, sweaty as armpits, loud-mouthed and prolific in falsehood. Male by sex, daytime was a young hairy-chested hero. He shied away from the light of day because it pushed him toward the temptation of material fortune, induced the anxiety to possess useless objects, as well as other unhealthy desires: to be a politician, boxer, singer, or gunman. “and the night?” Colourless, odourless, insipid as water, nighttime nevertheless kindled the dawn of difficult voices and deep calls which the day with its trombones drowns out. Antipode of light, night made the tiny stars visible. Destroyer of prisons, she favoured escape. Field of truce, she facilitated union and reconciliation. Female who healed, refreshed and stimulated, she lay with man and conceived a son called sleep, the gracious image of death. (pp19-20)

The story of a man, struggling with unrequited love, a hero who is about to undertake adventures, where the underbelly of Buenos Aires will be exposed. The first five books, consisting of 355 large pages, is Marechal coming to terms with his place in Argentina, his struggles with writing and his role within the wider literary circle;

Did Adam concoct, as was his wont, some poetic analogy to express such a vexed duality? He had no need, Plato’s inimitable simile sprang to mind: his soul was a like a wingèd chariot pulled by two different horses. One of them, sky-coloured, its mane bristling with stars, its delicate hooves airborne, tended to draw always upward, toward the heavenly meadows where it was born. The other, earth-coloured, slack-lipped, balky, its crupper twisted, paunchy, long-eared, knock-kneed, down at the mouth, and stumble-gaited, always pulled downward, itching to get stuck in muck up to the crotch. Poor Adam, the driver, held the reins of both horses and strove to keep them on track. When the accursed colt prevailed and dragged down the soul’s entire equipage, the divine equine seems to be asleep in its traces. But when the celestial steed took over, its limbs plied a marvellous light, its nostrils flared to the scent of divine alfalfa fields, and the coach flew, hoisting aloft the dead weight of the earthly horse. The sublime charger kept going higher until it sensed the air thinning, its sinews slackened, and it fell asleep drunk on loftiness. That’s when the terrestrial animal woke up and, finding its teammate asleep, let itself fall down hard, given over to voracious hunger for impure matter. When satiated, this beast nodded off, the noble bronco awoke and was master of the coach once more. Thus, between one horse and the other, between heaven and earth, now pulling on this rein and now on that one, Adam’s soul rose up or tumbled down. At the end of each trip Adam the coachman wiped acrid sweat from his brow. (p27)

Using many literary and philosophical references throughout, the influences of European thinking and culture upon Argentine progress is a subtle backdrop to the travails of our hero and his merry band of writers, artists, poets. The philosopher Samuel Tesler appears in chapter two, he does not wash as a rejection of being baptised (as per Stephen Dedalus?) and his appearance ensures there are many philosophical debates throughout their journey.

In Book Two, Adam Buenosayres wanders the streets, a la Bloom in “Ulysses” and meets a large cast of characters, this is the melting pot of Buenos Aires. A funeral crosses his path, we have dishwashers calling on Melpomene “the tragic muse” quoting poetry, Polyphemus appears as a blind street beggar who owns rental properties, drinking funeral coachmen, old witches who have been fleeced, men doffing hats to statues of Christ, large pregnant women, nymphs in blue, white and green revealing a “Hesperides of incalculable abundance”, Clotho with a spinning wheel, Syrians smoking the narghile, and it all comes together with a resounding crescendo…a fight;

Standing in the first row of the ring, Adam Buenosayres studied the combatants. There were the Iberians of thick eyebrows who’d left northern Spain and their dedication to Ceres to come here and drive orchestral streetcars; there were those who drank from the torrential Miño River, men practiced in the art of argumentation; those from the Basque countries, the natural hardness of their heads concealed by blue berets. Then there were the Andalusian matadors, abundant in guitars and brawls. And industrious Ligurians, give to wine and song. Neopolitans erudite in the fruits of Pomona, who now wield municipal brooms. Turks of pitch-black mustachios, who sell soap, perfumed water, and combs destined for cruel uses. Jews wrapped in multi-coloured blankets, who love not Bellona. Greeks astute in the stratagems of Mercury. Dalmatians of well-rivetted kidneys. The Syrio-Lebanese, who flee not the skirmishes of Theology. And Japanese dry-cleaners. In short, all those who had come from the ends of the earth to fulfil the lofty destiny of the Land-which-from-a-noble-metal-takes-its-name. Adam studied those unlikely faces and wondered about that destiny, and great was his doubt. (p94)

As the journey continues the reader is exposed to an array of Argentine history, myth and sub-cultures, the five books coming to a nationalistic conclusion;

The Argentine, by nature, was and must be a sober man, as our country folk were and still are. And so were, and are, the immigrants responsible for the existence of the majority of us. Bet what’s happened? Foreigners have induced us into a cult of sensuality and hedonism, inventing a thousand needs we didn’t have before. And – of course! – it’s all so they can sell us the geegaws they produce industrially, and so redeem the gold they pay us for our raw materials. In plain language, that’s what I call eating with both hands! (p336)

A full novel contained in the first five books, Marechal’s “Ulysses”, but this only constitutes a little over half of the work, we still have “The Blue-Bound Notebook” and the final book “Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia”.

“The Blue-Bound Notebook” is a metaphysical exploration, a delving into the soul of Adam Buenosayres, a philosophical musing on existence and love. The book where he has written his inner most desires for Solveig, this section explores Adam’s heart;

She moved slowly forward, beneath a sun perpendicular to the earth: her body, without shadow, had the firm fragility of a branch, a sort of combative force in her lightness, a terrible audacity in her decorum. She wore a sky-blue dress wrapped round her like a whisp of mist; but the garden, the light, the air, all heaven and earth joined forces and worked to clothe her, so much to be feared was her nakedness. With her face turned to the sun, she showed the two violets of her eyes and the slight arc of her smile; a bee buzzed in circles around her hair. As she walked, her small feet crushed golden sand, seashells, and the carapaces of blue beetles. Her arrival seemed to last an eternity, as it The One came from very far off, across a hundred days and a hundred nights. (p384)

After exploring Adam Buenosayres soul and inner machinations it is time for a decent into Hell, a la Dante’s “Inferno”, here nine stages of the helicoid tracking the living hell of Buenos Aires, the masses chewing, swallowing and shitting whatever news is fed to them, sexual debauchery, where Chapter 15 “Circe” in “Ulysses” instantly sprang to mind;

Why, it’s Don Moses Rosenbaum! He has exhumed his ancient lustring frock coat and his astrakhan hat. See how his crazed gaze wanders over the banquet table! And observe how, in the face of such devastation, he tears tufts from his beard, weeps without a sound, raises his arms toward the ceiling, as though trying to prop it up? Great God, what’s he doing now? In his madness, the poor wretch has started gathering crumbs from the tablecloth, righting toppled glasses, and salvaging the spilled wine. But no one sees or hears him, and around him the debauchery intensifies. (p470)

Occasional spices of humour appear, for example the dragon guarding the door into the fifth circle of hell needs to be put to sleep, how they do so is to read it Argentine literature.

A massive novel that contains riches upon riches, a work that deserves better recognition as a canonical piece of Argentine literary history, a book that is not an easy read, a mental exercise that took me many months to complete. Late in the book Leopoldo Marechal explains it thus;

Reader, my dear friend, if I had to justify the drowsiness that came over me in the fourth circle of Schultz’s inferno, I should remind you of a hundred illustrious precedents recorded in as many infernal excursions. Alighieri, being who he was, slept quite a bit in the descent he made. If the metaphysical character of his journey allows us to assign a symbolic value to that bard’s siestas, we can say that Alighieri slept in the proper place at the proper time. Less fortunate than he, I made an infernal descent without theological projections. I didn’t sleep when I should have, but rather when it was humanely possible to do so. How lucky are you, reader! For, having no metaphysical obligations or any cares whatsoever, you can cop a snooze on any page at all of this, my true story! (p481)

Underappreciated, sadly released in English with barely a whimper, “Adam Buenosayres” was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, not even making the shortlist (the eventual winner was Can Xue’s “The Last Lover”), which is extremely disappointing given the massive effort that the translator has put in here and given the novel’s place in Argentine literary history. Lauded by Julio Cortázar shortly after the novel was released in 1948, where he said “The publication of this book is an extraordinary event in Argentine literature.”

For lovers of complex literature this is worth reading, not because it is a materwork, but just for the ending where an insatiable desire of knowledge and the allure of reading is debated. Of all the national “Ulysses” I have read, I must say the comparison here is completely justified.

Double-Wolf – Brian Castro

Double-Wolf cover

Today I look at a complex book, one that has received little attention since its publication in 1991, so little attention that there is a single review at Goodreads, from somebody who obviously enjoys more straightforward fiction.

“Double-Wolf” is a novel written between parenthesis, an aside, an interruption. The complete book appears between parenthesis, but does that mean it should be dismissed?

Brian Castro’s third novel investigates the famous Sergei Konstanovitch Pankejeff, a patient of Sigmund Freud more commonly known as the Wolf Man. However, in this work he is known as Sergei Wespe, the notes advising us “Wespe, Castro’s name for the novel’s Wolf-Man, is German for wasp. Freud never named his patients when reporting his case studies.”

But it is not only Wespe who appears here, we have the obscure autodidact, living in Australia, Arthur S. Catacomb a character whose book appears in the end bibliography: “Catacomb, Arthur S. Fellow Traveller: In Praise of Freud New York: International Universities Press, 1970”, google this book and you will notice it does not exist, is even the bibliography part of Brian Castro’s fiction?

Catacomb, now down and out and dismissed in the Blue Mountains, is reflecting upon his life, a life that took in working with the Wolf-Man. Castro has taken an existing interesting tale, appropriated it for his fiction, added colourful and complex characters and handed it to the reader to interpret or simply enjoy.

The book opens in Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains, 100kms west of Sydney, during winter 1978;

(A misty rain is falling.
It smears the glass like somebody’s spit. Somebody talking too loud, too fast. (p 1)

This section becomes a second person narrative, “your urine streams”, “you’ll have to go out in it”, “if you stand still now”.

We then move to Vienna in 1972, and then finally to Sergei’s first-person narration, the book being a jigsaw puzzle of narrators, voices, interpretations, a musing on fiction;

He’s just attended a conference. He said to them: All writers are wankers. His advice to writers? Get a proper job. He wanted to discourage the herd. You can only speak the truth once. After that, all is paradox.
Later a middle-aged woman came up to him. ‘Mr Wespe,’ she exclaimed, ‘I really didn’t think that was
necessary.’ She took off her spectacles. ‘What about your audience?’ she scolded. ‘You never think of them.’
‘Let them eat words,’ said Wespe.
He was tired of being a curiosity and was in a particularly bad mood thinking of his Th
érèse in the hospital mortuary, turning blue, her lungs still filled with gas. (p 4)

These multiple voices are alluded to in one of the opening epigraphs;

‘Only for the egoist and the dogmatist (and maybe they’re one and the same, although I’m thinking of two different friends of mine) is there one “history” only. The rest of us live with the suspicion that there are as many histories as there are people and maybe a few more…’
(Robert Coover ‘Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?’) (p xvii)

Many histories, maybe more than there are people, but is this also referring to Sigmund Freud’s case history on the “Wolfman”, to him there was “one history”. All of this adds up to a complex book of failed psychoanalysis, a man’s misinterpreted history, recollections, being ostracised, and the fiction created by Freud, as well as fictions created by fictitious writers!

…this idea that somewhere, inside, you were ready to become a hermit, to give it all up, to melt into someone else who inhabited the wilderness, distinguishable only by your handwriting, to be nothing more than an annotation, a note, a mark of such purity and yet of such insignificance that your life would be relished as a mere postscript, an afterword…this is the vanity of the repression of self…a social consequence…the pack gives birth to the outsider. But there is only the outside: you are a ghost-writer. (p109)

In “Double-Wolf” the patient, Wespe, becomes a writer in later life, a purveyor of pulp mysteries. Although there is actually a book called “The Wolf-Man by the Wolf-Man” written by Sergius Pankejeff, edited by Muriel Gardiner with a Foreword by Anna Freud, published by Hill & Wang in the USA in 1991, in this work it is more the fiction musings of Wespe that are the attraction of Catacomb.

A novel that works on numerous levels, using 1st, 2nd and 3rd person narration, a blur of characters, a blending of histories, real and imagined, a questioning of writing and of fiction itself, this work requires re-reading and unpacking on numerous levels. In the introduction to the 2005 edition, Katherine England sums it up so much better than I could;

Double-Wolf is so rich, so complex that virtually every sentence could be annotated. There is a compulsion to draw the prospective reader’s attention to more and more that an aficionado would not want them to miss – to the passing Lacanian play with signs and signifiers, the Joycean overtones underlined with a single Latin reference to Ulysses, to the parody Nazi’s, to Castro’s beguilingly equivocal answer to the wolf dream – another moment of haunting, multi-connected stillness that forms the climax of the novel. There is no way to capture it all, except perhaps to follow the author’s advice; to dance across his work, stepping lightly back and forth between reason and intuition, picking up what appeals and simply enjoying it. There is enough interest here for a lifetime of such dances – and to inspire Castro-informed meanders into Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Borges and Lacan into the bargain. (p xv)

In his two earlier novels, “Birds of Passage” and “Pomeroy” the role of the writer, the play of different narrators and the use of various narrative techniques were all used with stunning effect, here Brian Castro takes it to an extra level, where the fictions, dreams, histories and realities all become blurred, even the bibliographies and notes are fiction (or are they?). A playful addition to his oeuvre, a book I can’t adequately describe, but one I suggest you hunt down and “dance across”.

False Documents – fiction I’ve had published


Shameless self promotion here.

Earlier in the year Australian based literary magazine Overland published a call out for “False Documents”, fiction disguised as or in the guise of ‘real’ textual artefacts. The special edition to be guest edited by writer Dave Drayton.

The call out gave a few details about a “False Document”:

These might include stories that take on the shape/form/language/appearance of prescriptions, shopping lists, report cards, instructional manuals, contracts, passive-aggressive post-its, users’ guides, guest books, curriculum vitae, transcripts, court summons, the side of a cereal box, emails, Wikipedia entries, etc.

I submitted a false Short Documentary Film Festival program, satirically looking at a number of Australian cultural myths. And I am very pleased to say that from over 300 entries I was one of the four chosen to be published.

You can read my “False Document” here.

Hope you enjoy it!!!

Bodies of Summer – Martin Felipe Castagnet (translated by Frances Riddle)


In a dystopian future (aren’t all futures dystopian?), your consciousness can be uploaded to the web upon your death (called “floatation”), where it will float and interact with others until you choose to inhabit a used body, if you have enough money of course. This is the basic premise of Argentine writer, Martin Felipe Castagnet’s debut short novel “Bodies of Summer”.

Our protagonist, speaking in the first person, was a male and was one of the first to have his consciousness uploaded, however he returns to earth “in the body of a fat woman that no one else wanted”, this was all his family could afford. He is returning to spend time with his son Teo, who, near death, has chosen not to have his consciousness uploaded to the web.

When I went through the process of entering into floatation, my body was destroyed. At that time they hadn’t yet figured out how to conserve bodies and burn people into new ones. The technological advances we’ve seen since then have been astonishing. First, mothers began to put their children on the waiting list for new bodies, just in case they were to die in an accident. Bodies cam to be seen as a valuable resource. Funerals became a thing of the past. Then, obituaries started to include information about who would be reincarnated in the body of the deceased. Finally, it was decided that cemeteries should be destroyed. Most were converted into community gardens, due to the fertility of the soil. The few cemeteries that remain now function as museums.
Each body has an average life span of three inhabitants until it finally deteriorates. Then it’s cremated. Some families prefer to eat the remains of their loved ones’ bodies instead of selling them to be used by other people. This is only legal if it’s been authorised by the deceased in their will.
I guess this is the future. (p12-13)

The premise allows for numerous intriguing debates and questions to be put forward, for example, on subjects such as religion, or politics;

The extension of life seems to have been accompanied by the extension of fascism. (p25)

Or sex:

And sex always finds a way to reinvent itself despite limited positions and combinations. It continues to be a powerful motivator: there’s a pervasive drive to earn more money in order to buy a more attractive body. (pp26-27)

The future world created by Martin Felipe Castagnet includes a whole tool-box of dilemmas, it is a fertile playing field for his imagination;

At one time society’s controversies were the printing press, medicine; today it’s the state of floatation and the appropriation of bodies. Death still exists; what has disappeared is the certainty that everything will eventually end sooner or later. There’s time to shave your head, time to let they gray hairs grow, to get pregnant, to torture, to be the world champion, and to rewrite the encyclopedia. With patience, a single person could build the pyramids; with perseverance, another single person could knock them down. I guess destruction is another form of love. (p28)

The novel also questions the role of the internet, a storage for everything, technological advances, and balances humour and social issues by not taking the story too seriously. There are numerous humorous quotes scattered throughout;

A person in the internet can become Buddha, as long as they avoid the social networks and the pornography. (p32)

However, with a fertile playing field this is ultimately a disappointing work. Why the need to bring up the tacky male in a female body questions? Quite senseless interactions with younger females and then debating homosexuality!!! I don’t want to add spoilers, however race also enters the fray, later in the book. Yes, further social dilemmas to add into the mix, however I found a few of them to be misplaced and not required.

I also found the characters to be very lightly sketched, for a short work of only 105 pages, there are numerous characters, and being a short book they do not have a lot of time to come into focus, therefore they simply disappear, even the son, who our protagonist has come to interact with, is only briefly sketched, where he could have been used as leverage to explain the reasons why a person would choose not to be uploaded to the web after death. A mid teen “Lolita” is simply out of place, as is the character that our protagonist needs to locate so he can settle old scores, and the household hired help, there was no need. It is as though a few extra strings were added to stretch this out to 105 pages, extra flesh on a long short story so it could be published as a novel?

The book won the Saint-Nazaire MEET Young Latin American Literature Award, and it was released, in its original Spanish, when Martin Felipe Castagnet was in his mid-20’s, leaving plenty of time for the young writer to develop. And I would probably revisit his writing again, as the satire is biting and the ideas fresh.

A book you can read in a single setting, that begins with a lively and entertaining premise, but one ultimately that peters out. Enjoyable, thought provoking, at times, but ultimately disappointing and forgettable. Pity as the premise could have delivered a bleak fictional social commentary.