Quo Vadis: Book Review

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Quo Vadis, written by Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, is a work of historical fiction published in 1895. The novel takes place in Ancient Rome during the reign of emperor Nero and the plot revolves around the love story between a pagan, Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius, and a Christian girl, Lygia.

A hothead warmonger who has served in the military in Asia, once he returns to Rome, Marcus stays in the house of the former general, Aulus Plautius, to recover from his injuries and rest. There, he sees for the first time the general’s adopted daughter, Lygia, who is a a royal hostage. He falls madly in lust with her and tries with the help of his amoral uncle, Petronius, to possess her.

But the world into which the beautiful Lygia and her adoptive mother move is a far cry from the world into which Marcus lives and therefore tension and conflict arise.

On one hand, initially Marcus represents the Roman empire in all its violent and decadent glory. Used to indulge his own whims and desires, Marcus seeks nothing more than his own selfish pleasure, and so attempts to take Lygia according to the traditional Roman way: by applying force.

On the other hand, Lygia with her goodness, purity and humble Christian upbringing is a breath of fresh air against the corruption and viciousness of Nero’s court.

When Petronius convinces Nero to hand Lygia to Marcus as his personal slave, Lygia and the rest of the Christians come up with a plan. Lygia is hidden in the Christian catacombs. From this moment on, Marcus embarks on an anguished search for her throughout Rome.

When he finds her with the help of a Greek, private investigator, he tries to abduct her but ends up getting hurt when Lygia’s bodyguard, Ursus, attacks him. Instead of killing him, the Christians nurse him back to health.

Already the seeds of Marcus’s spiritual transformation have been planted. Marcus, deeply moved by the compassion the Christians show him and the kindness with which Lygia treats him, begins to question his own actions and gradually sees Lygia as something more than the mere object of his lust, as a person with a soul and emotions.

His change and his spiritual journey have been set in motion.

Quo Vadis is one of the top novels ever written for me because Sienkiewicz is a master of pathos. Written during the Romantic movement in Europe, it contains a lot of scenes brimming with romantic ideas and sentimentality. However, Quo Vadis is profoundly humane in its approach.

I maintain the idea that the human psyche and its deep exploration is the essence of good literature. And that’s exactly what this novel delivers. The relationship between Marcus and Lygia has the ability to move the reader because it functions on two levels. On the first level, we’re exposed to a most beautiful and passionate love story. On the second level, Marcus and Lygia represent the violent clash between the old world that is Rome (sadisstic, vindictive, bloodthirsty, materialistic, malevolent, unstable, and ultimately deadly) and the new era Chrisitanity brings (full of love, kindness, peace, respect and forgiveness).

One of the themes that takes central stage in the novel is love. What is love? What does it mean to love someone? How can love affect a person’s life? In Western literature, love has long been associated with both life and death. Quo Vadis is no exception.

Through his love for Lygia, Marcus shedds off his old skin and gains a new one. Eros becomes a revolutionary force that blows up Marcus’s soul. Gradually, he begins to realize there’s a whole world beyond inane self-seeking pleasure and selfish cruelty. By staying with the Christians for some time in the catacombs, he becomes aware that all the foundations of the empire are stinking, festering, falling into decay.

Marcus views the world through Lygia’s eyes. He becomes so devoted to her that his love for her reaches the point of divine adoration. And here enters a very interesting question. Sienkiewicz raises the issue of change. Can people reconsider and change? Can they smash their past and arise anew? Marcus proves that a spiritual awakening, a hopeful resurrection is possible.

His love gives him the opportunity to be reborn, to gain a new life full of meaning and purpose. He proves that humans are not flat, static beings condemned to die the same as they were born. They can rethink their actions, repent, change their mind and heart, mature and grow. They can be influenced and reshaped under the right circumstances.

Marcus’s initial emotions and thoughts as expressed in this passage:

But, first of all, he was unwilling and unable to be reconciled with fate, for never in life had he so desired anything as Lygia. It seemed to him that he could not exist without her. He could not tell himself what he was to do without her on the morrow, how he was to survive the days following. At moments he was transported by a rage against her, which approached madness.

He wanted to have her, to beat her, to drag her by the hair to the cubiculum, and gloat over her; then, again, he was carried away by a terrible yearning for her voice, her form, her eyes, and he felt that he would be ready to lie at her feet. He called to her, gnawed his fingers, clasped his head with his hands. He strove with all his might to think calmly about searching for her,—and was unable. A thousand methods and means flew through his head, but one wilder than another.

are vastly different from his later behaviour when he asks for Lygia’s hand with her consent as expressed in this passage:

And he stretched forth his hand, as if taking Heaven as witness of his love; and Lygia, raising her clear eyes to him, said,—

“And then I shall say, ‘Wherever thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia.’”

“No, Lygia,” cried Vinicius, “I swear to thee that never has woman been so honored in the house of her husband as thou shalt be in mine.”

For a time they walked on in silence, without being able to take in with their breasts their happiness, in love with each other, like two deities, and as beautiful as if spring had given themto the world with the flowers.

They halted at last under the cypress growing near the entrance of the house. Lygia leaned against his breast, and Vinicius began to entreat again with a trembling voice,—”Tell Ursus to go to the house of Aulus for thy furniture and playthings of childhood.”

But she, blushing like a rose or like the dawn, answered,—”Custom commands otherwise.”

“I know that. The pronuba [The matron who accompanies the bride and explains to her the duties of a wife] usually brings them behind the bride, but do this for me. I will take them to my villa in Antium, and they will remind me of thee.”

Here he placed his hands together and repeated, like a child who is begging for something, —”It will be some days before Pomponia returns; so do this, diva, do this, carissima.”

“But Pomponia will do as she likes,” answered Lygia, blushing still more deeply at mention of the pronuba.

And again they were silent, for love had begun to stop the breath in their breasts. Lygia stood with shoulders leaning against the cypress, her face whitening in the shadow, like a flower, her eyes drooping, her bosom heaving with more and more life. Vinicius changed in the face, and grew pale. In the silence of the afternoon they only heard the beating of their hearts, and in their mutual ecstasy that cypress, the myrtle bushes, and the ivy of the summerhouse became for them a paradise of love.

But their happiness is short-lived. Enraged by Marcus’s harsh treatment, Chilo double-crosses Lygia and the Christians, condemning them to endless torture and painful death.

Nero, to gain poetic inspiration, burns Rome, but the Christians are blamed instead. Lygia is imprisoned. From that moment, the tension escalates and the novel enters into suspense territory. Marcus and Petronius do everything in their power to free Lygia. When all fails, Marcus retains his faith in Christ. In some of the most gruesome scenes ever written in fiction, the Christians are killed and eaten alive by wild animals as entertainment in the arena.

Chilo repents, but is brutally killed by Nero’s court, though first forgiven by the man he hurt most. And here Sienkiewicz raises another important issue, that of forgiveness. Do people deserve to be forgiven after generating so much suffering and evil? The answer is not an easy one. After all, forgiveness is a personal matter. Perhaps, the point the Polish writer is trying to make is that it takes tremendous strength and courage to overcome the pain one has inflicted and forgive them.

Marcus is definitely strengthened as a character through his own suffering. He hopes and prays, proving that he possesses, indeed, a lion of a spirit. At this point, when all seems lost, love morphs into a death call which Marcus is more than willing to answer.

But the suffering of Vinicius surpassed human endurance. From the moment that Lygia was imprisoned and the glory of coming martyrdom had fallen on her, not only did he love her a hundred times more, but he began simply to give her in his soul almost religious honor, as he would a superhuman being. And now, at the thought that he must lose this being both loved and holy, that besides death torments might be inflicted on her more terrible than death itself, the blood stiffened in his veins. His soul was turned into one groan, his thoughts were confused. At times it seemed to him that his skull was filled with living fire, which would either burn or burst it. He ceased to understand what was happening; he ceased to understand why Christ, the Merciful, the Divine, did not come with aid to His adherents; why the dingy walls of the Palatine did not sink through the earth, and with them Nero, the Augustians, the pretorian camp, and all that city of crime. He thought that it could not and should not be otherwise; and all that his eyes saw, and because of which his heart was breaking, was a dream. But the roaring of wild beasts informed him that it was reality; the sound of the axes beneath which rose the arena told him that it was reality; the howling of the people and the overfilled prisons confirmed this. Then his faith in Christ was alarmed; and that alarm was a new torture, the most dreadful of all, perhaps.

Marcus and Lygia are an entity to the point where Marcus simply cannot exist without her. He tries all means possible to save her. He pleads, he begs, he speaks to influencial people, he offers money. All in vain. When he becomes convinced that Lygia won’t be alive much longer, he bribes his way to her cell. In a scene of incomparable, emotional beauty and poignancy, he stays with her, both of them praying and bound in love. He has already decided that after her death he will declare to everyone that he himself is a Christian, so that they will kill him and thus go to Heaven with her.

For three days, or rather three nights, nothing disturbed their peace. When the usual prison work was finished, which consisted in separating the dead from the living and the grievously sick from those in better health, when the wearied guards had lain down to sleep in the corridors, Vinicius entered Lygia’s dungeon and remained there till daylight. She put her head on his breast, and they talked in low voices of love and of death. In thought and speech, in desires and hopes even, both were removed unconsciously more and more from life, and they lost the sense of it. Both were like people who, having sailed from land in a ship, saw the shore no more, and were sinking gradually into infinity. Both changed by degrees into sad souls in love with each other and with Christ, and ready to fly away. Only at times did pain start up in the heart of Vinicius like a whirlwind, at times there flashed in him like lightning, hope, born of love and faith in the crucified God; but he tore himself away more and more each day from the earth, and yielded to death. In the morning, when he went from the prison, he looked on the world, on the city, on acquaintances, on vital interests, as through a dream. Everything seemed to him strange, distant, vain, fleeting. Even torture ceased to terrify, since one might pass through it while sunk in thought and with eyes fixed on another thing. It seemed to both that eternity had begun to receive them. They conversed of how they would love and live together, but beyond the grave; and if their thoughts returned to the earth at intervals, these were thoughts of people who, setting out on a long journey, speak of preparations for the road. Moreover they were surrounded by such silence as in some desert surrounds two columns far away and forgotten. Their only care was that Christ should not separate them; and as each moment strengthened their conviction that He would not, they loved Him as a link uniting them in endless happiness and peace. While still on earth, the dust of earth fell from them. The soul of each was as pure as a tear. Under terror of death, amid misery and suffering, in that prison den, heaven had begun, for she had taken him by the hand, and, as if saved and a saint, had led him to the source of endless life.

Petronius was astonished at seeing in the face of Vinicius increasing peace and a certain wonderful serenity which he had not noted before. At times even he supposed that Vinicius had found some mode of rescue, and he was piqued because his nephew had not confided his hopes to him. At last, unable to restrain himself, he said,—

“Now thou hast another look; do not keep from me secrets, for I wish and am able to aid thee. Hast thou arranged anything?”

“I have,” said Vinicius; “but thou canst not help me. After her death I will confess that I am a Christian and follow her.”

“Then thou hast no hope?”

“On the contrary, I have. Christ will give her to me, and I shall never be separated from her.”

But Lygia, naked, unconscious and tied upon the back of an auroch inside the arena, is saved at the last moment when Ursus fights against the beast and kills it with his bare hands. Moved by the intense suffering of the couple, the people of Rome take them both under their protection.

The novel ends with Marcus and Lygia living happily married far away from Rome. Nero dies a degrading death and after the passage of centuries Christianity rules over an once debauched city.

Sienkiewicz is clever enough not to fall into the trap of fanaticism, religious blindness or preaching. He’s never absolute in his portrayal of either side. Not all Christians are kind and loving as shows the case of Crispus, a Christian zealot who verges on fanaticism. Not all pagans residing in Rome are dissolute as shows the case of Lygia’s adoptive father, Aulus Plautius, and Nero’s former mistress, Acte. And somewhere in the middle lies the case of Petronius and his former slave turned lover, Eunice, both representing the last good qualities of the old world: beauty and poetry.

In fact, he fell asleep. When he woke, the head of Eunice was lying on his breast like a white flower. He placed it on the pillow to look at it once more. After that his veins were opened again.

At his signal the singers raised the song of Anacreon anew, and the citharæ accompanied them so softly as not to drown a word. Petronius grew paler and paler; but when the last sound had ceased, he turned to his guests again and said,

“Friends, confess that with us perishes—”
But he had not power to finish; his arm with its last movement embraced Eunice, his head fell on the pillow, and he died.

The guests looking at those two white forms, which resembled two wonderful statues, understood well that with them perished all that was left to their world at that time,—poetry and beauty.

Petronius , indeed, represents an interesting philosophy that contrasts both with the Christian worldview and with Stoicism which was prevalent at that time in Rome. As he writes to Marcus,

There are only two philosophers that I care about, Pyrrho and Anacreon. You know what they stand for. The rest, along with the new Greek schools and all the Roman Stoics, you can have for the price of beans. Truth lives somewhere so high that even the gods can’t see it from Olympus.

Petronius stands for beauty, aesthetics and harmony in a world that devours its own flesh most horriby. And it is exactly this type of philosophy that enables him to face his death with a quiet dignity.

The existence of various philosophies, ideologies and cultures paints Quo Vadis with so much brightness.

If one asked me what is the purpose of literature, I’d reply that it is to move and shake up the reader. Quo Vadis definitely managed to do that. For me, the novel’s originality doesn’t stem from its plot or rich world-building. For me, the originality stems from the excellent exploration of the human soul and the enormous pathos that comes with it.

Quo Vadis is a novel that appeals to the heart. It touches and inspires in most unexpected ways. It’s a profound study on love, strength, faith, spirituality, personal growth, forgiveness and human endurance.

There are many beautiful parts in the novel, but the one who stood out for me, besides the scene with Marcus and Lygia in the prison, is when Marcus talks to Petronius about Lygia after their marriage.

Because I love her immortal soul, and because we both love each other in Christ; for such love there is no separation, no deceit, no change, no old age, no death. For, when youth and beauty pass, when our bodies wither and death comes, love will remain, for the spirit remains.

If that is not a frank and deep emotion that humbles and inspires, then I don’t know what it is.

So, for those of you who haven’t read Quo Vadis, grab a copy and sink your teeth in the book. If not for anything else, the novel presents one of the most fiery and heartening love stories ever written in the history of literature. And in a time like ours where people are so consumed with their own interests and personal gain, we have the need to read such stories even more.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Fruit of Passion: Chapter 4

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Here are a few excerpts from the fourth chapter of my fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion.

Myrina’s tale crashed like a tide against Morella’s soul, evoking a recent past full of blurred emptiness and bewilderment.

Her mother, Blodwen, hung on the twilight of her life. She reclined on her bed, her body limp, her face anemic, her voluminous hair the wreath of night. Morella waited by her side, her hands interwoven with hers, her cheek placed below the hollow of her throat.

From time to time, Morella lifted her dark head and her otherwise misty eyes raged with fever. She pressed kisses on her mother’s forehead, warmed her impotent fingers with a gentle rub and moistened her chapped lips with a cotton fabric she occasionally immersed into a bowl overflowing with cool water on the nightstand.

***

At the first, grayish beam of morning light, the white she-wolf released a piercing, drawn-out cry. And the cry turned into a blade that tore Morella’s insides apart from heart to rib as Blodwen’s body spasmed momentarily and her spirit flew from the rift of the world to the Otherworld.

Morella grabbed fistfuls of her flowing tresses as if to pluck them from her scalp. Her face distorted into a saturnine mask. Her plum-coloured lips—a painful contrast with her skin’s ashen hue—parted and shut, for all the lamentation she could not put to sound had been delivered by the beast.

***

‘Did you…did you spend the whole night here on the cold floor?”

Myrina nodded. ”Never left. I hated the thought of you being alone.”

Morella didn’t know whether to weep with relief or scream with despair. Whatever words formed on her palate, she swallowed them back unsaid. A malicious need born out of helplessness surged in her. To lash out, to hurt, to torment, to draw rivers of blood, to inflict misery beyond endurance.

But the devilry that poisoned her mind caused her to freeze with terror. In that moment a harsh realization slammed into her. That passions worked in insidious ways, and one caught in their frenzy played dangerously with the temptation to arouse the same state in all who had the misfortune to share a common path.

How wrong you are, Myrina! We’re never more alone than in love and death. All that we love, all that we dream, all that we hope for, we do so alone. And in the company of another that loneliness is magnified tenfold.

In lieu of voicing her thoughts though, she wound the corner of her mouth into a tender smile and settled for another part of the truth. ”Your friendship could inspire the verses of epic poets.”

***

The next morning, a round tumulus was raised over the grave.

Three dusks skimmed since then, during which time passed over Morella like smoke over a screen and a pall of heavy stillness shrouded the island. Every single night she lay awake, watching the shadows in the roof of her own chamber chasing each other. And she fancied that each one of them was the phantom of death, girdling her, giving her a night call in a macabre language she knew not and yet, instinctively recognized.

And at the fourth dusk, the islanders answered her summons, gathering in the courtyard. Erect at the highest step, her eyes registered each and every one of her people, her steady voice sending across a crystalline message.

”I, Morella of Rumia, daughter of Blodwen, proud sister of the Siblinghood of the Sun and each and every one of you who stand before me, pick up the challenge you’ve laid at my feet for the crown as is the custom of our homeland.

”Should I fail the test, I promise to relinquish my claim and hand over the crown to the one you see fit as your true leader. And should I not uphold my vow, may my eyes not behold another sunrise. May night prevail and the moon be streaked blood red.”

Morella repeated the grave words she last uttered to her mother, bowed her head to her people and ended her summons with utter compliance, ”Your wish be done.”

The Fruit of Passion: Chapter 3

 

cover the fruit of passion

Here are a few excerpts from the third chapter of my fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion.

”Though my beloved has perished, my love shall not,” said the man and the sorrow spread her wings and flew away from his soul. ”Her name I shall engrave where no hand shall ever erase it.”

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So, he endeavoured to etch her name upon the cliffs looking down on the shore. And he worked the moil, chipping at and eating away the hard rocks with diligent strokes. And her name gleamed there in large letters, between the ever-stormy sea and the restless wind.

And every morning, the man sat down upon the cliffs, admiring his craft and gazing at the sea. And the longer he gazed at it, the more his initial sadness perched once more atop the branch of his soul.

”Is there anything in this world that lasts forever? Is there anything that dances away from mortal touch? As sure as I sculpted the rock, the sea one day shall devour it with her salty mouth.”

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”If I’ve been a fool, then the wise ones shall show me the way.”

And the man left his hut to seek the wise ones. And huddled inside a cavebeyond the misty valleyhe found them.

And the man genuflected and said, ”Wise ones, spare some of your time to listen to the plight of a common man. She whom I loved is lost, but my love shall not lie shrouded in a chilly grave.

”I’m but a humble servant of those the light and the truth serve. You who speak the language of the Gods and your eyes are wide open, you who partake of the most secret of the secrets, send some of your light my way and tell me. Is there anything in this world that lasts forever? Is there anything that dances away from mortal touch? What’s the one thing that time shall not wither upon which my beloved’s name I can chase?”

And the oldest of the wise ones spoke in turns. ”One bite of the lotus fruit, and the bliss of oblivion you shall taste.” And another, ”The embrace of a living woman the phantom of the other to rest shall put.” And another, ”Go forth and wake not the dead. The key that unlocks the door between the wax and the wane of life may not be found in mortal possession.”

And the youngest from the wise ones—a maiden on the verge of adulthood—parted from them and came to stand before the man. And her words she darted towards them, though her look was a spear that pierced the man’s soul in half, ”Though wise you’ve been pronounced, hollow verses you cry out. Are lovers not rivers that violently rush and merge into each other? Oblivion, replacement and the great knowledge of the Otherworld. That‘s not the answer to his heart’s longing. That’s not the answer to the question his lips uttered.”

”And you,” she said to the man and held his face in her hands, ”who were brave as well as mad enough to dare love and not break free, now your hunter’s bow out you’ve drawn in the pursuit of illusion. To you, I shall say this: the water you might as well make the gulf of your passions, and that your end shall be.”

And the man her advice heeded and left. And from that day forth, countless hours he spent—from sunrise to sundown—on the shore. And his fingers dipped into the sea’s seductive mouth, trying to coax her to sing his beloved’s name.

What do you think? I’m always eager to receive your impressions.

The Fluidity of Storytelling

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And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep overlapping and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story, is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead. 

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

True stories begin at the last page and never really end. It’s only when the reader has closed the book and put it aside that the words slip into one’s bloodstream, quickening the flow.

The moment someone’s fingers pry the secrets of a book apart, the book ceases belonging to its author. The author bequeathes the fruit of his toil and joy to the individual. And every single individual who has the willingness and the patience, who bubbles with excitement at the thought of tumbling through a crack to a new wonderland, is never exposed to the same story the creator crafted.

Stories flow; they can never be static for the simple reason that they are made out of words. And words carry within them the most indestructible, the most ancient essence of the element that sustains the universe: water.

Yes, narratives are always in motion. They breathe, grow and expand. Every reader will never envision the story the way its author did. And neither will two different readers. For each and every single traveler in the journey of reading enters equipped with one’s own pair of eyes, with one’s own memories, ideas, tastes, dreams, views and expectations

It’s because of this equipment that every reader possesses the ability to blow a unique life into a story, and through this new life the story mutates into another one where events and characters shift, intertwine and pour into each other like a river into the sea.

The stories worth being talked about are the ones forged when passion couples with imagination. The greatest gift an author can deliver is to engrave the story inside the grooves of the reader’s mind and stir the cauldron of endless possibilities. Once achieved, the story flares up, blazing with an inextinguishable fire.

The reader is never truly content with the way a book swings shut, because the world one has meandered into once brought to life refuses to die. So, the impassioned lovers gazing at the sunset and lapping up honey from each other’s mouth will have to go through more troubles and adventures to test and strengthen their love.

Once the forlorn queen finds the golden chalice, she will only enjoy a brief respite; she must jeopardize herself and lose it so as to saddle her horse again and begin her quest all over. The universe in shatters will keep on hanging on the edge of a knife because it cannot end as we know it; a great hero must rise, grit his teeth and save humanity from sliding into entropy and death.

It’s an unshakeable fact: we adamantly refuse to abandon the stories we love. We ponder over them, obsess about them. We weave a web inside which all stories cross paths and feast on each other in order to give birth to new ones.

The idea of an ending is inconceivable, almost a blasphemy. We rebel and revolt against it. It leaves us with a foul taste that our tongue needs to spit out. How many times did someone jot down a story as a reaction to the one he/she read but whose denouement couldn’t stomach?

It’s human nature to let our mind wonder and wander about that which beguiles us, to let the question of ”what if” quiver on our lips. After all, is there a bigger proof than fanfiction?

In the end, the eternal desire for narratives might be a token of warmth and affection, an open dialogue of equality through which we endeavour to reach out to each other and drive away our sadness and loneliness.

Book Review: The White People

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Arthur Machen’s The White People had been on my reading list for a long time.

The story starts as a singular, philosophical study on the nature of good and evil and evolves into a chillingly delightful tale brimming with dark, paganistic rituals, weird occurrences and sorcery only to break off abruptly on the cusp of some kind of supreme revelation.

The beginning of The White People offers to the reader an intriguing intake on the topic of saints and sinners. Cotgrave and Ambrose discuss the nature of sin. According to the second,

”So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is—to man the social, civilized being—evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which he was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.”

To better illustrate his point and make his companion understand, Ambrose gives Cotgrave to read The Green Book, a pocket book written by a 16-year-old girl he once knew.

The girl, whose mother is dead and whose father leaves her on her own to take care of the affairs of his profession, is raised by her nurse who dedicates most of her time in initiating her into a queer, dark world through the narration of songs and fanciful stories.

The girl drinks the stories in, and the more she surrenders to the secrets she’s exposed to, the more she descends into another dimension through waxen idols, mounts and hills, pits and wells. And all this, as she spends most of her time sauntering into the black woods, uttering bizarre rhymes.

She refers to odd things like the Aklo letters, the Chian languages, the great, beautiful Circles, the Mao Games, the chief songs, the Nymphs, the Dôls, Jeelo and voola. Did the girl suffer from bouts of a superactive imagination? Did she have a mystical power to conjure the universe that haunted her imagination into the real world? Perhaps. As Ambrose hints,

”A child’s imagination always makes the heights higher and the depths deeper than they really are; and she had, unfortunately for herself, something more than imagination. One might say, perhaps, that the picture in her mind which she succeeded in a measure in putting into words, was the scene as it would have appeared to an imaginative artist.”

Was the girl ever truly touched by the White People and the fairies? It is never made clear. Ambrose remarks that,

”Powerful and sovereign medicines, which are, of necessity, virulent poisons also, are kept in a locked cabinet. The child may find the key by chance, and drink herself dead; but in most cases the search is educational, and the phials contain precious elixirs for him who has patiently fashioned the key for himself. She had poisoned herself—in time.”

Machen is not a writer who employs blood and gore to horrify the reader. No, he has an uncanny ability to freak out the reader by painting a creepy, unnerving atmosphere through allusions and cryptic references which are never fully explained.

The White People reads as a misty, dream-like, stream of consciousness tale sprung from the depths of childish imagination. It’s a dark triumph of fantasy and horror bound to excite and intrigue the mind.

 

The Fruit of Passion: Preface

 

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This is the preface from the fantasy novel I’m working on these days, currently titled The Fruit of Passion. I’ve decided not to include it in the final draft. The story can stand just fine without it. However, I’ve spent too much time on it to kill it. Besides, I believe it’s worth sharing because it explains the genesis of the novel and gives a brief glimpse into the basic storyline. I welcome your frank reactions. Does this entice you to read further? Does it grab your interest? Feel free to share your thoughts!

Preface

I’ll tell you a story that never happened, in a time neither flown by nor coming. I’ll tell you about a cloud-cuckoo-land that leapt in front of me in a vision while broad awake. Where girls of flesh and blood never breathed our oxygen and yet, blazed a trail of burning gold in the map of existence that you and I never will in our finite lifespan.

How did this tale come into being? From where did this dreamland spring? How were these magic girls born and came to grasp the light of Creation? In other words, what was the blast of inspiration that electrified my mind like a lightning bolt striking a pine tree during a storm? I owe everything to the exquisite Victorian poetess, Christina Rossetti, and her marvelous poem, Goblin Market.

As someone who appreciates all fine works of art, I couldn’t help but be deeply moved when I read the poem. It so shook me that I lost the ground under my feet. So utterly it affected me that I felt my soul breaking away from its corporeal residence and plunging into a euphoric ocean.

What exactly set my blood on fire? The vivid imagery as if bright colours exploded before my eyes? The sensual, mouth-watering descriptions that made the mellow words roll upon my tongue like the cool juice of a watermelon? The metallic music that poured from each verse like a celestial river? Or perhaps the richness of meaning that calls for various interpretations and, at the same time, eludes them all?

Certainly it was all of the above, but not quite what arrested my attention. For the seed of afflatus lay dormant in the poem’s slippery symbol and, as soon as my mind’s eye caught sight of it, it struck root and blossomed like a rose at dawn. What was this seed? None other than the fruit globes lovely Laura sucked greedily until her lips turned redder than wine.

It was the trope of the impossibly delicious food that captivated and enticed me. I kept thinking about how it would be to write a story that would revolve around such a fruit. A fruit so delightful, lush and nectarous that would make humans dream of itwhether active or asleepand lust after it to the point of absolute distraction.

Initially, that was the heart of my work. However, as the words metamorphosed into sentences and kept on spilling upon the blank page, I began to realize the material I was in possession of was too raw, almost nude. An imaginary fruit, no matter how flavourful and luscious, wouldn’t suffice.

Thus, the woman in quest of it, Morella, should have a valid reason for her desire. In a nutshell, I had to give her an incentive. Her hunger for it couldn’t be merely an aftermath of yen or even human avarice. There had to be a motive that would drive her forth in the pursuit of her goal. And what could that motive be? Something that would literally bring her to her knees, namely death. But it couldn’t be just any death. It had to be the loss of her most beloved person. Her desire for the fruit would function only as a means for her to achieve the desirable union with her mother.

So, what started out as a tale about a simple trope evolved into something complex and diverse. The fruit was the foundation, but upon it I created— like a tiny spider—a web and within its nets I weaved themes like those of loss and death, passion and futility, consciousness and unconsciousness, mortality and immortality, life and love.

The Fruit of Passion turned out to be much more than my initial conception: partly tragic, partly hopeful, partly dreamlike, partly mystical, partly obscure, partly gothic, partly erotic, partly sweeter than honey from the rock, partly bitterer than cocoa, but overall sensuous and lyrical.

My fondest wish is that you will be able to slowly peel off all these layers, and possibly view it under a different light than I do. And who knows? Maybe in the end you will come to consider this narration your child, too.


 

The Writer Who Cried Rape

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Let us dispense with euphemisms and call a spade a spade.

I won’t call it forced seduction. Or deflowering. Or taking advantage. Or inappropriate behaviour. Or worse, having sex. Or…any other term people invent so as to avoid to use the r word at any cost. It doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? Well, it’s RAPE with capital, bold letters. And it sounds exactly the way it’s supposed to: criminal, sick, freakish, monstrous.

The mere sound of it should produce a visceral reaction. And if it doesn’t, we should be greatly alarmed.

I won’t pass into the legal territory of all the details of what constitutes rape. We know what it is: a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out without the person’s valid consent due to various reasons (either because one is blackmailed or coerced or afraid or incapacitated or physically threatened or drunk or unconscious or underage etc).

Society knows what it is. The rapists know what it is. The raped ones know what it is. Everybody knows what it is, even though it is ridiculously convenient to pretend confusion and ignorance and call on laughable justifications and all the loopholes of the law in order to not carry the blame and assume responsibility.

After all, it’s always easier to turn a blind eye or choose the coward’s way.

Rape manifests through different ways, affecting men and women alike, children and adults alike. The purpose of this post is not to talk generally about it, but about the way it is portrayed in some modern romance novels. I’ll talk specifically about rape scenes that occur between the hero and heroine.

While it is true that the rape trope frequented the older romances of the last decades of the 20th century, no doubt it still has its place in the romances written in this century as well. Granted, it’s not the norm, but that doesn’t mean that this issue doesn’t need to be addressed.

As a writer and therefore as someone who constantly reads and reflects on things, I adamantly believe that all writers have responsibilities both towards their craft and the books they write and towards their readers as well.

Fiction functions on many levels. It’s a form of art, of entertainment, of exploration of the aspects of the human condition, one of the means of education. But above all, it’s a means through which we disseminate mentalities and ideologies, a means through which we can promote a political, moral, social and cultural agenda.

And the burning question is this: do romance novels where the hero rapes the heroine and then they have their happily ever after promote rape culture? Do such kind of books trivialize or even glamourize rape?

The answer is straightforward: yes, that is exactly what they do. Admittedly it’s a hell of an uncomfortable issue. Therefore all the more reason to talk openly about it and not keep our mouths shut.

Rape is a serious criminal act and the victim of this crime has to deal with the consequences of this trauma perhaps till the day she dies. Consequences both physical and psychological. The victim often carries the social stigma and the blame for something that is not her fault. She is often accused of having somehow provoked the rapist (by wearing revealing clothes, by drinking, by walking alone at night etc), and therefore she was asking for it. She might suffer from sexually transmitted diseases or an unwanted pregnancy.

She develops posttraumastic stress disorder with symptoms including  disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events, mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues, attempts to avoid trauma-related cues, alterations in how she thinks and feels, and an increase in the fight or flight response.

And it’s even worse if her body happens to respond during the sexual assault. After all, that means that she subconsciously wanted to get raped, doesn’t it? That a human being cannot always control their physical reactions is never taken into account of course.

And when society refuses to listen, when society silences or shames or isolates the woman, she is raped once more because she has no control over her life, her emotional, mental and physical health. Once more, she gets dominated and stripped of her own voice, her own free will.

Not a pretty image, huh? No, it’s not. It’s heartbreaking and ugly.

But of course the rapist apologists, both readers and writers alike, will reply: ”Relax, lass. It’s just fiction. It doesn’t mean that in real life rape should be acceptable.” It shouldn’t be acceptable in fiction either. There’s nothing romantic about being treated as a piece of meat, as a slave without voice and will, as an object whose sole purpose is to satiate the twisted needs of a male. Romanticizing and glamourizing sexual violence sends the explicit message that rape is just something fun, inconsequential, trivial and the raped woman should not make such a fuss about it because in the end that’s a sign of the hero’s devotion and love. The hero loves the heroine so much that he can’t control himself. Poor guy! Perhaps we should shed black tears for the terrible suffering he’s going through. Why can’t we sympathize with his unjust plight?

And the rapist apologists will keep going. ”But such romances take place in historical periods where women were abused and seen as inferior beings. We cannot look at such romances through modern eyes. The story needs to be true to its era.”

What a load of drivel! Do these people even hear what they’re blurting out? If they cannot see the hypocrisy between the two most usual excuses they use, then they are truly blind. We cannot both use the realistic and credible card and at the same time play with the fiction card. Either we strive for realism and therefore should depict the stress and the agony of the raped heroine as well as the life-long suffering she has to go through and her inability to love her rapist (because in real life situations the rapist and the raped do not fall in love) or we delve completely into a fantasy scenario  and eliminate the rape from the plot and have the hero and heroine win their happy end.

Yes, I’ve heard all these hollow, illogical arguments over and over again. But we cannot have it both ways. We cannot come up with excuses when it’s convenient and try the realistic angle when we don’t find others any more. It’s either or.

Such books strike a blow against all the women who have been raped. It’s painfully insulting and insensitive from the part of the writer to promote and encourage rape culture. And some writers will insist, ”It’s just fiction. Entertainment. Purely harmless. A man won’t rape a woman because of what we write in our books.”

I will only reply this. This attitude is ignorant and vile. If the writers think that what they do is innocent and harmless, then they are lazy, bad and irresponsible in their profession. A good writer researches, reads and educates himself/herself. A good writer is conscious of the fact that whether a story unfolds in a realistic or a fantastical setting, it needs to make sense and be ground in realism-in the greater sense of the word-so that the reader can willingly suspend his/her disbelief. If a story is stretched too far, like a heroine falling in love with her rapist and living happily ever after with him, the book is bad and unworthy of being read because it does not respect the reader.

But above all, a good writer is intensely aware of the fact that fiction is an enormous terrain brimming with messages and ideologies, a vehicle through which certain mentalities and postures are condemned and encouraged, trivialized and vilified, romanticized and excused.

Do men rape women because of the existence of such books? My mind is not that simplistic to believe such books are accountable for this crime. The issue is an extremely complex one. Ban these books and men will keep on raping women.

But I’m not that naive either not to acknowledge the fact that fictional books are a form of ideological apparatus. And any writer who brushes this aside, needs to stop and think twice about his/her writing identity and the role he/she builds within the society through his/her books.

Everything we do and say, from the smallest thing to the most significant, has an impact both on ourselves and on the people who surround us. Nothing is inconsequential and nothing is innocent. From the dullest fictional book to the most brilliant, credos, beliefs and attitudes float around that help stabilize or eat away the status quo.

Credos, beliefs, ideologies and attitudes shape up our society. With everything a writer writes in his/her books, he/she takes a stance. Consciously or unconsciously.

It’s of paramount importance that every writer assumes his/her responsibilities for every book he/she pens. Because in the hands of someone lacking consciousness, a book can turn into a terrible weapon even more dangerous than in the hands of someone who possesses one.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of writers do we wish to be? And most importantly, what kind of a person do we wish to be?