Thursday, January 20, 2005

BOOK: Patricia Duncker, "Seven Tales of Sex and Death"

Patricia Duncker: "Seven Tales of Sex and Death". Picador, 2003. 0330490117 (hc), 0330419544 (pb), 0330490125 (2004 pb). xi + 228 pp.

How could I resist buying a book with such a delightfully lurid title and such an inviting cover illustration? It even includes a short author's note in which she explains that the stories were influenced by French B-movie cliches. Overall, I enjoyed reading them a lot, but they are the sort of writing which often leaves me somewhat frustrated: the stories are really quite short and don't waste much time on introducing the characters, explaining the background, etc. I guess there are people who enjoy this approach to storytelling, but I personally prefer long-winded works where the author takes his/her time to set things up, prepare an exposition, introduce us to the persons and places involved, etc.

The first story, Stalker, is told by the middle-aged wife of a successful archaeologist. A childhood friend of hers, who went on to become a famous TV personality, had been recently brutally murdered by a stalker. Later two of the murdered woman's lesbian lovers get murdered in a similar way. The narrator feels that she is being stalked as well and that she may be the next one to be murdered. However, the story ends without a proper conclusion; we don't really find out if there even really is a stalker, and what is going to happen to the narrator. Surely the harmless Greek boy on the motorbike whom we see approaching in the last paragraph cannot be the murderer in question.

The second story, Sophia Walters Shaw, focuses on a group of professional murderers who masquerade their operation behind a kinky sex agency. The story takes place in a moderately futuristic and dystopian world: the influential people all live in villas in the hills above the city, surrounded by checkpoints (p. 75); smoking is apparently largely forbidden, "only our most powerful clients still had the right to smoke" (p. 78). A volcano is mentioned (p. 77), and the environment is vaguely Mediterranean -- vineyards, cypress trees (p. 84), olive trees, goats (p. 86); perhaps it's meant to be south Italy, although the leading characters all have English names. Anyway, we get to observe the operation of a bizarre sex theatre, witness a couple of professional murders, and it makes for interesting reading as one discovers, little by little, more and more about the world in which the story takes place. However, once again this is really only a sketch, which leaves one wanting for more, especially for more explanation of the background. Who is the politician whom they murder on p. 82; how and why, given the situation, could he have murdered all three of them first (p. 83); who is his frail, young, drugged-up wife whom they rescue from the villa and transport her to the open land of olive trees etc. where her mother will supposedly be sure to find her (p. 84), and why is that area referred to as "the sacred spaces" on the same page? I find it unsatisfying if so many questions are left unanswered; I feel tricked, as if the author just peppered the tale with these little references here and there to puzzle the readers and make them wonder and try to figure things out although they obviously don't have enough information to really get anywhere. Would it be even possible to properly flesh out a reasonably logical and believable fictional world which is consistent with all the little details given in this story? If yes, what would it be like?

The third story, Small Arms, consists largely of two parts. During the years of the Vietnam war, a woman (who is the narrator of the tale) has a long conversation with a disillusioned veteran. He finds it difficult to reintegrate into the U.S. society back home, and is disgusted with the war and particularly with the enthusiasm still expressed for it by much of the civillian population. The next day he gives her a ride on his motorbike and they go their separate ways, never seeing each other again. Many years later, the same woman is on vacation in France with a man whom she doesn't really care that much about but whose lover she became because of his money and his sexual abilities. They are having a dinner in a fairly fancy restaurant and near the end of the dinner, a young man dressed up as a fisherman appears outside the window and opens fire with a shotgun, killing everyone inside except the narrator. There are many interesting passages in this tale, and in the last few pages there is a very nice buildup of tension as we get to see the seemingly innocent fisherman again and again, making his preparations, while the dinner progresses in its accustomed dull way, until the man finally opens fire. However, as a whole, I can't really say that I understand this tale. What is the connection between the two parts, other than the fact that the narrator is the same person? Who is the murderous quasi-fisherman? On p. 123 he is described as wearing some military clothes, but surely he couldn't be the same veteran whom we met in the first part of the tale; he would have been too old by now, while the fisherman is described as a young man. So frustratingly many loose ends again!

The fourth story, Moving, I found utterly baffling. The remaining members of a deeply religious family are moving from their remote house in Wales to some more accessible location. On the way they experience a harsh traffic accident. It transpires that some of the things they were moving were corpses, probably from the cemetery near their former home. There were a few untranslated sentences, in Welsh I presume, which look nice but which I of course couldn't understand at all. All in all I couldn't make heads or tails of this story. The fact that the author again doesn't bother to properly introduce the characters and the relationships among them is of course not of much help either. I guess I should try reading it again and more carefully.

The fifth story, The Strike, is one of my favourites in this book. The narrator is an Englishwoman who intends to spend the summer in a remote village in the French countryside, concentrating on her translating work. During the summer, a sequence of ever larger strikes leads finally to a general strike in which practically all the economic activities are shut down. Most of the inhabitants of the tiny village leave and our narrator is left with a friendly elderly peasant couple; they are quite self-sufficient and not really affected much by the strike. They are quite cut off from all contact with the outside world, and at some point the peasant couple disappears (p. 148; were they evacuated by the authorities who however overlooked our narrator, or were they kidnapped by some sort of looters, given that "they had not betrayed" the narrator (p. 149); but if looters, why had their house not been looted?). She thus finds herself alone, carries on reasonably well, having sufficient stocks of candles and food, which she also augments by gardening; she tries to reach the nearby town by bike but finds everything quite deserted, in some cases deserted apparently in a hurry; tracks of tanks appear on some of the streets; the only person she finds is the corpse of a gendarme. She feels unsafe and returns to her house, spends some more time there, but as it is already autumn and the weather is getting colder, she finally decides to leave and try to reach the coast, from where she intends to try reaching Spain by boat. The story ends with the narrator reaching the completely deserted city of Narbonne, the only person she meets there is a priest in the cathedral, who upon her asking what happened, merely says that there has been a strike.

I really enjoyed the story because it explores this fascinating what-if scenario -- what if something like this general strike made all the machinery of modern civilization shut down? It is fascinating to observe the gradual progress of the shutdown, first the gas runs out (p. 142), then the electricity (p. 145), the baker stops coming (p. 144), the phone goes dead (p. 147), all the people leave, nature and animals in particular start reclaiming the world (p. 150). Of course, as in the other tales in this book, frustratingly many things are still left unexplained. After the narrator is cut off from the rest of the world, we don't learn of the further progress of the strike. What exactly happened? How could such a huge strike go on for so long, and cause such a total shutdown of civilization? How could a town like Narbonne, which after all has 50000 or so inhabitants, be so completely deserted? Where did all the people go? And why did that particular priest stay? And our narrator, did she reach the coast safely, and get from there to Spain, and thence to her homeland? Could this even work, given that the strike seemed to be spreading to other countries (p. 146)?

Anyway, the idea that civilization could collapse just like that is certainly intriguing and I wonder how much it would really take for something like this to happen, and how far it could go. I have always been a fan of autarky, and this story is in a way a warning about one of the dangers of the excessive interdependency of all the parts of today's society. I hope I'll read Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed at some point, it looks like it will be a very interesting read. Incidentally, another very interesting read on the theme of collapse of civilization is Byron's poem Darkness, a very curious vision of a world in which "the bright sun was extinguish'd", everything is enveloped by darkness, and, despite some frantic efforts, human civilization, and indeed all life on Earth, slowly fails.

The sixth story, Paris, is narrated by an Englishwoman living in a village in the south of France, making her living by preparing English-learning programmes for the French radio. Paris is quite a distant place from the point of view of the villagers; they rarely go there and don't necessarily have a very good opinion of it, although they are sometimes somewhat curious about it. One day a Parisian couple comes to the village to spend their holidays in a house they have rented. They are obviously wealthy, young, good-looking, and remarkably fit, spending an enormous amount of time swimming, jogging, and cycling. They wear sunglasses everywhere they go, and their only contact with the villagers is a few greetings as they buy bread in the morning. All in all they are quite mysterious, even a little sinister, and excite a lot of curiosity among the villagers (pp. 167-9). One of the high points of the villagers' life is the boar hunt, and the narrator is invited by her elderly neighbor to accompany him. They stand on the road as a boar is approaching through the woods, the hunter ready with his gun; just then the mysterious couple come along on their bicycles, a moment afterwards the boar jumps on the road, is shot by the hunter, and a number of policemen appear out of the forest, having also just killed the two cyclists. They were apparently dangerous people and not innocent holidaymakers at all, but their real identity is not revealed in the story. I enjoyed this story, particularly as the sinister undertones progress slowly, ending in a truly B-movie-style climax. However, once again I was sad that things were left unexplained, particularly the identity of the mysterious couple. And I cannot help feeling a bit sorry for them (no matter what their real character was), to see them killed so ingloriously with their bicycles; I cannot help admiring people who are young, rich, elegant, good-looking, fit, etc., all at the same time; the world should belong to them, it's pity to see them killed by the police.

The seventh story, My Emphasis, is also narrated by an Englishwoman living in France; she spends every summer there to write a new play for her theatrical company. However, she is annoyed by her neighbours, a friendly but large and noisy family whose life is an endless sequence of dinners, parties, chattering, occasional quarreling, they have a noisy baby, etc. Finally she decides to try spending an afternoon away from home (p. 192) and ends up in a restaurant where her remarks about having run away from home are misunderstood and everybody thinks she is an abused wife (p. 195). She returns to the restaurant every day, spends some hours working on her play and strikes up a friendship with the young daughter of the proprietress. Then one day, as she is sitting at home, trying to watch a video of her theatrical company performing King Lear, she finally gets fed up with the neighbours, turns up the volume and treats them to a fine stream of Elizabethan curses from King Lear, interspersed with her own shouts and the breaking of objects she is smashing around the room (p. 202). The neighbours quiet down and soon appear at her door, full of concern, convinced that she has just been beaten by a violent lover (p. 204). On a similar occasion a few weeks later (p. 209), they notice a photograph of George, the narrator's friend and leading actor of the theatrical company, and naturally conclude that he must be the abusive lover in question (p. 215); they even start patrolling the neighbourhood to make sure he does not return (p. 216). Some time later the whole theatrical company arrives at the nearby town of Narbonne to perform King Lear at a festival there (p. 217). The neighbours come to watch it and eventually recognize George on the stage in the role of Lear (p. 225); just as the performance (which takes place in an open-air theatre) is interrupted by a commencing storm, the neighbours attack the stage and George and the narrator barely escape. In the subsequent performances, George has to hide while another actor plays Lear and the narrator takes up the role previously played by the substitute actor (p. 227).

This is definitely my favourite story in the entire collection. It is absolutely delightful and hilarious and is in fact one of the funniest things I have read in a long time. It doesn't have much sex and death in it, in fact no death at all and hardly any sex (p. 221); but never mind. I greatly enjoyed the fact that, unlike the other stories in this book, it isn't full of unexplained things and loose ends of the narrative. It even has a happy sort of ending. Domestic quarreling is the central theme of the story. Its clearest expression is the neighbours quarreling among themselves (p. 210), but it is also explored in the context of the theatrical company (p. 208; the idea of the theatrical company as a kind of family is also intriguing); as the fictitious quarrelling believed by the neighbours to have occurred between the supposedly abused narrator and her non-existent violent lover; and as a theme of King Lear, which is seen here as a drama of a family quarrel (p. 207).

The author's notes (p. viii) point out that there are parallels between this story and Small Arms, but I'm not quite sure that I see them. Perhaps the narrator of My Emphasis might have gone postal and shot all the neighbours in the same way that the young fisherman kills all the guests at the end of Small Arms, but we don't know anything about the fisherman's motivation; surely he cannot be having a quarrel with the rather diverse and randomly selected set of guests who happened to be in the restaurant at that particular time?

Another interesting aspect of My Emphasis is its portrayal of the theatre, of the actors' work and of the performance, which almost comes across as a fun event. I have a dirty confession to make: I don't like Shakespeare. I know, I know; this puts me completely beyond the pale. If there's any sure-fire way to recognize a complete and utter boor, it is by the fact that he doesn't like Shakespeare. In fact the only other people I have ever found who dared to admit they don't like Shakespeare were Tolstoy (see e.g. Orwell's essay Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool) and Henry Miller (see e.g. his The Books in My Life). I tried reading the originals (with plenty of notes and glosses), I tried reading translations, and in all cases I found them rather dull and couldn't get myself anywhere near to enjoying them. And this is what makes me wonder --- large numbers of people still enjoy Shakespeare, and in his own time the theatre was in fact the entertainment of the masses, not at all a highbrow or elitist cultural experience --- what is it that enables all these people to enjoy Shakespeare, but which I completely miss every time and therefore get bored? Perhaps part of the reason is that I always just read the plays; maybe seeing them performed would be different. The way the performance is described here in My Emphasis, it really sounds like fun. Anyway, I'm sure there are other reasons why I am bored by Shakespeare; maybe because I lack life experience; it would e.g. never occur to me to think of King Lear as a family quarrel, I just saw it as a stupendous tragedy and I couldn't get myself quite as touched by it as would be appropriate. Perhaps I should re-read a play like this several times, until I get comfortable with all the characters, their names and their relations to each other, until I get familiar with the plot etc. and can then perhaps finally start noticing some more of the little details and subplots and the like, which probably form much of the wealth of a play like this. This reminds me of Swinburne's Dolores, by which I was practically intoxicated and which I re-read many times, slowly getting more and more familiar with it and noticing more and more little details which contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the poem. But alas! there are few works by which I would be as fascinated as by Dolores, and consequently I am rarely motivated to re-read a book several times. Perhaps this is the main reason why my reading of literature is so superficial and why I so often end up scratching my head, perhaps fascinated but nevertheless baffled ("and their hearts were stirred, but they understood not the messages", Silmarillion ch. 12), wondering what the author must have meant. Maybe taking the trouble to think about what I have read, and write down something about it, such as I am doing here for Seven Tales of Sex and Death, will encourage me to read less superficially and get more out of some of the books I read.

Incidentally, the author uses the phrase "screen save" to refer to what would usually be called a "screensaver" (e.g. p. 71). This seems to be quite a rare term and in fact I haven't seen it before. I wonder if it is a Britishism, or a Mac term, or something of that sort? Google says there are 72100 occurrences of "screen save" on the web, 3.4 million of "screen saver" and 13.6 million of "screensaver".

A thing that I found slightly annoying sometimes is the abundance of foreign words. I understood the German ones and managed to guess most of the French ones, sometimes with a bit of help from the Babelfish; but the Welsh in Moving certainly leaves me baffled and helpless. And I cannot help wondering what is the use of talking about la boulangère (p. 207) when this seems to be nothing more or less than a baker? I guess some will say that it adds "flavour" or "colour" or perhaps "texture" to the text, but I think it's just a way of showing off the writer's knowledge of French and an opportunity to put that slick la in front of a word and a grave accent on top of it.

All in all, I found this collection of short stories to be really great reading, with many stimulating, amusing, or mysterious parts, with many interesting passages, and with enough unanswered questions that I guess I can safely say that it isn't completely trivial literature. Highly recommended.


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