Haleskarth, Contraband, Samsara, Samarra
July 19, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Only Revolutions.
I feel like I’ve been rather too crabby about the book in my previous posts. It undeniably gets bogged down after the escape from St. Louis, around p. 220, after the truly amazing and hallucinatory effect of the center of the book, when both sides of the narrative on each page mirror each other as well as mirroring the other half of the narrative retreating away into the other half of the book — it’s really wonderful, a genuine delight. (It made me giggle.) From 224 or so to p. 312, it’s a slog.
But from then on, it’s a bloody miracle. (You should probably stop reading this if you want to go into the book without knowing how it ends.) The urgency and passion of the language in those last 8 sections is astonishing. Somewhere along the line you realize you’ve been reading Romeo and Juliet again, only it’s as if Shakes had written R&J after King Lear. Just… heartbreaking.
And theoretically, at least, we’re unsure what has happened in the end, but then we’ve been bludgeoned over the head with the fact that the book is a circle — so conveniently it’s right there, on the flip-side of the final page. And those mysterious first lines begin to make a kind of sense.
For Sam it’s “Haloes! Haleskarth!/ Contraband!” “Haloes” neatly combines circularity with death-imagery and saintliness; “Haleskarth” is an obsolete word meaning “free from injury” (thanks, OED); “Contraband” is a tricky one with an obvious meaning which doesn’t make much sense. Since Sam’s narrative starts in the middle of the Civil War, “contraband” has a very specific slang meaning at the time: a fugitive slave was contraband. Is Sam “contraband” in that he’s escaped from the enslavement of death, or in that he feels himself as “smuggled” out of the grave into a new life? Or is he (also) an actual fugitive slave — is that his role at the book’s opening?
Hailey begins with “Samsara! Samarra!/ Grand!” (Notice each begins their narrative with the other’s initial, and that second-line cross-narrative rhyme.) “Samsara” is, in Indian philosophy, “the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound” (thanks again, OED). “Samarra” is a kind of garment to be worn by those burned at the stake during the Inquisition, but it could also be a reference to An Appointment in Samarra: a commonplace for the inevitability of death. “Grand!” could have some meaning of which I’m unaware, but I think it’s mostly just an exclamation of delight and surprise.
From these obscure meanings and their place at the beginning/rebeginning of the narratives, we can reread the early sections as a kind of reimmersion in life for both reborn characters: from these early indications that they know they’ve been reborn to their early characterizations as deities or earth-spirits of sorts, to their reimmersion in human life, to their conjoined lives and their love of one another, their placing another’s needs before their own. Is it this that allows rebirth?