sâmbătă, 9 decembrie 2017

Edge of Empire

S.J.A. Turney - Praetorian III: Eagles of Dacia, Mulcahy Books, 2017

There are two main reasons this book is special to me: it is the first time Simon writes about Dacia (and it's my first contemporary read about Dacia written by a non-Romanian) and I get a mention in the book dedications. While a huge honour and an unexpected surprise, I also believe this to be rather undeserved, though I shall accept it nonetheless.

After a quick rise through the ranks in the first book of the series and just as quick a fall from grace in the second, Gnaeus Rustius Rufinus is sent to Dacia in something that is halfway between a mission (to check the loyalty of the governors) and an exile (Cleander, the imperial chamberlain wanting to send him as far away as possible from Rome). It is this journey that is covered in the book, plus a whole bunch of trouble that Rufinus has a real talent for getting himself into.

Rufinus is accompanied by Senova, the freed slave girl he meets and falls in love with in the first book, and Acheron - the dog he acquires from the dead Sarmatian guard Dis, also in the first book. On the way they'll acquire a slave boy, Luca, putting the numbers of the travelling party up to 4 (5 if we consider Atalanta the mare). The journey starts immediately outside Dacia, in the province of Moesia, and so does the intrigue. An adventure full of twists and bumps follows, taking our heroes at the Northernmost reaches of the empire, followed by a journey down through barbarian lands and an unexpected end point. It's hard to speak too much about the plot without giving away the pleasure of discovering it, as Simon does a fine job of always adding unexpected turns. Therefore, even this is a book centered around a journey, there's plenty of adventure to be had on the way, peppered with the usual sieges, battles and fights.

I suppose one way of looking at the Praetorian series is that adventure is the substance being molded into the various shapes of each book: political intrigue in the first, addiction and fall from grace in the second, travelling and discovery of exotic lands in this third. And all of this is backed by Simon's excellent documentation and research, recreating the atmosphere of late 2nd century Rome in fine detail. This recreation of the atmosphere includes gems like 'They had acquired four local guards with unpronounceable names, only a dozen teeth between them and less command of Latin than your average pomegranate.' or 'A good punishment detail will change arms with each stroke so that the blows cross and do more harm.' They don't teach this kind of stuff in religious studies.

While all the story-lines in the Praetorian series are works of fiction, they are based around important historical events, and although we do not know of the historical existence of any Praetorian soldier called Rufinus, the historical characters in the books are captured not only accurately, but by giving them a real voice it becomes very easy to understand their thoughts and motivations. After we've met Marcus Aurelius and Commodus in the first book, Pertinax and Septimius Severus in the second, in Praetorian III we get introduced to two other Roman emperors, namely Clodius Albinus and Pescennius Niger, bringing the gallery of emperors in the Praetorian series up to an impressive six so far (although 3 of them will have a very short lived reign). But while the list of Roman Emperors reads Commodus (177-192) - Pertinax (193) - Didius Julianus (193) - Pescennius Niger (193) - Clodius Albinus (193) - Sepimius Severus (193-211), having them as characters in a book gives a better understanding of how the wheels of the 'great game' spin.

There are three elements that I particularly appreciate about Praetorian III, though I will only mention each of them without too much details, with a view to the same care I mentioned earlier, not to spoil the book for people who might read this review first:
 - the mirror journey: over the course of two weeks in April 2017 Simon took a trip largely along the route he will send Rufinus on, later in the year. There is a bonus feature in the book that makes the reader part of both adventures;
 - the gold mines plot: contemporary sources give the gold of the Western Carpathians as one of the main reasons for Trajan's invasion of Dacia. Impressive quantities of gold are mentioned in relation to Trajan's plundering of the province, but more impressive still is the fact that 19 centuries later Gabriel Resources spent an alleged $17 million in bribes for the rights to keep mining gold from a region where gold has been mined since Roman times. It is therefore right that the gold mines at Alburnus Maior feature heavily in the plot of Praetorian III and Simon has found a way to do this that is entirely believable.
 - the end twist: I will not say much about it, obviously, just that I am rather excited about Rufinus' new patron and I am therefore looking forward to Praetorian IV. Late 2018, I hear.

duminică, 29 octombrie 2017

American burlesque

Liz Goldwyn - Pretty Things (The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens), Regan, 2006

This is an excellent resource for anyone with an interest in burlesque as an art form, though unfortunately it falls short of being a great book in itself as the author hesitates between publishing a coffee table book, a costume note archive or a history of the movement.

I'm not a big fan or consumer of coffee table books, but I can understand their purpose. Pretty Things checks all the boxes of the definition of one such book, though it is larger in scope, aiming to document an entire cultural sub-genre. In the process of documenting the book, Liz Goldwyn stumbled upon a real treasure: Rex Huntington's books, notes and ledgers. Rex Huntington was one of the most prominent costume designers of the burlesque era, so his archive documents a lot of the burlesque dancers' measurements and designs. Therefore, for any burlesque scholar, this is an invaluable resource and publishing it in its entirety would have been an excellent idea, even if the appeal would have been a lot narrower. As it is, there are a lot more of Rex Huntington's notes being left out than there are included, which can be frustrating for the meticulous researcher.

Same goes for documenting the stories of burlesque dancers: due to editorial space limitations only a small number of pictures are included and the approach towards individual stories of the dancers is journalistic in style, too shallow and too brief to do them justice. 

This is still a great book and a must-read for anyone with a degree of involvement in the art, but IMHO it fails to engross the wider public. 

The book is divided in two sections, the first one documenting the craft of what was generally called burlesque in early 20th century America (with chapters dedicated to costumes, staging, dance, gimmicks, backstage life and a generic profiling of the burlesque dancer), whilst the second part is dedicated to individual stories (Betty & Dian Rowland, June St. Clair, Lois de Fee and Zorita).

To me, the second part is a lot more interesting, and the piecing together of the lives of these ladies from the elite of the craft provides a real insight into burlesque as it was 100 or so years ago. Each of their stories is interesting, each of them makes me want to know more about them. Would Miss Goldwyn venture to write full biographies for these ladies I wonder?


'What is there to like? Hairy chests? A limp joint? You like them because they're customers, because they admire you, because they applaud, because they spend their money to see you.'
In the early 1950s, Zorita had a child with her second husband, Pete Petillo ('the wop'). The marriage didn't last long, as Zorita wanted to get back to work. She took her daughter to the theater with her, adjusting her routine to include a new baby.

Zorita spoke of her career in burlesque with pride but was not particularly nostalgic for days long past. She kept many scrapbooks on the shelf and told me that until I asked her to pull them out, she hadn't looked at them in years. She said 'Wouldn't you hate to live with somebody that was so hung up on oneself that they were busy looking at scrapbooks all day long and telling you what a great act they were? I know I was good.'

marți, 24 octombrie 2017

Overcoming grief

Rio Ferdinand (with Decca Aitkenhead) - Thinking Out Loud, Hodder & Stoughton, 2017

Repeatedly, during the reading of the book and whilst attending its launch, I took the opportunity to mentally apologize to Rio for all the times I have judged him before understanding him. Luckily enough, he's been a good enough footballer that I have next to nothing to reproach him. Sure, there will always be THAT loss against Portsmouth in 2008, when we missed the chance of a second treble, but singling Rio out for it is too harsh to be accurate. No, no, I've never had an issue with Rio on a football pitch, the defender with the best placement I've ever seen, in the league with Maldini or Baresi.

The issues I've had with Rio, historically, are related to his apparent craving for media attention, the work put in developing the Rio Ferdinand brand sometimes seemingly being prioritized over the work of being the best possible Manchester United team player. It is the lot of the football fan, though, is it not? To hold his heroes to standards impossible to live up to. Once Rio left United for QPR, all of the silly grudges have gone. I've wanted the best for him and I really wanted him to do well at QPR, being very surprised when he didn't. Then one autumn day two years ago, while checking the BBC website for results I saw the news of his wife passing. It sent shock-waves down my spine and through the football world throughout. How can one protect oneself from such a tragedy? Why have I been so quick to judge his form without having any background?

Well, few can cope as well as Rio has. And this book tells the story of how he's done it. I have to admit, even when hearing about the documentary, then the book, I was suspicious. Is this banking on a tragedy? I know now that he's not that man. On the contrary. The documentary (which I am yet to see), the book and the talks Rio is currently doing in various locations are an altruistic enterprise. They're meant to share his experiences, his coping with tragedy, and in doing so, the hope is he'll help people who have or will experience similar traumatic experiences.

This is a football biography unlike any other football biography: the sport only stays in the background and despite the insights into Rio's footballing life, the book centers on his family life. Meeting Rebecca - his future wife, their years together, the tough time of acting as a single parent while his wife was being treated for cancer and finally, his struggle to keep going and having to fulfill, this time for good, the roles of both mum and dad for his three kids.

Sure, due to his footballing talents Rio has had, since his mid-teens, a privileged life, and he doesn't shy away from it. But looking too much at the story from this angle doesn't do justice to anyone, least so to Rio. Tragedy is tragedy, and no amount of wealth or social privilege can protect you from it.

Not having experienced a loss as big as Rio's, I don't know how it feels. But I know that if, God forbid, I would suffer such a loss, I'd like to have a book like this close. And I feel it is a great instrument and has the potential to help a lot of people that go through similar experiences.

I cried a number of times while reading it, and there's also a lot of cute moments in the book, specially when he talks about the relationship with his kids.

Writing this book has been an enormous act of courage for Rio and shows both his strength of characters and his generosity. It is a great read, and I now think of it as a very peculiar cross between biography, self-help book and great literature.

Having experienced the death of his mother less than two years after his wife's was soul-crushing even for me when hearing the news. I can only imagine how poor Rio must've felt. All the more admirable that he chose to go through with his projects, all the more admirable to see him weekly in Sky's pundit chair. Even with this review, I feel I've been too harsh with a very admirable man and a great footballer. I'll end with a little story that is, I think, illustrative for Rio's character:

Earlier this month, when attending the launch of the book, we were told that a book is included in the price of the ticket, but there will be no signings, autograph sessions or photo-ops. And it was indeed an unfitting atmosphere for a meet-up between a footballer and his fans: most people in the audience were either recently bereaved or healthcare professionals, Rio's family and close friends were there and yes, there were a few Manchester United jerseys in the room, but they were in no way a focus. At the end, however, ignoring the organizer's advice and venue security's orders, Rio stayed and signed all the books that he was requested to, took all the pictures with everyone who asked him to and was generally an all-round gracious host.

I now feel sorry for ever being judgmental about Rio. Whenever I see him nowadays, whether on TV or in a picture, I just want to give him a big hug.

luni, 21 august 2017

Edinburgh Fringe 2017

Reuben Kaye
I fully realise it's late in the game and most performers are already drawing lines and doing sum-ups of their EdFringe2017 run, so this listing of the shows I've seen this year might not mean much. I am, however, doing it, partly to relive what have been a very fun 3 days, partly to give a plug (such as it is) to all the shows.

I am going to speak about the shows I did not particularly like as well, in the hope that any publicity is good publicity, and also being fully aware that the reception of a show is entirely subjective and even if one particular audience member did not enjoy one particular performance, this is by no means a reflection on the quality of a show. Maybe the respective audience member would enjoy a different performance, or maybe it's just not part of the right audience of the show.

The Omnitorium's Rotating Roster of Erudite Amusements and Motley Delights - *** this is a variety show hosted by Dan Lees and Neil Frost of The Establishment, a comedy group I have seen on a few previous occasion and I always found funny, even though in front of a rarefied audience of a very rainy Monday evening they had moments where they didn't seem to bother all that much. It was, nevertheless an enjoyable show with a decent line-up of acts, two of which really stood out. One is Michael Brunstrom's Parsley, an absurdist comedy about the homonym vegetable. Judging by the 10 minute spot he did, the full show is much funnier than it sounds. The second was Christel Bartelse, a Canadian mask performer whose spot was interesting enough to make me want to know more, though I think it was also quite different to the full show she has on.

The Red Emerald: A Farce for the Colourblind - ** Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with this farcical comedy from a debut company. The script is crafted well enough and the play has a lot of funny moments, but the lack of experience shows through all the cracks in the production. My main objection is the fact that on the whole, the production does not bring anything new, does not contribute to the theatrical craft. It felt a lot like a graduation showcase and, whilst I'm sure there's an audience for light entertainment plays in the traditional vein, I much prefer a script that is trying to bring something new, to challenge an established assumption or norm, such as...

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot - **** Although not a perfect script, the premises of this play strikes a chord with me and I greatly enjoyed Parallax Theatre's production. Very effective set design and some very well written and acted parts (I particularly enjoyed Satan and Fabiana). I have some objections to some of the directorial choices and I would've reworked the lighting quite substantially, but this is nevertheless a powerful piece of theatre and I want to take an in-depth look at the script soon.

Radu Isac: One Romanian Answering Questions - * First stand-up I witnessed and the only piece that was part of the Free Fringe. I was quite excited by the prospect of Romania being represented in the comedy scene of the festival, but unfortunately Radu's show disappointed me. The lazy writing and poor delivery are not redeemed by the odd funny line, whilst the irresponsible approach to some of the motifs treated (immigration, unemployment, environment) made me want to leave the room sooner than I did. Which was before the end of the show anyway.

Sage Francis and B Dolan Present: Tricknology - *** The crazy, dynamic, loud 'mish mash of nonsense' that Sage Francis and B Dolan brought to Edinburgh left me baffled. I KINDA get it, but at the same time I'm not really sure there is much to get. This is absurdist comedy delivered at the pace of high intensity hip-hop battles with a clear protest message, though without a clear aim. I suppose there is a lot more in this show for the hip-hop fans than it was for me. Also, the fact I got in expecting to see a typical hip-hop concert didn't do much for my understanding of the piece.

My Leonard Cohen - *** Stewart D'Arietta is undoubtedly a big Leonard Cohen fan. But his re-orchestrated songs sound more like a cross between Tom Waits and Emir Kusturica with Leonard Cohen lyrics. A good night out, for sure, but the more purists of LC's fans will find plenty to protest in D'Arietta's music. I didn't manage to see the other LC tribute, I am curious how they compare mythologies.

Reuben Kaye - ***** Sure, I can be accused of bias, as I've been working with Reuben for two years. But come on! When the 5 stars reviews are pouring in from every direction, when the whole festival is buzzing with word of how great Reuben's show is and when he is in contention for a number of awards after collecting a few in Australia and London already, you know he must be doing something right. Reuben is a cabaret genius, a great voice and an overflowing fountain of creativity. Not a foot is set wrong in this show, not a breath is out of place. Seamless interaction with the audience, funny beyond compere and subversive by merely existing, this show is one of a kind. If you're only going to see two shows at this year's fringe, go see Reuben twice.

Kaitlyn Rogers: Can I Get an Amen?! - *** self-crowned queen of sass, Kaitlyn Rogers is an Australian glittery clown-comedian with a love of Whoopi Goldberg wisdom and Destiny's Child empowerment. Excellent show and a funny night, made mostly by Kaitlyn's bubbly personality. I do object to the written material, which is rather sketchy, but I put this down to the lack of experience. Once she'll polish and improve the writing, we'll have a hell of a show on our hands.

Lilith: The Jungle Girl - **** Lilith was one of the most visible shows at the fringe and undoubtedly one of the strongest productions. I loved the unashamed gender bending visible in both script and casting (the assistant, played by a woman, is in love with the professor, played by a woman, who is in love with the jungle girl, played by a man). There is a strong message in this script and some very bold morality. What can I do, I'm a sucker for a good questioning of established facts ('What is nationality if not just a collection of empty symbols and conventions?')

EntryNOEntry - *** I was well impressed with the overall look of the Sri Lankan pavilion that the Colombo Art Biennale set up at the ground floor of Summerhall. And I enjoyed the weirdness of Venuri Perera's one-on-one performance art piece, specially as it's the first of this kind I ever experienced. I'm withholding the fourth star solely because while the debate on the meanings and merits of citizenship Venuri puts forward is more than necessary, she is too quick and too categorical in assuming a position and thus it doesn't leave a lot of space for dialogue.

When We Ran - ** Unnecessarily complicated and a strong feeling of wasted potential is my harsh and off-hand verdict on this show. A promising script but a lot of very wrong directorial and design choices. I'm hoping the company will enjoy box-office success, as they seem to have invested quite a bit in what attempts to be a high end production, but I also think sometimes a play is better served by embracing the scarcity of means that characterizes the theatrical art form. I have heard good things about Patch of Blue Theatre and I want to see more of their work, but I'm hoping it will be better than this.

Brutal Cessation - **** By contrast to the above, Brutal Cessation achieves more than it sets out to. I am a fan of Beth Pitts' previous work and directorial style and this play holds up to her standards. There are multiple layers to the script and I was still discovering them a couple of days after watching the play. I loved the fast pace, the precision of the delivery and the efficiency of the relatively minimalistic but very smart set design. If there is fairness in the world, then I think Beth Pitts is destined for big things and I count myself lucky to have worked with her.

Carla Lippis – Cast a Dark Shadow - **** I was hesitant before seeing this as people whose opinion I respect propped Carla so high up that they've rather dis-serviced the show. Luckily enough, the praise holds water. Carla has a great voice and she is backed by two great musicians, one of which (Vicky Falconer) surprised me with the multi-faceted nature of her musical talents. I do protest to the dark nature of the songs and I think this would be better received if it were a late night slot rather than a 6pm. But I clearly understand how this choice can be quite a luxury at the fringe.

Gillian Cosgriff: To the Moon and Back - **** Gillian was part of my endeavour to see more female comedy, after a quick look through the festival programme left me appalled at the large number of white male comedians and the under-representation of women in comedy. Gillian is a cool Aussie chick who does comedy songs, something that I have seen before on the cabaret circuit, but not so much in stand-up. There is some solid, thoroughly researched and well written material in there, specifically in the first half. Some points are scored on costumes as well, though there is a clear dip in the second half of the show, once the talk about marriage begins. I suspect this has to do with the topic being too personal and the fear that the jokes might strike too close to home. Write what you know, but not what you care about?

Wild Bore - ***** As the Australian third of this show would say, YASSS! This is it! For anyone who's looking for a change in theatrical paradigm, look no further! This show is not subversive, it's the glorious revolution marching vigorously on the capital of established canon. Wild Bore enlarges the participatory nature of the theatrical act to include not only the audience, but also the critics, publicists and front of house staff. And it's mostly the critics that will be uncomfortable with this 180 degrees turning of the lamps, that's why most of them didn't seem to know how to respond to it. But this is not as much a fight back as it is an open hand, an invitation to dialogue that can take place both on and off the stage. And although very much included in the conversation, the almost to capacity audience in Traverse Theatre's main auditorium did not look uncomfortable at all, on the contrary. Saying too much about it spoils the fun, so I'm not going to talk about the apparent reasons behind the dramaturgical intentions of the show, but rather invite everyone to see it. I'm looking forward for it to come to London in October, when I suspect I will attend more than once.

Late'n'Live - * My presence to the Late'n'Live is the victory of stubbornness over wisdom. There might be a context when Late'n'Live is fun (in a large group, drunk and without much to worry for the next day), but when I saw it, in the Wednesday of the third week, it was a good reflection of everything that's boring about the festival: 5 comedians, all male, all white and all past the point of even trying to be funny, preoccupied - above all - of dragging as much as possible to fill up the allocated slot. I will not bother to remember any of their names, though I will say the only one who had a whiff of funny about him was the big gay dude from Glasgow talking about his HIV-positive diagnostic. Too bad he was the most heckled, too. It would appear shows do tend to attract the audiences they deserve. For the three hours I spent there I feel deserving of a medal, although quite what compelled me to stay that long I couldn't say. The vain attempt to get at least part of my ticket money's worth back, perhaps?

There we are, this was my EdFringe2017 and I was hesitant in making all of this public as the last thing I want is to upset any of my friends who might find themselves mentioned above. But being the eternal optimist that I am, I'm counting on their intelligence being stronger than their ego.

Other quick points from the festival:
 - too much Trump. Way too much. The less talked about, the smaller he becomes. Let ignoring be a form of resistance;
- much of the same goes for Brexit, though I don't deny satire can play a part in the resistance. Good satire though, the kind of which coat-tailing very rarely is;
- open the festival magazine anywhere in the comedy section and you'll see a bunch of white dudes with the odd woman thrown in. Women are funny, funnier than men more often than not. Also, there is no direct connection between genitalia and the sense of humour. But most of the dudes don't even seem to be trying. Audiences too forgiving maybe?
- I've seen a lot of good stuff, not sure if that's to do with the overall quality or my ability to choose.
- delighted to see cabaret having such a strong presence. Not sure if it's always been like that or if I see it more now.

All in all, Edinburgh Fringe is great. Looking forward to next year!

duminică, 9 iulie 2017

X out of X

S.J.A. Turney - Marius' Mules X: Fields of Mars, Victrix Books, 2016

 Reviewing the tenth book in a series is really just for people who are already familiar with the series to some degree. If you're not familiar with Simon's Marius' Mules (the Falerii saga) I shall refer you to the first book. But be prepared for a binge read of 10+1 volumes, to which Simon says will add another five books. I don't personally agree with his idea of sticking religiously to the timeline of Caesar's diaries as some years of the Gallic wars are rather uneventful, whereas the year of the Arveni revolt could easily fill two or three volumes. Nor am I too happy about the prospect of the series ending with Caesar's assassination (oh, yeah, spoiler, Caesar dies in 44 BC). Because regardless of how it might've started out, this is not the story of Julius Caesar, but of Marcus Falerius Fronto and maybe, just maybe, the saga of the Falerii, depending on how much convincing Simon will need in a few years' time, once he has ran past the events on the Ides of March. What will Fronto do during the battle of Philippi for instance, a real war of brothers, where friends of his will be pitted against each other? What about Actium? Will he manage to be neutral in the battle that marks the de facto end of the Republic? I guess we shall have to wait and see.

In the meanwhile, Fields of Mars is Simon's treatment of 49 BC, the first year of the Civil War that will see the end of the First Triumvirate. It is the year of the Rubicon crossing (along with the famous 'Alea jacta est') and the year by whose end Caesar will secure the loyalty of Italia and Hispania, thus controlling what will later be known as the Western Roman Empire and setting up the decisive clash with Pompey in Greece. 

Unlike the Gallic wars, this is a civil war and will therefore involve as much diplomacy as it will need fighting. Simon, who clearly enjoys writing the latter more, is bemoaning the fact, although I think he does a pretty fine job writing negotiations and politics and it keeps an alert pace throughout the book, even though yes, the maneuvering takes more pages than the actual fighting.

I remember reading Caesar's diaries and being impressed with the siege works built for the taking of Massilia. All of it is well fleshed by Simon, though only after he decides to take Fronto on a tour of Hispania through which his sword gets bloodied a lot less than we're used to.

But there's two major achievements here that make the volume stand out within the series: 

1. The Naval Battle of Massilia. It is, as far as I remember, the biggest naval conflagration Fronto has come across so far and Simon proves he is just as ease writing naval strategy as he is writing field battles or sieges. There's some really spectacular pages there, once again the entertainment factor being doubled by a great history and military history lesson, just as Simon's extremely exhaustive knowledge of the period - in full display here - is double by a very gifted pen.

2. Salvius Cursor. This is a fictional character, and a new addition to the impressive panoply of figures and archetypes of the era. Because Fronto needs an antagonist while Caesar is too edgy and there's not enough fighting to pick someone from the opposing side, it is the legatus' second in command that serves as opposing pole to our man from Puteoli here. I don't want to give too much away, but just like with Cavarinos in The Great Revolt, Simon achieves an impressive feat in creating a character that walks many miles in the grey area between positive and negative without ever really touching its black and white borders. Applying modern military norms, I'm tempted to say Salvius' insubordination would have brought him a much swifter exit either via a metallic tip or via stripping of any sort of military capacity, which tends to happen once a direct order is disobeyed. For the sake of a good read, however, I am tempted to grant this suspension of belief, if only to satisfy my curiosity as to where this feisty tribune will eventually end up.

Another cute addition - and it'd be really funny if this were in any way true - is the Gallic Defense Fund, chests of treasure that allegedly were meant to secure Rome against a further Gallic invasion. Along with other artefacts such as 'legion eagles from the time of the war against Carthage', this has gathered dust in the cellars of the Temple to Saturn ever since the time of Brennus and all the way up to it being plundered by Fronto. Come on, is our legate not at the very center of history?

And I shall end my review with a few nuggets of Julian wisdom, via the Turney spectacles:

'Unprepared men lose wars, Fronto' - Caesar acknowledging the de facto state of war.

'I do not like to leave things to chance if I have the option to prepare.' - this reminded me of a favourite Arab saying of mine: 'Put your faith in Allah, but make sure you tied your camel.'

'I have no wish to come between a man and his conscience' - Caesar letting go of Labienus. Titus Labienus' appearance in Caesar's diaries during Civil Wars is so brief that the rift must've been painful. very curious how Simon will handle it.

'First we deal with an army without a general. Then we can deal with the general without an army.' - another reminder of another quote I enjoy, this time by Alexander, allegedly ahead of the battle of Gaugamela: 'I do not fear an army of lions led by a sheep. I fear an army of sheep led by a lion.'

So there. If you haven't read MM so far, go back to book 1, you've got some ground to make up. If you're up to date, join the crowd in awaiting for Marius' Mules XI. Coming 2018, 2066 years after the fact.

duminică, 4 iunie 2017

London Bridge Attack

Here's my 2 cents on the London Bridge attack, 14 hours later:

I work a lot around the London Bridge area, I cross Borough Market at least once a week. This attack is outrageous and even the thought of carrying out something like this immediately devalues you from the position of a human being.

7 innocent people have died for nothing and over 50 have been affected. This is incredibly sad and completely unnecessary.

Unfortunately nothing can be done now to reverse the devastating effects of this mindless act of violence, so here's my look at the aftermath:

1. Absolutely fabulous job, once again, by the Police, paramedics and intervention services. The perpetrators were killed within eight minutes of the first emergency call. The police have secured the very busy areas and all pubs, bars and clubs immediately. The area was cordoned off and police appeared on the streets instantly all the way to at least Piccadilly Circus where I was at the moment of the attack. Not only that, but the whilst the police made themselves very visible, they tried to minimize their impact on the daily bustle of the city. They have mostly succeeded. I don't know and don't really want to talk about the politics of funding intervention services, but I'm hoping they get all the resources they need. They seem to be making good use of them.

2. The mood in the night club I was in immediately soured, understandably so. The overall mood in the city soured immediately. Myself, along with a lot of other people, had to take a detour on the way home. Many more people's journeys will be affected today. But, aside from the grief that the victims' families are feeling, this is it. This is the only effect this mindless act had. Ruining a city's mood for half an evening. Terrorism (defined as control of other peoples' acts, thoughts or feelings) has 0 chances of success. Nothing will change in the life of the city. Whatever random act of violence one might conceive, it will not change anything. The people committing these acts are, first and foremost, stupid.

3. There was an immediate jump to associating the act with Islam in a lot of the reactions to the attack, before any details about the perpetrators were known in the media. This is also stupid and does nothing but fertilize the ground for similar acts in the future. UKIP and its mass of voters, the British tabloid media and whoever else lets their prejudices speak for them (and boy, there's a lot of that) are helping and encouraging the people who committed this attack, the previous ones and the future ones. Among the people helping the terrorists are the current UK Prime Minister and the current President of the United States.

4. The perpetrators of last night's attack are NOT Muslims, regardless of the religion they were born in. As of this moment nothing is known in the media about the identities of the three perpetrators. I will speculate that all three of them were British citizens born in Britain. No normal human being can conceive such an act, and even less so a devout of a religion that has peace and obedience as its main message, during a holy period for the respective religion. At the time of the attack, devout Muslims were thinking about Iftar and about waking up early for the morning prayer. Whoever associates Islam with, or equals it to, the terrorist act last night is part of the aforementioned large mass of willing supporters of future similar acts.

5. In trying to understand what pushes someone to commit such an act, best I could come up with is a very unfortunate mix of cultural, social and economic marginalization layered over a degree of poverty and lack of sense and purpose in society and, to spark it all off, the domestic attitude of daring and not caring, made in Britain. I will speculate again that these people were low income individuals with no jobs or low skilled jobs, low educated and with little access to education, probably part of dysfunctional families. Subjected to a stream of more or less overt discrimination and abuse over a period of time. Once you're in that situation you've got the motives. The opportunity comes at a particular bad time in someone's life. Potentially a family fight, being fired from a job or rejected from one. And the means used were the crudest ones. And BANG! that's your recipe for a terrorist act. Thank God access to firearms is so difficult in Britain, there would be a lot more victims of these random acts if you could buy automatic guns over the counter, like you do in the United States. Driving the car into people is the poor terrorist's mass shooting. And, if it wasn't for the tragic of the situation, the mock-up suicide vests improvised out of beer cans would be ridiculous.

6. My thoughts go to the victims, but also to my Muslim friends who will now be subjected to even more abuse. They too, are indirect victims of this.

7. Is there anything we can do to prevent future acts like this? I believe there's lots, but there is no quick fix. Any solution will be complex and take time. But here's a few steps I believe can take us towards a safer and more peaceful society: increase social integration; discourage the xenophobic discourse in the media and in society; increase the efficiency of social protection mechanisms by cutting abuses and increasing provisions for the more needy; use legal means to further discourage violence. And most importantly, educate people. As a government, do your best to have your citizens well educated, well fed and welcoming. In other words, eliminate as many ingredients from the destructive mix mentioned at point 5. Discourage your media from promoting xenophobia; discourage your Foreign Secretary from promoting isolationism; discourage your prime minister from promoting economic elitism. Discourage your citizens from voting against themselves.

Does it look like I'm campaigning? I don't think I'm campaigning. I just think this government is an accomplice to last night's attack. A willing accomplice, no less.

duminică, 30 aprilie 2017

Civil War

Paul Gauguin - Bowl of fruit and
tankard before a window, 1890
‘That was a good night. Heavy. Came home late with this girl, but she had something to do in the morning – don’t remember exactly. So she left kind of early. Don’t know actually, I didn’t wake up nor feel her leaving. Kudos to her for not stealing anything though. Miriam I think her name was… not sure. Anyway…  So I woke up early afternoon, 1 or 2 must’ve been, and the sun was up and I could see the city from the window, such a sunny day… ah, beautiful! I sat on the window sill for some 10-15 minutes til I was like ‘Ok, time to face the day’. But God, I was feeling so …lascivious of sorts, and found the tankard half full of Jack. I must’ve filled it the night before. We probably intended to eat some of the fruits the night before, hence the mess, though I don’t think we ever got round to it in the end. So I drank some of the stale whisky, the tankard holds just under a full bottle. And the canvas was just to the left; all laid out, with the brushes at the side, I must’ve wanted to draw something the day before. Grabbed a brush and went for it. I didn’t really plan it, I started out without knowing what’s gonna come out on paper and I didn’t imagine anything useful will anyway. I put the mill in the corner first, cause that shiny yellow wall was just jaw-dropping, but then I realized I drew the line too high up, so I was like ‘Hell, I’ll draw the apples’. Didn’t bother arranging them or anything. And I was drinking all the while, I think I got through the half tankard of whisky pretty quick, so just put it back on the table. Only realized it’s there after I drew its contour on canvas. And I was like ‘Hmmm, well I’ll leave it in now’, but the drawing on it is so intricate I wasn’t really feeling up to putting in the work to draw it. So I left it to figure out later, and that’s actually the last thing I drew. If you look at the carvings on the cup, it’s a whole scene, the detail on it is mind blowing, I was never gonna bother with that. So I just mashed up some lines a la Monet, never figured the canvas is gonna make it anywhere further than the rubbish bin anyway.’
‘It’s a beautiful tankard, babba’
‘I know, got it at this art fair eons ago. In a village east, high in the Kashmir. Zebak or Ziak or something. Don’t think it was made there though, looks like it must come from somewhere South.’

I knew Daoud and daddy are going to be sharing stories for hours on end and I wasn’t really listening to them. I only remembered Daoud’s story about the painting last week, when it got into my hands by a completely unexpected and wonderful accident. I remembered Daoud was saying something about an auction house that was gonna take it to Europe and how he was going to get good money for it. Well, I paid 20 quid for it, though the guy in the flea market was only asking for 10. Truth to be told, I could’ve probably talk him down to 5, but not in the state I was. I’d never really buy anything from the flea market, but I’d go every week as it reminded me of… gosh, I don’t even know if ‘home’ is the right word. It reminded me of something that I felt was a part of me. I was surprised when I spotted it. I remember akaa Daoud gave it to the art museum for a while to be part of an exhibition of his paintings, but then got it back as this dealer kept nagging him about how much money he could make off of it. So naturally, I thought the museum made prints of it and somehow, one of them made its way to this Afghan flea market. I grabbed it to look at it then I saw the burn mark on the side from when Daoud’s flat burned down. I tried hard not to cry, but Farid must’ve seen my tears as he asked me if I’m ok. I’m looking at it now and I have no idea if I should put in on display somewhere where I’d see it every day, or just hide it away just like all the horrible memories I’ve carried with me over two continents.

I do remember that specific day well. I was always happy to about visiting Daoud, as I know I’d see Farrah. And dad was all too happy to visit him as it was the only place where he could have a drink without mum nagging him about heaven and hell and The Prophet and Muslim values.  So it was a win-win, and it was like our little ritual. Dad would usually ask me if I want to go out, I’d always say yes, then he’d pretend he had no idea where to go and call to see if Daoud is free. He was always free, and he’d always ask us to come over and ‘take it from there’. We didn’t really take it anywhere. In a household of five, mum would always cook for about 20, so dad would grab the remains of last nights’ dinner and Daoud – huge fan of mum’s cooking - was all too happy to accept that in exchange for a few glasses of alcohol which, as a good Muslim, dad would never buy. He did take care to stop by the market though, to get something for mum, whose anger at the stink of whisky would be quelled by an incense, or a necklace, or some robe. And once we got to Daoud’s studio, I’d be quick to make an excuse to go out, and that was my day done. Sometimes, Farrah’s dad would come over, in which case I didn’t need an excuse to go out at all, we’d be messing about with the canvases and colours while they’d be putting the world to rights over whisky.

‘Are you not worried at all, Daoud?’
‘Waseed, I’m a Christian, not a Communist. I couldn’t care less who’s in power as long as they let me paint. As a matter of fact, I don’t even care if I ever sell another painting again, I’ve been lucky enough to have already made more money than I’ll ever need.’
‘But herein lies the problem, laalaa. Do you think the mujahideens won’t come knocking to your door specifically because you’re a Christian?’
‘Bah, don’t think so. I’m not a threat, I’m an anomaly. Too few Christians around to be any kind of critical mass in the revolution.  And I’ve never said anything either for or against Islam. To be honest, I think Islam is preferable to the Communists, but not the kind that the mujahideens are hoping for.’
‘Communism is good, Daoud! Without the Soviet Union, we’d still be herding goats instead of driving Ladas. No heating, no blocks of flats…’
‘No fucking individual opinion, either. You’ll see, it will be much better with the Americans.’
‘Why would the Americans care?’
‘Oh, the mujahideens  are all American puppets. You see, they don’t like having the Soviets so close to their oil.’

They were always going on like that. I wasn’t really listening to their conversations; it’s surprising therefore how much I can remember after all these years. Anyway, that afternoon I did not make any excuses. It was a sunny day, probably just as sunny as the one that inspired the painting with the tankard, so I went to the window to see if there is indeed any beauty to the mill, as I knew it to be scary and noisy and dusty. And then I saw Farrah playing jozbaazi. Now you see, that is beautiful, not the stupid mill! Oh, God, it was indeed a scorching day, but she shone brighter than sun ever could! I sat still the whole afternoon, just watching her and smiling like the idiot kid I was, with the occasional bouts of jealousy when she’d be touching someone else, quickly subdued by the sight of her smiling.
‘Ali, what’s the matter, mashwm? You ok? Do you wanna go out?’
‘No, I’m good here plaar. Can I get an apple?’

I knew I loved her. I was looking forward to turning 13, the first thing I’d do was ask dad to go to old Waseem and ask him to let Farrah marry me. And then we would move in together and I’d be with her all the time. What more can one ask?

And yet last I saw of Farrah was her big round blue eyes devoid of life, with a mixture of caked dirt and blood covering her beautiful face. I cried for days, and I think I punched dad pretty hard when he forcefully dragged me away from her body. I kept crying the couple of weeks that followed. Leaving Kabul and heading for the border were all a blur. Thinking back, dad’s bravery makes me very proud and I wonder what I would have done under the circumstances. But back then all I could see were Farrah’s beautiful red lips biting the dirt. I was upset we left. I didn’t care about the fighting and the shootings and the militias; all I wanted was to play another game of jozbaazi with Farrah. On our way to the border, I heard dad telling mum old Waseem and his wife stayed. He didn’t know, but they were probably killed shortly after, as the whole neighborhood was razed to the ground. Couple of guys from the mosque tried to help dad get Daoud out of his studio when the building caught fire, but by the time they managed to get in, he was already dead, apparently. I don’t remember seeing the body, even though I was there when they carried him out, rolled in a carpet. Dad wanted to give him a Christian funeral, but he couldn’t find a priest after two days of trying, so in the end they took him to the mosque with the others, thinking that it was better Daoud gets buried with Muslims than all of us staying and risking our lives too. In all honesty, I don’t think he cared all that much. The folks from the mosque also saved all they could from his flat, including some of his paintings, the one with the tankard amongst them, a week before it was due to be taken to an auction in France. Dad joked it will make it to France anyway, though in completely different circumstances. He tried contacting Daoud’s sister in Paris, but the phone lines were cut and it was near impossible to get a message out of the country in those days. Turns out, it was impossible to get Daoud’s paintings out of the country too. They were withheld by the Pakistani police together with most of his and our possessions. So mum, dad and the three of us had to cross the border and got into the tent camp with only one piece of hand luggage each.

And that’s pretty much how we crossed two continents. Well, the three of us did, Mum and Dad never made it to the Mediterranean. After years and years of nightmares and bad news being the only things reaching me from Afghanistan, akaa Daoud’s tankard painting was the symbol of a time when I was a happy careless child in my parents’ house, just as any child should be. How it ended up in my hands three decades later was a miracle that I didn’t intend to inquire too much about. I decided to hang it in the hallway. 

sâmbătă, 1 aprilie 2017


Akseli Gallen-Kallela - Lake Keitele, 1905
I enjoy coming here, though I'm not doing it very often. It's like strong medicine. Very good when you really need it, not so good when you abuse it. The sight reminds me of Innisfree. A colder, less rainy Innisfree that I've never been to, just like I've never been to the real Innisfree and I probably never will. It's like the paradise that's within easy reach, but only as long as you don't actually go there. It ain't exactly real, or it's real but it ain't exactly there, just like democracy in Leonard Cohen's understanding. See, this is something I can only properly do here. Sure, my mind goes astray a lot of times and wherever steps might take me, but in here, there's no straying away, just a vast open freedom across the body of water and beyond. And if I want Leonard Cohen to explain me how Jesus was a sailor for walking across the water and to argue the exact contrary with him I only need to say 'I'd like to speak to Leonard...' and through the dark, clouded, thick glass on the bottom of the bottle I see him pulling close in his dark suit, with the hat pulled over his face trying to convince me that he never loved me whilst I'll laugh and tell him it doesn't matter, even though we both know it. And just by sitting here, between two of my best friends, in complete silence, looking at a lake isle that is only Innisfree in our imagination everything that's wrong is being put to rights, everything that's sick is beginning to heal. And boy, do I need a lot of healing after a night like the last one...

Whoosh! A fireball drops across the pale white sky, hitting somewhere behind the hill on the opposite side of the lake with a strong thud and something that, I'm sure, is a bit of an explosion too. by the time the shock wave reaches me I've already rolled my eyes. Of course I enjoy the spectacle of it, it's majestic, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna give him the satisfaction. I know how the conversation is going to play out, I'm well aware of the gloating to ensue and I enjoy that as well, but I also need to concentrate on playing my part well. Otherwise we would not be blending into the rightful order of the kosmos, will we? So what shall it be this time?

There's a huge fireball brightening up the distant sky and a second later I can see it. Oh, wow, that is one majestic beast. I try to take the sight of it in, I know it won't be for long. It's huge, green scales, its gigantic pointy teeth, the yellow armored belly and the immense jaws that could change landscapes in a second... I wish I could see it in a slow, relaxed flight, I wish I could ride it and see the world through the eye of the beast... oh, that will take some convincing. All I see now is an unorderly, fast panic as the dragon is trying to break free. He pulls back flying downwards, spits another scorching jet of fire that I'm sure will destroy the livelihood of a few farmers too poor already, and flies away as fast as he can I a wide circle across the lake. Oh wow... this is it! It's gigantic and scared and for a second it looks like he might've escaped. Of course I know that's not the case and the barely felt whirl of air generated by an object moving at very high speed confirms it for me. Just as the dragon reaches the north side of the lake and his flight is changing into a steadier pace, I hear the hit, reverberating like something a lot stronger than it actually is. The poor animal is thrown backwards all the way back above the lake's surface and before he's got any chance to steady himself Angel is already above him, hitting and pushing with unstoppable force. There's one more flame coming out before they hit the water, less spectacular than the first one despite being so much closer. He must be tired, the poor thing... No effect, of course, but a few treetops on the island catch fire. Then bubbles of air rising to the surface for some time, I think I even saw the water brightening up yellow for half a second from the effort of a flame trying to reach the surface and I cannot help but feel sorry for the poor dragon, even though I'm well aware there's nothing to worry about and he's as safe as it can be. It's all just an act designed to... I don't know. I suppose I should be impressed? I mean, sure, it's great visually, but once you've seen the magic from behind the curtain... Once you realised there's only mortar and bricks behind the eyes of the saints in churches that barbarian hordes tried to pull out, you know for sure the actual saints aren't there. Oh, yes, I know, we've had this conversation so many times, it's all as magic as you allow it to be and yes, I'm fully aware of this too, but I do enjoy calling bullshit on it all. It's like our little game.

It's quite now, so good time for a drink. And while I slurp with the thirst of a dog that's just beaten his own record at running around the lake and quietly thank Mr. Jack for his hell-bringing heavenly nectar I feel him coming. Dusting himself off without really needing to, realising he's completely dry then adding the dew drops at the end of his long black locks and heading towards me with the pride of a child who's just finished his first artwork on the living room wall. I have to pretend I don't see him, of course.

'Did you know that was the Loch Ness monster?'
'Was it?' I mock surprise badly.
'Yeah, but not the lame-ass one in the picture. Daily Mail, what do you expect?'
'Was it really the Daily Mail that published it?'
'Made by them, not only published.'
'Oh, wow... Why am I not surprised?'
'Anyway, this is - or was - the Loch Ness monster. Like for realz.'
'Yeah, stayed there for some 10-15 century, though I'm not sure he was still there when the picture was taken.'
'So what's gonna happen to him now?'
'I locked him up'
'Bottom of the lake?'
'Yeah, there's a double gate with a good locker, he's gonna go live in the center of the earth now. He's fine, he's got his brothers... his whole family is there.'
'What was the show about then?'
'What do you mean?'
'You were trying to impress me, didn't you?'
'What'you on about?'
'Come on... look at you, big muscly angel wiping the floor with the massive dragons whereas I struggled with a silly little demon and you had to come to the rescue...'
'It's different, you know that. That was your demon. It's a hard fight, no matter the size. Though in all fairness he was completely out of shape last night...'
'Yeah, yeah, yeah...'

The evening before was harder than we were both pretending it was, though for reasons that are not yet clear to me. I'm sure the lesson will be presented to me in due time, with a huge slice of humble pie on the side. I didn't notice anything wrong until I actually turned the light on in the room. I didn't see him, I can't really describe how I knew he was there. When there's a mouse in your room, you get to see the mouse. I'm sure I didn't see him, peripheral vision or not. I FELT him.
'Come out! Come out, you asshole!' I shouted immediately. I jumped on the bed and threw my hand underneath, but didn't find him straight away. It actually took me a good few minutes of moving sheets and furniture about and just as I was about to move the bed I saw him trying to run through the wall. He was unlucky, really, they usually bit but this one was scared more than anything. By the time I grabbed his leg it was too late for him, I ducked the bite easily. I grabbed both his feet, grabbed both his hand around his back with my right hand and fixed him on the floor. Then put his feet and hands together and stepped on them with my left foot. I stood up through his loud screechings and wailings and pushed my right foot heavily in his spine a couple of times, in the vain hope he'll stop. I lifted my sole high off the ground and pushed down as hard as I could. I've been told this is how they suffer the most though in all fairness I like the squishing sound they make more than anything. Then, as his horns flew straight into the wall and the organic matter that moments before was making up his head splashed across the floor, I felt a stabbing in the lower back.

'Aaaaargh! There's two of you. You stupid bloody bollocking bastards!'
It was painful as hell, but I knew I had to move fast. I twisted my right and grabbed his neck to bring him around the front. he stayed in the bite, the little bastard, of course they knew how to cause pain much better than I did. his canine tooth came in deep and as I pulled the creature in front of me I felt his teeth grating against my spine, then leaving a deep ridge cut through the skin. It was painful, but it was over. Once I had him in front of me, holding him by the neck, it was easy going. I smashed his head against the wall a couple of times for good measure, but it wasn't really necessary. I have enough experience to deal with the little ones by now, they can only get away if I let them. And I wasn't going to let this one. He screeched and wailed too, of course, though fainter than the first one. 'I must've gave him a good smashing' I thought. For a split second I even felt sorry for him. But no, he won't have it easy. Hands and legs behind the back, down on the floor...

The demon pushed just as my right foot was about to touch the floor. I heard the imp's neck snapping, but by the time I was on the level with him his head was still moving. His eyes were closing and opening very slowly as life was leaving them and I thought he looks somewhat like an aborted fetus. Only lighter. Nevermind that, I had to concentrate on the demon.
The demon was laughing. I haven't seen him that self assured in a very long while. His skin was darker than usual, looking a bit like dark red wines. Rioja, or Bordeaux, all the ones I don't like. He was still in a pretty bad state, I could see the white from two of his ribs, but there were small patches of fur scattered over his body. He pulled head of the imp clear from the body and threw it out the window. Then swallowed the body whole and let out a huge burp. I didn't really mind his awful stinky sulfurous breath. On the contrary, it reminded me of the fights we had. Angel or demon, who doesn't enjoy a good fight? But I was surprised at my inability to fight back. I tried to stand but my body said no. The demon let out a loud, malevolent laugh, took to steps towards me then hoofed me straight up the wall. I felt the bricks moving on the outer face, but that was obviously the last of my worries. The moment I fell down his hoof punctured through my stomach. I tried to stand but his other hoof was already on my neck. Hands were useless in situations like this, I know, so I stopped moving for a moment, trying to figure out his moves and where I can catch a break. He tapped my sternum with his huge pointy nail, then cracked the rib cage open and pulled the heart out. With a foot still in my stomach, he stoop up again and looked at both myself on the floor and my heart in his hand in delight. He started eating it with big bites and long chews and I could do nothing but watch him. When he was about halfway through it he took a small step forward and raised his left hoof.
'Oh no, it's the head smash!' I thought, and closed my eyes in expectation.
'Oh no, not the head smash!' I heard, and suddenly I felt my body being released from pressure. I looked sideways, which was actually looking up as I was laying, and I saw Angel tackling the demon to the ground. Then I must've passed out for a few seconds because when I opened my eyes again the demon was nowhere to be seen. Angel was looming above me. He gave me an arm and helped me stand up, then started running his fingers across my skin to close the wounds.

'Listen, I'm in a bit of a block with my two teen lovers' I said. 'Can you help me with it?'
'I will, of course I will. But we've got some restoration to do first.'

sâmbătă, 4 martie 2017

Albania Rule the Waves

S.J.A. Turney - Tales of the Empire V: Invasion, Canelo, 2017

Despite being a big fan of Simon's books, I have so far avoided his 'Tales of the Empire' series mostly due to the word 'fantasy' he uses is the description. I was wrong, and this is not a fantasy book. If anything, it is worth of the historical fiction label more so than the Marius' Mules or Praetorian series which are fictionalization of history, or historical fictionalization, if you will. Sounds like a minor difference in spelling, but it becomes obvious in meaning: whereas the two aforementioned series are based on very real and sometimes very well documented events, leaving the author with the sole task of fleshing out the documents and instill some life into characters, Tales of the Empire is completely made up, at least in terms of chronology and location. There is no doubt in anyone's mind when it comes to atmosphere or time period: we are in early empire Rome, and the changed names are not going to fool anyone, nor do they intend to. Simon's only justification for this is to have the freedom to invent his own campaigns and stray from the historical course of events. Alternative history, of sorts, that wretched thing historians hate and writers love.

Invasion deals with the conquest by 'the Empire' of an island just outside the continental mass, by the name of Alba. We are dealing with a reinterpretation of the Roman conquest of Britain in which Queen Cartimandua puts in an appearance in the guise of Verctissa, queen of the Albantes. Unlike any of his historical books though, this one does not have a lead hero on the part of the invaders, but three. There is a silent implication that Lucius Bellacon is the main guy in this story, but it is in fact the story of three Roman officers. I mean Imperial officers, of course.

Which means either or all could be killed at any point during the novel, and I did fear for their lives just like I feared for Fronto's once the main objective of Marius' Mules has been achieved.

Strangely enough, from a military point of view this book might be more accurate than its historical counterparts. It is more specific, for sure. The readers will familiarize themselves with Roman use of artillery in battles and the purposes and functionalities of scorpion bolt throwers. Plenty to cherish for the lovers of close combat or commando missions too, but I feel artillery is really the department that gets the bigger slice of this pie.

I bookmarked a self-sacrificial scene worthy to stay right next to the Oscar-nominated Hacksaw Ridge. Self-sacrifice for your fellow soldiers always makes for a good story, the only difference between this and Mel Gibson's is that Simon's soldiers do not consciously object to any sort on violence. Quite the opposite, actually.

Also in line with Simon's sympathetic view of the natives, we are introduced to Lissa, a native seer slave who is a key accompaniment to the action and the alleged story teller. Her background story is barely sketched, and for such an important character there are lots of gaps in her personal history. Just enough to fill up a book, I suppose, and I'm pretty sure there is a readership awaiting for that book, too.

Invasion ends just as it was predictable, so much so that Lissa sees the end from the very beginning: it's the conquerors' boot on the natives' neck and the conqueror's flag on top of the mud huts. But knowing the end of the journey takes nothing away from the pleasure of getting there, as it is often the case with Simon's writings.

I am, upon reading Invasion, intrigued by the 'Tales of the Empire' series and I shall take on to reading it. There is talk of Khans plundering the capital, how can one not want to see what's it all about in this beautiful historical mash-up with changed names?

miercuri, 1 martie 2017


Edgar Degas - Ballet Dancers, 1890-1900
'Pirouette... bras... derrière... allez, alezz,  derrière! Plus vite, plus vite! Derrière! Et... Arabesque... Rosanne, I said derrière! Asleep again? A pufff... Mais non! Tu need a break? Again! Le show est pa-pa alors!'

And then the all familiar thud of the cane. Oh...

'I can't! It hurts! I can't go anymore!'

Poor Irene! I feel her looking at mix confused, with a mix of sadness and guilt. The other girls are just confused. I don't care anymore. My feet hurt like hell, I need to sit down. The little man can go as crazy as he likes, I've felt his cane on my back before and it's nothing like this horrible ache I have in my foot right now. Feels like a stabbing where the knife is still inside and an invisible hand is pulling it up and down, left and right, like trying to chop my foot off. Which is a bit ironic, because I can't feel my foot anymore. But it's there alright. There's more of it, even, I notice looking down. Swollen like the Seine after a heavy winter. And a bit blue, as well... I go towards the bench and put my feet down... oh, that feels good! Teacher's face is actually funny. I feel like I'd be laughing otherwise, luckily enough my face is too twisted with pain to be needing the effort of holding in a LOL.

'Ah bon... how long left? 7 minutes? No matter, we stop now. Mademoiselle primadonna doesn't feel like rehearsing, so everyone loses 7 minutes. Ok, get your clothes, see you tomorrow! Bonjour!'

'Gosh, he was rash today! And not a word either! You ok?'

Irene sat next to me, genuinely worried.

'Yeah, just... it hurts! He might as well kill me, I feel like I'm dying anyway.'
'No, come on, it's not that. You know he's worried about the show! He's worried you're going to pull out!'
'He! Come on, Irene, we both know I'm not gonna make the show. He won't play me like this!'
'Like hell not! You're his best ballerina by far!'
'Was, Irene. Seriously, why do you think he asked you to paint your hair red? You're going to be his Giselle, I don't know why he hasn't announced it yet. At this rate, I'll be lucky if I make a nymph. Then again, I'm not even sure I want to be in it anymore?'
'Is it really that bad? Still that stupid accident?
'Of course it's the stupid accident! I'm on the brink of giving it up altogether...'
'No!' said the choir, Curiously enough, it felt like a surprise to all the girls.
'But you've been doing this since you were three!'
'The only reason I'm still doing it, really. Learned to dance before I learned to walk properly. Come on, you've all done the same. It's just that I had my accident. That silly, stupid accident that throws half my life out the window. I'm falling behind, and I would've quit a while ago already, but I'm not really sure how to go about without dancing...'
'But surely the doctor...'
'Come on, Irene, what's the point? Let's go home.'

Poor Ali, waiting for me, as always. Strange thing, he's still reading. Oh, that's right, we were out much earlier than usual. I wonder if professor is home already. He was redder than Irene's hair when he left... mine has started to fade, I should probably dye it again. Bah, can't be bothered. Need to have a chat with mum, that'll be a blast!

'Irene, this colour looks great on you'
'Merci, Ali!'
And the awkward kiss on the cheek. I love the feeling when Ali kisses me on the cheek. I put my hand just below his shoulders and I can feel his whole body shivering. He sits away, safely away from me, no idea why, then bends towards me quite a bit, carefully avoiding my face, like making for the ear. Then whoosh! A sudden turn and a quick smack, delicate as if he's afraid to break me. Bit too late for that, I'm afraid, Ali. And I swear to God, the exact moment I feel his lips on my cheek, just barely, is like he's being electrocuted, there's like a spasm in his arms. Almost makes me laugh and I'd do it too, would I not to know how much it hurts poor Ali. He's sweet. I asked Irene if she feels it as well and she said she doesn't. Irene is convinced he's in love with me. What even is that? I mean, yeah, it's obvious he likes me, but... I wonder if... Oh, gosh, last thing I need, really. I'm so fucking pissed at my stupid foot, I'd be a right proper bitch. I suppose I am a right proper bitch anyway, but poor Ali never says anything. Yeah, how could he even...? I mean, he's still... but why? Gosh, who can understand men? Actually, Irene can. She seems to be seeing right through them. She even warned me that evening when... Oh fuck, I can't stop thinking about it! Stupid foot!

'Rosanne says she thinks she won't play Giselle, Ali'
'Yeah, she told me. I don't know...'
'Oh, she told you? I see...'
'See what, Irene? Why don't you just...? Bitch!'
'Come on, Rosanne, I was joking. I didn't you two...'
'We two what?'
'You know... talk'
'Of course we talk, Irene, what does it look like we're doing now?'
'No, but I mean... yeah, ok. You know what I mean.'
'Irene, not everyone lives down-town like you. You know you get off after two stops every day, Ali and I are going all the way to Argenteuil. Besides, you don't have to know everything!'
'Bla bla bla, we're so touchy! Am I inconveniencing you?'
'Don't be silly, Irene! Here you go, so happy to get rid of you! See you tomorrow!'

Poor Ali, he looks even smaller than usual, not knowing what to make of it and with the two rucksacks on his back. Mine is pretty big anyway, I need to bring my tutu, but his is keeping up. I wonder how much stuff can he get in there...

'Is Irene annoying you?'
'Nah, she's just taking the piss.'
'Is it because she's gonna be Giselle?'
'Ali, it's nothing to do with that. Told her today, she kinda pretends she doesn't know, but come on...'
'Well, you said you weren't decided'
'It's been decided for me. I told you I can't carry on.'
'You're still pretty great. Maybe you can just do it like a hobby?'
'It doesn't work. You do ballet to be on the stage. If you can't fight for the lead part, there's no real point to it.'
'So what happened then?'
'My God, Ali, how many time shave I told you I don't want to talk about it?'
'You said you didn't want to talk about it then. I'm asking you now.'
'Well, I still don't want to talk about it.'
'Ok, ok, I'm sorry.'

I intentionally make my sighs longer. I can tell how much they torment him.

'So, do you want to come by the pond tonight? I think my dad's cooking and we'll have a fire. And if you want to, I can massage your foot.'
'Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure you can. Like that's gonna achieve anything.'
'Ok, not massage your foot. But we can do the homework together, then maybe watch something'
'No, sorry Ali, I want to go home.'
'Ok, no biggie' He's almost defeated now. 'Maybe, if you're not doing anything on Saturday, you want to come to the lake?'
'You're obsessed with bodies of water! What if it rains?'
'I don't know. I don't think it will. If it rains we don't go. I mean, I wanted to go anyway, but I'm not sure I'm going alone. That's why I ask, is like extra motivation for me.'
'Yeah, I don't know. I don't know what I'm doing Saturday.'
'You don't have class, do you?'
'Yeah, in the morning, but it's done by noon.'
'See, it's perfect, I can come pick you up.'
'I don't know, Ali, let's talk tomorrow.'
'Ok, I'll remind you tomorrow.'

Shit, my bag is heavy. Lucky Ali brings me home... I look back at him, heading away with his hair a mess and his uniform dirty. It's sweet when he tries to look back, but then turns away immediately, petrified by the thought he could catch my eye. I'm like Medusa! Buf, why can't all boys be like Ali?

joi, 26 ianuarie 2017

Silver and Gaul

Claude Monet - Snow Scene at Argenteuil, 1875
I had moved to the village only recently. With Julius Caesar's writings having made a strong impression on me, I was wondering if the name of the village, Argenteuil, denotes some sort of silver extraction, if the Romans found a treasure within the bowels of the earth and the savage Franks forgot about it. Maybe there's still loads of silver lurking under this very hill I'm climbing, just waiting to be discovered. Maybe just a hit of the spade in the spring, once the snow slides down, will bring out the sparkling ore. Oh, wait, it's not going to sparkle, is it? Silver, the pure silver, the silver that's useful, comes mixed with rocks of all sorts, just an impure mess of uselessness until a master metallurgist boils it to extract only the bits that spark people's greed. Bah, I'm no metallurgist. But what if... what if, maybe, some Roman nobleman had some chest of silver coins he had to leave behind when this land was abandoned to barbarians? And what if that same nobleman had the foresight to bury his silver, hoping that the mighty legions of Rome are still mighty enough to push back these pesky barbarians, so he can come back to his villa next summer to enjoy the sweet wine of Gaul once more? Which, of course, never happened, as the boundaries of the empire were pulling always backwards, so our poor patrician ended up ruined back in Rome, living off the mercy of his relatives. Or maybe he got killed by some lone riders while trying to push forward ever faster his huge caravan of slaves, house wares and jewelry? Years came and years went, the hill went up and then pulled back again and his chest of silver is just here somewhere, just under the surface, ready to pop out this coming spring? Perhaps I should tread more carefully...

It was with these thoughts that I was clambering up the snow covered hilltop to be alone for a while and to soak in the view. It was always a relaxing journey, even if right now the climb was rather difficult, as the virgin snow would reach up to my waist, every step needing to first pull my feet all the way out from the hole left by my previous step. And every now and then my foot would slip down, dragging me back a few meters and dumping my face in the snow which caused me, after a few falls, to stop feeling my nostrils. Still, the thought of warming by the fire once I get back home in the evening, with a steaming cup of tea in my hand, was energizing enough to keep me going. In the summer, ah! This stroll is an absolute delight, although it usually takes me longer to get to the top as I stop every few steps to admire some flower or the immense blue of the sky, or just to lay in the dew kissed grass for a few minutes. Right now, it's a bit of a challenge, but a challenge I eagerly take on as it reminds me of childhood and who knows how many more winters we'll have to wait until we get this perfect snow? Better take advantage while it's here... Oh, there's the tree, not long now. I think I can see the river from here. Woop, let's turn around. The locals say the name of the village comes from the gleaming of the river in the moonlight though in all my nightly strolls I've never... OH. MY. GOD! That is absolutely fabulous! There must be a God, there's no better proof for it than this view. All silver in the world is worth less than this glorious, glorious, image. 'Hallelujah!' I shouted at the top of my lungs then dropped back, a broad smile illuminating my otherwise reddened face. Gosh, it was well worth it enduring this freezing cold, and then some!

I must've laid in the snow for about 15 minutes, lifting my head every now and then to marvel at the beauty of our village. Well, our... I guess I can say it's my village too, I live here now. It's true, the locals still see me as a curiosity, as the stranger, and will probably do so for at least another year or so. After all, I only landed in their midst not 8 months ago, coming from nowhere, not speaking the language very well and with no apparent reason. Argenteuil is one of those places where nothing changes and nothing happens. And when it does, everyone knows about it and it's all everyone talks about, gosh, there might even be stories told about it, like the one with the guy who claimed to see and UFO... and pretended he had a chat with a creature on it. I have been the talk of the town for most of last year and I expect this to continue deep into this year too, unless another UFO appears or some sort of war starts and shocks the village to the core.

For some reason, the way down seemed considerably easier. I was pretty much frozen all over by now and eager to get home. I did still slow my pace once the cart got into my field of view. Old Jean-Paul was coming from the forest of Saint Germain, just a black spot on a gigantic white blanket. I followed him with my eyes and kept following him as I was coming down, pacing myself so we'd be at the bottom of the hill at the same time.

'Ça va, Jean-Paul?' I shouted.
From underneath the two blankets he kept tightly wrapped around his body Jean-Paul lifted his head and struggled for a second to understand where the noise was coming from. 'Ça va, ça va, merci! Et vous?'
'Jean-Paul, where I come from we say the wise man will build a cart in the winter and a sleigh in the summer. Bit late to be carrying wood this time of year, no?'
'Monsieur, I would pass for a very wise man where you come from, then. These logs won't probably see fire until next winter.'
'Oh, surely for that it is too early?'
'Never know, never know. I should be ok for all the rest of the winter, but I freed up some space in the shed so I thought, why not? Mon Bernard enjoys a bit of exercise, he gets nervous if he stays in too much. And I had nothing else to do!'
'He certainly doesn't look like he's enjoying it, but you know him better.' The poor horse was clearly struggling pulling the cart full of logs in the cold. His nostrils were inflated and steam was pumping out of them with every step.
'He does, monsieur. He might look unhappy now, but the exercise is good for him. A ready supply of carrots and a good sleep under blankets, he'll be good as new tomorrow. And he'll be gleaming for a week! Enfait, he would be all too happy to give you a ride home, n-est ce pas, Bernard?'
The horse gave a slow neighing upon hearing his name.
'Nah, merci, Jean-Paul, but I'm good. I enjoy walking as much as Bernard.'
'As you wish, monsieur, but Bernard walks faster than yourself. I shall bid you a good day and leave you, alors. Au revoir, monsieur!'
'Au revoir, Jean-Paul! Au revoir, Bernard!'
I watched Jean-Paul and Bernard disappearing round the corner in a slow, half-hearted trot, with the old cart shifting left to right like a ship on a windy sea. I stopped for a second to catch my breath by the old wall. To me, the wall was the most fascinating feature of the village. Was this really the old abbey wall, 15 centuries old? But they said the abbey burnt completely more than 100 years ago, with no traces remaining. And no one knew who built the wall. Is this just a slip-up of historians, and this is actually the remain of the old abbey estate? Maybe Charlemagne himself stopped next to this very wall all those centuries back... Hm! Worth investigating, for sure...
To my right, the tall spire of the church was stabbing the grey sky with its skewed cross at the top, bent visibly forward in an unnatural way, as if someone pulled it from the ground with a rope, or as if... as if someone just pushed at it from behind. Which would be both difficult and pointless. Why would anyone...
'Monsieur, monsieur...'
'Oh, what's the matter, Jean-Baptiste?'
'I discovered, monsieur! I know who you are! I went to Paris last week and saw it in a bookshop, so now I know!'
'It's you, monsieur, n-est pas?'
The words were coming fast from between the red cheeks of Jean-Baptiste and I'm not sure if he was cold, blushing, over-excited or all at once as he pushed towards me a copy of my latest book.
'Well, Jean-Baptiste, since you uncovered my secret I will have you know it is only half of me. It's true, I do write, but I also paint.'
'Paint, monsieur?'
'What are you painting about? I mean... how is... like, you're painting walls?'
'Canvases, Jean-Baptiste. I see things I like, then put them on a canvas. Some people pay good money for that.'
'In Paris, monsieur?'
'In Paris, but not only.' I could clearly see how confused I got poor Jean-Baptiste.
'And... like... you paint persons and such?'
'Persons, too, but not my forte. I like nature more.'
'Nature, monsieur?'
'And people pay you money?'
'Quite a lot, sometimes. More than I'm worth it, I'd say.'
'And you also write about nature, monsieur?'
'I write... about various stuff. Not only what I see, but also what I imagine. I make up stories.'
'Like this story, monsieur, about the little Arab boy?'
'Like this one, yes.'
'But you do have an Arab boy, monsieur.'
'I take care of a little boy, yes, but he's not the one in the story. The one in the story is a mush, much sadder boy than the boy I take care of.'
'You know, monsieur, people are saying...'
'People are saying, monsieur, that you have no place to look after an Arab boy. Why is he not in his country? I don't think it's right, monsieur.'
'Well, Jean-Baptiste, I'm afraid that's none of your business. Or anyone else's in the village. And he's not Arab. And I don't want to hear another word about it! Au revoir!'

I half-muttered half-shouted the last few words. I told myself a number of times I shouldn't get so worked up about this and that the villagers are unlikely to understand it, yet I always found it hard to control myself, to not have a go to anyone who would unknowingly utter an insult not necessarily out of hatred, but out of ignorance.

'Bloody band of bastards, when will they stop?' I growled at myself as I was stepping in, ready to get cosy by the fire.