Book Review: The Ruby

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Painting by Frederick Howard Michael, Titania, 1897

”The Ruby” is a short story from the collection El Azul written by the Nicaraguan poet and writer Rubén Darío. An exquisite sample of Hispanic Modernism, ”The Ruby” narrates the story of how the titular gemstone was first birthed into the world.

The gnomes, labourers deep within the entrails of the earth to extract precious stones, find themselves in great turmoil when their leader, Puck, announces that a Parisian alchemist has constructed, through the means of sympathetic magic, a false ruby. Having travelled to Paris himself, Puck has snatched such a false stone from the golden chocker of a sleeping woman and has brought it as proof back to his fellow gromes who imprecate the alchemist as a blasphemous impostor.

Then, he proceeds to narrate the true tale regarding the events that led to the natural creation of the ruby. One day, the gnomes were in strike and they crawled out of the dark belly of the earth and into the sunlight. Puck came across a river into which a few stunning, mortal women were bathing. One of them catching his fancy,  he grabbed her by force and took her to live with him back into the subterranean cave.

Puck adored the woman, toiling night and day to pluck out the gemstones so as to scatter them all around his bed where the woman passed her days in languid nakedness. The woman, though, didn’t reciprocate his feelings because she had promised her heart to another and they had found a unique way of communicating with each other. From the depths of the dark cave, she sent her sighs to her lover and they, penetrating through the crust of the earth, reached him. In return, her lover had taken to kissing the roses of a garden and every time he scattered his kisses, the woman moved her lips as if receiving them.

One day, Puck, having sweated to pull out a passel of diamonds, threw away his hammer recklessly, a gesture which smashed the diamonds into tiny pieces, and went to sleep. He woke up because of the pained sounds the woman made. The hammer having created a hole in the cave’s wall, the woman saw this as a chance to escape and unite with her lover. But in her haste, she didn’t pay attention to the diamond-littered ground, stepped on it and fell, cutting her feet and the rest of her body. From her flowing blood, the diamonds turned red, the woman ending up lifeless.

And that’s how the rubies came into the world.

Having heard the tale, the gnomes crush the false ruby and start dancing with joviality, surrounded by the glimmering beauty and light of the precious stones wedged into the cave’s walls.

In the end, Puck sings out a hymn to the Woman, his last phrase, ”¡Y tu, Mujer, eres – espiritu y carne – toda Amor! (And you, Woman, are – spirit and flesh – all Love!).

Upon the first reading, ”The Ruby” comes across as a typical child of the Hispanic Modernist movement: magnificent descriptions, evocation of the senses, references to mythological beings, tones of fantastic elements and a love story swimming in a sea of nostalgia and romanticism.

In fact, the lush descriptions and the beauty of the prose stand out to such a degree that an unsuspected reader unfamiliar with the movement might come to view this as nothing more than an enjoyable yarn that excites and awakens the imagination.

But ”The Ruby” is much more than a pretty fruit of an overactive mind. Rubén Darío had something meaningful and important to get across and he found a very clever and moving way of delivering his message.

”The Ruby”, through the embedded love story, takes the form of an allegory. Puck compares and contrasts most vividly the birth of the false and the true ruby. The false is created effortlessly, with cheap materials and quickly. On the other hand, the real one requires suffering, blood, disregard of danger and genuine passion.

In a nutshell, Darío concludes that imitation lacks lustre and substance while originality is full of life, an honest baring of the soul. In the battle between hocus pocus and love, the latter is crowned victor.

But Rubén Darío is not merely interested in the general idea of imitation and originality. One of the most significant themes of Hispanic Modernism is that of art itself. The Nicaraguan artist takes a definitive stance and declares that real art disdains pale tricks. Instead, it demands effort and pain and fervency and unquenchable longing.

True literature is a fruit of blood, passion and love. For, after all, as Puck remarks, ”Cuando el hombre ama de veras, su pasión lo penetra todo y es capaz de traspasar la tierra (When man truly loves, his passion penetrates everything and is capable of piercing through the earth).

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Child that Went with the Fairies

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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story The Child that Went with the Fairies narrates the tale of a poor widow and her four children living in a sublime Irish landscape. While the three youngest are outside playing and the sister and mother are busy doing their tasks, the youngest of all the siblings, Billy, is taken away by the ”Good People” as the fair folk are called in the story. Little Billy returns to his family from time to time until one day he vanishes altogether, never to reappear, and is considered dead.

On the surface, The Child that Went with the Fairies, resembles a typical, supernatural tale where a child is kidnapped by some otherwordly folks under mysterious circumstances and is forever torn apart from his loved ones. But Le Fanu is an astute writer who knows how to add layers upon layers of meaning, rendering his work ripe for various interpretations.

Le Fanu begins with lush, orgiastic descriptions of the Irish nature with bogs and hills and range of mountains. This is the very landscape where Le Fanu himself grew up and lived, thus the tale is presented as a true account.

In the tale, superstitions abound. They are not to be ridiculed. Instead, they are taken seriously and even the priest employs natural means to repel the fairies. The mother, who espouses all this legacy of supernatural tradition, passes it onto her oldest daughter, Nelly. This is a rich cultural identity that has to be transmitted to the younger generations. The local inhabitants possess a strong culture with long-standing traditions that give them a distinct national identity.

As we read the story, we come to realize that one of the themes permeating the narrative is that of haunting. The hill in which the fairies reside casts a shadow that looms over the landscape, frightening the people of the village. But it’s not only their physical presence that terrifies the people but, also, the traditions and strange tales of fear that accompany them. These creatures have the ability to cross the threshold between the world of substance and the world of illusions, between life and death, between form and spirit. The natural laws that govern humans do not touch them. Therefore, they are the ”Other”.

But the field of haunting doesn’t pertain to the fairies alone. The dead can haunt as well. Death, either literal or figurative, is a spectre that torments the family. Billy is considered dead by his mother and siblings. When he comes back to his family’s cabin, only his two young siblings can see him due to the fact that they, too, have come in contact with the fairy realm. The mother and eldest sister, due to being devout guardians of the traditions and cultural legacy, cannot. Later, Billy’s brother will keep on seeing him sporadically and being haunted by his memory. In this way, fairies become a symbol of death.

Another very important theme in the story is that of appearance and illusion. The fairy lady’s beauty and charm are repeatedly stressed. She tosses apples at the children and uses glamour so as to distract them and entices Billy with kisses and caresses. The siblings, despite sensing the malice of the fairies, cannot resist and ”take a bite”. They cannot realize the danger the fairies represent as they are too young to pay heed to their mother’s teachings and warnings. They are too stunned by the lady’s allure. While they’re chasing the apples, they are literally chasing after illusions that will never be materialized or fulfilled, but will only make them stray from the path of safety.

Woven into the narrative is the polarity between the ”we” and the ”other”, or  between the nation and the imperialistic power to be more precise. If we substitute the word ”fairy” with ”English”, the tale is viewed under a different light. Le Fanu, conscious of his identity as Irish, makes a merciless critique against the imperial dominance of the English. All the riches and the glorious display of formality of the fairy ceremony hint at the presumed superiority and authority of the English dominance. By virtue of its own long-standing tradition and aristocratic birth, it converts into a predator preying on the one it considers weak and easy to possess.

It is at this point that Le Fanu bares his writerly teeth most aggressively. By striking a comparison between the imperialistic power and the fairies,  it becomes evident that since the fairies can rule only through the means of illusion, therefore the imperialistic power lacks substance. Thus, it is unnatural and rotten.

But the fairy lady is not the sole representation of the idea of ”Otherness”. Le Fanu takes care to describe the lady’s companion inside the carriage: a black woman. The black woman is an inherent part of the imperialistic power and its bitter fruit, namely slavery. One could say that her role in the story is, at best, nebulous. It never becomes completely evident what her function is and what her relationship to the fairy lady is.

Le Fanu, once again, returns to his favourite theme, that of the contrast between essence and perception, truth and illusion. The exotic, dark sight of the black woman strikes the children with terror while they are enthralled by the fairy lady, for they perceive malignity in the first who is laughing with some kind of inside joke and beauty in the second.

But appearances can be mortally deceptive. Is the black woman shaking with amusement or fear because she knows what dreadful fate awaits the children at the hands of the fairy lady? Is she stuffing her mouth with a handkerchief so as not to let her amusement be heard or does she force herself to be quiet out of fear of the fairy lady and therefore doesn’t cry out a warning to the children to save them? Is she truly mad at the children or terrified at the thought of what is about to happen to them?

In this case, the black woman doesn’t represent a powerful, aggressive other, but a repressed figure living in perpetual terror under the iron force of imperialism. Her regal, colourful garments suggest that she comes from a rich cultural background. But her position now perhaps indicates that she’s not part of an independent nation anymore but a slave with a strangled voice not allowed to speak. Having that in mind, perhaps the black woman functions as a warning as to what happens when nations or cultures are dominated by others. Le Fanu remarks that her face is a ”death’s head”. In that manner, she maintains a connection with the dead or perhaps one could even point out that her role in the story is to function as a death knell for poor Billy.

While in many fictional works youth and innocence are praised, in this tale they become the very qualities that condemn the children. The siblings cannot perceive the threat coming their way.  Troubled by the fearsome aspect of the black woman, they are unable to read ”the writing on the wall”. The person who could be their saving grace is viewed as a malevolent figure while the person who wishes them harm is seen as the angel.

Nowhere in the story is the notion of illusion highlighted more than in the figure of Billy. When the child is last seen inside the cabin he is haggard and his clothes are in tatters. The great splendour of the fairy realm is nothing but a sham. Billy has found no nourishment, no warmth and no affection. He is a tragic figure because while he straddles two worlds he doesn’t belong to either.  He is a double ”Other” both in the world of the mortals and in the fairy dimension, stuck in the threshold of two cultures, condemned to wander between these two but never living fully in either anymore.

For all intents and purposes, Billy becomes a figure without identity, without roots. He is dead or perhaps a ghost. In essence, he is wiped out of existence. The fact that he doesn’t have a headstone where he can be properly buried by his family and mourned speaks volumes. There’s no place for him in his family anymore because his identity is non-existent. In fact, Billy is not unlike the black woman. In losing his cultural identity, he becomes an immaterial shadow.

We cannot delve into the mind of Le Fanu so as to claim with certainty what the intended message of the story is. Is the Irish writer providing the reader with a cautionary tale about the danger of what happens when one becomes estranged from their own cultural background and national legacy? Is the focus of the story the evils that befall one from the loss of cultural identity?

As is the case with Carmilla, Le Fanu relishes the game between reliability and unreliability. Credibility and perception are challenged. Are we as readers to believe the children’s tale? Or are we to believe that the villagers and their ways are sound? Are the fairies the wicked ones or are they pitiable figures suffering from malicious and ignorant superstitions? Most importantly, are the children the only ones who misjudge the idea of ”Otherness” or do the adults have to plead guilty as well?

The figure of Billy certainly raises some intriguing questions. We’re often reminded of his beauty. Blonde, blue-eyed and the youngest of the siblings. Is his attractiveness something that sets him apart from the other members of his family? It certainly is. If we take this fact into consideration, can we say that he was naturally destined to be alienated and marginalized by virtue of his physical aspect? Was he doomed from the start?

When reading the story, one notices there’s a common link that connects Billy and the fairy lady. They are both pleasing to the eye, and that’s why they are attracted to each other. Once again, the notion of perception takes the central stage. Both cultures judge based on appearances and surfaces, unable to view the ”Other” as the ”Other” truly is. In a society where illusions and senses reign supreme, what hope remains for unclouded and unbiased judgment?

How is the ”Other” perceived? Is the ”Other” the surface we regard or is there some kind of deeper essence? Are we to project onto the ”Other” our fancies and preconceived ideas or are we to peel away the blindfold and peer into the objective reality?

Is Billy dead or is he forgotten because he embraced another culture? Is he marginalized and estranged by virtue of his association with the fairies or is he an outcast by his family due to his natural ”Otherness”? Is he forced into another culture because his own repels him? But if Billy is a pariah in the mortal world, he doesn’t seem to fare much better in the fairy realm either.

The existence of the black woman adds another layer to the story, highlighting the fact that it’s not a simple matter of ”us” versus ”them” mentality. There are various types of ”Other” and various reasons for the base of ”Otherness”.

Le Fanu has given us a story where the English and Irish cultures violently clash. The issue of identity is an extremely complex one, thus making it difficult to define it and come to a resolution. What is an identity and which are its proper characteristics? Who is the one to give us an identity? Are we born with one or is it forced upon us by our environment? If we happen to differ, can this identity be revoked despite not this being our fault? And if we lack an identity, are we practically non-existent or can we choose an identity ourselves and belong within a culture without fear of rejection due to our ”Otherness”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unrestricted Comprehension

Fictionspawn Monsters

Unrestricted Comprehension

He wrote stories. Stories about people who didn’t write their own. It became an obsession. He wanted to write about them all, but he was nothing but a mere mortal. He lacked time.

He swore an oath. An oath to new gods and old, an oath to Mother Nature, to the universe itself. He swore an oath to Reason.

“If you only give me time, I will write a story about everyone who do not write about themselves. Every single one of them, and no one else. Ever.”

You will be given time, Reason said. If you succeed you will live forever. If you fail, I will take it all back.

The pact was sealed. He wrote. He wrote until he had written about each and every one of them.

Everyone but one. Himself.

Never had he written his own story, so his story had to be written. As he…

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Book Review: The White People

Penguin cover

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.

 

Book Review: Clarimonde or The Dead Leman

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Clarimonde is the tale of love between a young priest, Romuald, and a beautiful vampiress, Clarimonde. Gautier’s short story offers plently of food for symbolism and analysis as it functions on multiple levels. As it happens with most gothic fiction of that kind, Clarimonde blurs the boundaries between life and death. As a vampiress, she comes and goes, travelling between the two worlds while not fully belonging to either. However, the same applies to Romuald. Dead during his duties as a priest, alive while being Clarimonde’s lover.

Clarimonde shares a common trait with Edgar Alan Poe’s Ligeia as it plays heavily with the idea that love can break the confines of death. In a scene of incomparable beauty and profound romanticism, Romuald brings Clarimonde back from the dead with a single kiss. Both have to fight against obstacles. Romuald against God and the Chrurch and Clarimonde against Satan and the carnal pleasures. Nonetheless, their love is able to transcend both the physical and the metaphysical.

The night advanced, and feeling the moment of eternal separation approach, I could not deny myself the last sad sweet pleasure of imprinting a kiss upon the dead lips of her who had been my only love. . . . Oh, miracle! A faint breath mingled itself with my breath, and the mouth of Clarimonde responded to the passionate pressure of mine. Her eyes unclosed, and lighted up with something of their former brilliancy; she uttered a long sigh, and uncrossing her arms, passed them around my neck with a look of ineffable delight. ‘Ah, it is thou, Romuald!’ she murmured in a voice languishingly sweet as the last vibrations of a harp. ‘What ailed thee, dearest? I waited so long for thee that I am dead; but we are now betrothed: I can see thee and visit thee. Adieu, Romuald, adieu! I love thee. That is all I wished to tell thee, and I give thee back the life which thy kiss for a moment recalled. We shall soon meet again.’

Her head fell back, but her arms yet encircled me, as though to retain me still. A furious whirlwind suddenly burst in the window, and entered the chamber. The last remaining leaf of the white rose for a moment palpitated at the extremity of the stalk like a butterfly’s wing, then it detached itself and flew forth through the open casement, bearing with it the soul of Clarimonde. The lamp was extinguished, and I fell insensible upon the bosom of the beautiful dead.

Clarimonde employs one of the oldest tropes, that of the femme fatale. Brimming with eroticism and sensuality, it reads as a tale of repressed passions and frustrated sexual desires. Romuald, through his dreams, enters into a realm where reality melts into fantasy and the boundaries that separate each are extremely foggy. Clarimonde becomes ”the other”, the Devil incarnate that sets out to seduce the young priest and make him stray from God’s path. Romuald answers her call, gaining the life his vocation deprives him of.

And that’s where Clarimonde’s originality stems from. The vampiress is not presented as a lifeless, soulless corpse but rather a red-blooded (no pun intended) creature full of life and vitality which she passes on to her bloodless (again no pun intended) lover along with pleasure and hedonism.

The story ends once again with one of the most common tropes in gothic literature: those involved with the supernatural are unable to go on with their life the way they did before the incident. What they lived haunts them forever. Romuald once again represses his desires and stifles his sexual wishes with the death of Clarimonde. However, the vampiress holds a place in Romuald’s mind for all eternity as her final words to him turn out prophetic.

But once only, the following night, I saw Clarimonde. She said to me, as she had said the first time at the portals of the church: ‘Unhappy man! Unhappy man! What hast thou done? Wherefore have hearkened to that imbecile priest? Wert thou not happy? And what harm had I ever done thee that thou shouldst violate my poor tomb, and lay bare the miseries of my nothingness? All communication between our souls and our bodies is henceforth for ever broken. Adieu! Thou wilt yet regret me!’ She vanished in air as smoke, and I never saw her more.

Alas! she spoke truly indeed. I have regretted her more than once, and I regret her still. My soul’s peace has been very dearly bought. The love of God was not too much to replace such a love as hers. And this, brother, is the story of my youth.