Adventures with Words: Archangel by Gerald Seymour

Already we forget. It’s thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down and the prisoners stumbled from the Gulags, but we are busy forgetting. While the Holocaust has, rightly I suppose, spawned an industry of remembrance, the victims of the Soviet Gulags are disappearing into a historical black hole. It seems no one is interested. Neither in the suffering and deaths in the Gulags, nor the almost miraculous end to it all: a Soviet system that seemed as unyielding as the Wall itself fell all but overnight and with virtually no bloodshed. We can look back at the events leading up to the end of the Soviet block and the finish of the Cold War but its actual denouement seems to cast a pall of unreality over people: it’s as if, seeing a miracle, people cannot bring themselves to look at it, but rather forget.

A large part of that forgetting is the Gulags, the system of forced labour camps that the Soviet Union employed to dispose of dissidents and counter-revolutionaries. While not extermination camps per se, nevertheless estimates suggest that around 1.5 million people died in the Gulags, worked and starved to death, frozen, diseased or simply executed and thrown in ditches. The great chronicler of Soviet cruelty, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, seems to have been removed from literary consideration while the Gulags themselves have been brushed under the carpet of the new Russia.

Archangel was written when the Gulags still ground people through the system, and takes the reader on an uncomfortable trip back into still fairly recent history. Long out of print (I picked my copy up from a second-hand bookshop) it tells a slightly unlikely story of a doomed attempt to overthrow the Gulag system from within. It’s unlikely in that the protagonist is a captured British agent and it seems unlikely that any such revolt would be led by a foreigner, but the story vividly conveys the every day acts of defiance and humanity that allowed the inmates of the Gulags to remember that they were men. As such, Archangel is a great book for this age of forgetting and if you can find a copy I strongly urge you to read it.

Adventures with Words: The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault

“All tragedies deal with fated meetings; how else could there be a play? Fate deals its stroke; sorrow is purged, or turned to rejoicing; there is death, or triumph; there has been a meeting, and a change. No one will ever make a tragedy – and that is as well, for one could not bear it – whose grief is that the principals never met.”

I first read ‘The Mask of Apoll’o when I was in my teens and the book’s last paragraph, and particularly its last sentence, has haunted me ever since. Now, decades later, I reread the story that I might remember what lead up to that last sentence and it is indeed as devastating a story as that final sentence demands. For I read the book because at the time I was also reading the dialogues of Plato and ‘The Mask of Apollo’ tells the story, through the eyes of the actor, Nikeratos, of Plato’s attempt to put his theories of statecraft and the philosopher king into practice by teaching Dionysus, the tyrant (in the ancient Greek sense of a king relatively untrammeled by the restraint of law) of Syracuse in Sicily, the principles and ethics of philosophy, and of Plato’s brilliant pupil, Dion, a Syracusan aristocrat who could have seized the throne for himself.

The decades had rubbed away Renault’s brilliant depiction of the realities, at least so far as we can reimagine them, of Greek theatre, but it had not removed the tragedy that hangs over the story. The first-order tragedy is a man, Dion, by temperament and training perfectly suited to be the philosopher king of Syracuse who turns down the chance precisely because he is a man of pre-eminent virtue and will not usurp a throne that is not, quite, rightfully his. This is coupled with the tragedy of Dionysus II, oscillating between his good and evil selves, with Plato as the physical presence of his decaying conscience.

This is a thorough examination of the workings out of political philosophy in reality and is thoroughly absorbing, highlighting all the best features of historical fiction in its bringing to life of an ancient culture, the events within that culture and the people who lived through those events.

But it is final chapters of the book, after Plato’s death, that bring it to a higher level of tragedy. Nikeratos travels to Macedonia with his theatre company and there meets a young prince in his early teens but already almost god-like in his charisma, a fire seeking fuel for its burning. The young Alexander has a tutor, and no ordinary tutor for his teacher is no other than Aristotle. But the fire in Alexander’s soul is, Renault implies, searching for a different fuel. Alexander burns through the world seeking it, but what he is looking for in the world has already left it, broken at the failure of his attempts to foster a perfect kingdom. Hence the final, gutwrenching, sentence of the book.

Adventures with Words: Felix Unlimited by Andrew Norriss

Quietly, without any fuss, and entirely unnoticed by the literary establishment, Andrew Norriss has become the best writer for children today. Not entirely coincidentally, this also explains in large part why he has become such a great writer. ‘Quietly’ because this is not the sort of writing that draws attention to itself but rather is so skillfully done that the art behind and supporting it disappears entirely. ‘Without any fuss’ because the characters who people Andrew Norriss’s books are exactly the sort of people who do live their lives ‘without any fuss’, not calling attention to themselves but getting on with living in the way that the English were once celebrated for and that still continues, away from the distorting glare of anything to do with the media. Andrew Norriss writes the Drama of the Good, of people who are attempting, each by their own light, to do the best for themselves and their families and friends. It is how most people, away from the corruption of politics or media, generally live and Norriss makes these people the heroes of his stories. The more sceptical reader might ask, where then is the conflict, the tension to provide the petrol for the narrative engine? It is there in life itself, in its pitfalls, straitenings, misadventures and all the limitations and constraints that attend upon being a particular person living in particular circumstances in a particular time and place. To exist at all is to be filtered from limitless possibility and to be inserted into time and place. This is the drama of existence in its purest form, freed from the crabbing effects of the storybook villain with all his fake freedom: it is the story of the conflict with being itself, sometimes in its most recalcitrant forms and sometimes with its most generous face on – and usually in the same Andrew Norriss story!

As for being ‘entirely unnoticed by the literary establishment’, that is a result of the stories having nothing to do with the sort of fashionable tropes and passing political fads that form opinions and tastes among this self-selected and self-satisfied coterie. Most of the literature that supports this establishment is reflective, mirroring back its own attitudes on itself to its own self-aggrandisement – there is nothing better calculated to increase one’s own vanity than to have one’s beliefs fed back in a slightly offset manner. But Andrew Norriss is doing something that Rudyard Kipling did in the 19th century: he is writing about the sorts of people who would normally never feature in proper literature. Kipling wrote of the everyday soldiers of the Empire, he wrote of fishermen on the Grand Banks and engineers on the Indian Railways, of an orphaned Indian boy and a fierce little mongoose, he wrote of men who made things and drove things and did things, very far from the literary salons of the century. Andrew Norriss writes about children who are kind and considerate, and in Felix Unlimited he writes of a boy who wants to run a business. Entrepeneuers, even junior entrepeneurs, are not the sort of people that writers meet very often and even less so do they feature in the academic circles of the literary elite. But when the history of the 21st century comes to be written I strongly suspect that Elon Musk will be written about long after Philip Pullman has been forgotten. Andrew Norriss writes about a boy who likes starting businesses, who keeps trying even when things go wrong, and how they go write. Even the boy’s uncle, a very successful businessman who in any other story would be a conniving capitalist ready to defraud his nephew, in this story proves honourable and helpful. Anyone thinking of starting a business could put aside the start-up manuals, with all their dreadful management speak, and just read this book instead. It’s all there, everything necessary to start and get a business going, within the context of the most delightful story. Felix Unlimited indeed!

Adventures with Words: Nameless by Dean Koontz

First, the necessary warning: Nameless is actually a series of six novellas, each readable in an hour or less, with each having its own title. The stories are episodes but disconnected save in having the same protagonist, the Man Without A Name (oops, someone has used that already, let’s call him ‘Nameless’ instead) who sets out in each story to bring truth and an appropriately sticky ending to a killer, swindler, abuser or similarly appalling villain. Nameless is supported by a mysterious organisation that provides him with his assignments and all the necessary information and material, from guns to accommodation, to carry out his assignments, but Nameless himself cannot remember anything about his past beyond the last two years. The series of six novellas carry hints as to his past until in the final one in this first series, Memories of Tomorrow, Nameless learns something of who he is and who he was and why he is doing what he is doing. I won’t give it away but the answer is somewhat more prosaic than the intriguing metaphysical paradox that lay at the heart of Innocent, another Koontz novel that riffed on this same idea.

By my patented Koontzometer – my reading device for locating Dean’s huge ouput on a scale that ranges from the marvellous to the dreadful – I put this Nameless series as a solid to good read: each novella pulls you in and pulls you through to the end and they make excellent bedtime reading: just long enough to keep you up past your normal bedtime but not too long to make you into a shuffling zombie the next day. However, I am not sure that I will bother with Nameless series 2 where top-drawer Koontz would have me reading the next series already. I think, when I next want some quick reads, then that will be the time.

Adventures with Words: H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O’Brian

It’s just so funny! Yes, O’Brian writes like a dream, appears to have a direct line into the minds and hearts of early 19th century men and women, and recreates the language of the time with extraordinary accuracy while writing a story full of adventure, tension, romance and intrigue but what really stood out for me on this re-reading was how funny it was. The scene where Steven Maturin realises that Jack has been giving rum to the sloth that he has brought on board the ship is wonderful! ‘Jack, you have debauched my sloth.’

Adventures with Words: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

It’s not obvious from my name, but half of my ancestry is from the Indian subcontinent. My father is Sri Lankan – Tamil on his father’s side and Sinhala on his mother’s – and while Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then, is not India, there is a wide thread of common culture and attitudes uniting everyone from the subcontinent whatever their religion – and there are a lot of religions there. You might ask how I ended up with a surname like ‘Albert’ with such ancestry? The answer lies, in part, in the pages of this book: British imperialism and its impact upon the other peoples of the subcontinent, the lack of an answer derives from the prejudices of the people too. For the short answer is that my father does not really know. He was born in 1923 – and is still walking miles at 98! – but all he can tell me is that at some point before he was born, possibly his grandfather, took a British name, either from his employer or in honour of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. The reason my father can’t tell me any more is that his parents’ marriage was a love match, made in the teeth of parental disapproval, since his father was Tamil (and Catholic) and his mother was Sinhala and quite a high-caste Buddhist (yes, I know that strictly speaking there should be no caste system among Sinhalese Buddhists but there is). His own grandparents disowned their children and the products of that marriage so that he only ever met his grandparents – on either side – once. That also meant he was cut off from much family history, and even more when his mother died when he was still quite young. There’s nothing equivalent to parish records in Sri Lanka, so on that side my family history cuts off with my father.

But I was brought up partly in and partly observing the culture of the subcontinent, and I recognise it. Which was why, when as a child I first started reading Rudyard Kipling’s stories, I recognised much that I knew. For this white, British imperialist was a better observer of, and more sympathetic to, the culture of the subcontinent than any other writer I knew at the time. Returning to his stories now, as a grown up, if anything I think he understood it, and portrayed it, even better than I thought when I first read them. Kim is a journey, on and around the Great Trunk Road, where the journey is really the point of the story, the journey and the people, all the chattering, laughing, thinking, talking people that make up the true richness of India. Kim is the story of a continent and the mark it left upon a young imperialist: India created Kipling and he was an honest enough writer to understand that. Kim is his thank you letter to India. It remains, to this day, possible the best novel about India ever written.

Adventures with Words: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I’m old enough to remember how, back in the 1980s, it seemed like the horror genre was going to take over the world. Stephen King, of course, had started it: Carrie came out in 1974, Salem’s Lot in ’75, The Shining in ’77 and The Stand in ’78. Jumping on the bandwagon, a whole host of writers and publishers began churning out horror books through the following decade – and I was a big fan of them, picking lurid covers off the shelves at bookshops.

And then, it died. Not for Stephen King, of course, but for the rest. The blood-stained tracks became too trampled, the public lost interest, the publishers stopped publishing. The 1990s saw lots of articles written, asking variations on the question, who killed off the horror genre.

Now, having read The Turn of the Screw, I can answer the question. We did. We writers, we killed it off. Drove a stake through its heart, chopped its head off, pulled out its entrails and painted its drained blood upon the walls.

And that’s how we did it too: by piling up bodies, horror on horror, and forgetting that, for horror to work, there has to be something worse than death and the pain of dying; something much worse.

This is what makes The Turn of the Screw, and the other Victorian ghost stories, so effective: because these writers believed – or at least belonged to a culture that believed – that there are things worse than death. That a soul can be lost and, in its loss, something infinitely more precious than the mere pumping of blood and inflating of lungs is lost too.

After all, the problem with death, when that’s all there is, is that death ends everything. It’s the black curtain, the exit, the end, the close to suffering and the final release. Writing in a culture where death is the great, the sole, evil, robs horror of, well, its horror. Take away dread, the unspoken, wordless, formless dread of things and fates beyond and above and below death, and horror is reduced to variations on torture porn: how much can we make the protagonist suffer before his end? There is no horror in this, only the workings out of a monkey curiosity, drained of empathy.

So, for horror to work, then there must, indeed, be fates worse than death. It is the knowledge that this is true that makes The Turn of the Screw – despite Henry James’s rather curious prose style, so much more laboured and laborious than his brother, William James’s – into such a haunting book. And, reading it, tells us how flattened we have allowed our imaginative world to become.

Adventures with Words: Cloud Castles by Michael Scott Rohan

The final story in Michael Scott Rohan’s Spiral trilogy. The Spiral is the presence of the past – and the future – and the imagination in the present, touching the world at places of passage such as ports where, sometimes, it’s possible to turn down a road or enter through a door and walk into not a different world but the extensions of our world that have existed, that will exist or that might have existed and that did in the imaginings of someone. Cloud Castles avoids some of the problems of The Gates of Noon and marks a return to Rohan’s previous high standard. Steven Fisher, the hero of the two previous books, is finally beginning to change – it was getting difficult to imagine a man might have had the adventures in the Spiral that Steven did in the first two books without changing a jot – and the slightly forced far Eastern location of the previous book is abandoned for much more believable European locations. All in all a satisfying ending to the story.

Adventures in Books: The Cursed Fortress by Chris Durbin

Sometimes, as a reader, you want to know exactly what you are going to get when you invest the time – a good four to eight hours of your life – into a book. Chris Durbin’s Holbrooke and Carlisle naval adventures, set during the Seven Years’ War, do exactly that: they provide solid, clear, well-crafted stories of derring-do backed up by the author’s own extensive nautical knowledge (he served in the Navy himself for many years). Now into his fifth novel, Durbin’s writing has achieved a wonderful clarity, like clear water, while creating characters that are almost as clear and wholesome as his writing. For some, this might seem like an indictment but for me, and I suspect many other readers, it is a welcome relief. Thank you, Mr Durbin. May Holbrooke and Carlisle sail on to further horizons.

Adventures in Bookland: Caves of Ice by Sandy Mitchell

Caiaphas Cain, reluctant hero of the Imperium, is back and this time he’s got a planet full of Orks and Necrons to deal with – and he’s not happy about it. One of the joys of this series are the footnotes provided to Cain’s unreliable and unpublished (within its 40k milieu) memoirs by Inquisitor Amberley Vail, a frequent associate and sparring partner for Cain and one of the stronger female characters within 40k. It’s a trope borrowed from the Flashman books, where Macdonald Fraser posed as the editor of the long-lost papers of Harry Flashman, but Mitchell takes the idea further by having Vail be a protagonist within some of the stories as well as a sardonic commentator, via a series of footnotes, to Cain’s adventures as well. It’s a great ploy that plays with all sorts of ideas of metafiction and helps put the Caiaphas Cain books into a different category from almost all other 40k fiction.