Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

An Island Emissary

Short story, in Southerly Journal, Issue 79.1: 80! (published Dec. 7th online in The Long Paddock), at:




NS Island 2

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The Aid Worker

Short story published in Mascara Literary Review, Issue 22 (June, 2018):


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In Khost Province

Short prose in Mascara Literary Review #19, September 2016: http://mascarareview.com/in-khost-province-by-martin-kovan/

Ballots not Bullets - Anja Niedringhaus, March 2014.png

“Ballot not Bullet” – Anja Niedringhaus, March, 2014


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Short-fiction (written Paris, 2006); published in modified form in the print journal (School of Culture and Communication, Melbourne University) antiTHESIS # 23: LIVE, November 2013:



The original piece is here:

There is a light which glances into the stream-of-vision of the paying commuters. It is the same light that travels from the silvery vaults of the Maison de la Monnaie through the protection warning-system and fibre-optic transmitters into the receptor-diodes of the mobile-phone of the man speaking in a reasonable American voice even though he stands bluntly in the middle of the pedestrian tunnel saying damage control an indefinite number of times into the phone mouthpiece.

The noise plays out not far ahead of him. At initial hearing it could be an edgy installation-soundscape, but this is not a music of the fibre-optic age, a post-industrial slithering zither of ultra-violet rays. It is neither sophisticated nor aurally fine, but the overtones move into the front of consciousness like a tireless assassin even so. It might be the creation of another race, an alien species half-insect or machine according to whichever side of the prototypical spectrum the human one still concedes to. There must be giant amplifiers positioned in odd acoustic proportion: the sound, its source unclear, seems to reach under the skin, even where it deceives the ear, and could be coming from the interior as much as anywhere in objective space.

The interior and objective space are not necessarily exclusive categories (nothing so new about that).

Damage control the man’s voice says again – of course ‘damage control’ might have any number of determinants not least the kind of patch-up jobs we are used to witnessing in Hanoi or Kabul or Baghdad. Defy me the music dares to declare in the tubular labyrinth and out through ventilation shafts and into the free air of the free (-ly bought) world.

The House of Money is an august institution whose proper identity has been protected for the purposes of this fiction by translation and transplantation into an indeterminate zone (you say place, or language, or signifier and I say yes and also real insofar as the power-conduit that exits from the gold-gilt gates reaches over the heads of the casseurs on the outskirts of town all the way to the reiteration of the words damage control in thin spidery italics underground, always underground, always spoken in a nuanced and reasonable American version courtesy of Time Warner and the men who brought you Quiet Days in an Evil Age, cf. Code 21CN of the Unattributed Act of Inattention #6J/art. 5-A).

It’s not an alarm, a re-run of…is it? Not here, after the hi-jinks in…er, confidentiality blues bl-ue-ue eyes, they say they’ve got blue eyes, not brown, under the hoods and burkhas and the AK47s stuffed inside all-purpose fatigue trousers and speaking of fatigue aren’t you all a bit goddamned tired by now? not least of this? (text, triste tropique, topos, hungry-ghost realm, pick any but pick).

She’s Bosnian (no prizes). Sits like a lame duck on the concrete floor with the mind-curdling gadzook between her legs as if she has given birth to a wailing serpent of ancient Illyria, the placental mess nearby, where the ticket-barriers are, trying to get through. Perhaps it is a love-song, perhaps to the damage-control man, but he isn’t listening, not right now (again no prizes, trying to get through to you), and other voices beckon – from HQ, the bunker, Mr. Big’s leather armchair, Xanadu, where you will. The dear duck doesn’t even bother with a hat out for coins or, presumptuously, paper notes. She just plays – gratis-like, sawing away for blind life, straight off the mountains. (It ain’t Easter for nuthin’, folks.)

The bow she uses has, perhaps, five or six actual hairs, but they are industrial-strength mythical human wire from the superhuman old races of Dalmatia or Carpathia or Georgia, where old men and women live the longest. The most beautiful thing is the unbowed sound-plus-body coordination, where she leans into the micro-tonally raised, then diminished, drone-note – it is a monster’s wail, a Frankenstein cry – beautiful as an idiot-infant’s eye left to weep on a highway by midnight overpass lights.

Then she swings back, heavy old-woman dugs following the line of inarticulate least resistance: it’s a single note, and she has a single tooth in her head, a single pure idea guiding her single unadulterated wish which is to live in the world, with the others, the strangers, the intergalactic youth swarming round her in tinted shades, not least the damage-control man himself.

And so she saws. She could be sawing an umbilical cord attached to that same humanity, or a birch-tree trunk from the old country, or the deep wound of war she has left behind there. It is a single-stringed instrument played with a few hairs by a single old woman who will die within two or three years of it, or less. The commuters look askance because they imagine they smell diarrhoea or vomit escaping from under the peasant skirts, the cobbled shoes, the heavy thighs that lumpenly sit turned-in under the shadows of the barrier-gates (always a barrier, always a gate). There is something a little unsavoury about the old woman’s (chinny-chin-chin) hairs, and the fact that she can’t manage to raise an actual tune, a tune of more than a single, living ground-note from the rudimentary single-stringed instrument. Where has she come from anyway? Shouldn’t she be home in her village, celebrating Easter with flammable spirits and gypsy wars and gambling and guns and mafia picaresque exploding around her? Not here – this is a different world, that’s all, not a judgement. (The saw-music is still loud and clear, its great godfearing laughter raining down stage-left between the tattered poster-bills and Brazilian boys sharing out the deal).

So that the American agent is curious, finally. Time to move into action-mode. Is that really diarrhoea I can smell? Don’t they pay someone to keep these places clean? Jesus save-them-from-themselves Christ. He even sings: we gotta get outta this place, sotto voce, not quite in tune, but reasonable, even so, the portable phone mouthpiece dangling under the jowls. KFC still on his breath. There’s a few  minutes left, left to kill. Take your time, Joe. Have a shoe-shine on the way out. Arab boy, cute as country-pie.

The most extraordinary thing is no-one would ever know how purely and superbly articulated it was. Some kind of disastrous freak accident, a hatchet-job, sheer evil-minded horse-play – the Brazilian boys, or students, the casseurs from the outskirts for that matter, all the Arabs. All the Arabs in the place, you couldn’t find enough front-end loaders to dump them.

The man moves toward the ticket-barriers, and it’s odd, but she stops playing, just as he passes (the chin-hairs, flowered skirt, the old Bosnian stink of it), and drops the little token of appreciation into her lap. The eery hawking saw-music suddenly become a silence that breaks out into the air above open ground. Like an encore, the silence, just for him. As if she knows, even as she wonders what she’s gleaned this time. (No-one else does, ever will).

He’s already half-way down the main street when the explosion bursts the innards out of the underground. No more of the godforsaken music, at least, a small blessing on Easter Day. Just pieces of old Bosnia on the shattered walls, a map of old, parti-coloured Europe, for the memory. She’ll be a saint, bless her heart.

And the American accent – a decoy, bluff, pretty transparent really. Not really a true-to-God American – no such thing. No see no blood, no shed no blood, where the chopping gets done.

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Monolith and Minotaur

They’d been offering up their best and brightest for so long now, that it didn’t matter anymore what the first appeasement had been for. The usual savants said it was to sustain an antique order, established long before memory. The oldest of gods, they said, still exerted a malign will if anything should ever change. Anyway, an old story—that barely matters now.

Every nine years or so in those Antipodes, young men and women—the ‘most courageous and the most beautiful’ as the old legend goes—were sent into far-flung places, far over seas, to pay fealty to foreign masters. Few ever questioned its provenance, or its received wisdoms: it was necessary, the venerable pundits said, to confront the monster, to pay blood-money if it comes to that. We reached our age of reason, long ago. If our finest flower are its necessary sacrifice, who are we to doubt its rightness? Our forebears did it before us, as will those to come. There’s no shame in dying if (as our Saviour did) it serves the benefit of us all.

The TV chat-shows, online threads and Twitterverse repeated the message: if we don’t meet the test, all our freedom will be put to ransom. So they went, the fruit and flower of the people, from rich subtropical pleasure-grounds, to deserts and mountainous wastes hardly anyone knew, to battle-zones and places of scorched earth, willing to offer up their lives (everyone thought) with grit and gravitas, serving the right masters even when they fell under the heels of the wrong.

But who were they, the false overlords, whom no-one ever saw, who must be always appeased with the blood of sacrifice? They wore strange clothes, brandished arrogant idols, spoke languages that barely seemed human. Over the years and decades, still longer, they had taken on so many faces and outlandish names, with such an unlikely catalogue of demands and obsessions that could never be met, that in the popular imagination they had become a collective Monolith, never having been seen or properly identified—the broker of lives and deaths, that could itself never be broken.

In recent times, though, the time of rising terror, the Monolith had proven that far more than being an ever-greedy ransomer, it was intent on subduing the free world that still remained, demanding more than mere obeisance. The Monolith had begun to spread, throwing a deathly shadow over larger stretches of hitherto neutral regions: anything that denied its supremacy, anyone who stood in its way, was grist for its insatiable, evil will.

So that the time came when the people were forced to face the truth: something would have to be done to stem its relentless tide. Innocent lives had been taken, flagrant abuses passed unpunished. Before the greybeards had gathered together for collective deliberation—it was an almost disconcerting convenience—word had come of a freedom-fighter, an ally on the horizon, who had volunteered to confront the Monolith on its own terrain.

This saving force was known, with some familiarity, as ‘the American.’ Some laughed at this, said the name was an alias, that he wasn’t the real thing, but only a kind of adventurer. Even so, to prove his claims, the American showed them a large standing army, the most advanced striking force and equipment, an acute intelligence corps, able to bring down the Monolith for good.

How could the people not trust the breezy blow-in, who came with a reputation and a brazen, reassuring ring in his name? The only difficulty was that the American would have to find entry into the Monolith, when no-one ever had and emerged from it alive. After all, what was the Monolith, apart from being the most malign force on earth? It was a shifting, shape-changing chimaera, when all was said and done. It existed: but like a nasty illusion does, a particularly ugly hallucination with power to wreak the worst havoc.

Many of the most cluey pundits described it as more like a labyrinth, a ventricular heart of confounding passages and false entry-ways, a convoluted maze of dead ends and deceiving pathways. By virtue of these illusion-like Monolithic innards, the enemy could only uncertainly be pursued, and almost always elude capture. The enemy was everywhere, the Monolith inescapable, setting up sabotage and booby-traps at every unexpected turn of the way. The challenge seemed insuperable, the risks still worse than the casualties to its encroachment had already been.

But the American was dauntless, insisting he and his cohorts in freedom were the men for the job. They would confront the Monolith head on and, they said, ‘make mince-meat of him.’ Perhaps it was reassuring; to many of the people doubtless it was, and the American was given full sanction to fulfil his mandate. He was seen as a reformer, an agent for enlightenment and the establishment of new, liberal norms. He and his forces would teach the Monolith some culture, the roots and branches, maybe even the full flower, of civilisation.

Volunteers and skilled fighters from many distant places joined them; they became a force, a power to be reckoned with. It seemed the American might have some cause for confidence, after all. Everyone looked forward to the end of the Monolithic Age, its labyrinths dismantled, its tentacular poisoned industry forever stopped in its tracks. Of course, no-one knew how difficult that might prove to be; but they believed in its possibility, and hope is preferable to disillusion, faith more seductive than despair.

The American, with his Antipodean brothers in arms and their formidable force, set off with all fanfare, but it wasn’t long before word returned that they had met ambush and been diverted from their way. Still worse, already in that no-man’s land between safety and the dark unknown, a possible spy had been identified in their midst—a young woman no less. She had come to the American during one afternoon of camp rest, and grown unusually close to him. As a native of the region, she had begun to advise him on the territory, on his movements and course of action.

But surely she was planted there, a waif of the oasis, by an unseen hand. How else, it was mooted, had they been so quickly threatened, so early in their operation? It could only be the woman’s doing, this serene weaver of tales who, it was said, wove such unlikely scenarios for no other reason than to catch the American in her web.

And the truth soon emerged that the American, their stalwart leader, had fallen for this foreigner, with her foreign accent, and had even promised her that on his successful return from the Monolith, he’d seal their complicity in elopement to those fertile southern climes she could only dream of. He painted technicolour visions of that other world, with its streams of flowing manna and unending riches.

What greater enticement could such a man make? Surely this siren (so the pundits said), this Calypso, had turned the American’s head! But there was no choice for them but to trust his instinct, as always, and tolerate the girl who presumed, with such uncanny calm, to tell him where, and how, to go. They were in the badlands now, in a barren border country they didn’t understand, and they needed her help. To the American she even gave, in a strange symbiotic pact, a smart phone that would always show him, invisibly if not inaudibly, the way he had come.

Call me when you’re ready to, she told him. But only once you’ve gone as far as you can go. Then I’ll guide you back again.

Where would a poor, ignorant girl come across a device like that? many asked. Many of those in the American’s closest entourage had grave suspicions of this woman they called, with caustic irony, the Lady Saint, but they let him have his way. For his part, the American held she was a gift of God, a kind of special messenger, and that his faith in her was certain. Was his mission not divinely ordained? Was it not made in the name of universal love? Still more, the Monolith was letting no time be wasted; reports of wild subjugations came to them, whole populations of terrified innocents held under its heavy hand. Any resistors were summarily dealt with; the numbers of the slain was appalling and grotesque. No time could be wasted on the American’s part, now, no quibbles or doubts; decisive action was required.

No-one had reckoned on the obduracy of their foe: the Monolith could be neither found nor diminished, no matter how many peripheral skirmishes they won against it. The Saint had told them, in one of her inspired moods, to go straight ahead, veering neither to the right nor the left. If they came to any depressions in the ground, any steep descents into deeper territory, they should always move there, deeper, lower, as far down as they could go.

This was disturbing—was she, the supposed Saint, leading them into some underworld, a place of no return? She would betray them, surely, and lure them to their end! There seemed little doubt of it. The further they went, the more they sought the heart of the Monolith, the more obscure and ill-lit, the more murky their progress grew. It seemed misguided, the entire thing.

Some of the freedom-fighters began to show ill-effects, flailing at unreal visions, going beserk in dead, echoing canyons until subdued with the heaviest sedations. But the American insisted, and spurred his cohorts on, smelling the sulphur on the air in the very words he spoke. They were close, however ill-advised it might seem, and the closer they were to the workings of the Monolith, the closer they would soon be to victory. It was too late to turn back now. And didn’t they know the storm always presages a silver lining?

Still deeper on their way, they began to feel they were entering the region of Monolithic control. Many of them fell by the wayside, sick in mind and spirit, and were left to find their own way back. The American pushed on, sure he would come to the place of reckoning before long. He had faith in his word, in the people, in his newfound love.

The Lady Saint, herself, was forced to stay back early in the mission, and part from him, at risk of jeopardising them all. Many still believed she was from the other side, and would have brought them all to perdition. They formed an inner-circle, and held closed colloquy among themselves. Learning of these breakaways, trusting only to his closest aides, the American had them go first into the deepening gorge ahead of them. He watched almost with satisfaction when they were, to every man, destroyed in a line of mines, planted in an unmarked road. The Monolith was close, there was no question now. It was just a matter of treading further, with lightweight, inspired steps.

Because they felt that now—the breath of inspiration. They felt the free world was within their grasp, once this cancer had been vanquished. Then they would know the peace of control, of safety secured, of which they would never let go. The whole world would be theirs, in this impregnable surety: what could be more desirable?

The closer they grew to the source of the evil the more they knew they would have to close ranks, in order to defeat it. Any idlers were abandoned, any doubters put away. So many dark little spaces rose under their steps, shadowed by the breath of the Monolith, all seedy and foul in the air. They could barely breathe, barely keep their limbs, their minds, intact. It was almost intolerable, the knowledge of the imminent, the worst of all.

When it came no-one was prepared for it and many fled in sheer incredulity. There were few who could stand up to it, the pressure behind the eyes and the vision before them: it was the most aweful thing they’d ever known, and no-one had warned that it was waiting, that it was what had been waiting there all along.

The Minotaur, waking from archaic sleep.

The American had been warned by the Saint, his lady-love, who told him how to get there, but not what to do once he’d arrived. It must be in the script, God’s writ, that he would defeat this foe, with his manifest destiny, and its certain demise. But it wasn’t clear that things would run that smoothly, not this time around. The people were relying on him, all the people, in the south and in the north, in all the free regions. But he couldn’t guarantee that now. He couldn’t guarantee anything.

Something had unleashed the Minotaur—the American himself perhaps. It waited for him in immobile, bull-necked power.

He could always turn back—she had given him the means to, after all. Perhaps she already knew it would come to this, that he would realise the extremity at the last moment, and decide against it. The Lady Saint was waiting for him now, dreaming of that Antipodes the American had promised her in such lifelike, dayglo colours.

But that was impossible. To decide against it? How could he possibly turn back? He was meant to win. It was written—he, and he alone, was the only possible victor. Even his allies took second place to that. He had always won; even if he’d lost the battle, he’d always won the war, one way or another. He couldn’t surrender the cherished prize: that realm of impermeable borders, where only sanctioned things could come and go. No gaps, no holes, no unseen interstice, could be left in this world, in order to keep disorder out. It would be a beautiful, closed system, forever more. Nothing else would ever be needed, gained or lost. Another kind of monolith in truth, its white twin: a monolith of total security, a fixity of peace eternal, as it had been promised, in the oldest of days.

But this, in front of him, this Minotaur was different. It didn’t have the first inkling of any of that. It had a will to destroy the American (and surely all his hapless allies, as well). It stood on low, powerful haunches, and stared at him, breathing sulphur through its nostrils. Its cloven hoofs stroked the poisoned, dirt ground. Under his breath the American said, true to all his heroes, It’s your head or mine. I’ll take off your head, and carry it back as proof, you filthy bastard. Once I’ve got you, your head on my spike, that will be the end of it. It will all be over.

The Minotaur looked, almost wisely, deeply, at its enemy, its eyes alight, as if it might be laughing at him: over? what will all be over?

The American was sure, the more he waited, and stared, that the beast was, in fact, laughing. And they waited, like that, transfixed in the deep heart of the Monolith, of both Monoliths, unable to move. Far behind them, in a no-man’s land, the Lady Saint waited also, ready to lead them out.

They waited, in the most loving and patient hatred, neither of them moving in for the final kill.

August 2013

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The Prodigal

FROM far away, from the other end of the inverted telescope of slow forgetting, her native place begins to take on a ritual, hieratic choreography. There, in the place she has left, she sees people moving towards hanging things on the far, parched horizon. Something is sought out there, with open eyes, then with closed. Are they sideshow trifles, condemned collaborators, strange fruits of the earth that hover above the line beyond which things lose all definition?

Yet things unseen, undreamt can always be imagined, we are told by the bus-stop prophets, talk-show hosts, the weekend newspapers. There is a soundtrack to every revolution, to send it on its way, which can be ordered on request. The people move, again, two steps forward, then one back. A cautious, but steady progress. It is possible to venture into the unknown, dip the toes in the waters to be found there, before returning to the safety-zone of home territory. In her telescope-view, though, the hanging things (of Babylon? the charnel-house? the Gates of Eden? she still can’t tell) beckon them onward, and no-one blocks their nose or shields their eyes out of fear or disgust of what might be there. There have been wars before, and massacres, even the occasional desert kidnapping, and young bodies found slashed to pieces in a dry gully, or not found at all, in all the thousands of dry river-beds of the wild country.

Her oneiry though suggests a modest redemption: taste of these fruits and you shall receive knowledge, in these strung-up angel wings hides the wisdom of the ages. They might be wings, she sees, thickly feathered, growing mouldy and foul under the rain and the sun. When the historians and anthropologists come to claim them it won’t be an easy thing to ready them for the museum or the government-sponsored cultural exposition. These large and ludicrous relics of an unearthly visitation will be full of ants and maggots, new live things breeding in the irrelevance of the old.

Such things are redundant, that much is clear, even in the economy of her daydream. The country she sees now only in these images of doubt (the people still walk across the ground, aching with questions) has spent its whole life in a dogged pilgrimage toward its own vast horizons, without being sure of what it has found there. Walking past the most rare of its treasures in the half-light of centuries of dusk. That is what a destiny is: to pursue a journey without knowing what has been lost and gained on the way, and to not know the destination at which you arrive.

She sees them, the pilgrims of doubt, hears the tracklist as they move: an old-time waltz in three-four time, the Internationale, accordion confections, folk-rock anthems, house-music beats that twang and thud into ventureless aeons of the sky where they are transformed into sub-acoustic skeins of delirium, of delight. If they are wings strung up there, they must belong to emus or vultures, or they’re versions of Mussolini and his mistress, her make-up kit slipping out of her handbag hanging upside down. They are enormous wasp hives, one labyrinth built onto another like post-apocalyptic cities, insect Metropoli, whose inhabitants think in five dimensions but dream outside them. They are apostle lovers who twirl and plunge in mid-air, hanging in space, hanging onto eachothers’ robes in that well-known Renaissance defiance of gravity.

As they move, she sees some of the people drop out of the race. They stumble to their knees, gasp in the dust and fall by the wayside. For many it is too much to keep moving toward whimsical uncertainties. If it is necessary to entertain hope, it is reasonable to ask what hope would hope for. These people are considerately collected by governmental health-workers and led to waiting mobile health-units, put inside sterile interiors and never seen again. They might die in there, or simply be taken away to subsist in a more or less dependent state. Those who keep walking are growing hungry, their bones beginning to show. It is still a long way to walk, though loudspeakers punctuate the air with general directions, but it is up to the ones gifted with a radar-like sense, those small-bodied female pilgrims with desert-fox ears, to know which is the right way to go. There are no signs in the ground, and the paths are vanished by wind, rain and rare floodwater. Even the animals have resisted this particular search, and stay in the shade, for rest.

The more she witnesses this vision of the ages, the more the prodigal realises she has seen it before. The procession has always been moving; with distance she is able to pay more attention to it. She would like to reverse the telescope of her inner-eye and focus on the clusters of mystery beyond it. Astronomers will in a similar way recognise galaxies within nebulae that suggest still more fractal diminutions of rediscovery, though the end point of rest is never quite reached. As a child she only grew impatient with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, after testing it out a number of times: it was only another mythology, like so many discoveries as the age of reason dawns. Is this just another? But she watches, closer, zooms further in to the tribe of her own people, some now clutching their own arms, their faces falling in an abysmal recognition, some openly collapsing as something grows inexorably clear to them. She can’t see what it is – the telescope is still reversed, she is still caught in an archaic technology. The further they move from her the smaller grow their objects of revelation. What do they see there? What are the hanging goods that meet them at this crossroads?

She sees their impersonal sky splintering a shower of inorganic circuitry, the surface of its habitual yawning blue fragmented into a disinvestiture of space under which the last of the wanderers look up and open their eyes, granted a view into something she cannot see. They move still, doggedly, almost automata, into the horizon of hanging things, and she can see no separation, there is a failure of distance between the horizontal and vertical planes, each figure walks into its dreams, and its horror, the submerged, the resurrected, the extinct, the half-alive, all infinitesimally crowding into her view.

She sees them, the explorers and the black children leading them, the massacred and the massacrers, the outlaw and his nemesis laughing in trees, the reconaissance parties camped under stringybarks, dying of starvation, the gold and the blood that drains out of sifting pans and back into the blood-red and brown indifference of the landscape. There is an epochal wind, opening and shutting the flaps of the sky, a transparent curtain of lazy time, beaches and sea-coasts echoing with lies and night-songs under its casual aspirations, whole vowels and syllables of history swallowed in an azure gaze of retreat and approach, random comings and goings of ant-colonies, cattle-trains, motorcades of transport-trucks and military convoys blistering at metallic seams under a peristaltic, heaving sun, satellite and space-stations absorbed into its sheer magnesium glow, and the expanding chorus of hanging things, of half-beings, bardo realms of ghosts and aborted genealogies moving into and through the rift of sky and space, outside of time but deep inside the place of dreaming, the place of return, the place of no-returning.

The prodigal knows she both goes with them, into their history, and flies far beyond it. Their perseverence train trails still further away, like all human trajectories, into terrains and projection-screens of imagining she will never know. As she watches them move into the unknown, she only wants to follow, and not let them go – the sympathetic resonance still vibrates in her inner-ear, as she tries to decipher the path before her.

They are already gone, and the hanging things in front of them. The dead, the forgotten, unseen and forsaken. She will go with them into a new pursuit, speaking a language none of them have heard before. The epidermis of the earth still hangs there, golden and crusting as it seeps through the entrance in the sky, the abysm of time swinging and shutting, opening and closing the moveable door of memory, absently moving back and forth in the wind that is her own breath, the canopy and portal to the country of her mind, past which new denizens emerge, waltz, drop, fade away into dunes and long nights of spinifex. There is a shift in her view, the light in abeyance, the rent sky closing before motion begins, the miniature nomad colony moving once again. A faint sound of the sea or desert, held still in amniosis. There is no separation, no arrival, in the going, in those who move, and those who have never departed.

Paris, 2006

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The day was bleached, the sun pouring a magnesium bath over the teeming city, its trains and trams and two-stroke motors beetling from place to place like an insect plague, blueing the air with prodigious clouds of waste. They were enjoying it enough, though – human and inorganic industry alike, it was all the same to them.

Towards noon a film-production company appeared, as they regularly did after the morning hours, scouting for unlikely talent, and lighted on Ray and Servetus. They rested spread-eagled in the sun, on the pavement beside a heroin-addict and a Scientological missionary. The two observers didn’t have a position on the minor battle of wills going on between these two prone protagonists, and Ray for his part saw as much virtue in either form of salvation, should salvation be a necessary feature in his scheme of things.

A man with a sports-cap and clipboard immediately kicked Ray and demanded he be measured for costuming. They gathered Servetus up too, with some misgivings it appeared, because his tall and dull insubstantiality seemed more filmically resistant, and in any case his features too mild-mannered to serve their dramatic purposes. But it was decided almost on the spot that Ray should be the Assassin, lying in deathly wait at the heart of the film. Servetus was – irony of ironies – to be a Christian hanger-on, decked out in a beige linen-suit, custom-made for the tropics.

“Can you sweat? Can you sweat a lot?” they asked him. Would he be able to sweat naturally, they repeated, or failing that, could he simulate the same? Servetus recalled somewhere that the young Brando had been able to sweat on cue, but it seemed clear that such a calibre was beyond him. So, still frowning, they even had a photo they could show him of the tropical suit he would wear and said it wasn’t so important for him to sweat all the time, as long as he could often be seen wiping his forehead. Which seemed within his means. Their career as amateur Assassin and Christian hit the floor running, as these people would tell them between snatches of intensive Marlboro-consumption. Ray laughed at this, as well he might, knowing that that morning they had both not known where their breakfast would be coming from.

In the rigours of another time they would look back on this one and doubt how anything like it could come to pass. They were like the old explorers, an old idealism still intact, but for one difference – they threw themselves out in the vast open spaces of possibility, not the already-known of the world, and tried to find in the present what had previously gone unseen. They might then be able to understand those who had left obscure signs, that others had passed-over in ignorance or disdain – a neglect that had refused to believe miracles, let alone other worlds, would ever be possible.

Visionaries, then, or disbelievers – and most democratically, both. You need fools as much as geniuses to keep the story going, Servetus always said. He was one of the unspoken leaders, as well as a servant, to the rest of them. The place they found themselves in was a bee-hive, a colony of pure and abundant chaos. You could almost think, in coming here, that everyone who gravitated to this place did so out of an atavistic suicidal impulse. But the first person Servetus met there had escaped both life and death.

Ray didn’t know who he was anymore. He had the spare body and economical face of a Tibetan, the sagacity, too, in his laughing but ringingly confused eyes. He said some months before he had woken up in a tent in the Himalayas with some clothes and a few hundred American dollars under his mattress. Without a passport. With no consciousness of what had come before. Without any documents or evidence offering him a potential clue to an earlier life.

He had lost his own story – surely that is a worse effacement than either the certainty of death might be, or the mixed-bag of hope and hopelessness we can at least lay claim to. He had neither, but maybe that was his liberation as well. Servetus had met him in a half-way house, to which he sought refuge when his own money had run out – as it was bound to. (He had arrived there, after all, with barely enough to last a month or two. What absurd expectations he had placed in the benevolence of the world, though he would make the same mistake again, a hundred times, and by choice). Ray was kept in the half-way house by the authorities until such time as he might recover his memory and be returned safely to his country of birth.

But in the meantime he was unable to remember his own name, let alone his country of birth. He had lately become a lover of the films of Satyajit Ray, and so he called himself Ray. The other curious thing about him was that he spoke fluent Norwegian and good English, with a marked Japanese accent, but when given the opportunity of speaking the latter tongue, claimed to be unable to and understood only by guessing what his Japanese interlocutor might have been telling him. He and Servetus spoke, then, in English, and he never again mentioned his erroneous Japanese-Tibetan identity, and he stayed Ray for the duration. Though Servetus’ private name for him was Ray-San: it seemed a truer compromise.

He had a few of his American dollars left over, and the clothes he stood in. The psychological assessment team assigned to his case had given him permission to travel for awhile, until such time as he could at least report on some fraction of recovered memory. But that never happened, so far as anyone can surmise, and despite what later befell him, it is doubtful that Ray ever reported back to them at all. Not that he has ever let anyone know in either case, and he has doubtless embarked on a third incarnation as a wandering minnesinger, making amorous overtures to silky young backpackers in his cracked Japanese voice.

The point of Ray, and much else of this time and place, was that very little seemed to sit squarely in the usual outlines of things, and a double-world seemed to co-exist just beyond the assumed borders of what appeared to their senses. On top of the dense millions of bodies (appended, presumably, to some millions of souls) swarming and surging through the sweltering streets, there seemed to be a spectral double, like a falsely-exposed negative, clinging to each as well: not really real, but there nevertheless. Was it death at the right shoulder of each, an ideal self, a twin of spirit that would accompany the mortal body until such time as it took over the work of living on behalf of the individual it accompanied?

There was no way of knowing and these are speculative notions in any case. Suffice to say that this efflorescence of replication surrounded men and women and all living things, with a palpable intimation of another world. No-one could ever be sure which one he was stepping into, so that after some months there seemed to be even a danger of multiple worlds that would never be able to be successfully distinguished. Let it be said simply that, contra Deus, there was not only one world or one Kingdom of Sensible Power directing it: there was, if anything, a prism with multiple reflecting-lens that offered the view of a new and different world with every step they took. And each prism merely a function inside each new world. So it can be seen how confused they were liable to become.

Ray and Servetus stayed in the half-way house, and in case false inference be made that assumes some artifical derangement via opium or hashish enough to explain them, they remained wholly sober and clear-sensed throughout the course of these wanderings. There was, in fact, a wide and open-armed bay gesturing out to the ocean, right where they were, and most evenings they would enjoy the cooler breezes and while away the hours with other such travelers and local folk as sought their company.

And there were many. There was doubtless something clownish and hopeless in their ambience and especially in Ray’s functional lack – barely even a loss, given that he was unable even to identify what he had lost – of a self. Children especially would be likely to gravitate to his starry and wide-awake eyes. He was always buying them the sweet tea he could barely himself afford. But Ray, far more than Servetus, put his trust in the goodness of the world and it tended to repay his investment in kind.

Little girls would improvise eccentric dances for him, little boys insist on proving the marvel of their young muscles. And the marvel of Ray was that he seemed genuinely to respond to these displays with full, completely selfless engrossment: he rarely allowed irony, let alone sarcasm, to shadow his laughter, even if he knew these things from his camaraderie with Servetus, if not the modest period of his new life as a born-again, placeless alien.

He simply responded to things as they presented to him. He said he knew no other way to live, so far, and in any case, could only experiment with a few possibilities at this point. He didn’t believe that psychology is destiny, because he had none, of a decisive kind. Not that he was a tabula rasa, either. Without psychology, he was all blood, and heart, and whatever other sentient imaginings he considered he could put his granted self to. Like a gift, whatever body and intelligence he had been given, he figured he ought to make use of, which for him meant making a further gift to others of that which he had already received.

“Received from where?” Servetus asked once during these nightly conferences. “From no-one, nowhere,” he said, with the dubious small smile he tended to wear in the vicinity of such questions. “But it has to come from somewhere – this body, this gift as you say?” “Yes, but, also, it just appears,” Ray would say, a bit simple-mindedly. “By virtue of me,” he would add. “Your own mind, Ray?” “Hah, hah! No, you want me to agree! You want me to agree! I won’t do that!” “Why not?” “Because then it would be left there in finality. There would be nothing left to talk about, and we would start decaying, like old statues. Uncertainty keeps things moving.”

And it would be left there, for the moment. Ray would go back to watching the children moving, in their awkward yet gracious dance – made lovely by intention if not physical mastery. And buying them more of the terrible, sweet tea they seemed to crave.

It probably makes sense to suggest why they should find themselves in the place they did. Ray had forgotten his history, which was perhaps just as well for him, considering his prior life might have contained sorrows or horrors of which he might have preferred to remain ignorant. As for Servetus, like a lot of the others they met along the way, he couldn’t afford to be anywhere else. He had failed. He had little money and no steady occupation in any case, and there were few who were willing to take him on as a trusted employee. He had anarchistic and anti-social leanings. He threatened capitalists, the greedy, the exploiters of the earth, sometimes by sheer, Quixotic force. He disagreed with everyone, even his best friends. He had once cared, and now cared so much he had to care a little less just to survive. The world was a shocking travesty in his eyes, and bound for collapse.

“Travesty of what?” Ray-San would ask him. “Of it’s ultimate goodness,” Servetus would reply. “Mark my words,” he had said, and no-one did. Even his heros had gone ignored, so who was there to follow?

The idealism of other-worldly solutions demoralised him, and spiritual idealism worst of all. Sanctity made him retch, and he refused to believe in anyone who advertised themselves as such, however humbly, either in their costume or vocation, as a human being of sincerity. The bona-fide holy, if such should exist, were as far as he could tell working underground in long-suffering silence and obscurity, if they had not already been long killed-off by civilisation and its discontents. (Oh yes, he knew about those from long before. How repetitive and tedious they had themselves become – kids could now sing songs and repeat the same, with a thousand advertising agencies behind them, and make millions of dollars out of them.) Disenchantment had long before – before they were born! – become an industry in itself. In certain countries, the really advanced ones where little remained to fight for, it was de rigueur to buy the music and order the accessories, knowing beforehand that nothing would, or was meant to, change. And so flaccid irony became the currency of the time.

So there was really very little reason to go anywhere, or escape anything. Just letting the body move from place to place was a redemption from inertia or despair, knowing that history had its own trajectory for the world, deeply hidden in the nuts and bolts of cause and effect. Things would go on, of themselves, regardless of them, and so they were just flotsam willingly drawn by the wind, by happenstance, or mischance. Not everything that happens should be good, after all, and they took it all in their stride, as it came to them.


(opening chapter of a novel The End of Suffering –  Paris, 2005)

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