Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human

Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not quite as absurd as its title would seem to indicate. If anybody worshipped Shakespeare enough to think that the Bard literally did invent humanity, it would be Bloom. But Bloom’s primary thesis is the only slightly less grandiose claim that Shakespeare, by creating the most persuasively realistic mode of representing personality, shaped our ideas of what it means to be human. This at least falls within the realm of physical possibility.

I quite like the idea of approaching Shakespeare this way, since it allows us to integrate literature into intellectual history. Surely, the great innovators in poetry, prose, and drama must have contributed to our understanding of the human psyche. And Shakespeare’s works may, indeed, represent a great leap in this respect. Unfortunately, Bloom—both by background and temper—is not really up to the task of substantiating this claim. A serious inquiry into Shakespeare’s novel modes of portraying the human would require a broad overview of Shakespeare’s predecessors. There is nothing of the kind in this book; Bloom instead gives us a series of commentaries on each of Shakespeare’s plays.

For my part, I do agree with Bloom that Shakespeare’s greatest gift was his ability to endow his characters with startling depth. And if I can judge from my own reading, this was something quite new in the history of literature, though perhaps not quite as unique to Shakespeare as Bloom asserts. Montaigne and Cervantes—two near-contemporaries of Shakespeare—also portrayed shifting and unfolding characters, and by Bloom’s own admission Chaucer had encroached on this territory several hundred years earlier.

In any case, establishing a claim for intellectual priority in inventing the human is not at all what this book is about. Instead, this book is a reader‘s guide, consisting of a close reading of Shakespeare’s 39 plays. The plays are grouped both chronologically and thematically, from the early comedies to the late romances. Bloom’s attention is admittedly uneven. To some of the minor works he devotes some ten pages or so, while Hamlet gets nearly fifty. In his approach, Bloom is a self-professed follower of Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and A.C. Bradley—that is, mainly focusing on the character’s personalities and Shakespeare’s methods of representing them.

As you may know, this approach has been out of intellectual fashion for quite some time. Indeed, in many ways Bloom was a deliberate stick in the mud. He was adamantly opposed to reading any kind of social, political, religious, or other message in the plays, and was mostly uninterested in how Shakespeare’s own historical context shaped the play’s content. He was an old-school champion of the autonomy of the aesthetic, of literary excellence existing in a realm apart from the rest of life. You can imagine that this is not especially popular nowadays, to say the least; and Bloom, never one to mince words, is constantly taking swipes at his fellow academics. For the casual reader, this is mostly just a distraction, since most of us just want to enjoy and understand the plays a little better.

Any critic, however broad, will inevitably have strong and weak sections when dealing with a corpus as vast and varied as Shakespeare’s plays. Bloom is no different. I consistently found Bloom at his worst when he was at his most passionate. That is, whenever he felt called upon to rhapsodize over the Bard’s incomparable genius, the book devolved into a string of superlatives that did little to enrich my reading. Thus, ironically, this book is weakest when Shakespeare is at his strongest—particularly in the chapters on Hamlet, King Lear, and the Henry IV plays. Any attempt to analyze the brooding Prince of Denmark or the fat Sir John Falstaff—the Bard’s two greatest creations, according to Bloom—knocks him off his rocker.

By contrast, many of the shorter chapters on Shakespeare’s slightly less famous works are quite strong. Bloom is at his best when he is doing the work of an uncommonly good common reader—that is, merely picking up the play and noting which sections are strong, weak, moving, interesting, disturbing, etc., and then trying to analyze why. This is basically what all of us try to do here on Goodreads, and it just so happens that Bloom is quite good at it. What he is not good at is moving beyond this close, sympathetic reading to arrive at a more general conclusion.

Insofar as Bloom does have a general insight into Shakespeare’s mode of creating the human, it is the concept of self-overhearing. Unfortunately, Bloom does not elaborate on this idea very much, so it is difficult to know exactly what he means by it. As far as I can tell, the idea is that Shakespeare’s characters are never fully able to articulate what they think or feel, but their words always somehow one step behind their psyches. Put another way, Shakespeare’s characters experience a kind of self-alienation, forever trying and failing to fully articulate their own innermost selves. Thus, overhearing their own failed attempts at articulation cause them to change and grow, as they try to correct their own previous failures at self-revelation.

I think this is quite an insightful way of looking at Shakespeare’s characters, and it does pinpoint something novel about Shakespeare’s mode of representation. In most fiction, the characters either articulate exactly what they think, or they articulate the exact opposite (when they are lying, or when they are supposed to be self-deluded). But Shakespeare’s characters are far more subtle than simply dishonest or even self-deluded personas. What they say is never exactly right nor exactly wrong, but forever on the cusp, just missing the mark; and this inability to ever get it exactly right drives the kind of verbal excess that marks Shakespeare’s most powerful speeches—poetry pushing toward the ineffable.

And I do think that this captures something essential about us: that we can hardly ever articulate exactly what we think, how we feel, or what we want; and so there seems to be a disconnect between our innermost core and the outward selves we are able to project. Did Shakespeare first have this insight or did he just perfect its use in the theater? That is a question for a different kind of literary critic than Bloom.

I am spending too much time on this issue of character—since it fascinates me—even though the real value of this book does not consist in its philosophical insights. This book is an excellent companion for reading Shakespeare’s plays, since it allows you to read them alongside a very opinionated, highly intelligent, and fiercely individual reader—which is always valuable.



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Review: The Red and the Black

Review: The Red and the Black
The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good heavens! Is being happy, is being loved no more than that?

Few books have so totally engrossed me as this French novel written nearly two hundred years ago. Stendhal has aged very well. The novel is just fun to read: with short chapters, simple prose, and a plot that keeps the reader constantly wondering. That the novel was not widely appreciated during Stendhal’s own lifetime shows how much literary taste has changed. Whether this change has been for the better is difficult to say. But at least we can now appreciate Stendhal’s masterpiece.

For me, Stendhal’s signature effect is the interplay of Romantic idealism and deflating realism. Like his contemporary Balzac, Stendhal catches the world in his net. Every character, scene, and situation is carefully realistic. Though hardly a political novel, Stendhal succeeds in painting a subtle and compelling portrait of his age—the dynamic between the provinces and Paris, the political clashes between liberals and royalists, the relationship between the peasants, the clergy, and the old aristocracy. His characters, while individual, are also recognizable types, which he uses to dissect and analyze the social realities of his age.

Yet acting as a great counterweight to the ballast of detail is Stendhal’s famous psychological acuteness. This turns what would potentially be a dated social study into a gripping story of universal import. For his protagonist, Stendhal creates Julien Sorel—passionate, brilliant, stubborn, naïve, calculating, ambitious, and manifestly unfit for his social station.

Stendhal, a liberal himself, could easily have written a kind of morality tale about what happens when a man of great gifts is born in the lower ranks of society, with hardly any legitimate way of advancing. This is indeed Julien Sorel’s position. This morality tale would show us a good-hearted man, doing his best to be recognized for his genius, but overcome by circumstances. Yet Julien is infinitely more interesting for being both flawed and devious. Stendhal does not only show us how society makes his lot difficult, but, far more subtly, shows us how society deforms his psyche.

Deprived of any external encouragement, Julien’s motivation must come from worldly ambition and an egoistic pride. Since his only path to advancement is through people he despises—the clergy and the aristocracy—Julien must be dishonest, hypocritical, and ever-cautious. Forced to suppress his own emotions so constantly, and forced so frequently to act against his inclinations, whenever Julien is given a taste of kindness, love, or happiness, he loses control and threatens to undo all that his calculating subtlety had accomplished.

This psychological portrait is so perfectly realized that we both sympathize with, root for, and yet see through Julien Sorel. He is extraordinary, and yet painfully limited by his surroundings. His tragedy is that circumstances deprived the world of what he could have been had he been born in a different time and place. That Stendhal could create, at the same time, a universal morality tale, a realistic sketch of society, a vivid psychological study, and a thrilling novel—complete with a burning love story—all in the simplest prose, is a testament to the author’s high art.



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Review: Père Goriot

Review: Père Goriot
Père Goriot

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Money is life; money accomplishes everything.

I recently worked as a slush pile reader for a literary magazine, sorting out the best stories from the flurry of submissions. Many of these were quite expertly written—sharp prose, snappy beginnings, intriguing plots, quirky characters, and all of the other boxes ticked. However, the lion’s share lacked something which I came to call “weight.”

The stories never escaped the sense of airy insubstantiality that besets much fiction, that nagging and persistent sense of emptiness—in short, of being entirely fiction. The characters spoke with the voices of puppets and moved in a daydream world. I could not believe, so I did not care. Balzac presents a striking contrast. From the very start, this novel is heavy-laden with realistic details snatched from history and from daily life. Far from being phantasmagoric, the setting is etched into the memory with acid, becoming more real than the characters themselves.

Doubtless this ability to lend the weight of reality to his stories is what made Balzac the father of realism. But Balzac’s realism is most impressive in his depiction of the Paris of the Bourbon restoration; it does not extend so forcefully to his characters. Even the best characters in this book are rather one-dimensional and static; they achieve force through intensity, not complexity. Balzac endows each of his creations with an overwhelming passion, a monomania. In the case of Goriot it is his daughters; with Rastignac, social clout; and with Vautrin, a general diabolical glee.

But if Balzac does not stop at these monomanias, for he is at pains to show that each of these passions is fundamentally rooted in money. Goriot loses the affection of his daughters by giving away his last bit of money; Rastignac realizes that money is the key to social success; and Vautrin wishes to buy a plantation in the American south. For a nineteenth-century novel, this is refreshing. Balzac eschews the usual plot mechanics of romance and marriage in favor of the far more contemporary problem of making one’s way in a morally treacherous world. He is a genius at revealing how mercenary motives worm their way into even the most intimate of relationships.

Given Balzac’s reputation for realism, I was surprised by the amount of melodramatic passion on display in this novel. Often this was a weakness, loading the book down with declamations and hysterics. But, at times, it allowed Balzac to reach a level of emotional intensity that was almost operatic. This was particularly true in the final scene, where the combination of grinding poverty, total desperation, and feverish despair reached Dostoyevskian proportions. Indeed, Pere Goriot was a major influence on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as is clear from the many parallels between the two books.

The final result is a book which, if aesthetically rough and conceptually limited, is both an incisive look at the hypocrisies of society and a gripping work of art.



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Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Keats: Poems by John Keats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever

As a dedicated book reviewer, it is my job to say why I like certain books and dislike others. When it comes to nonfiction, this is reasonably straightforward: if the exposition is clear, if the arguments are logical, if the ideas are reasonable—then it is a worthy book. Nonfiction aims for truth, and truth can at least be tested. With literature, however, the task is somewhat more fraught. Beauty is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. We can break down a novel’s strengths and weaknesses by category—good prose, bad pacing, fine dialogue, shallow characterization—but ultimately these evaluations, however much we justify them, rest upon gut reactions.

Why does one sequence of musical notes create a pleasing melody, another a forgettable ditty, and a third a nonsensical jangle? Why do certain combinations of words strike the ear as just right, and others as discordant? Formal analysis can clarify and categorize the sorts of sounds and structures that people tend to enjoy. But it can never explain why we enjoy them in the first place, nor why different people enjoy them to different extents. If literary criticism is to be a worthwhile exercise it requires, then, that the gut reactions of the audience members are at least roughly alike—that we are similarly constituted as regards to beauty.

Shared education contributes towards this similarity; as does, presumably, the basic resemblance of our natures. But does this bedrock of shared taste constitute something durable and permanent enough so that we may say a great artist hits upon the “truth” of art—appealed to something permanent in ourselves—in the same way that a scientist may hit upon a “truth” of nature? Many have thought so. And it strikes me that something like this must be the case if we wish to call any form of art “universal”—namely, that it is a true expression of what we share.

I mention this because the relationship of beauty to truth is one of the great themes of Keats’ poetry. At the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he tells us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—a line that has been endlessly analyzed. Certainly the widespread and steady popularity of his poems may argue that, indeed, Keats hit upon some basic truth of art. But what could that mean?

The issue of translation may bear on the question. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable; and the bilingual edition I read ironically proved the point. The Spanish consistently failed to evoke the sublimity of the original. Here, for example, are two famous lines from Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken

And here is the Spanish translation:

Entonces me sentí como un astrónomo
cuando ve frente a sí un Nuevo planeta

Translated back into English this reads something like: “Then I felt like an astronomer when he sees a new planet in front of him.” Despite preserving the literal meaning, this obviously loses all of the magic of the line. “Watcher of the skies” is infinitely more romantic than “astronomer,” and “sees in front of him” has none of the mystery of “swims into his ken.” In short, the rich beauty of the language does not survive; and the poem becomes a rather bland statement about enjoying a new edition of Homer, rather than an evocation of the grandeur of nature and art.

(I do not think it was the translator’s fault. Spanish is very different to versify than English; and the literal Spanish translation would preserve meaning at the expense of rhythm.)

Yet if Keats’ poetry is truly untranslatable, then how could it contain truth? After all, one could translate Newton’s work into Spanish, French, German, or Japanese, and it would contain just as much truth (or untruth) as in the original. Science is not linguistically bound. Admittedly, the boundary of translation is not equivalent for all forms of poetry. Homer’s works are still riveting in English; and Dante’s vision survives (at least partially) its journey from Medieval Florentine. Lyrical poetry seems to fare the most poorly.

The obvious difference between Homer and Keats is that Homer’s appeal lies in the story, while Keats’ relies on his linguistic brilliance. And, for my part, it is easier to see how a story can contain a semblance of “truth,” rather than a beautiful string of words. Assuming that some experiences in life are universal, that some emotional crises are recurring, that some existential state is inescapable, then a great story may be able to capture something common and durable about the human condition. A beautiful poetic line, on the other hand, has a purely formal appeal—charming not in what it says, but in how it says it—and this perfection of expression, being untranslatable, must fall short of universal art.

Nevertheless, to describe Keats as merely a brilliant wordsmith would be an absurd underestimation. As his letters prove, he was thoroughly educated and keenly intelligent. His poems abound with perplexing classical references. And, in any case, words are never mere sounds; they are laden with meaning; and even the briefest of lyrical poems are pregnant with thought. Contemplation permeates Keats’ work. In his poems we find the focused musings of a highly original man as he meditates on entirely common occurrences: Autumn, Melancholy, Nature, Art—the list goes on.

Here is where Keats’ art may be said to be “universal”—and, in some sense, “true” to the human condition. For many of us have stood, amazed, before a work of art, or felt thrilled upon opening a book, or listened yearningly to a bird singing outside a window—or any number of comparable experiences. Yet only Keats and his ken have taken these fleeting twinges of emotion, reflected deeply upon them, and captured them in words so felicitous that they are impossible to forget once heard. Like the revelers on the Grecian Urn, Keats has frozen time.

It may be that this lyrical form of art, being so bound up in brilliance of expression, is less universal and less durable than works of narrative. But for those who are, by chance, linguistically equipped to enter Keats’ world, then his poems contain just as much artistic “truth” as the oldest tales and the finest melodies.

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Review: The Prussian Officer

Review: The Prussian Officer
The Prussian Officer

The Prussian Officer by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first book by Lawrence, and I am greatly impressed. These short stories were published near the beginning of his writing career; yet they show a mature writer with a fully developed voice. Several qualities are immediately apparent. The first is Lawrence’s exquisite sensitivity to nature. The best prose in this volume is to be found in the many passages of natural description:

The air was too scented, it gave no breath. All the lush green-stuff seemed to be issuing its sap, till the air was deathly, sickly with the smell of greenness. There was the perfume of clover, like pure honey and bees. Then there grew a faint acrid tang—they were near the beeches; and then a queer clattering noise, and a suffocating, hideous smell: they were passing a flock of sheep, a shepherd in a black smock, holding his hook.

Lawrence’s primary subject is the rural poor. He is totally convincing in his depiction of the harried mother waiting for her drunkard husband to stumble home, or the sick widow trying to take care of her adult son. Unlike Hemingway, Lawrence has the rare talent of being able to write about people entirely unlike himself. His most memorable characters are consistently women, who normally show themselves to be superior in personality and intelligence to their male counterparts.

Insofar as these stories contain the germ of a philosophy, it is that passionate, sexual relationships allow people to be truly themselves. Thus, in “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the consummation of a relationship gives the couple a strange superiority over their circumstances; and in “Daughters of the Vicar,” the unhappy daughter who settled for a loveless marriage is contrasted with the self-assured daughter who marries for love.

But it would be wrong to call Lawrence a didactic writer, at least in this volume. The stories, for the most part, have no moral. They are concerned with the basic stuff of all prose literature: relationships—with oneself, with others, or with the rest of society. And as Melvyn Bragg says in the introduction, the stories are free of the traditional plot mechanics that are used to propel stories to pre-determined ends; instead Lawrence’s stories develop seamlessly, organically, without any noticeable push from the writer. I am looking forward to reading Lawrence’s novels.

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Review: Fathers and Sons

Review: Fathers and Sons
Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

He has no faith in princeeples, only in frogs.

Turgenev has a reputation of being a novelists’ novelist—admired by such fastidious readers as Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad—and now I can see why. Though quite different in temperament, he reminds me of Jane Austen or E.M. Forster in his seamless mastery of technique and his delicate touch. Apart from the epilogue (a 19th century staple), this novel makes do with very little of the cranking plot mechanics used by so many Victorian novelists. Rather, Turgenev weaves naturalistic scenes together in such a way that the plot, though orderly indeed, is tactfully concealed, like a skinny mannequin under a billowing dress.

But what is most impressive about this book is that, amid the sweetly flowing prose and the keen descriptions, Turgenev has inserted one of literature’s great characters: Bazarov, the nihilist (a term he popularized). On the one hand, Bazarov is the quintessential insufferable college graduate, pointing out the flaws in society without suggesting any remedies. On the other hand, unlike most of these brave young souls, Bazarov is actually a man of genius with an oddly compelling worldview. At the very least he has charisma. And history has only made Bazarov more fascinating. He is, by turns, a proto-Bolshevik and a proto-existentialist—calling for revolution amid the absurdity of existence. Turgenev must have been quite the observer to so effectively anticipate the political and intellectual revolutionaries of the coming century.

Turgenev’s winning touch is his ability to make the reader switch sympathies. At times Bazarov is little more than an arrogant lout; yet at other moments he is admirable and almost heroic; and at still others he is pitiable and deeply human. The same goes for every other character. Arcady’s uncle, Paul, is exemplary in this respect: a man of elegance, tact, and civility, who is at times commendable and at times an outrageous buffoon. Few novelists have such an prodigious ability to render complex yet believable personalities. In sum, the very fact that Turgenev wrote a novel about generational conflict that managed to deeply offend both fathers and sons shows the truth of his portrayals. This is a classic in every sense of the word.



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Review: As You Like It

Review: As You Like It
As You Like It

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As You Like It is unquestionably my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. This is mostly due to the love story being, for once, rather enjoyable. In the majority of Shakespeare’s works I find the romantic relationships to be, at best, an easy engine to move the plot along, or a ready vehicle for the poet’s sallies. Seldom do I find myself in sympathy with the lover or the beloved, mostly because Shakespeare’s most lovable or fascinating characters—King Lear, Iago, Hamlet, Falstaff—are usually not of the amorous sort.

But Rosalind is a great exception, for she is both fascinating and lovable. It is very easy for me to sympathize with Orlando’s passion; and though Orlando is no match for Rosalind in wit or wisdom, he is brave, kind, and loyal. As in any Shakespeare play, the lovers expend their great verbal acuity upon one another; though here, for once, the barbs are purely benign, the relationship free of secret malice. For Rosalind and Orlando, raillery becomes a way of showing affection and of keeping attraction alive; and theatricality is not use to deceive or to ensnare, but to enchant.

Shakespeare set his play in the fictitious forest of Arden, thus suggesting a kind of pastoral romance. But the mood of the play is subtly anti-pastoral. Silvius, the poor love-sick shepherd, represents the original pastoral tradition of pinning lovers in an original Eden; thus he speaks exclusively in nauseating verse. Rosalind, by contrast, expresses herself in prose; and her love is never pinning or pathetic, but playful. I would say that ‘play’ characterizes her whole attitude towards life. She does not, like Silvius, fall victim to her emotions; nor does she, like Jacques, cynically deny her feeling. Instead, she indulges in her feelings while staying one step ahead of them, turning every genuine drama into a game. In the process she gives us a model for how to be madly in love without being maddeningly dull.

What else need be said? The plot is absurd and flimsy, of course. Jacques and Touchstone are excellent counterpoises to Rosalind, though neither half so delightful. The music and the natural setting help to make the play itself, like the forest of Arden, a space of escape and delight—a transitional space, where the norms of society are inverted or suspended, and from which we return refreshed and subtly transformed. At the very least, it is impossible for me to watch this play and remain in a sour mood.



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Review: Howards End

Review: Howards End
Howards End

Howards End by E.M. Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is the little things one bungles at. The big, real ones are nothing when they come.


The last time I reviewed a novel by E.M. Forster, I wound up blubbering with praise; and now I find myself in similar circumstances. As with A Passage to India, I find Howards End exemplary in every respect: the themes, characterization, the prose, the pacing, the plot. I ought also to mention Forster’s versatility. Though rarely funny, Forster is capable of romantic lyricism, gritty realism, and flighty philosophy. Most convincing of all is his control. Nothing is overdone or heavy-handed—which requires a mixture of technique and taste. While exploring social problems, one never feels that the novel is being unduly interrupted; while constructing a character into an archetype, one never feels that the individual is lost; and the story, though carefully plotted, rarely feels predictable or contrived.

Yet Forster is not a great novelist for his skill alone. He is great because of his insight. More than any novelist I know, Forster is able to connect the inner with the outer life (which is the theme of this novel, and the source of its most famous quote: “Only connect”). Forster is able to show, in other words, how social and economic circumstances breed characters; and how even intelligent and well-meaning characters fail to escape the bounds of their class and nation. He shows, for example, how the money inherited by Margaret and Helen allows for their mental freedom; how Mr. Wilcox’s life of business molds him into a well-meaning shell; and how, despite his best efforts, Leonard Bast cannot help but be shaped by his poverty.

However, if the novel has a message, it is this: even if the inner life is powerless to change material circumstances, it is ultimately the more important aspect of life. This is because, when a tragedy strikes, and mere business acumen or worldly knowledge will not suffice, it is emotional fortitude that is required. Mr. Wilcox has a sort of false strength—a fragile ego he hides behind, a sort of masculine bluff which is easily shattered. Margaret, by contrast, is able to endure tragedies because of her self-knowledge. She is not afraid of the darker aspects of her mind; thus she can look with equanimity upon herself and others, accepting their flaws while seeing their potential. This is what Forster means by “connect”: connecting “the beast” with “the monk”—that is, admitting one’s desires instead of hiding behind a false screen of decency. Only so can we achieve self-knowledge.



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Don Bigote: Chapter 5

Don Bigote: Chapter 5

The story until now:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs

Don and Dan Find God

“Dan, I am afraid I cannot hold it any longer.”

“You sure, sir? There must be a McDonald’s nearby.”

“My dear boy, first of all, McDonald’s is one of the strongest links in the chain of conspiracy, extending all the way from AppleBee’s to Outback Steakhouse. They put mind-control serums in the food, making the populace more docile. And second, I am in a state of dire urethral and bladereal emergency.”

“But where does Taco Bell figure into this?”

“Just stop, Chopin!”

I pull the grey sedan to the side of the road; the tires crunch on the gravel as we slow down. Bigote has the door open before we even come to a full stop. He unbuckles his seatbelt and attempts a flying leap out of the car—a man propelled by the force of nature—and immediately tumbles and falls, hitting his face on the open door, and then rolling into a somersault and springing to his feet. His nose is bleeding profusely and a steady stream of urine, surprisingly vigorous for an old guy like him, appears in no time. I observe all this through the rear-view mirror.

“I told you about drinking all that Diet Pepsi, sir,” I say, after getting out. “It’s a killer.”

“I would appreciate if you could maintain silence while I am in this undignified state,” he replies, the stream still going strong.

“Well I guess I’ll go, too.”

I unzip my fly and search deep down for the urine I know is lurking in the depths. I push and squeeze, and feel a tension somewhere behind my navel, and scrunch it like a sponge, trying to get all the liquid out. I am a little embarrassed of my pitiful tinkle, compared to Bigote’s mighty Niagara.

We both finish.

“Are you okay, sir?” I say, looking at the read streak of blood down his shirt and face, left by his still-bleeding nose.

“Nothing to worry about, Chopin. Blood is but the stuff of the gross material body. The soul is made of finer matter, and cannot escape through the aperture of the nose.”

“Well why don’t you plug it up anyway,” I say, and hand him the tissue stuffed in my pocket.

“Once again, I am much obliged to you,” he says, and stuffs bits of the tissue up his nose.

“So, Mr. Bigote, sir,” I say, “I hate to bring this up again, but where are we headed?”

“My most ignorant and naïve companion, for the upteenth time, we are on our way to Santiago de Compostela.”

“Which is a city?”

“It is the city where the body of St. James was discovered, making it one of Christendom’s great pilgrimage sites.”

“And what’s that to us?”

“You know, your barbarous mode of speech, and persistently philistine questions, do provoke in me great feelings of pity and, at times, rage at the conspiracy which has so debauched your mind, my most benighted squire.”

Bigote has been getting a little testy lately.

“Debitched or not, I’ve been driving for a long time, man, and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.”

“Stuff and nonsense, Chopin. It is impossible to go and yet remain, as Isaac Newton proved.”

“Listen I don’t see what physics has to do with San Diego con Carne.”

“Santiago de Compostela.”

“Yeah.”

“Allow me to explain this in plain terms. St. James is the patron saint of Spain. He was a great inspiration for the reconquista and, it is said, actually appeared in battle to aide the Christian forces against the invading Muslims. As such, visiting the shrine dedicated to Santiago may have much to tell us in our quest against the Mexican-Muslim conspiracy.”

“Well, as long as I can get BJ’s and beers there, it should be fine.”

“I assure you, Chopin, they have every civilized amenity, including pyjamas.”

I walk back over to the driver’s side and tug on the door.

“Uh oh,” I say. “It’s locked. Try your side, sir.”

“It does not open, from which I deduce that it is locked.”

“Yeah…” I say, patting myself down, looking through my pockets. “Pretty sure I left the keys in the car.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We’re locked out.”

“You imbecile!” Bigote said, pounding his fist on the car. “You dunce!”

He is an awfully judgmental guy for someone covered in dried blood, with red tissue coming out of his nostrils.

“Sorry about that, sir,” I say, trying my best to sound real sorry.

“Do you realize the extent to which you have put our entire operation in jeopardy by such a careless and routine oversight?”

“Well, can’t be that bad.”

“I beg to differ, knave, and to differ most hotly. For tow truck personnel are inevitably informants of the conspiracy. Indeed, nearly every individual involved in traffic violations or car repair is directly connected to the central database, which the conspirators use to track the whereabouts of their nemeses. They will find us out immediately, Chopin.”

“Guess we just got to break a window then,” I said.

“I suppose we do, Chopin. Would you like me to try?”

“Be my guest.”

I am pretty excited for what is coming next.

Bigote winds up his body like a spring, and delivers a massive karate chop to the passenger window. His boney hand bounces off with a loud ‘crack.’

AAAAAHHH!” Bigote says, clutching his hand.

“Oh shit, sir, did you break anything?” I try to say this with a straight face.

“It is too early to tell the extent of the physical damage, Chopin. But it is safe to say that this glass is especially made to withstand assault. Try it with a hefty stone.”

“You got it,” I say, and pick up a loose piece of asphalt nearby. Then I chuck it right at the window from point-blank range. But my hand slips and the asphalt hits the door right below the window, bounces off and hits me in the nuts, sending me to the floor.

My world collapses like an accordion into a tight ball of breathless pain. All time and space disappear. I see the face of God, and He looks like my mom. I smell oil and stale beer and imagine that this is what everything must smell like when you’re dead. Then, I snap out of it a little, and find myself sprawled on the ground clutching my crotch.

“Owowowowow,” I say, when I can find my breath. “God damnit.”

“Chopin, are you alright?”

“Just dying over here, don’t worry about it.”

“These damn feminist, homosexual, gluten-free conspirators! You see, Chopin, they have infiltrated all the regulation agencies. In the past, automobile companies could use whatever grade of glass they pleased. In those days you could shatter a car window with a pebble. But in their mad quest to limit our blessed freedom, the socialists created regulations, stating that these windows must be resistant to kinetic assault. And now you see how clever they are? We are locked out of our own vehicle!”

“Well, technically we stole it,” I say. I have stopped hyperventilating now and I am struggling back to my feet.

“Hello, friends, do you need some help?”

My blood runs cold when I hear this voice. Who the hell is that?

“Why, who might you be?” Bigote says, all suspicious-like. I limp over to his side as quick as I can, hoping to prevent Bigote from shooting anyone. Remember, we still have those pistols from the dead drug runners.

“My name is Pierre,” a boy with a funny French accent says. “I see that you are having trouble with your automobile.”

He’s about my age, wearing a black backpack, a grey hoodie, some ragged jeans, and he’s holding a walking stick. He smiles and I can see that he has spotted yellow teeth.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, trying to sound menacing.

“I was walking along when I saw you two pull over to, uh, make water. I saw you had a bad accident,” he says to Bigote. “Are you alright?”

“I am an old warrior and am long immured to such trifling injuries, but it is very kind of you to ask.” I can tell from Bigote’s tone that he is contemplating something very stupid.

“Well, I see that you cannot get back into your car,” Pierre says.

“Very observant.”

“Would not you like me to help? I am an expert in these things, you know.”

“In breaking into cars?”

“Precisely.”

I look at Bigote, who eyes the Frenchie with a narrow gaze.

“Be my guest,” he says finally, after a long pause.

“But in return,” Pierre says, “I would very much like it if you would give me a ride.”

“If it is on our way,” Bigote says.

“Oh, it is on everybody’s way.”

And with this puzzling remark, Pierre whips his backpack around, and pulls out a coat hanger from the front pocket. Then he straightens it out into a little wire, leaving only the hooked end, and presses it against the little crease of the passenger door, and then wiggles it back and forth until, with a little jerk, it pops into the car. He angles the hanger so that it hooks the little doorlock knob, and gently pulls it out and up, unlocking the door. All this is done in less than thirty seconds.

“There you are!” he says, turning around and smiling.

“Very kind of you,” Bigote says, and whips out the semi-automatic pistol from his belt. But the gun flies out of his hand, dropping down on the asphalt road with a thud, going off in the process with a horrible Bang! Before I even have time to react Bigote swoops down and picks up the gun in his left hand.

“Jesus Christ, Fuck!” I say. “What the fuck was that, man?”

“Are you hit, Chopin?”

“No, man, but why did you throw the gun like that? Are you nuts?”

“It’s my right hand, Chopin. I cannot grip anything. I think I broke my fingers from trying to smash the window.”

“Oh, great. Well did you kill Jacques?”

“It’s Pierre…” he says. He threw himself on the ground when he saw the gun, and is now getting back to his feet. “And I am unharmed.”

“Get back on your feet you conspiratorial scum, and die like a man,” Bigote says. “Now, say your prayers—to Muhammad, Hillary Clinton, El Chapo, or whatever other devils you dogs pray to.”

“What is this?” Pierre says, standing and throwing his hands up. “Why are you doing this?”

“Oh, an obliging French vagrant just happened to be strolling by when our car broke down? Very convenient,” Bigote says.

“Woah, woah, woah, woah,” I say, putting a hand gently on Bigote’s arm. “Let’s not jump to conclusions, sir.”

“Chopin, I admire your impulse towards mercy, but we have everything to lose and little to gain by letting this man live. He may be innocent, but he may very well be an agent sent here for the very purpose of sabotaging us, ensnaring us in his cleverly-woven net.”

“But sir, there must be a way to tell if somebody is a genuine member of the conspiracy.”

“Well, do you have some aluminum foil and a cup of water?”

“No…”

“Then we must resort to circumstantial evidence. Search his backpack, Chopin.”

“Yes, sir. Hand it here, Jacques.”

“It’s Pierre…”

“Shut up, Napoleon.”

Pierre nervously hands the bag over, and then sticks his hands back in the air. I open up the outside pocket.

“Cigarettes, a map of Portugal, five loose condoms, insect repellent, a harmonica, and a pickle.”

“Hmmmm,” Bigote says. “Go on.”

I open the main chamber.

“A bottle of Jack Daniels, a little tin can filled with weed…”

“Weed?”

“Marijuana, sir.”

“I see. Proceed.”

“Seven purple radishes, some sliced jalapeños, a partially eaten bag of cheetos, a frying pan, a package of bacon, a compass, three packs of cigarettes, a fork and knife, a flashlight, a plastic bag full of mushrooms, and a… a pornographic magazine.”

“And his pockets?”

Pierre scrounges in his pockets and gives me two big handfuls.

“Some gum, lots of coins, guitar picks, toothpicks, a wallet.”

“Any I.D.?” Bigote barks

“Yes, it’s in French but it says Pierre Lacrosse.”

“Go on.”

“An entire head of garlic, some packets of salt and ketchup from McDonald’s, a few batteries, and some little blue pills, which I believe are ecstasy.”

“That is correct,” Pierre says.

“I see,” Bigote says. “Well, I think the evidence is strongly in favor of his innocence.” Bigote clicks the safety on and holsters the pistol.

“Oh, mon dieu,” Pierre says.

“How did you come to that conclusion, sir?”

“Elementary, my dear Chopin. He had a harmonica, and music is forbidden in Islam; he had bacon, a pork product; and he had alcohol, another violation of the tenets of that nefarious creed.”

“Couldn’t he have been fooling us?” I say, just to figure out how this guy’s mind works.

“He may, indeed, Chopin. I see you are learning their trickery. But the presence of a pornographic magazine cleared up any doubts. For the human body is veiled in Islam; and, besides, feminists cannot abide pornography, since it shows attractive women; and, on top of that, the gays condemn all heterosexual attraction as too ‘natural’; and, finally, vegans consider sex to be an act of animal consumption. So it is very unlikely that the conspiracy would use pornography, even for the purposes of trickery.”

“But I thought all those guys were in favor of porn, right? Like, isn’t it the rightwing people who don’t like porn?”

“Ah, now you see the brilliance of the conspiracy, Chopin. The conspiracy publicly supports porn for its degrading moral effect, but refuses to partake of it themselves. They are dastardly, and will not hesitate to bend their morality to suit their needs.”

“Boy, you sure are smart, sir,” I say. “Excuse my boss,” I then say to Pierre, in a whisper. “He’s just a little paranoid about terrorism.”

“I understand,” he says. “One can never be too careful. So, can I get that ride?”

“Of course!” Bigote says, “and please excuse me for being such an ungrateful host.” And we all pile into the car.

“So, uh, do you know where you’re going?” I say to Pierre.

“Yes, it is only a few kilometers up this road. I will tell you when to stop.”

We drive on without conversation for fifteen minutes or so. I can see Bigote out of the corner of my eye. He is twisting his head this way and that, scanning the surroundings like an alert bird. His mustache has—if this is even possible—grown still more bushy during our time on the run, and now seems to extend outward in all directions like a bramble. Pierre, meanwhile, sits in the back, whistling “Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye. Seems like a chill dude.

“Stop! Stop! Here it is!” Pierre says suddenly.

“You sure, man?” I say.

“Yes, yes!”

I pull over to the side and we slow to a stop. I look around and see nothing, not a building, a sign, nor a driveway.

“Where are you even going?” I ask him.

“Into the forest.”

“Are you on a hiking trip?”

“Oh, no, I’m going to an ayahuasca ceremony.”

“Ayahuasca?” Bigote asks.

“Oh, sir, I think this is a wonderful opportunity!” I say, thinking fast. “Ayahuasca is a powerful tool that may help us in our fight against the conspiracy!”

I’ve always wanted to try it.

“Indeed?” Bigote says, stroking his stache.

“Oh yes,” Pierre says. “Ayahuasca can change the world.”

“Then let us go!”

§

“Tell me again what this ‘ayahuasca’ substance is, Chopin. I am having difficulty following your explanation.”

We are stumbling through the forest on a vaguely marked trail, following the Frenchie at a distance of a few dozen feet. He seems to know where he’s going. I am a little worried that he’s leading us into a trap or something; but both of us are packing pistols—not that I know how to shoot mine—so I am not too worried. At the very least I am taking this baguette-eating euro-hippie down with me.

“Well, sir,” I say to Bigote, trying to sound all knowledgeable-like, “the thing is, nobody really knows what ayahuasca is. The recipe was discovered by the Aztecs, but the secret was lost after all of them died, from rape and pillage and stuff like that. But it’s like this substance that lets you see reality with, like, super vision. I mean that you know all this stuff you didn’t know before. Like magic.”

“If I am following your explanation correctly, Chopin, this is a potent substance developed by the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Mexico?”

“That’s it.”

“And they used it in their rituals in order to gain a higher experience of reality?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“And somehow this recipe has been recovered?”

“You see, some people escaped into the forest and kept making the stuff, even after most of their friends and family died from the rape and pillage, and nowadays people pay to be part of ceremonies where they drink some of it and go through the whole deal.”

Bigote stops dead in his tracks.

“This is brilliant, Chopin!” Bigote says, throwing his hands up in the air. “Brilliant! This is the missing piece of the puzzle!”

“The puzzle, sir?”

“Don’t you see, Chopin? This is how the Muslims and the Mexicans communicated back in the time before Columbus crossed the ocean, allowing them to coordinate their nefarious plans before Western civilization even got started off the ground.”

“Hold up a second, sir. Are you saying that the Mexicans and the Muslims were plotting all the way back then? That’s just crazy, dude.”

“It may seem insane, Chopin, but I assure you this conspiracy reaches back into the furthest depths of time. Now, admittedly it was mysterious how the Aztecs and the Muslims coordinated in the Dark Ages. But what you tell me is true, Chopin, and this drug does give you a different experience of reality, it is possible that Mexicans and Muslims could attune their minds by taking the drug simultaneously, on different parts of the globe, and thus coordinate their thoughts. Or perhaps the Muslims smoked hashish… ”

“Woah, dude.”

“Yes, it is a bone-chilling thought. Nevertheless, we must suppose some sort of supernatural mode of communication in order to explain the otherwise extraordinary extent of coordination between these two apparently separated cultures. But is it really so surprising? Can it really have been a coincidence that the Aztec and the Muslim empires thrived at the same moment in history? Can it be pure chance that they both subsided in power—or, to be more accurate, appeared to subside in power—as the star of Europe was rising? No, all of this is too much to be believed. What is more, can anyone honestly believe the stories of these Spanish conquistadores easily conquering whole empires with a handful of men? It’s preposterous! The whole thing has been planned from the beginning, Chopin, and in the utmost detail. Both cultures agreed to feign a decline and fall, allowing the Europeans to think that they were the dominant force, all the while plotting how to take over and destroy Western culture, while harvesting its fruits for themselves.”

I sort of spaced out halfway through this, since even for Bigote this was a big conspiratorial wad to blow. And in any case I quickly learned that if you just say “Wow!” at appropriate intervals, he is totally satisfied… I guess a lot of married-couple sex works in the same way. This is why I never want to get tied down to one girl. I mean, it’s not like there aren’t some nice, smart, attractive girls in the world. But for a whole life? Give me a break. Like, variety is the spice of life, baby. Same with friends—with family, too, now that I think about it. Got to change things up every now and then or it all gets so stale and boring, amiright? I love hot dogs, but I don’t want to eat nothing but hot dogs forever and for all time. Same thing with everything and everyone else.

I’ll hand it to Bigote, though. He drones on like nobody else, but he still manages to surprise me pretty often. He’s a special dude.

“We’re here!” Pierre says, as he holds the branches of a little bush open, as if parting the curtains. “Isn’t it lovely?”

Bigote and I catch up and peer through the brush. The ‘retreat’ isn’t a whole lot to look at. There are five smallish cabins, made of wood, all arranged around what looks like a fire pit. Some logs are on the ground, for benches I guess, and empty beer bottles and plastic bags and other trash is spread around. Looks a lot like where went to after prom, some dank place called Stone Beach, though this is a lot cleaner. Might be fun.

“Where are all the inhabitants?” Bigote says.

“Oh, they must be off on a meditation walk in the forest. Let’s go find a spot.”

We follow Pierre into one of the cabins. It’s dark inside—no lights, no lamps, and just a little window on the far end. It seems like Pierre’s been here before, since he reaches for a flashlight hanging on the wall. As he illuminates the cabin I see about five or six double-decker bunk beds. A few of them are covered in stuff—old clothes hanging off the railings, backpacks, socks and underwear and things everywhere, with some empty wine bottles and beer cans lying around.

“You guys can stay here,” Pierre says, gesturing to an empty bunk bed.

“We are much obliged,” Bigote says.

“Do you want to be on top or on bottom?” I say to Bigote.

“As a seeker of wisdom I always prefer to have the higher vantage point, from which I can take in my surroundings.”

“Ah, ok…”

“You sound upset, my good assistant.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine. It’s just I usually like the top.”

“An admirable impulse, Chopin, but I am afraid that your subordinate position dooms you to an inferior level of the bed.”

“But are you really the boss if you haven’t paid me yet?”

“Everything in good time, my good assistant. Have no fear, your money will come. Yet we have more pressing matters to attend to than mere fiduciary concerns. For example, my hand requires some medical attention.”

“Allow me,” Pierre says, and comes over and shines his flashlight on Bigote’s outstretched hand. It’s real ugly: His fingers are all bent and crooked and his hand is as red and swollen as a tomato.

“You really messed yourself up, man,” I say.

“Yes, I appear to have done so,” Bigote replies. “It is well that my hand has gone numb, or else the pain would be very intense. I believe I am in shock.”

“If you allow me,” Pierre says, “I can help with this.”

“What, you’re both a doctor and a car thief?” I say.

“I have some practice with both,” Pierre says. “Will you follow me?” He leads us outside and then to another cabin, where Pierre quickly locates a first-aid kit. “Wait here,” he says, goes away, and comes right back holding some little popsicle sticks.

“Let us go outside into the light so I can help you.”

We sit down on some logs that are serving as benches outside a big fire pit, full of black ashes. Pierre gets down to work, using the kindling boards as splints, one for each finger, and then wrapping the whole thing in gauze. It looks like he’s done this kind of thing before, not that I’d really know.

“So,” Bigote says, as Pierre is working. “Tell me about yourself Pierre. What brings a young Frenchman into these parts?”

“Ah, this is a long story, monsieur.”

“I do not think we are pressed for time.”

“Ok, I will tell you, since you very kindly did not kill me before.

“I am from a little town near Bordeaux, out in the countryside. I grew up on a farm along with three sisters. My mother died when we were very young, so we only had our father to take care of us. It was a simple life, a hard life. I had to wake up before dawn every morning to milk the cows. And that was not all. Since I was the only boy, he had me do everything—sowing, planting, harvesting, and all of this agricultural business. For a long time I did this and I was content.”

“The farming life is one of the most honorable and necessary professions,” Bigote says, and then winces as Pierre tightens a bandage.

“It is, for those who are made for it. But my mother was not from a farming family. She taught my eldest sister, Claudine, to read when she was young, and then Claudine taught the rest of us. Father never gave us money for books, never had any to give. But mother had left her little library in a cupboard. Father never touched them, and he told us we should not waste our time, but gradually I grew interested. I would read at night, before bed, though normally I was so tired I fell asleep after five minutes.”

“This is an inspiring story of autodidacticism! Literature can truly open our minds to new worlds!” Bigote was red in the face from pain now.

“You are right. This is what happened. I started reading a book called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and it changed everything. It opened my eyes. I realized that I was living a shallow life of conformity, working for distant capitalist masters, and that I wanted to experience new things, to really live my life for myself.”

“So what did you do?” I say.

“Well, the first thing I did was I tried to find plants I could smoke on our farm. I used my Father’s old wooden pipe and tried many different species. The corn did not work. The bean sprouts could not catch on fire. The hay burned but did nothing. Finally I found a weed growing next to the house that made me see naked women whenever I closed my eyes, and I heard voices of cats and coyotes if I cupped my ears. Naturally I began smoking it very often. But my Father caught me. He said, ‘What are you doing, Pierre, my son? This is bad for your health. Please stop.’ But I told him, no, that I was expanding my consciousness.

“He left me alone for a while after that, hoping I would stop. But I had no intention of stopping. I found another plant that, when you smoke it, you feel 100 feet tall and your mouth tastes like bee stings. I started smoking that, and soon I had given up on all that dreadful farm work. But my Father, he is very narrow-minded, very much of the old world. So he took his pipe when I was passed out in the barn, and hid it from me. I guessed it was him immediately, so when I woke up I went to him, and said, ‘Hey, old man. Give me my pipe. I’m expanding my consciousness.’

“He said, ‘My son. Look at yourself. You are becoming an addict. Why are you doing this? I love you, son, and I want life to be like the old days.’ But I just laughed at this old-fashioned nonsense, and said, ‘Dad, enough of this trash. Give me the pipe.’ But he refused. So I decided to do something really daring, really crazy, really beyond the norm, and I pushed him. I pushed him right down the stairs and he broke his hip. My sisters began screaming, cursing at me. That’s when I knew they were too conventional for me. They took the old man to the hospital, and while they were gone I packed up and left.”

“Woaaah, dude,” I say.

“Well,” Bigote says, hesitating, “I suppose your father could have been a member of the conspiracy…”

“I do not know about that,” Pierre says, “but I have been living on the road ever since, expanding my consciousness beyond all the bounds of convention. That is why I am here.”

I consider whispering to Bigote that we should skedaddle, but just then a tremendous racket pierces through the dusk. We all look over.

Coming through the forest is a parade of people—shrieking, wailing, bawling, laughing, yodeling, and in general making a big racket. There must be around 20-25. Most of them are relatively young. They are all half dressed. Even the women are topless; but I can’t say I’m really interested, partially from the fear, but also because they all have this kind of wild hippie look to them. You know, knotty hair and dirty skin. They aren’t the bathing type is what I mean. At their head is this middle-aged guy with a kind of feather headdress on, blowing a horn.

“Didn’t you say they were meditating?” I say to Pierre.

“Yes, it’s called primitive howling meditation. It’s one of Dr. Krajakat’s patented methods.”

“Hey, is that Pierre?” the headdress man says as he approaches.

“Doctor!”

“Oh, Pierre!” he says, hugging him. He has a thick Russian accent. “I’m so glad you could make it! And who are your friends?”

“Oh, this is Dan, and this is Don Bigote,” he says. “They almost killed me earlier.”

“Splendid!” the doctor says, looking at us.

“We have come to seek your wisdom and to test out this ancient technique of, uh…”

“Ayahuasca, sir.”

“Yes, the ancient technique of ayahuasca, in order to better understand the world we are living in,” Bigote says.

“Well, that is splendid, just splendid! You have come to the right place! In fact, we are just about to begin the ceremony!”

§

It’s night now. Everyone is sitting in a big circles around a bonfire. There’s a big metal cauldron on the fire that the doctor has been fussing with.

I feel bad vibes, I gotta admit. The people give me bad vibes. They are all crazy-eyed and they look like they’re the kinda people who have orgies—and not the fun kind with a bunch of hot women, but like sweaty, grimy orgies with pudgy guys involved. Also, this Doctor Crackerjack guy is always smiling, and not in a nice-to-see-you way, but in a I’ve-done-too-many-drugs way, where there’s like a crazy edge do it, you know? Like a couple more rides on the merry-go-round will send him tumbling into another dimension. Maybe it’s just me, but the vibes are there, man.

I’m sitting on a log next to Bigote, who has been oddly silent and grave. Everyone is pretty silent, really. They’re all just watching this doctor guy with his caldron. It’s like a cult, man. People are so nutty. Drugs exist just to have fun: trip out with your friends, or dance maniacally all night to electronic music. But people turn everything into a creepy religion thing. Maybe ayahuasca isn’t as cool as I thought it would be.

Finally it’s time to start. Tin cups are passed around. Then the Doctor picks up the cauldron (it’s not that big) and starts going around solemnly filling up each person’s cup. Jeez, I hope this isn’t a poison Kool-Aid situation. He pours my cup, then Bigote’s. I look down at it. It’s a murky, greenish, brownish liquid. Actually, it looks pretty familiar… Yes, it looks just like that stuff Bigote gave me on the beach that made me shit my insides out!

I look over at Bigote. He’s smiling. “It’s an ingenious concoction, don’t you think?”

That’s it. There’s no way I’m drinking this.

“Before we begin,” the doctor says gravely, after everyone is served, “I want to address some words to the people who are doing this for the first time.” He looks at us. “This is not like mushrooms or LSD. You are not merely going to hallucinate. You are not going to dream, or have a trip. You are going to be visited by Mother Ayahuasca. Now, I am not going to comment on whether this goddess is real or not, but she undoubtedly exists, and she exists to help us, her children, find peace, find happiness, and find the truth. Do not fight this process. Do not push away Mother Ayahuasca. Let her inside your heart, and she will heal you.”

Then he raises his own cup: “To her!” And everyone downs the drug. Everyone, that is, except me. I quietly poured mine into the pushes behind me.

A few minutes go by in silence. Not much happens. I’m expecting everyone to start gagging and keel over. But no, apparently it’s not cyanide. Then, about five minutes in, that’s when the moaning starts. Everyone starts to like groan and mumble, like how people do when they’re asleep and having a dream. This gets gradually louder until people start making all these weird ape-like hoots and a sort of howling sound. Meanwhile, Bigote hasn’t said a word.

Then suddenly someone stands up and shouts: “I am the king of France and you are all my subjects!”

And another: “I am emperor of all the world and I order you to make me a pyramid!”

A girl this time: “I am a living god and I demand  a sacrifice!”

And then everyone gets up—except Bigote—and starts saying all this stuff. Here’s the gist of it:

“I am a devil’s child! I can breath in the sun and spit out the moon! I can fly up three million miles and back in the blink of an eye, ladies and gentlemen, and I can kick the earth off its orbit with one toe. When I’m hungry I eat asteroids and when I’m thirsty I drink the rings of saturn! Do not look at me with your naked eyes, or you will go blind. My voice is loud enough to melt brains and beautiful enough to melt hearts! My heart is a black hole and my bowels are a cosmic nebula! I am the one responsible for night and day, winter and summer, storm and snow! I rule over the boundless expanse of the universe, dictating what planets will support life, what life will go extinct, and what stars will explode. Destroying civilizations is my hobby! Yes, yes, look at me for I am the great omnipotent force that is the basis of all reality!”

This is a summary of the kind of stuff everyone started to say. I guess they really had killed their egos.

During all this, Bigote still hasn’t said anything. He’s just sitting here, staring out into space, totally silent. I’m starting to get a little worried…

“Sir?” I say. “How are you feeling?”

“I can see it now,” Bigote says, slowly and in a deep voice, like he’s hypnotized. “I can see the secret to everything.”

“The secret to everything? What is it?”

“Everything… is… opposite…” he says, and then falls backwards off the log like a stone—dead asleep.

Review: Marianela

Review: Marianela

Marianela (Los mejores clásicos)Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Benito Peréz Galdós is yet another of those Spanish authors whose wide fame in their own language is equalled by their wide obscurity elsewhere. In Spain his reputation as a novelist is second only to Cervantes; and yet the English translation of this book, one of his most famous, is out of print. This is a shame, since Galdós was a writer of rare gifts, a fountain of stories written in beautiful prose. In many ways he is reminiscent of Lope de Vega: both a critical and popular success, whose celebrity did not get in the way of his output. For like the golden age playwright, Galdós was extremely prolific. Apart from his few dozen—and often lengthy—social-realist novels, he wrote five series of historical novels, forty-six novels in all, covering the 19th century in Spain. Dickens was a slug by comparison.

This book is about Marianela, called La Nela, an orphaned, “deformed” adolescent who lives in the mining country in Cantabria. She is described as having spotty skin, thin hair, a malproportioned face, and most notably an underdeveloped body for her age. She is the “lazarillo,” or guide, to Pablo, a blind young man from a rich family. The two fall in love, and share many passionate sentiments on their walks together. But then the brilliant doctor, Teodoro Celepín, comes to visit Pablo, examines him, cures his blindness, and, well, Marianela’s life gets considerably worse. It is a simple story with a tragic arc.

For me the outstanding quality of Galdós’s writing is his prose. It is elegant but readable, balanced but energetic. Though there were many words scattered about that I did not understand, I never felt lost; to the contrary, I read quickly, avidly, completely sucked into the story in a way that is rare for me with Spanish books. As with many novelists, there are two main registers of Galdós’s writing on display: scene-setting description and dialogue. Galdós excels at both. The conversations between La Nela and Pablo, though sentimental in a way that only enamored teenagers can be, was totally convincing. And his description of the desolate, charred, and barren landscape of the mines is an excellent example of how a scene can contribute to the narrative of a book:

El vapor principió a zumbar en las calderas del gran automóvil, que hacía funcionar a un tiempo los aparatos de los talleres y el aparato de lavado. El agua, que tan principal papel desempeñaba en esta operación, comenzó a correr por las altas cañerías, de donde debía saltar sobre los cilindros. Risotadas de mujeres y ladridos de hombres que venían de tomar la mañana [beber aguardiente] precedieron a la faena; y al fin empezaron a girar las cribas cilíndricas con infernal chillido; el agua corría de una en otra, pulverizándose, y la tierra sucia se atormentaba con vertiginoso voltear, todando y cayendo de rueda en rueda hasta convertirse en fino polvo achocolatado.

And in English:

The steam began to hiss in the boilers of the big car, which operated the workshop equipment and the cleaning machines at the same time. The water, which played such a principal role in this operation, began to run through the high pipes, where it had to jump over the cylinders. The guffaws of women and the barks of men who came to take the morning [drink aguardiente] preceded the task; and at last they begun to turn the cylindrical sieves with a hellish shriek; the water ran from one to the other, spraying and splashing, and the dirty earth was tormented with dizzy turning, rolling and falling from wheel to wheel until it became a fine chocolate powder.

Few authors could provide such a gripping description of an industrial process and also present us with a character as memorable as La Nela. She is self-contained but selfless, self-willed but self-abnegating, intelligent but ignorant, a person who was given nothing and so expects nothing, but whose isolation caused her to form a novel perspective. Her notion of the world is pagan; she sees things in mythical, poetic categories that lead everyone around her to chastise her for being unchristian. Her tragedy, like so many, is the plight of undeveloped potential; in other circumstances, she may have done remarkable things; but being born poor, orphaned, and “ugly” has confined her to being a guide.

I have said all this in praise of Galdós prose, his scene-setting, his characterization, but of course there is more to this story. Thematically, this book is also quite rich—the relation between inner and outer sense, between inner and outer worth, the relation between knowledge and love—but I will not get into that. This book was too enjoyable to belabor it with heady analysis. To conclude, this novel has convinced me that Galdós is a master of the craft. I am eager to devour more of his books.

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