Friday, March 28, 2008

Da Fey

Read this story. Read it. Savor it. Enjoy as every moment throughout the tale unfolds, smacking your lips with every delectable sentence, letting the rough R's roll off your tongue as the Spaniards would since this story borrows heavily from the Iberians. Roger Zelazny might have become famous for his Amber saga, but the truth is, you see the full extent of a writer's skill in his shorts because he doesn't have enough room to create as full-bodied a story as he would in a novel (which leads to the rise of short short fiction but that's another topic altogether), but Zelazny is a genius and Auto-da-Fe is one of my favorite stories by this author who was well-received during his time but doesn't get half the public exposure it deserves in this day and age.

For you non-believers let me tell you this: J.K. Rowling can bite Zelazny in the behind, since none of the Harry Potter novels even comes close to the magic that this story generates. The first few paragraphs plunges you into an Andalusian-like vista filled with the hot sun and the humanity of thousands, the "tiers of humanity" with "sunglasses like cavities." Zelazny first establishes the sensory aspect of the time and place because this is important, once the plot begins the reader is thrown face-first into a world filled literally with nuts and bolts.

When the main character is introduced, he is not given his name right away. He is introduced as the mechador, which, as the story progresses, is something similar to Spanish matadors, except their business is done with classic, hood-stripped and violent cars with their own personalities - it just so happens that these automobiles, for one reason or another, are bred to attack any and all moving objects with an intent to kill, and it is the mechador's job, in this case, the celebrated Manolo Stillete Dos Muertos, to provide the onlookers with a show of dismantling and eventually "killing" the said vehicle, much like matadors would to a bull.

The short story is bathed in ambiguity, the least of these being how the automobiles have any sentience to begin with. There's also an obvious lack of background information about the event itself, although this isn't much necessary, as the story is self-sufficient as it is. The state of mechanization of both automobiles (via their sentience) and human beings (Dos Muertos is described as having died twice, and revived both times, and as having veins pumped with motor oil) seems to be rather advanced, if sloppy, although the sloppiness adds to the character of the tale.

One interesting point to consider is the title; auto da fe roughly translates to an act of faith. The cultural act of auto da fe, during the Spanish inquisition, referred to the ritualistic public penance of condemned heretics, which would precede the execution of the said transgressors afterwards. Whether this parallelism was important to Dos Muertos' tale, or was just an additional element to give the story more spice is unsure; the intermingling of bullfighting and religious penance into one subject can be traced back to the Spaniards (the bullfights continue to this day; the autos da fe do not), but while the mechador's fight can be seen as a public ritual act, I doubt that Zelazny was portraying these acts of faith through a sarcastic viewpoint.

This story was first published in 1980 in Roger Zelazny's short story collection "The Last Defender of Camelot." I am a better man for finding this short story collection. I will make my children read it, and if they do not rear their own kids with these stories told by their bedsides, I will most probably roll in my grave.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fantasy Storytelling and the Books that Make the Tale

I love hunting for really old bargain books whenever I can. In the country where I live in, there's this chain of bookstores that specializes in the acquisition and distribution of really really old books at bargained prices, and sometimes I would just lounge around in one of the said bookstores, running my hands through the volumes and hunting for the occasional book that might catch my eye.

While these bookstores carry mostly unsold books from publishers and other such surplus volumes, one can usually find the rare treasures from within the mess; classic literature books, for example, can be unearthed if you dig through the piles long enough (I have experienced this countless times; sometimes it's fruitful, other times, you end up frustrating yourself). Slice-of-life and adventure books literally litter (pardon the alliteration) the shelves of the more popular / consumer-friendly books, which are usually thronged either by romance novels or textbooks. In the popular fiction section, one can feast on a plethora of awesome sci-fi and fantasy novels from the classics, where authors like Orson Scott Card and Isaac Asimov rub shoulders with Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorecock.

During my forays into the depths of this bookstore, I've ended up with quite a lot of books that would have cost me a small fortune otherwise. My best finds include the entire Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, books by Sanjay Nigam, Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, and various short story collections by Larry Niven, Ray Bradbury, and Roger Zelazny. In the pure literature section, I managed to find (along with Corelli's Mandolin) a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and Mother of Pearl by Melinda Hayes.

Dark Imaginings. Why ancient? It was originally published in 1978, nearly half a decade before I was born, and features stories the likes of which were probably published during the last few years of the 1800's as an attempt to trace the roots of gothic fantasy storytelling. The authors, in their preface, draws inspirations from C.S. Lewis [...the "arresting strangeness" of high fantasy ...], in defining the boundaries between the two classes of fantasy. I mentioned "high fantasy," which in simple terms is your classic fairy story where the world is set in a different world from ours, and magic / the impossible is rampantly evident. At the other end of the spectrum is "low fantasy," a method of storytelling that infuses the magical into the all-too familiar reality of our world.

Another key feature of gothic storytelling presented here is the omnipresent, if not openly felt, ambience of dread. The authors cite H.P. Lovecraft's "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as the explanation for the omnipresence of dread, foreboding, or a mix of the above. This point is masterfully depicted by Lovecraft himself in his own short story featured in the collection.

Finally, Dark Imaginings draws one more element - perhaps the most important of its elements - from another great author by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's first story, "The Knight's Tale," involves a scene wherein the narrator (Chaucer) depicts the Temple of Mars in such a manner:

Ther saugh I first the derke ymaginyng
Of felonye, and al the compassyng;
The crueel ire, reed as any gleede;
The pykepurs, and eek the pale drede;
The smylere with the knyf under the cloke;
The shepne brennynge with the blake smoke;
The tresoun of the mordrynge in the bedde;
The open werre, with woundes al bibledde;
Contek, with blody knyf and sharp manace.
Al ful of chirkyng was that sory place.

the title of the collection is taken from the first line of this selection, which is fitting; this is, perhaps, one of the earliest forms of gothic fantasy that can be attributed fully to a given author (Beowulf, while older, is non-attributable), and thus serves justly to provide the proper ambiguous foreboding that instantly sets the mood for the reader.

Monday, March 24, 2008

An Ode

It's very rare that you encounter something that can be both poetic and powerful at the same time these days. Sometimes, you think all the miracles had been exhausted during the earlier centuries of history, and that we were stuck here, left to fend for ourselves. Sometimes, you end up thinking that maybe there really isn't anybody up there watching over us, or if there were, the dude was doing more watching than caring. Sad as it may seem, the outlook of majority of today's people goes a little something like this: we're alone in the world, so we have to look out for our own. I'm hardly at my quarter life, and I tend to see things in this light (which is, admittedly, kinda sad). It's like a defense mechanism generated by people living in a world that's become run by fast-paced businesses that require sufficient sacrifice of the self in order to survive.

The other day, though, something happened that helpd bolster my belief that somewhere out there, a holistic order of things that keeps tabs with what we're doing.

One of my family's oldest friends is this unassuming little man named Jose De Luna. When I say little, I mean little - while he wasn't shorter than your average man, he was pencil-thin, mostly due to the hardships life had dealt him with. But despite that, he managed to stay cheerful and happy despite the fact that for the longest time, his line of work was reminiscent of Charon on the river Styx, the chauffeur of the dead, a decidedly morose line of work, lonely, for the most part, because dead men tell no tales, and dreary because death is a significant sign of an ending.

One thing about the man: he was one of the most diligent workers I've ever seen. Joe wasn't someone who'd complain easily, no matter what the situation. He could be working round the clock - especially in his last job as the mortuary owner's personal chauffeur - only to come home to a wife who only cared about his money, and he would remain steadfast. He'd argue with his wife long and often, but while other people would have long gone and jumped ship out of frustration, Joe would lovingly talk it out with the woman, caring for her to the very end, with very little regard for himself.

Joe was also a very good friend of my grandmother. The man helped out my family throughout all the deaths we went through, and when my grandmother passed away, he personally undertook the procedure of her internment, making sure that her body was seamlessly and speedily shipped from the house to the mortuary to be prepared, and to the local chapel to lie in state, all of which took place in the span of a single day. He was, in every sense of the word, industrious to a point, and despite all of his other shortcomings as an individual, he was one of the closest examples of nobility I have ever seen.

He lived the simple life and loved it even though he had to live with a lot of problems that would have brought down other "stronger" people. Joe was the most normal individual you'd ever get to meet, but in his complacent existence, there was something magical and hero-like, something that the world hasn't seen for centuries, the kind of goodness that you'd see in kindly-faced janitors or security guards who'd go out of their way to make your day a little bit easier, or in barbers that would give you a complementary backrub after your haircut. There was, in him, the most eager, honest, and fierce devotion to service without limits, service without a second thought.

It was that drive that made small, simple Joe a special individual.

Joe De Luna passed away in a poetic and rather poignant manner last Easter Sunday, the Roman Catholic celebration of the Lord's resurrection. He had been suffering from stage IV cancer, and had been given a few months to live. The man could have died at any time, and yet his life finally gave out on the very day the Lord vanquished death.

Say what you will about the reason behind the celebration; the symbolism isn't lost to me.

Monday, March 17, 2008

This Will Shock You Senseless

As a writer, I make it a point that I read and read and read some more , because the only way any self-respecting writer would improve in his craft is to amass as much experience and information as he can, which, of course, is a rather difficult endeavor (given the restrictions of time and money, among other viable resources).

There's also the question of knowing what to read. Which is an important question, because while everything readable is always a valuable resource depending on the person, not all books are actually conducive for writerly inspiration. You could spend hours and hours going through books like The Name of the Rose or Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and you wouldn't come up with anything inspiring. Those are two awesome books, don't get me wrong, but they're both two rather difficult books - and when books get difficult, they tend to render you useless for the next couple of days (at least, in my experience).

Just recently, I came across, through sheer serendipity, a list of books given by Donald Barthelme to his students when the writer was still teaching. The list is an eighty-strong bum rush of novels and the occasional short story collection, all rumored to be of varying levels of awesome and guaranteed somewhat to be anything but boring. In his article, Kevin Moffett exudes that each and every one of the books he found within the list were guaranteed to intrigue and to entrap the reader within its world, and I'd have to agree; I've read several of the books within the list (not enough, apparently, but sufficient to keep me happy as of now), and I have to say that the ones I've read are life-changing pieces of absolute brilliance.

Take, for example, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. This is, I think, THE prime example of magic-realism in the known world. It rendered me incapable of coherent, happy thoughts for a month due to the breadth and width of its powerful imagery and convoluted cast of the most indescribably tragic characters I have ever seen.

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities takes the magic of the former book, condenses it, makes go to bed with a little bit of history, then tosses that same history out the back door because it cramped the magic's style. Really, there is no other way to describe this book, since the entire thing is made up of various snippets of story that illuminates the period of time Marco Polo spent with Kublai Khan.

Some of the other books that I've read (or will be reading) in his list are; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; V by Thomas Pynchon; and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. For a full list of the books, you can visit Kevin Moffett's article here; you can find photographs of a much-stained and ratty-looking list, which for some reason, is very, very stimulating.

Friday, March 14, 2008

To Be Happy

Completion is such a big thing for everybody these days. There's a misconception that people who're truly happy can't be incomplete, since the lack of something important within the wholeness of the self can't constitute to being happy.

People are likening happiness to stew. You can't get a good stew going without a good base.

Now, I've never been the happiest man alive. In fact, when it comes to the level of happiness anybody can have, I'm probably the dude who's sitting in the aisle, trying to figure out what question number fifteen was about. But there's one thing I've learned about being happy, and that's people are never happy by default. Not with everything we have to put up with. People and things can make us happy for the time being, but in the end, the way we think and figure things out for ourselves is what's important.

So yeah; in a way, the only people responsible for our happiness is ourselves. Which isn't a very comforting thought, especially for people like me who have a hard time trying to keep ourselves in a jovial mood for very long in the first place.

But still. I think this calls for a bit of re-evaluation. Think of being happy as a bunch of Lego blocks. Each individual block is complete, despite the fact that there are holes underneath it that could use some support, or that there are spots above it that could support other people. The fact that it's a complete Lego makes it whole; the fact that it lacks some parts and can support other parts means that as a Lego, it has achieved Nirvana - it just doesn't know it yet.

We're people. We're the same. We can't ever be complete, because people were created with flaws to add to the character of each individual. And that's more than enough reason to be happy - because we can.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Awesome. Just Awesome.

This article more or less sums up what I feel about today's increasingly fast-paced lifestyle. Like I said previously, I stumble upon a whole gamut of miscellaneous information at work, and sometimes, I end up hitting pay dirt; this find happens to be one of the more deep-seated, interesting jewels I managed to pan from the quagmire of the 'net.

I like how he compares present to past habits, and puts in a logical reason for the dramatic shifts in lifestyle. The ironic thing is that the same thing that's pushing the body more and more into workaholism is the same thing that everybody's working for in the first place. A huge chunk of what today's economy is made up of relies heavily on the manufacture and sale of cutting-edge technology, which admittedly makes our lives an eternity easier (can you imagine living with the old-school video cassettes rather than having your very own mp3 player? mon dieu!).

But what everybody seems to fail to grasp is the reality that this sudden need for comfort is what's driving everybody away from good health anyway. Since production became faster and mroe streamlined in the workspace with the introduction of computers, there was a rather sharp spike in output demand - after all, you hardly need to complete those papers in triplicate; just email them in triplicate, and you're set for the day, so since electronic media supposedly made the entire process more efficient, people started to dream of improving their performances by improving the amount of work done.

Which, according to the article I linked, isn't the case. People are losing more and more sleep to the cause of working to meet today's sharply increasing necessities in daily living; in simple terms, they're stabbing themselves in the left hand because the right foot's painful in a convoluted form of transference.

Read through the entry if you folks have the time. It isn't an eye-opener, since it's a pretty established fact that today's lifestyles are as hectic as shit, but it raises some good points as to why this has come about.