Belladonna by Daša Drndić

In the afterword to his novel The Guiltless (Die Schuldlosen, 1950), Hermann Broch states that political indifference is closely linked to ethical depravity, that is, that politically innocent people are to a considerable degree ethically suspect, that they bear ethical blame, and stresses that the German populace did not feel responsible for Hitler’s coming to power because they considered themselves “apolitical”, in no way connected to what was happening around them. And what about the “apolitical” Croatian populace, which is selectively apolitical? How does it cope with what was happening and is still happening around it? It doesn’t. It enjoys music and applauds. And writes rigged history.

Damn.

This scathing indictment, which can be leveled at virtually all western nations, exemplifies Belladonna, a book about atrocity, about memory, about death. It’s a book that reserves several pages for a list of names of jewish children murdered from one small town in the 40s, a book that wants you to gaze at the abyss, in full (impossible), that fascism rent so deeply into European landscape and consciousness.

Our protagonist is Andreas Ban, a man with a lame leg, a lame hand, a cancerous breast, the spine of a 90 year old, glaucoma, suspiciously red-tinged eyes, and an isolated and troubled soul. Ban battles the truth of his own mortality, rapidly seeping away.  

He skips the first phase, the phase of rejecting the illness, he’s no fool. So he confronts it. The second phase, the phase of anger (fuck off!), settles down, he no longer shouts at the doctor, he’s tame. He rushes into the third phase, bargaining, with one sentence– Give me ten years— to which Dr. Toffetti replies, Perhaps. But then you’ll come back for another ten, and Andres Ban falls silent.

Ban’s health and history are only the half of it. He’s also obsessed with the Second World War. The holocaust looms foremost, yet it’s not simply German maleficence he’s concerned with, but the complicity of all of Europe. Examples include the Balkan states barbaric excecutions of Jewish villagers by their neighbors before the Germans even got there. Or, to take a different tact, the Dutch expelling Germans from the Netherlands post-WW2, even those who had emigrated long before the war and had Dutch spouses and children. It’s not simply the scale of torture and murder that pains Andreas, but the lengths people will go to forget, to shrug into apolitical stupor. They’ll go so far as to spin that loss of memory and responsibility into hero worship of men directly responsible for death camps.

This is one of the bleakest books I’ve read. There is no light at the end of the tunnel — just another train you can’t avoid. People will continue to forget our greatest crimes, even deny they ever occurred in the first place. Holocaust denial is on the rise. Consider this maddening article about Poland ascribing jailtime to telling the truth about its own complicity in the holocaust. It will depend on the reader whether Sadness or Anger is the primary emotion roused by Belladonna. For me, it was bitter anger. The same anger that erupts when watching Americans rewrite slavery or the Civil War. It’s not only a battle for human rights, but one for our collective memory, our history. 

Drndić is a deft writer, and the front and back covers of Belladonna are eager to compare it to the work of W. G. Sebald. Though there are a handful of paragraphs that devolve into an unclear word-salad, especially when delving a little too deeply into Andreas subconscious, most of the book can be opened at random to reveal clever insights: 

Cooking shows have long been universal hits. It might be worth asking why. Particularly since they are becoming increasingly tedious, unwatchable and undigestable. Since there is an ever-greater number of poor people, particularly those for whom TV shows are their only mental superstructure, these shows are also offensive. Lively performances by smiling chefs take place in elegant kitchens where high-quality pots and pans are used, the ingredients are expensive and often exotic. As Andreas fears that when he retires his nutrition will be reduced to chicken wings and innards and that he will, heaven forbid, go to the market just before it is blasted by water cannons to pick up a few rotten apples and discarded salad leaves, he find this nutrition craze nauseating.

Balkan history is unfamiliar to me, like I would assume it is for most Americans. I was a gradeschooler when the Yugoslav Wars broke out and the level of truth and history exposed to children at the time was shamelessly minimal. Yet it is important. As right-wing fascism takes deeper root in America, our own suddenly-confident Nazis scuttle from gutters like the rat on Belladonna’s cover, and we must look to the peoples who have been struggling with it for decades. It’s a disease some thought cured when the allies dismantled Auschwitz, but it lingers as a misshapen tumor, always lurking beneath humanity’s fragile skin. 

Let’s end this review with one of the many different descriptions of Belladonna in this novel:

Belladonna is a bushy plant that grows up to two meters high and contains atropine, still used today to dilate the pupils, while in the Renaissance women would drop the atropine into their eyes to make them shine. And so those idle Renaissance ladies, squeezed into their corsets, in their silk, brocade, velvet and cotton dresses walk around with dilated pupils, disoriented, half-blind, winking without knowing at whom and smiling foolishly into space. Their eyes appear dark and deep, but are in fact empty and colorless. They were beautiful women, le belle donne, blinded fools.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

Ancient Egypt is so cool. Stunning works of bronze-age architecture, endless deserts and oases. Camels. Thousands of years of humans living along the Nile. So long-lasting that Cleopatra lived her life closer to ours than to the architects of the great pyramids. Where writing, libraries, and Anne Rice’s vampires all began. 

For the past few games, the Assassin’s Creed series found itself mired in Western Europe with rapidly stagnating gameplay. It took a year off and returned revitalized. By revitalized, I mean borrowed heavily from The Witcher 3’s gameplay and world design, while investing to the usual high degree in creating a historical setting in-game.

Bayek of Siwa is a ‘medjay’, a sort of protector-shaman-civil serviceman. Some time prior to the start of the game, his son was murdered by a bunch of masked dudes sporting animal names like the Jackal or the Scarab. Naturally he decides to hunt them all down. While there’s some hackneyed bits towards the end where the game earns its subtitle, showing how the assassin’s creed began, the revenge story is basically all there is to the plot. A breadcrumb trail of corpses to take you around Egypt, which is so huge the main game doesn’t even take you through all the major zones. Not even close.

Bayek is a good hero. Furious and distraught over the loss of his son, yet buoyed by a paternal kindness that in other circumstances would be his defining trait. In between screaming at bad guys and then stabbing them, he’s trying to be everyone’s Dad. Many quests take this quite literally, helping parents, helping children. Facial tech really excels here, as it did in the Witcher, seeing Bayek’s smile after helping a child complete a task, then watching his eyes tighten and smile start to melt as he remembers. Other quests take on specific period dilemmas, and it’s great to see Bayek get pissed off and angrily growl “blasphemy!” when finding an illegal crocodile tannery in the middle of a city that is supposed to hold the animal sacred.

The modern era of video games is in crisis: There must be enemies to kill, to maim, to execute in 4k, HDR, glory. But who? Narratively and visually, we’ve moved beyond killing without purpose. The solution thus far has been populating the world with unthinking zombie/machine hordes or an ill-defined and ambiguous banditry. AC:O opts for the latter. You spend a whole lot of time in “bandit” camps, bandit forts, bandit hideouts. Who are these bandits? What did they do to deserve such mass slaughter? Why is the ratio of Egyptian citizens to Egyptian bandits basically 1:1? The game is not interested in fleshing this out; they’re ‘enemies’ like orcs or goombas. There are brief segments where it is Greeks or Romans who are the enemy, but the tangled web of Mediterranean imperialism and dynastic incest is certainly not something the series wants to engage with seriously.

I’ve drifted away from big budget Western titles, because they play it safe, both in gameplay and especially in narrative. For example, Ubisoft (maker of AC:O), is about to release Far Cry 5, which takes place in one of the most beautiful places on earth (Montana), but since the game refuses to engage meaningfully with its premise of ultra-right wing terrorists and plays it safe, trying to not to offend anyone (according to reviews), I am absolutely not interested. AC ultimately plays it safe too. You have a rote plot and spend hours killing bandits, but like I said in the first sentence, I get to ride a camel around Ancient Egypt, I get to climb pyramids and plunder tombs and be bitten by snakes. In some very specific cases, I’ll settle for, and indeed be well-satisfied by, an excellent historical setting paired with a good protagonist, regardless of what else may be missing. 

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown remains a fascinating, enigmatic, and powerful figure. Celebrated as a hero, vilified as a terrorist. Many have claimed him a fanatic or madman, while others point out the inherent racism in writing off the only white man willing to violently oppose slavery as crazy. He was friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who was sick and could not attend the raid on Harper’s Ferry as she planned, leading to one of history’s great “What If’s?” Emerson and Thoreau sung his praises, mourned his death. Victor Hugo wrote a moving letter seeking Brown’s pardon, ending with this seriously badass line:

“Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

John Brown is one of the few genuine symbols of white resistance. He requires no qualifications nor asides, regardless of the extent the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to smear his name or erase him from history.  A few months back, when the country was racked with a wave of right-wing Nazi rallies, I joined the counter-protest here in SF and there were dozens of old white people out with John Brown’s face plastered on their T-shirts. Some even had banners. Big banners, taking multiple people to stretch out and hold. 170 odd years dead, John Brown and his cause continues to inspire people.

This brings us to The Good Lord Bird, the last in a set of Civil War era books I’ve read recently. Fictional pre-teen Henry Shackleford is freed and recruited by John Brown, who mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion. Naturally, as these kinds of tales go, Henry/Onion galivants around with Brown, whom he affectionately thinks of as “The Old Man”, receiving a first-person perspective to all his greatest exploits: The Pottawatomie Massacre, meetings with Douglass and Tubman, the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry itself.

The greatest flaw in this book is one of tone. On one hand its farcical and comedic: John Brown prays for so long, he puts captured rebels to sleep. He can’t tell a boy from a girl and neither can Frederick Douglass, portrayed here as a gluttonous phony. Harriet Tubman alone, “The General”, escapes caricature. There’s a lot of jokey wordplay, especially around Onion’s slang or his misunderstanding of the adult world, like when he accidentally professes himself an expert on “trim”, thinking it means barbering, when actually it was Civil War era slang for prostitution. While delving in humor and hyperbole, it’s also a book about slavery and naturally can’t take it too far, reverting to more a serious or honest tone at times. 

The result renders both the humor and thematic judgement weak. It also makes it difficult to divine authorial messaging. Am I supposed to think Frederick Douglass is a creep and coward only good for puffing up his chest and talking a whole lot? What about all the slaves and freedmen who didn’t commit to the raid on Harper’s Ferry? The narrative seems to be indicting them for their inaction but the waffling tone makes it hard to grasp.

The unevenness extends to Onion as well. Sometimes his perspective is that of 12 year old, other times its that of the 100+ year old man retelling the story. Onion the boy forced to be a girl is more like a Disney movie plot than a metaphor for the personal dislocation of many black people then and now, an idea McBride flirts with but never explores all that deeply. Put all this together and you have me feeling real disconnected from the story. From Onion, from John Brown. From the writing itself, which was honestly pretty good.

(This isn’t all the fault of an uneven tone; the book is overlong and suffers from underediting, leading to some dull segments, especially when the Old Man isn’t in the picture. The raid on Harper’s Ferry itself also feels like a litany of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.)

McBride’s acknowledgements at the end of the book, rather the usual skippable bit thanking agents and historians and whomever else, simply thanks all the people who have kept John Brown’s memory alive. That is seriously cool. It also makes me wish for a more tonally serious novel, tossing humor for a more powerful and straightforward account of the story/history. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Abe Lincoln’s young son, Willie, is taken by typhoid fever on the eve of a lavish party thrown by the Lincolns. He awakens in the eponymous bardo: A sort of post-death, pre-reward/punishment limbo, where the dead who absolutely cannot accept their death linger. Such as a fresh suicide who changed his mind at the last instant or a man whose years long passion was left unconsummated. Misers who can’t leave their earthly possessions behind or bachelor dandies who could never settle down, even in death.

I don’t know.

I enjoyed reading this. The writing is good. Charming. Often funny. Occasionally beautiful.  

Yet there’s something dissatisfying about the whole package. Like a beautiful painting that only fills a corner of a canvas. Or that same painting with the corner-portion stretched across the entire mural. Saunders is a short story writer and this feels less a complete novel than a slightly extended story.

The novel plays out in faux-excerpts of histories on the Lincolns and dialogue between the shades skulking around the bardo. The book is at its highest and most exceptional when painting its warm and generous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Gregarious, kind, principled, exceedingly strange, thoughtful, ugly, grandfatherly, unsure, wise. A loving father who felt the loss of his favorite son so deeply, amid the nation newly at war. It is easy to become attached.

“Oh, the pathos of it!–haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”

 This is the second book I’ve read in a row that characterizes Honest Abe and demonstrates our shocking good fortune that America’s greatest president was in office simultaneously to its closest brush with annihilation. It’s not just political savvy but the personal attributes and integrity of the man that keeps him magnetic still. When AG Jeff Sessions threatened California recently and swore on the dead of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s grave, it made me more furious than your average misuse of history usually does, given how antithetical the current administration is to Old Abe. Felt more personal, especially while reading this book.

Anyway.

The rest of the novel largely concerns three dead characters active in the bardo, denying their own realities whilst trying to help newly dead Willie Lincoln. These three — Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend Early — are well drawn. They’re interesting and likeable guides for this strange new un-world. The rest are forgettable. All the pieces are there but their individual plights and reasons-for-being don’t form a lasting impact.  

This story has been done before. Stories about dead people talking to each other. Stories about tormented souls stuck in limbo, unable to let go of their incomplete, mysterious, or tragically shortened lives. Again, Saunders is an adroit wielder of prose, so it’s a good read, a quick one that took up two halves of a plane flight for a recent vacation. A literary beach read! If better read by a dying fire in a gloomy old New England manor than the beach.

But it’s also the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. When judged alongside some of those greats, or put on a pedestal as the best book of the year, I can’t help but compare to other novels that did a similar topic and wonder what makes this one so much better. The nagging feeling that it’s a short story stretched a little thin gains greater scrutiny. It was good but not that good.

The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Alright back to books! I’ve spent the past several weeks immersed in the Civil War, most of it within this comprehensive tome. I chose it because it topped a list written by Ta-Nehisi Coates on what to read to become ‘less stupid’ about the Civil War. Battle Cry is best read in full and I urge all Americans to do so. Here’s some of my favorite quotes and attendant commentary. Clearly the social causes and effects interested me more than battles and the moving of armies. 

* * *

Southern newspapers reprinted an editorial from the San Francisco Star which stated that 99 of 100 settlers considered slavery “an unnecessary moral, social, and political curse upon themselves and posterity.

The Battle Cry of Freedom opens with an extensive slate of evidence demonstrating the cause of the Civil War. Slavery. This is of immense importance as the Lost Cause version of history, a fantastic revision of doomed-but-just Southern righteousness, is pernicious. To this day, the teaching of 1860-1865 is warped in American schools, mired in rhetoric on ‘States Rights’. The recent uproar over tearing down Confederate statues reveals both that many people still celebrate that Lost Cause and are only continuing the trend over many years that put those statues up in the first place.

(‘States rights’ is pure bullshit anyway as for the 10-15 years previous the war, the South controlled Congress and had absolutely zero problem enacting federal slave protections in the Free States. When States Rights is held up as a freedom denied the south and thus requiring their reluctant secession, it is merely hypocrisy and lies peddled by wealthy slave owners and lapped up by the regular whites of the South.)

 

* * *

Lincoln’s wit on display:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ’all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” — Abraham Lincoln

 

* * *

Long before the rest of the western world learned that the glory of old-time war was slain by technology — trench warfare, rampant disease, high death tolls with little strategic gain — Americans experienced it firsthand. Famously bloodier than all other American wars combined, the human cost of the Civil War is difficult to grasp. It was not unheard of for entire regiments to be reduced to a dozen men.

“I never realized the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the thing called glorious war until I saw this,” wrote a Tennessee private after the battle. “Men . . . lying in every conceivable position; the dead . . . with their eyes wide open, the wounded begging piteously for help. . . . I seemed . . . in a sort of daze.” Sherman described “piles of dead soldiers’ mangled bodies . . . without heads and legs. . . . The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”

 

* * *

“Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

“I will if I live.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

When controlled for population, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the greatest bestseller in American history. It hasn’t aged well, but it can’t be understated how electric it was to the reading public at the time. By alluding to a black man as Jesus, Harriet Beecher Stowe aimed an arrow at shamefaced Northerners reluctant to commit to what their morals and religion supposedly demanded.  It functioned  as statecraft motivating people to abolition while accomplishing what any good fiction does: put people in the shoes of its characters, forcing thoughtful readers to consider what life under the lash would truly be like. 

Everyone read it in the South too. Check out this angry reviewer:

“I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume.”

 

* * *

American capitalism had not yet settled in the early-mid 18th century and plenty of people had converging ideas on what it ought to be. This prescient account makes me laugh:

“Banks have been the known enemies of our republican government from the beginning,” they proclaimed, “the engine of a new form of oppression . . . a legacy that the aristocratic tendencies of a bygone age has left, as a means to fill the place of baronial usurpation and feudal exactions.” Banks caused “the artificial inequality of wealth, much pauperism and crime, the low state of public morals, and many of the other evils of society. . . . In justice to equal rights let us have no banks.”

 

* * *

The Confederacy tried desperately to receive diplomatic recognition from Europe, and plenty of the old aristocracy, seeing much in common with wealthy plantation owners, was willing to give it to them. This never occurred, though the rebels still received plenty of help via loopholes in English and French law. Most interesting to me: The South embargoed cotton exports to Britain, presuming that the textile industry reliant on it would clamor to pressure the government to accept their terms. Instead, they received a lukewarm or defiant response from the English working class.

And in any case, a good deal of truth still clings to the old notion of democratic principle transcending economic self-interest in Lancashire. As a veteran Chartist leader put it in February 1863: “The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton . . . it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

“Economic self-interest” is commonly held up as the prime motivator of regular people. “How could the working class vote for Trump when it’s against their economic self-interest?”, wonders the knee-jerk Liberal. It’s a load of crap. Ideology runs politics. When economics are the prime directive, it’s when clever power holders manage to manipulate their economic message into an ideological one. The Civil War encapsulates this perfectly. It was clashing ideals on bondage and freedom and Union and democracy that led to over six hundred thousand dead

Indeed, and I am unforgivably missing a quote for this one, Democracy itself was under attack. Lincoln mused gloomily that if the Union could not be maintained, then the great experiment was a failure. It would prove The People unfit to rule themselves. Northern newspapers echoed this sentiment.

Democracy survived that century and the next, at least. 

Celeste

You are climbing a mountain. You will fall many times. Hundreds of times. But the only way to reach the summit is to keep trying, to keep falling. The mountain is depression. Sometimes a simple & easy metaphor is the best kind. 

Celeste places you in control of Madelaine, a traveler, like many others, come to climb Mount Celeste without knowing exactly why. There’s narrative sprinkled throughout 8 chapters, but it’s minimal and best left unspoiled. The real key to the story is how well-entwined its themes are with the gameplay itself. It is both a story and a game about a mountain.

This is a difficult platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy. As I mentioned, you will die a lot. A whole lot. While punishing, the game is encouraging. You can save at any time and progress is kept after you clear each “screen”, so the difficulty is broken down into bite-sized morsels where once you make the goal, you’re set. Though it is also the type of muscle-memory learning exercise where you can spend twenty minutes dying over and over to an obstacle and then suddenly can run it flawlessly in your sleep.

Consider a clip I took after bashing my head against this level for many deaths. Looking at it now it seems so passe, so quaint. A simpler time when manipulating moving platforms posed such a challenge.

While Madelaine only has a few abilities — jump, airdash, wall-cling and wall-jump — and doesn’t learn any new ones during the course of the climb, the levels themselves change and offer new opportunities to use those abilities. From jumping into bubbles to redirect Madelaine’s momentum and refresh her airdash to dashing into blocks to control their direction like the clip above.  Even after the main game ends and you begin the brutally difficult ‘B-side’ remixes of each level, you’re being taught new techniques you could have used all along.  It’s further synthesis of narrative and gameplay: spend more time on the mountain and you’ll continue to learn new things about yourself.

My thumbs hurt. I hurled myself into spikes and pits and toxic red goo until I got it.  My hands slowly calcified into misshapen claws as I wrestled with the Switch’s miserable D-pad. I grinded my teeth. There’s a few mechanics I didn’t like, but whatever, that’s part of the climb. I don’t scores games, but this is a 10. I didn’t just enjoy it, I became it. Between the death explosions of another fall, I felt the flow of perfect alignment between fingers and pixels, of satisfaction in surmounting yet another previously insurmountable obstacle.

I eventually reached a stopping point — chapter 7’s B-side — which introduces a mechanic I absolutely hate. I fear I won’t reach the true summit, somewhere beyond the rumored ultra-hard ‘C-sides’. Screw that! I let a couple days pass and my thumbs healed and I crushed the end of chapter 7’s B side. Here’s me dying and succeeding on the next chapter! Onward!