The Mysterious Muslim Babes of Spain

October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts  “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past).  There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words.  They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be  succubi.  Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”?  It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).

So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways.  Though there are many apparently supernatural events  in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it.  On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives….  And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.”  After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you.  Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us.  Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”

Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words.  He believes they are his cousins.  And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.

There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character.  We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment.  His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous.  Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react?  There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.

Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here.  Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted.  Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.

Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read.  In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days.  Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground.  Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins.  They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain.  This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets.  He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez.  The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”

In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day.  The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise.  It was all an illusion.  I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.

(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture.  I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now.  Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)

“Closing Time” and the Truth of the Story

September 1, 2008 § 15 Comments

Now reading: Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman.

First off, an apology to Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard. I did finish it, and it is good — an imaginative biography of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu among many other classics (I was disappointed that Sunrise was not only not featured, it wasn’t even mentioned). However, I read a lot of it on an airplane, then finished it during a hectic week. It’s got some more interesting things to say, and I especially enjoyed its descriptions of Murnau flying his airplane in WWI, and the experience of being above the clouds targeting the earth, and how that impacted his sense of what cinema could do — but I’m going to have to skip it for now. Onward.

Because Neil Gaiman is a lot of fun to read, and a lot of fun to think about. “Closing Time,” in particular, is a doozy. There are mysteries here, and ambiguity aplenty. And ooh, Narrator Trouble.

(Allow me to digress and bitch for a minute here. The Internet is a marvelous tool, and so is Google, and blogs are marvelous tools themselves. But, see here: a Google search for [“neil gaiman””closing time”] revealed roughly a zillion reviews of one sort or another in the first 100 hits, including reviews in blogs, and zero substantial critical discussions of what’s actually going on in this or any other story. Mechanisms for selling, basically, not thought. Part of the problem is the imprecision of my search, certainly, and my laziness in going through only 100 of the 6000+ hits (although things get more or less off-topic after what I saw, from a skim of later hits). And another part is the Google algorithms, and the fact that Google just doesn’t search everything: there are some discussions of this story on the neilgaiman.com message boards, but they’re buried too deep in the site for Google to recover. (They’re not very good discussions, anyway.) But might I suggest that people move beyond “I liked this,” etc. if they’re going to the trouble of writing about literature in the first place? We have many commercial vendors compiling that sort of information for us. There are already mechanisms for communicating your likes/dislikes to your pals. They’re called e-mail, telephone, and the good ol’ interpersonal conversation. You don’t have to be useful in a pseudo-public setting, but for God’s sake, would it hurt to try?)

So anyway, this is a “club story.” I’m a sucker for this genre, for reasons I can’t necessarily define: I tend to love frame stories of any sort. Something about stories-within-stories gives me a shiver of pleasure. Anyway, here it’s the Diogenes Club (named after the philosopher who famously could not find an honest man), and three young men are trading ghost stories one night. We have a first-person narrator, an “I,” a “young journalist.” (The story, according to Gaiman’s introduction, includes real places, and some real or similar-to-real events, and seems semi-autobiographical.) And we have an “elderly man” drinking by himself in a corner.

When the two named characters, Paul and Martyn, have each had a go at a fairly uninteresting story, we get this: “And then one of us said, ‘I’ll tell you a true story, if you like…. I don’t know if it’s a ghost story. It probably isn’t.'”

Wait… “one of us”? We then get the entire, genuinely creepy story in first person. And when it’s over, both Paul and Martyn comment upon it. So they weren’t the teller, who’s defined as “the storyteller,” separate from our narrator’s “I.” And it becomes evident that the old man wasn’t the teller either. There was also the proprietor, Nora, but she couldn’t have been the teller either, because she doesn’t accompany the four men out at closing time (plus, the storyteller was clearly a boy).

So: what the hell? Is this just a strange affectation of Gaiman’s? Or is it a way of dividing a person as he normally is and that same person as “storyteller”? A way of pointing out the kind of magic circle that’s drawn around a person telling and the people listening, the way they step outside of normal life, even if it’s a “true story” they’re sharing?

Plus, there’s the strangeness of the story itself. It involves a nine-year-old boy (the storyteller) who meets a group of three slightly older boys. (So we have two groups of four: the four in the Diogenes, the four in the story, with similar three-and-one groupings.) These boys show their younger visitor to a “playhouse” in the woods behind “the Swallows,” a manor house. And the door to this playhouse has a “metal knocker… painted crimson… in the shape of some kind of imp, some kind of grinning pixie or demon, hanging by its hands from a hinge.”

Fair enough, and creepy enough. But we’ve been told, four pages earlier, that the storyteller had made in art class “a painting… of a little house with a red door knocker like a devil or an imp.” And yet he gives no impression that he recognized this house, or this knocker, from his own painting. He says: “I found myself wondering what kind of a person would hang something like that on a playhouse door.”

Now, my wife Jaime (who read the story a few months ago) originally suggested that the three boys in the story were ghosts. The ending makes this difficult to accept, though, at least for all three of the boys. We went back and forth a bit on it, and settled on thinking that perhaps they were a kind of ghost of the living: memories made flesh, or the essence of childhoods lost. A kind of ambiguous, indefinable, deeply interesting non-being. This seems to fit best with the chronology of the story.

But that painting; and the weird handling of the narrator; what is going on here? I suspect that what Gaiman is doing here is something like constructing a “true” ghost story: the story of a haunting. (The story right before “Closing Time” is an avowedly “true” ghost story, called “The Flints of Memory Lane,” and some of the details in it echo in strange ways in “Closing Time.”) The “true” story is of this nine-year-old boy whose school closes down and who takes his strange painting back from its abandoned halls. He’s got a melancholy air about him. He seems, in a word, haunted, as does his landscape of “old houses and estates” about to be torn down to make way for “blandly identical landscapes of desirable modern residences.” And the rest of this story, the meeting of these boys, their strange hiding place, the playhouse, and the ambiguous evil they’ve undergone: it’s a way, also but differently “true,” of giving life to the haunting the boy feels, of explaining “what kind of person,” indeed, “would hang something like that on a playhouse door.” (Some answers: an imaginative person. A cruel person. A young boy. Neil Gaiman. And maybe you could also say that we, the readers, are the kind of people who “would hang something like that.” It’s what gives the story its shiver, after all, that door-knocker. And we like our shiver, whatever it might mean for the characters in the story we’re reading.) It’s a way, I expect, of dramatizing how we’re captured by story, and by memory, in thrall to them. They can make us do, and relive, awful things, wonderful things.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with ghost stories at The Ambiguities.