Archive for the ‘Michael Ondaatje’ Category

Viriconium (by Michael John Harrison) is so rhapsodic, so filled with vivid images that I have been quite carried away—despite the lack of engaging characters, despite the truncated and surreal plots, with their vexing absurdist detail. I have even accepted the horrible and despairing portrait of our future: the world decaying, poisoned by our wars and inventions, septic chemicals penetrating the earth and rendering it sterile and barren. Of a piece with the modern self hatred which I loathe (that whole “Whatever happened, it is OUR FAULT” business, oh, mea culpa) but I cannot loathe this book. Though the scenes are grotesque and detestable, yet they are so vibrant, and so romantic, so lyrical, that I cannot hate them. The language is poetic, dreamy, set about with repeated phrases, like Wagner’s leitmotifs. Probably the fact that I am listening to it, read in the seductive and beautiful tones of Simon Vance, has a great deal to do with my enthusiasm. I sit in the train, enraptured, in another world, forgetful of my errands, my tasks, and this forces me to realize that whatever the flaws of this book and this author, I am quite ravished.


“tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of the Pastel City, who imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, clenched his long, delicate fingers until their rings of intagliated non-precious metal cracked his knuckles and his nails made bloody half-moons on his palms.”

. . .

“Queen Jane awaited him in a tall room floored with cinnabar-veined crystal and having five false windows that showed landscapes to be found nowhere in the kingdom.
Shambling slowing among the curtains of light and finely wrought furniture was one of the giant albino megatheria of the Southern forests: great sloth-like beasts, fifteen feet high when they stood upright (which was rarely) and armed with terrible cutting claws, although they were vegetarian and amiable. The Queen’s beast wore an iridium collar, and its claws were sheathed in clear thick resin.”

A romance, filled with fin-de-siècle despair, and elegant descriptions of horrifying scenes, replete with surreal details, often defiantly tilting to the absurd. I did an illustration of one of the particularly compelling scenes *here*.

But today, I was reading Ondaatje’s book In the Skin of a Lion, which is set in Toronto, in the early 1900’s–the story of the immigrants that built the city, their hard lives in the new world (which were however so much better than the terrible times they had left behind in the old world). He writes so well, so luminously. There was a scene describing one of the many awful jobs they took, dying leather in the tannery. Though this scene is fully as grotesque as any scene in Viriconium, it is filled with glowing life in a way that Harrison’s prose is not.

“Dye work took place in the courtyards next to the warehouse. Circular pools had been cut into the stone — into which the men leapt waist-deep within the reds and ochres and greens, leapt in embracing the skins of recently slaughtered animals. In the round wells four-foot in diameter they heaved and stomped ensuring the dye went solidly into the pores of the skin that had been part of a live animal the previous day. And the men stepped out in colours up to their necks, pulling wet hides out after them so it appeared they had removed the skin from their own bodies. They had leapt into different colours as if into different countries.

What the dyers wanted, standing there together, the representatives from separate nations, was a cigarette. To stand during the five-minute break dressed in green talking to a man in yellow, and smoke. To take in the fresh energy of smoke and swallow it deep into their lungs, roll it around and breathe it out so it would remove with luck the acrid texture already deep within them, stuck within every corner of their flesh. A cigarette, a star beam through their flesh, would have been enough to purify them.”

Harrison’s precious surreal images are faded dreams by comparison. There is however such a great difference between listening to a book and reading it on the page, and once I have the actual book (coming this week) in my hand, I may feel differently about it. I refer to the echt, the paper book. The e-books are still too hard to riffle through, too hard to check back for forgotten details — fine for entertainment, but not easy for study. I expect it is my failure to understand the technology that is to blame more than the e-books themselves. Anyway, perhaps I will be better able to understand Harrison once I have his book in my hand instead of in my ear.

There is in fact one subject that informs both books: CABBAGE. Odd, but after all, both men are surely basing their tales on remembrances of an actual population, and so the houses of the poor reek with cabbage in both Viriconium and Toronto. Which reminds me that while neither of them spare a thought to where those virtuous vegetables come from, Terry Pratchett does! I’m sure he would be amused to find himself in such august company. But there it is, in Disc World we are told about the acres and acres of cabbages that surround the great city, brought in every day in streams of carts from the Sto Plains. Causing traffic jams.

In Viriconium, there is no traffic. There are no traffic jams. But, there is cabbage.


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