Category Archives: BOOKS

PHILIPP MEYER – Introduction to Blood Meridian

Philipp Meyer wrote this excellent introduction to Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Published in 1985, Blood Meridian is a somewhat bottomless novel, both in its depiction of violence and its range of possible interpretations. With some highlighting in Blue and some comments in Red.



Thirty years ago, if you’d asked someone to name the most important writers in America, Cormac McCarthy would not have been one of them. His masterpiece, Blood Meridian, had drifted out of print. In fact, all of his books had. McCarthy had lived most of his adult life in near-poverty, shunning publicity, turning down teaching and speaking engagements, and – one suspects – guessing his books would not sell much.

McCarthy was born in 1933 and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of a prominent lawyer. His family had servants and lived in a big sprawling house; young Cormac likely did not want for much. But, like Ernest Hemingway, who also grew up in comfortable surroundings, McCarthy has never showed any interest in writing about domestic life.

His early works are all set in Appalachia or Tennessee, but in 1976 he moved to El Paso, Texas, on the U.S./Mexico border. 

Blood Meridian was the first product of this move. And this book – his masterpiece – marks both a pinnacle and a turning point in his career. It is the first of his western novels and the last of his darker, meaner books. With one exception, all the books that follow Blood Meridian have a softer edge – sympathetic protagonists engaged in sympathetic quests.

Initial reactions were mixed. The New York Times gave this novel a lukewarm review, calling aspects of the book “facile,” and it sold only a handful of copies. This is not an unusual path for literary masterpieces. F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead by the time The Great Gatsby became popular and it was the same with Melville and Moby Dick. McCarthy, thankfully, has lived long enough to see his work reach its proper standing.


McCarthy is in a bit of a strange box. He is the only living writer with a prose style that stacks up against the great modernists – Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf – and yet he is a very different writer from any of them. He has no interest in internality: we rarely get a sense of what his characters are thinking. We are not privy to their internal or emotional lives. McCarthy is working in an older – perhaps the oldest – narrative register.

When you are judging a literary masterpiece, you are judging first the substance and ideas behind the work. Are they true, are they worth saying, does the book articulate them organically (without talking over the characters) and in a way no one has done before? You are judging the artist’s ability to capture a world and the people in it and the ability to work in a mode so distinct it can only be hers or his. You would not confuse a Van Gogh with a Rembrandt – in fact you would be able to identify both at a glance. At the highest level, prose should be no different. (not sure the Van Gogh – Rembrandt analogy makes sense here)


In the conventional sense, the protagonist of this book is a young man called “The Kid.” He is never given a proper name and for most of the book he is more observer than participant. Dozens of pages pass without him saying a word or having a thought.

The early parts of the book see the kid grow up, develop “a taste for mindless violence,” and, at fourteen, run away from home. He is shot, stabbed, and beaten, reaches Texas and enlists in a guerilla army which plans (insanely) to invade Mexico. In Mexico, the kid meets up with another guerilla army – a group of men hunting Indians for their scalps. In their company, he rides across most of the American Southwest.

At the time the book takes, 1849–1850, this part of North America was an ungoverned space. The Spanish had been there about three centuries, and, while some Indian tribes had been there several millennia, the two most violent tribes – the Comanche and the Apache – were relative newcomers. The Apache arrived around 1650 – well after the Spanish – and the Comanche even later.

It’s worth pointing out that the group of people we monolithically refer to as “Native Americans” or “American Indians” were in reality composed of thousands of small nations which had nothing in common except skin color. They spoke hundreds of different languages. Their cultures and societies varied radically: they ranged from pacifistic to extremely violent. Some were farmers, others were engineers, others yet were pure warriors and raiders.

The Comanche and Apache were nomadic warrior tribes. The Comanche in particular treated Mexico the way Europeans treated Africa – as a place to capture slaves and other plunder. They would ride down from the north, wipe out a village, and carry off as many horses and captives as they could. The Apache were not much better.

Into this ungoverned space – fought over by the Mexicans, the Americans, the Apache, the Comanche, and various other Indian tribes – rode the Glanton gang. Both in real life and in this novel, John Glanton was a former Texas Ranger who was paid to hunt Apaches in Northern Mexico. He led only forty men, but they were heavily armed with advanced weapons. (In 1849, repeating firearms were extremely rare – only a few thousand existed on the entire planet – and yet every member of the gang had one.) Glanton’s aim was to get rich collecting the bounty on Native American scalps that various Mexican states were offering.


The two writers McCarthy is most often compared to are Herman Melville and William Faulkner. But, as is commonly the case when comparing great artists, there are more differences than similarities. Faulkner’s works are deeply internal; McCarthy’s are almost entirely external. Faulkner is always searching for redemptive qualities – in his Nobel Prize lecture, he talks about how humans will survive anything (even nuclear war) – he was fascinated by the human capacity to overcome and endure. McCarthy holds the opposite view. Both in his novels and in his real life interviews, he is a stern pessimist. He is sure we are all doomed. (not sure this is a fair judgement considering his later, more ‘softer’ novels).

In terms of prose style, McCarthy learned and appropriated enormously from Faulkner, though he tends to exceed his mentor in artistic discipline. While on the surface they are working in the same biblical, incantatory register, McCarthy is relentless about keeping the language tight. The sentences might go on for half a page, but every word needs to be there. This is not always the case with Faulkner.

Comparisons to Melville suffer from the same problem – he and McCarthy are not actually that much alike. What they mostly share is a thematic interest in life and death. Both Moby Dick and Blood Meridian are obsessed with the idea of man’s destiny – or, more precisely, with the question of who among us might control his or her fate.

Both are meticulous with the details of their respective worlds. Moby Dick is a natural history of whaling and life at sea; Blood Meridian is a natural history of the southwest, of horse warfare and combat against the Indians. Every flower is in its proper season, every animal, rock, and tree in its proper place. Even the hallucinations and apparitions are real – the desert in those areas is known for exactly the types of mirages that McCarthy describes.

And yet here the similarities with Melville end. McCarthy wants nothing to do with internality. None of his characters are as developed as Melville’s Ishmael – we see them only from the outside.

This is a bold choice, given that the thing the novel does better than any other art form is innerness. Giving a sense of human consciousness, the workings of a mind. So if McCarthy leaves out so much of what makes the novel so powerful – indeed, if he leaves out most of what makes human life interesting – how can it be that this book is such a masterpiece?

Because he is drawing from older traditions. The Bible. The Odyssey and the Iliad. Works primarily concerned with man’s fate and his place in the universe. Like Aeneas and Odysseus, McCarthy’s characters materialize on the page fully formed. They depart fully formed as well: there is no change nor progression in the conventional sense. Details that might humanize them are left out: such as the fact that in real life, John Glanton’s young wife was brutally murdered by Apaches, which eventually turned Glanton himself into a brutal killer. But this is not something McCarthy is interested in telling us. His John Glanton is a murderer simply because that is what men do.

This is a book full of sermonizing, lecturing, instruction about the nature of mankind. Novels like this typically fail completely; this one works because every sentence is organic to the situation and characters. We believe the Judge when he discourses on philosophy because we recognize him as a kind of devil or war god – his actions are consonant with his lecturing. His tone is biblical, magisterial, and perfectly fitted to a narrative of flesh and blood and damnation. (a parallel can be drawn between the Judge and the Anton Chigurh character in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men)


Most of the book’s storyline is taken directly from a memoir by Samuel Chamberlain, a decorated veteran of both the Mexican–American and the American Civil wars. The memoir was discovered in 1941, long after Chamberlain’s death – the bulk of it describes Chamberlain’s (mostly true) adventures in the Mexican–American war. The final section of the memoir describes Chamberlain’s (possibly false) tales of riding with the Glanton gang.

In addition to Glanton, we also have historical documentation on a few of the other characters – Brown, Davey Walker, and Marcus Webster. As best we can guess, Samuel Chamberlain met Brown or Webster in California and wrote his “memoir” based on their accounts.

Judge Holden, the most important character in Blood Meridian, was probably an invention of Samuel Chamberlain’s. As Chamberlain describes him, the Judge is an enormous hairless giant possessed of inhuman strength and intelligence. He speaks numerous languages and is acquainted with all the great cities of the world. He is an excellent dancer, horseman, tracker, marksman, and musician, he knows “the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, [he is] great in Geology and Mineralogy.” He is also a rapist and a murderer.

McCarthy takes Holden and ups the ante – he makes the Judge the hero of the book, in the most ancient sense of the word. The ancient hero (think again of Aeneas, Odysseus) is not quite fully divine, but is certainly more than human. Like any other demi-god, he does not develop psychologically over the course of the story – he is fully formed from the first page, and moves through the landscape fighting – and triumphing over – both gods and men. The only creature in American literature anything like the Judge is Melville’s whale – Moby Dick himself. (I agree that the Judge is the key figure of the novel, its mesmerizing center, yet calling him a hero seems wrong as I would associate ‘hero’ with a human element. The Judge clearly is out of this world, both sage and a bringer of extreme violence, a timeless, shapeshifting monster appearing throughout human history. He is an incarnation of primal forces underlying humanity’s advancement, America’s history in this case.)

The Judge, of course, can speak. He tells us that war is all that matters. War, as he sees it, is the ultimate expression of free will; the individual asserting himself over society, other men, and even death. So as McCarthy and the Judge see it, this is a story about free will. About creation and authorship: the Judge is constantly recording things in his notebooks, sketches and observations, in attempt to replace or supplant the real item (which he physically destroys when possible). This is not so different from what the artist hopes to do. Few of us know anything about fifteenth-century Danish kings, but most of us know the story of Hamlet. Such as it is with Chamberlain and Cormac McCarthy. Art has eclipsed the Real.


And in reality, life in the 1850s Southwest did not bear much resemblance to the world described in Blood Meridian. At the same time the book takes place, Thoreau was writing Walden, Whitman was writing Leaves of Grass, and Melville was writing Moby Dick.

Americans were flooding into Texas and New Mexico because life in those places was so good. The 1850s saw the population of Texas triple, while New Mexico’s doubled. Meanwhile, reading this book, you get the sense that not a single person was left alive in either place.

This is what Great Art does. It becomes more real than the real, more true than the truth. It is the mechanism by which our mythologies form.


For writers a few generations behind McCarthy, he is the presence that looms over all of us. None of us has ever met him, but we all refer to him as Cormac. I have read this book dozens of times; I used to walk around reading Blood Meridian to myself out loud. Like Joyce’s UlyssesBlood Meridian pushes the boundaries of what a book can do.

Cormac’s style is infectious. He exerts a kind of gravitational force on the minds of younger writers, both in terms of style and tone. A lot of authors seem to have used him as a handbook and even the more conscientious among us is affected. I once had a very strange dream and at the risk of revealing how insane I really am, I will share it: Along with some friends, I was standing outside the ruins of an old Greek temple. Cormac and his followers were barricaded inside, all armed with automatic weapons. My friends and I were topping off magazines, checking our carbines, preparing our assault. When I woke up I thought it was a pretty great dream, but the truth is I have deleted entire chapters of my own novels because they sounded too much like Cormac. Apparently I cannot not escape his influence, even in my sleep.

As for the real-life Cormac, no other novelist since Ernest Hemingway has inspired such legions of imitators. McCarthy is—at least in the English language – the biggest stylistic influence of the past fifty years. A friend suggested that for this reason alone, McCarthy should win the Nobel Prize. He is probably right.


A lot has been made of this book as a gnostic text – an examination of the idea that some men are closer to God, more touched with a divine fire. Certainly the Judge is, for better or worse. And in the book’s epilogue, a man moves about a barren plain “striking fire that God has placed” in the earth. He is digging holes for fenceposts, creating the demarcation between civilization and the wild; or, depending on your point of view, between a new civilization and an old one. Other men follow him blindly. They see only the holes he has dug. They don’t see the man. They don’t see his fire.

The man leads them alone, and in isolation, calling this divine fire from the raw materials of existence. This of course is what Great Artists do. They follow their inner voice into places others will not understand; they work knowing they will be ignored and misunderstood. The lucky few – like Cormac McCarthy – will live to see their masterpieces recognized.






Mathis Gasser, In the Museum 1 2 (3), Regulators 1 2 n, artists’s book

448 pages in black and 128 pages in colour, 17 × 22,8 × 3,5 cm, offset, on Arctic Volume White 1.12 paper 100 g/m2, cover in Arctic Volume White 1.2 paper 300 g/m2, 300 copies.

Graphic design: Niels Wehrspann, Lausanne with Mathis Gasser. Print : La Buona Stampa, Lugano. Binding: Schumacher AG, Schmitten. Edition of the Centre d’édition contemporaine, Geneva, 2016. ISBN 978-2-8399-1979-1.

IRAQ +100 – Hassan Blasim

Iraq100Iraq 100

link 1 link 2 link 3


Hassan writes,

The idea of this book was born in late 2013 amid the chaos and destruction left by the US and British occupation of Iraq—chaos that would drag Iraq into further destruction through Islamic State control over many parts of the country.

No nation in modern times has suffered as much as Iraqis have suffered. Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914. Since then, Iraqis have lived through a long saga of wars, death, destruction, population displacement, imprisonment, torture, ruin and tragedies. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was difficult to persuade many Iraqi writers to write stories set in the future when they were already so busy writing about the cruelty, horror and shock of the present, or trying to delve into the past to reread Iraq’s former nightmares and glories. In the process, I personally wrote to most of the writers assembled here in an attempt to encourage them to write for the project. I told them that writing about the future would give them space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality, and that writers needed more space to explore and develop certain ideas and concepts through story-telling. I said they would be writing about a life that is almost unknown, without relying directly on their own experience or their personal reading of the past or the present. Writing about the future can be wonderful and exciting—an opportunity to understand ourselves, our hopes and our fears by breaking the shackles of time. It’s as if you’re dreaming about the destiny of man!

At first, I was uneasy that we would pull it off. The idea had originally been suggested by my friend and publisher, Ra Page, along the lines of ‘imagine Iraq a hundred years after the US occupation through short fiction’. My unease arose from two sources—the first was related to Iraqi literary writing in general and the second to the literary scene and my personal relationship with it.

In an article that dealt with the beginnings of our project, the journalist Mustafa Najjar wrote, ‘The reluctance of Arab writers to address the future has long been a great mystery, at least to me. The walls of repression and censorship that confine Arab creativity so severely offer in themselves an ideal environment for writing about the future, a space that is free of the taboos that weigh on the past and the present.’ Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing and I am close to certain that this book of short stories is the first of its kind, in theme and in form, in the corpus of modern Iraqi literature. Faced with the fact that Iraqi literature lacks science fiction writing, we have tried in this project to open more windows for Iraqi writers. We asked them to write a short story about an Iraqi city 100 years after the start of the occupation and said they were not required to write science fiction but had complete freedom to choose any genre of writing that could address the future.

We did not select specific writers to take part in the project: we opened the door to anyone who wanted to take part and to imagine an Iraqi city in a hundred years, whether academics, novelists, or writers of short stories.

There are many possible reasons for this dearth of science fiction writing in Iraqi literature, and in Arabic literature in general. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that science fiction in the West was allowed to track the development of actual science from about the middle of the 19th century onwards. The same period was hardly a time of technological growth for Iraqis, languishing under Georgian ‘Mamluk’ then returning Ottoman overlords; indeed some would say the sun set on Iraqi science centuries before—as it set on their cultural and creative impulses—in the wake of the Abbasid caliphate. What have the subsequent rulers and invaders of Iraq done since then, the cynic might ask, apart from extol the glorious past when Baghdad was the centre of light and global knowledge? Knowledge, science and philosophy have all but been extinguished in Baghdad, by the long litany of invaders that have descended on Mesopotamia and destroyed its treasures. In 1258, the Mongol warlord Hulagu set fire to the great library of Baghdad, a place known as The House of Wisdom, where al-Khwarizmi had invented algebra, Sind ibn Ali had invented the decimal point, and Ya‘qub ibn Tariq had first calculated the radius of Earth, and the other known planets. The library was burnt to the ground. Precious books on philosophy, science, society, and literature were deliberately destroyed. Those that weren’t burnt were thrown into the Tigris and the Euphrates by the invaders. The water in the Euphrates is said to have turned blue from all the ink that bled into it from the books. From the Mongol Hulagu to the American Hulagu, George W., this once great seat of learning has been destroyed and pulverised. Bush the butcher, and his partner Blair, killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq, and in the process its museums were once again ransacked. All this without mercy or even shame, and in full view of the free world. But let’s leave aside Mr Bush, Mr Blair and the other killers still on the loose, and go back to our modest project, which tries to imagine a Modern Iraq that has somehow recovered from the West’s brutal invasion, in a way that Iraq didn’t recover from the Mongol one, in the blink of an eye that is 100 years. Our project tries to imagine the future for this country where writing, law, religion, art and agriculture were born, a country that has also produced some of the greatest real-life tragedies in modern times.

It is my belief that it is not only science fiction that is missing in modern Iraqi and Arab literature. I share with colleagues the view that Arab literature in general lacks diversity when it comes to genre writing—by which I mean detective novels, fantasy, science fiction, horror and so on—just as there is little diversity or transparency in our day-to-day lives. We, by which I mean Arabs today, are subservient to form and to narrow-minded thinking because we have been dominated by religious discourse and by repressive practices over long periods, often by dictatorships that served the capitalist West well, bowing to its whims and fitting with its preconceptions. But certainly that does not mean that science fiction is entirely absent from the Arab or Iraqi literary tradition. Reference is often made to the Arab roots and origins of science fiction and fantasy in A Thousand and One Nights and in Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, the thought experiment novel written in the 12th century by Ibn Tufail. Some people trace it to the Sumerians even further back, as the Iraqi writer Adnan al-Mubarak has done on several occasions. Al-Mubarak says, ‘Modern science fiction is strongly associated with the scientific-technological revolution and usually focuses on related issues. On the other hand science fiction is a literature that is part of a very old tradition that goes back to humanity’s first ideas about the real world and about the potential for human beings to constantly explore nature and the world. As is well-known, we find the first written material about journeys, including to other planets, in Sumerian literature (The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example), and in Assyrian and Egyptian literature. In an Egyptian text written four thousand years ago, we read about imaginary journeys to other planets. It is important in this context to go back to al-Mubarak’s essay, ‘How the Sumerians invented space aeronautics’.2 In the middle of the last century Arabic writers, from several Arab countries, started to experiment with writing science fiction and fantasy, and Egyptian literature was the dominant presence. But those short stories can be criticised for their references to the supernatural, to spirits, devils and fairytales that all fall back on that all-too dependable myth-kitty, A Thousand and One Nights. Hayy ibn Yaqzan, on the other hand, met the conditions for writing science fiction in an interesting way, and I believe that modern Arab literature has not paid enough attention to that work, just as it has not shown enough respect for the treasures of Sumerian, Ancient Egyptian or Babylonian writing.

Inflexible religious discourse has stifled the Arab imagination, and pride in the Arab poetic tradition has weakened the force and freedom of narration, while invaders and occupiers have shattered the peace that provided a home for the imagination.

The picture is not wholly bleak however.

Today there is great hope in a new generation, a generation native to the internet and to globalisation. It is a generation that is open-minded, more adventurous about genres, and more impatient to exercise the freedom to express oneself and to experiment. Serious attempts to write science fiction and fantasy have started to appear, especially now that the science is so much easier to get hold of: the internet gives us access to research, to documentaries, and to other novels and books from around the world, and allows us to follow the extraordinary and rapid development of human imagination through science and other forms of knowledge.

As for my second, more personal source of unease about editing this anthology, this arose from the fact that I am a writer whose work found its place in the wider, non-Arab world while I remained on the margins of the Iraqi literary scene—a scene I have always chosen to keep my distance from. Iraqi literature is populated by ‘official’ writers who belong to the Writers’ Union and other cultural institutions. It is a literary scene that depends on personal and cliquey relationships and on the corruption in the press and in the Ministry of Culture. Literary and other cultural projects in Iraq usually come about through personal relationships that are not entirely innocent. Being out in the cold like this comes with its disadvantages, and I have often pressed my editor, Ra Page, to write to Iraqi writers directly and asked him to make some of the selection decisions: if I were the only person in the picture and the sole decision-maker in this project, it might irritate or surprise some Iraqi writers, who are more accustomed to literary projects initiated by people from within the narrow circle of ‘usual suspects’.

The stories collected here have been written by Iraqis from various generations, and display a variety of styles. The authors were born and grew up in a variety of cities; some have abandoned those cities seeking peace and freedom in exile, while others have chosen to stay on and bear witness to their cities’ plight to the end.

The cities featured here—Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi, Mosul, Suleymania, Najaf—are all wildly different places, in fiction and reality, but are united by the tragedy of modern Iraq— the tragedy of a people that is desperate for just a solitary draught of peace. As Iraqis, at home and abroad, we are desperate for this peace, and thirsty for the imagination and creativity essential to rebuild this ancient country—this land of the two rivers.

–Hassan Blasim, September 2016
Translated by Jonathan Wright.

Excerpted from Iraq + 100, copyright © 2016 by Hassan Blasim link 4


GANTZ – 奥 浩哉 Hiroya Oku (2)

The second scene is from volume  36. It’s another existentialist moment where some Gantz players/warriors encounter ‘the Truth’ a statuesque, super intelligent being. They are encouraged to ask questions.

The scene is remarkable for the design of two the Truth figures. The inside of the figure is constantly shapeshifting; heads of creatures and alien races emerge and morph into in/famous humans (Ghandi, Betthoven, Hitler; but also Bill Gates if I’m correct and scientist Stephen Hawking). Is it to make the cryptic statements more accessible for humans to understand?

again, Japanese reading direction.







GANTZ – 奥 浩哉 Hiroya Oku (1)

Gantz by Hiroya Oku was published between 2000-2013 and comprises 37 volumes, each containing over 200 pages. It’s a massive, basically insane science fiction drama. Acts of over the top cruelty are matched by exceptional acts of courage. Emotions and actions are amplified, intensified. The scene below is taken from volume 30 (plus a couple of pages from volume 29), fairly near the end of the manga. It shows a group of humans arriving at the alien mothership.

They don’t know what to expect or what destiny awaits them on board. The armed character in black clothing is Kei Kurono, a protagonist, who is looking for his girlfriend Tae.

fyi the pages below are in Japanese reading direction, top to bottom and right to left.



Gantz v29 c319 - 18[Whatever]Gantz v29 c319 - 19[Whatever]Gantz v29 c319 - 20-21[Whatever]Gantz v29 c319 - 22[Whatever]Gantz v29 c319 - 23[Whatever]Gantz v29 c319 - 24-25[Whatever]

Gantz v30 c320 - 003Gantz v30 c320 - 004-005Gantz v30 c320 - 006-007Gantz v30 c320 - 008-009Gantz v30 c320 - 010Gantz v30 c320 - 011Gantz v30 c320 - 012Gantz v30 c320 - 013Gantz v30 c320 - 014Gantz v30 c320 - 015Gantz v30 c320 - 016Gantz v30 c320 - 017Gantz v30 c320 - 018Gantz v30 c320 - 019Gantz v30 c320 - 020Gantz v30 c320 - 021Gantz v30 c320 - 022Gantz v30 c320 - 023Gantz v30 c320 - 024Gantz v30 c320 - 025Gantz v30 c320 - 026Gantz v30 c320 - 027Gantz v30 c321 - 029Gantz v30 c321 - 030-031Gantz v30 c321 - 032-033Gantz v30 c321 - 034Gantz v30 c321 - 035Gantz v30 c321 - 036Gantz v30 c321 - 037Gantz v30 c321 - 038Gantz v30 c321 - 039Gantz v30 c321 - 040Gantz v30 c321 - 041Gantz v30 c321 - 042Gantz v30 c321 - 043Gantz v30 c321 - 044Gantz v30 c321 - 045Gantz v30 c321 - 046Gantz v30 c321 - 047Gantz v30 c321 - 048Gantz v30 c321 - 049Gantz v30 c321 - 050Gantz v30 c321 - 051Gantz v30 c321 - 052Gantz v30 c321 - 053Gantz v30 c322 - 055Gantz v30 c322 - 056Gantz v30 c322 - 057Gantz v30 c322 - 058Gantz v30 c322 - 059Gantz v30 c322 - 060Gantz v30 c322 - 061Gantz v30 c322 - 062-063Gantz v30 c322 - 064Gantz v30 c322 - 065Gantz v30 c322 - 066-067Gantz v30 c322 - 068Gantz v30 c322 - 069Gantz v30 c322 - 070Gantz v30 c322 - 071Gantz v30 c322 - 072Gantz v30 c322 - 073Gantz v30 c322 - 074-075Gantz v30 c322 - 076Gantz v30 c322 - 077Gantz v30 c322 - 078Gantz v30 c322 - 079Gantz v30 c323 - 081Gantz v30 c323 - 082-083Gantz v30 c323 - 084Gantz v30 c323 - 085Gantz v30 c323 - 086-087Gantz v30 c323 - 088Gantz v30 c323 - 089Gantz v30 c323 - 090Gantz v30 c323 - 091Gantz v30 c323 - 092Gantz v30 c323 - 093Gantz v30 c323 - 094Gantz v30 c323 - 095Gantz v30 c323 - 096Gantz v30 c323 - 097Gantz v30 c323 - 098Gantz v30 c323 - 099Gantz v30 c324 - 101Gantz v30 c324 - 102Gantz v30 c324 - 103Gantz v30 c324 - 104-105Gantz v30 c324 - 106Gantz v30 c324 - 107Gantz v30 c324 - 108Gantz v30 c324 - 109Gantz v30 c324 - 110Gantz v30 c324 - 111Gantz v30 c324 - 112Gantz v30 c324 - 113Gantz v30 c324 - 114-115Gantz v30 c324 - 116Gantz v30 c324 - 117Gantz v30 c324 - 118Gantz v30 c324 - 119Gantz v30 c325 - 121Gantz v30 c325 - 122-123Gantz v30 c325 - 124Gantz v30 c325 - 125Gantz v30 c325 - 126Gantz v30 c325 - 127Gantz v30 c325 - 128Gantz v30 c325 - 129Gantz v30 c325 - 130-131Gantz v30 c325 - 132-133Gantz v30 c325 - 134Gantz v30 c325 - 135Gantz v30 c325 - 136Gantz v30 c325 - 137Gantz v30 c325 - 138-139Gantz v30 c325 - 140Gantz v30 c325 - 141Gantz v30 c325 - 142Gantz v30 c325 - 143Gantz v30 c325 - 144Gantz v30 c325 - 145Gantz v30 c325 - 146Gantz v30 c325 - 147Gantz v30 c325 - 148Gantz v30 c325 - 149Gantz v30 c325 - 150-151Gantz v30 c325 - 152Gantz v30 c325 - 153Gantz v30 c325 - 154-155Gantz v30 c326 - 157Gantz v30 c326 - 158-159Gantz v30 c326 - 160Gantz v30 c326 - 161Gantz v30 c326 - 162-163Gantz v30 c326 - 164-165Gantz v30 c326 - 166-167Gantz v30 c326 - 168Gantz v30 c326 - 169

YVONNE HOWELL – Apocalyptic Realism The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky


Yvonne Howell    Apocalyptic Realism The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 

New York, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt/M., Paris, Wien, 1994. X, 170 pp.
Russian and East European Studies in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Culture. Vol. 1 General Editor: Willis Truitt 

Book Synopsis:

The brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky have been Russia’s most popular science fiction writers since their first publication appeared in 1959. The enormous and consistent popularity of their works over three decades of fluctuating political and literary conditions is all the more interesting when one considers that their primary readership has been the Russian scientific-technical intelligentsia – a sector of society whose values
and attitudes were instrumental in transforming the Soviet Union. This lively and original study of the Strugatskys’ development as writers and as spokesmen for a generation of Russian scientists is as timely as it is unique. It is also the first English language study of the Strugatskys’ previously unpublished novels. 

The Author: 

Yvonne Howell is an assistant professor of Russian at the University of Richmond. After graduating from Dartmouth College with a double concentration in Russian language and biology in 1981, she spent a year doing field work and studying zoology at Leningrad State University. Her doctoral degree is in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Michigan. She travels to Russia regularly for teaching and research purposes.


Yvonne Howell’s study is structured into four chapters: Apocalyptic Realism, False Prophets, Apocalyptic Settings and Aliens of Our Time. Howell describes general aspects and some of the literary and philosophical driving forces behind the brother’s work. She not only introduces major theme complexes surrounding the novels, the study constantly relates to a Soviet and Russian collective mental realm. Howell makes the convincing argument that the Strugatskys engaged in a constant feedback loop between SF storylines and contemporary daily lives in the Soviet Union. In other words, the novels mirror elements of culture, political and other real life occurrences and tendencies. Howell describes the Strugatskys’ textual tree in its entirety, with the roots taping into a rich East-Western literary heritage.  

The Strugatskys take inspiration from strong source texts such as the biblical Revelations or mythological tales which they then sophistically adapt, transform and interweave into their SF stories. In her postscript, Howell writes ‘In any case, it seems likely that the Strugatskys’ science fiction will gain new relevance as science history-as a portrait of the intellectual, inter-personal, political, linguistic, and mundane concerns which formed the fabric of scientific culture in the Soviet Union.’ (p. 153)

I chose the following extracts with a couple of thoughts in mind. They show the generosity and precision of Howell’s approach to literary criticism, as the passages include extended reflections on Soviet – and Western – culture at large. The passages mention a cultural subconscious sphere, which acts as fundament and support structure for the brothers literary endeavour. In Apocalyptic Realism, you read about the Strugatskys, but you will also gain additional, deep, interdisciplinary knowledge. Howells writing and reasoning is insightful, lucid even. Images by Hieronymus Bosch and Sandro Botticelli. Some highlighting in blue by myself.  MG


Towards the end of his life, the Russian philosopher and religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev summed up the essence of the Russian national character, as he perceived it, in a book called The Russian Idea (1946). He stated that Russians are either apocalyptiscists or nihilists; thus, the ‘Russian Idea’ is eschatological; it is oriented towards the end, and it is this which accounts for Russian maximalism. Such generalisations are important insofar as they reflect a society’s mythical perception of itself – often transformed into a self-fulfilling prophesy. At least since the time of Peter I, Russian intellectuals have been occupied with defining their national identity in a land which occupies the crossroads of East and West, the old and the new, anarchy and authoritarianism, Orthodoxy and scientism. The binary oppositions by which Russia defines itself have always had a decidedly religious character – depending on one’s orientation, one pole of any given opposition is equated with the antichrist, the other with universal salvation. (For example, Peter ‘the great’s’ decision to open up Russia to the West convinced his opposition that the reign of the antichrist had arrived; just as many today associate Russia’s transition to a market economy with swerving from the road of Orthodoxy and salvation). Accordingly, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was perceived as the final confrontation in history between all oppositions; and Marxist-Leninism, no less than any overtly religious movement, promised the dawn of a utopian new age of universal brotherhood (communism in the ‘radiant future’). The importance of the ‘Russian Idea’ (extremist and eschatological) to contemporary Russian literature, even when the Revolution’s millenarian claims have long since become the punch line of sardonic jokes, is that it continues to survive and influence scientific, religious, and political culture. (p.16-17)

The most basic underlying structure of all the Strugatskys’ mature works is described by two axes suggested in the generalisations above, and the hypothetical axes take as their zero point the sociopolitical event of the Revolution and the founding of the Soviet State. This moment was supposed to divide history into two periods: the exploitative and degenerate old world was to be transformed into a new, proletarian paradise. The Strugatskys do not reverse this vector to claim that the old world was better than the new; they simply describe contemporary, everyday life in the Soviet Union as appallingly banal, bureaucratic, imperfect, and spiritually bankrupt. (…) We might posit a horizontal axis of description which runs the gamut of the mundane aspects of a Soviet citizen’s contemporary existence. This axis should properly be called the axis of byt. ‘Byt’ is an untranslatable Russian term meaning, roughly, the dull, routine, hopeless dreariness which inheres in the physical reality of one’s everyday life. (…) Clearly, much of the Strugatskys’ irony is aimed at the sorry condition of the ‘new millennium’. If the Revolution signalled the end of history, than what has followed is not the Kingdom of Heaven, but its ludicrous parody: contemporary byt. However, the starting point of the Russian Revolution is also crossed by another, vertical axis. This axis is best understood as an unbroken continuum of cultural memory. That is, a succession of literary styles, philosophical trends, historical events, and religious debates which had been suppressed by the regime and largely forgotten during the Strugatskys’ lifetime is pieced back together by way of frequent symbolic or intertextual allusion. As the preliminary work for this study progressed, it became increasingly evident that a significant source of meaning and imagery in the Strugatskys’ ‘future’ or ‘alien’ worlds is derived from the literary and philosophical/religious heritage of Russia’s Silver Age and post-Revolutionary avant-garde. The authors’ intertextual allusions to Bulgakov, Bely, Platonov, and the Russian Absurdists (Oberiu poets) represent a conscious effort to respond to the theme of apocalypse present in Russian literature during the immediate pre- and post-Revolutionary era. Furthermore, the Strugatskys, like their Silver Age and 1920s predecessors, attempt to redefine the relevance of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic thought to contemporary Russian life by incorporating into their fantastic world imagery from the gnostic and Manichaean heresies, the cosmology of Dante, and – of course – the biblical Revelation.
The coincidence of allusion to Bulgakov’s Margarita and the Divine Sophia, of Bely’s Petersburg and Manichean dualism, of Platonov’s Foundation Pit and Dante’s Inferno also suggest the influence of Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Fyodorov on the shape of the Strugatskys’s science fiction from the 1970s on. Generally speaking, both Solovyov and Fyodorov based their eschatology’s on a distinctly Russian interpretation of the meaning of Christianity. Fyodorov, in particular, sought a grand synthesis of scientific rationalism and mystical idealism. (p.18-19)


In any case, they are among the first post-war Russian writers to retrieve this important thread of Russian culture and give it new literary shape. In short, one finds that fantastic images in the Strugatskys’ late works are taken neither from high-tech realm of cybernetics, nor from magical world of the fairy tale. Rather, they draw their images from the metaphysical systems of the early Christian heresies and dualist cosmologies, and the incorporation of these systems into the Russian modernist movement at the beginning of this century. (p.19-20)

One way in which the Strugatskys began to increase the complexity of their fiction was to incorporate the philosophical and metaphysical issues they wished to address as elements of the plot. Whether consciously or not, the authors developed a form which would let the nature of the extra-textual or intertextual material actually affect and predetermine the course of events in what was ostensibly a purely entertaining, action-packed plot. Once this was achieved, the science fiction, detective, or adventure story plot was not merely a vehicle for allegory; rather, it could in some way be shaped and anticipated by the underlying philosophical agenda.  (p. 20)

However, the contemporary, mundane setting of Soviet byt is also used as a symbolic repository of literary and cultural allusions. The trick is to create a double-vision of the modern age: ‘realistic’ depictions of contemporary Soviet life reveal a banal and godless landscape , while symbolic motifs within that landscape point to its true location somewhere on the battleground between Christ and the antichrist (where the antichrist, for the time being, has successfully established an anti-millennium!). Frances A. Yates’ fascinating study of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance Art of Memory provides the most useful relationship between wetting and theme in the Strugatskys’ science fiction. In the classical world, before the invention of the press, the ability to store in proper order a large or complicated set of information was of utmost importance to any intellectual endeavor. An accomplished orator of could recite lengthy speeches without the use of notes; a lawyer in Greek or Roman antiquity could keep innumerable facts about a case straight in his head (…) We should understand what kind of mnemotechnics the ancients used to achieve a prodigious ‘artificial memory’. (p. 23)

A consistent theme in all of the Strugatskys’ mature works is the catastrophic loss of cultural memory which has occurred in the Soviet Union within their lifetime. In the Strugatskys’ handling, the genre of science fiction itself is subordinate to this theme, since a culture which cannot remember its past cannot ‘remember’ its future either. The Strugatskys’ non-extrapolatory science fiction is based on the notion that the rapid loss of cultural memory has shortened the approach of the future, which, in fact, has already merged with the present. The stylistic result of this conflation of the present with an unimaginable and unimagined future is most noticeable in the description of the setting.
As we shall see in more detail, the Strugatskys’ settings provide the loci and the images to jog one’s memory of a long and complicated subtext – the Western cultural heritage of the Russian intelligentsia. The settings of all the novels discussed in this chapter are intentionally – to the point of stylistic didacticism – designed as fictional ‘rooms’ or ‘landscapes’ cluttered with half-familiar ‘images’ which represent the concepts and the texts the authors wish the reader to recall. (…) In The Doomed City, the protagonist’s daily walk home to the suburbs leads him past workers digging a foundation pit. At the same time, the reader must mentally ‘walk by’ Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit: i.e., the device insures that the reader will recall both the content of Platonov’s long-suppressed anti-utopian masterpiece, and its proper ‘location’ (order) in the broken and distorted continuum of Russian intellectual history. (…)  In The Doomed City and A Lame Fate, landscapes and interiors harbour the imagery of a rich and eclectic selection of the literary and philosophical ‘monuments to the spirit’ inherited by the Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the century. A closer examination of these settings is crucial, since it should reveal exactly what part of Russia’s cultural memory is being sculpted into the literary landscape for preservation, and why. (p. 25-26)


How are the apocalyptic and gnostic motifs underlying plot formation and sculpted into the landscape reflected in the characterisation of the protagonists? How does the relationship between the human protagonist and the alien change over time? The study of characterisation culminates the process of discovering how the Strugatskys’ unique brand of science fiction has served the needs of the Russian intelligentsia so well for three full decades. On eight expect that the intelligentsia readership has found a reflection of itself in the Strugatskys’ heroes, and this is indeed the case. Furthermore, by using the fantastic licence to model reality, the authors have actually provided a kind of cultural myth to live by. The Strugatskys’ heroes not only embody the values of the intelligentsia at any given time; they carry these values into the experimental future or alternative world of the fantastic, where they find either rejection or affirmation.
So far, we have predicted that a prefigurative plot or a ‘loaded’ landscape can refer the educated reader to a variety of other texts which are important for cultural memory. The pattern of subtexts discovered by the reader lends considerable philosophical depth to the superficially straight-forward, popular-genre format. Clearly, the more the reader knows about the inter-textual world the Strugatskys refer to, the greater the meaning (and didactic value) of the novel. A reader les literate in the cultural experience of the Russian/Jewish intellectual in the twentieth-century Soviet Union will understand the novel accordingly: as a more or less self-referential, purely fictional entertainment. Before connecting this aspect of reader-reception to the ‘myth-making’ function of the Strugatskys’ science fiction, it is necessary to look at the more obscure subtexts which inform and change the image of the hero in the late works. (p. 26)


now forward to pages 74-77, the analysis of The Doomed City. I was particularly interested in this part because of the idea of a Dantean descent into a subterranean, ‘subconscious’ compound – what I essentially explore in my In the Museum 1-3, adapted to a museum complex that Christopher Walken visits. MG


In part 1, chapter 3 of The Doomed City, Andrei has just been catapulted out of a fantastic ‘Red House’ onto a square in the city. The ‘Red House’ appears in a different location in the city on different nights; it seems to exist at will in different places at different times. (…) The physical parallels in the two stories are made significant by paralleles on the spiritual or legendary personages who are suffering the consequences of their various willed perversions, they are also allegorical figures representing the potential for evil inherent in the poet’s own soul, and within any individual soul. It is a gross, but not inaccurate simplification of the allegory to say that until each individual recognises the hell within, it will be impossible for any community, or country, or humankind as a whole to achieve the harmony of Paradise – in secular terms, social utopia. Virgil is chosen to accompany Dante in his journey through Hell, because he represents the composite cultural and artistic achievements of Western civilisation. His art and philosophy and morality  cannot in and of themselves open the gates of Heaven, but they can awaken and guide the sinful soul onto the path of righteousness and salvation.
Dante’s epic poem is also a political jeremiad, aimed at the critical sociopolitical situation in thirteenth-century Italy. In her introduction to The Divine Comedy, Dorothy Sayers formulates the point of the historical Dante’s political concerns as ‘a protest against that drive towards theocracy… (which he viewed as) an attempt to establish the Kingdom of God here and now as an ecclesiastical-political structure’. The great twofold pattern which unfolds in Dante’s epic poem confirms a view of history as a process of redemption within time and salvation as a process of redemption outside of time. (pp. 74-75)


However, the Strugatskys’ Afterworld is not entirely imaginary or fantastic. On the contrary, it is contiguous with Andrei’s world and has a palpable quality of empirical reality – it is, after all, physically extant in many works of art. For example, the old man has no trouble identifying the location of the phantasmagoric ‘Red House’ in the temporal world, thereby ’rationalising’ its existence in the Afterworld:

‘It’s not hard to recognise it, said the old man softly.
‘Before, in that life, I often saw it depicted and described. It is described in great detail in the Revelations of St. Anthony. Of course, that particular text has not been canonised, … For us Catholics… Well, anyway, I’ve read it. ‘A house appeared to me, it was alive and in motion, it made indecent gestures, and I could see through the windows that inside there were people who walked through the rooms, slept, and ate…’ I can’t claim that this is an exact quote, but it’s very close. Then, of course, there is  Hieronymous Bosch. I would call him Saint Hieronymus Bosch, and I’m very much obliged to him preparing me for this…’ – he motioned broadly to his surroundings…
I recognise a great deal of what I see here, and it pains me to even think of those who have arrived here without understanding, and without the capacity to understand, where they are. A tortuous incomprehension of what surrounds them, compounded by tortuous memories of their sins. Perhaps this is also the great wisdom of the Creator: eternal consciousness of one’s sins without the realisation that one is being punished… Take for example, you, young man – for what sins were you healed into this abyss?’
‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about,’ grumbled Andrei. ‘Religious fanatics are the last think we need in this place….’ he thought to himself. (The Doomed City, 271-272)


Thus, not only the ‘Red House,’ but the entire city, and even its geographical location, has a solid precedent in artistic and cultural icons of Western civilisation. The pattern of intertextual allusions is already evident: the setting is prefigured by artistic depictions of the Apocalypse and the Underworld. In the interplay between the Strugatskys’ ‘fantastic’ setting and its ‘real’ intertextual precedent, the discrepancy between the two planes of reality is, in fact, neutralised. Both Andrei’s perceptions and the old man’s perceptions are correct simultaneously: they are living in the Soviet Union in the latter half of the twentieth century, and they are living in Hell. If one distills and specifies the source of humour in the Strugatskys’ text, one finds that the humour of the situation arises as a kind of inevitable byproduct of the ‘neutralisation’ process: the realisation that the real and the fantastic – the contemporary reader’s world and the ‘infernos’ of world literature – are one and the same thing, evokes the ironic laughter of recognition. (pp. 76-77)