A Confusion of Tongues

Some excellent reading, ranging from a fantasy about the power of words to the re-imagining of a legendary figure.

Issue #37, Sunday 15 January 2023


Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

So many new releases. But these three in particular caught my eye:

Illuminations by Alan Moore

Illuminations is a momentous, wildly original collection of short stories from ‘the king of comics’ (Guardian), each featuring some kind of illumination or realisation. From the four horsemen of the apocalypse to the Boltzmann brains fashioning the universe at the Big Bang, Alan Moore’s beguiling and exquisitely crafted tales reveal the full power of imagination and magic.

I’m a big fan of Alan Moore’s comic books/graphic novels like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and even Swamp Thing. These stories sound as though they similarly spring from his remarkable imagination.

Buy it at Readings.

The Cloisters by Katy Hays

The Secret History for a new generation - a tale of toxic obsession, ambition and corrosive friendships with a mysterious pack of tarot cards at the heart of the story - and set to be one of the most captivating debuts of 2023.

Sounds interesting!

Buy it at Readings.

Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 by Max Hastings

‘The most gripping narrative of the crisis… frightening but hopelessly addictive’ Gerald DeGroot, Times

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the most perilous event in history, when mankind faced a looming nuclear collision between the United States and Soviet Union. During those weeks, the world gazed into the abyss of potential annihilation.

I was in my first year of high school when the Cuban Missile Crisis was on, and I recall being very frightened. I’d be interested to read this to know how close we came.

Buy it at Readings.


My Reading

Not Previously Reviewed

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R. F. Kuang

The author of this novel, R. F. Kuang, has a fascinating background and an impressive academic resume. The ‘R’ stands for ‘Rebecca’. She was born in 1996 in Guangzhou in China, moving with her parents to the United States when she was 4 years old. She studied History at Georgetown University, graduating from their School of Foreign Affairs. She had a gap year in China and then went on to Cambridge University in the U.K., gaining a Master of Philosophy in Chinese Studies, and then to Oxford University where she earned an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies.

All of the above is courtesy of Wikipedia, and I only quote it here to say “she sure knows her stuff” when it comes to the core theme of her most recent novel, whose full title is: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence; an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. It’s all about language, translation, colonialism and the arrogance and cruelty of the British Empire. But it’s also a coming-of-age story and a study of young people trying to find where they fit in the world. And it’s also a fantasy with an intriguing premise.

This novel is set in the early 1820 and 1830s and centres around the city and University of Oxford. It begins, though, in the city of Canton in China, in the midst of a plague of cholera. A young boy is lying, ill, next the body of his mother, who has just died. As he lies there, an Englishman, Professor Richard Lovell, arrives and rescues him, curing him of the cholera using a small silver bar over which he speaks some words in French and English and then places on the boy’s chest. This bit of magic is the sole fantasy premise of the book. Silver bars, engraved with words in different languages, have magical effects. Using silver in this way has enabled the British Empire to conquer much of the world, and brought great conveniences to the British public.

Professor Lovell takes the boy—whose real name we never learn—back with him to England and adopts him, giving him the name Robin Swift. He is raised in Lovell’s household, where he is tutored daily in Latin and Greek. He already spoke some English, but his knowledge of his native Cantonese is also continually reinforced. It’s not long before Robin begins to suspect that Lovell is in fact his biological father, though he is a cold and often cruel taskmaster. When he reaches the right age, he is enrolled at the University of Oxford where he will join other students of translation and silver-working in the college tower informally known as “Babel”.

Language, and translation, are the key to Britain’s Silver Revolution (which in the book replaces the real-life Industrial Revolution). At the heart of the magic of the silver bars is the opposing of two related words in different languages. The subtle differences in the meaning of the words are what generates the magical effects.

At Oxford, Robin is teamed up with three other new students: Ramy, who is Indian; Victoire, who is from the Carribean; and Letty, a white English girl. These four become very tight-knit friends, and much of the book deals with the love they develop for each other and the strains on their relationship as the story proceeds.

Students from other cultures are prized at Babel because the power of the silver bars gains strength from the linguistic distance between the word pairs engraved on them. Nevertheless, there is considerable barely-hidden prejudice against these foreign-born students, particularly those with dark skins, like Victoire and Ramy. Letty, the English girl, tries to understand their anger and resentment, but fails in an all too predicable fashion.

It’s not long before Robin is recruited by an underground movement called Hermes, which believes, with much justice, that the British Empire is exploiting other countries by making use of their languages and their supplies of silver but provides almost nothing of value to those countries in return.

The tensions between Robin, his unacknowledged father Professor Lovell, and between the four students, come to an explosive head in the lead up to the first of the utterly shameful Opium Wars, which the Hermes organisation is determined to stop, and the struggle becomes violent. It’s not giving too much away to say that the book doesn’t offer an optimistic conclusion.

I really enjoyed this. The story is compelling, and all the characters are interesting, with relationships which are far from straightforward and which develop throughout the course of the book. The fantastical premise to do with silver and translation is unusual and very interesting. And the novel has a lot of valid and important things to say about the way that Western countries dealt (and largely still deal) with less-developed nations.

When I say that the author “really knows her stuff”, that’s shown by the many really informative footnotes she includes about real language and real history. I don’t think I’ve read another book which has footnotes in Chinese ideograms!

Highly recommended.

The author’s earlier fiction, a fantasy trilogy called The Poppy War, got a lot of attention. I must track that down.

Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

The subtitle of this book is “Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest”, which is a bit of a stretch and makes it sound rather like some crank greenie manifesto. But that’s not the case. It’s actually an excellent autobiography of a really interesting female scientist and her challenges in pursuing her ideas about how trees grow in a natural forest compared with how the logging industry tries to make them grow in the aid of their profits.

Suzanne Simard grew up in a logging family in Canada, and as a young student was working in a seasonal job with a logging company when she started to wonder why the newly planted pine trees in a clear-felled area were failing to thrive compared with how well natural seedlings were growing in an area which still had larger trees. This sparked a life-long scientific career during which she developed convincing proof that subterranean networks of fungi connect trees and not only assist in extracting and transferring water and other nutrients to trees in the forest, but also allow “mother trees” to preferentially nuture their own progeny in preference to “stranger” seedlings in the vicinity. She even showed that some kind of signals are transmitted from tree to tree this way, warning of insect infestations and other problems.

Lest you still think this is all new-wavy nonsense, her first major paper was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature and her findings have been amply confirmed by other scientists over the years, though not without a good deal of hostility from the forestry industry who wanted to continue their clear-felling practices, even after Simard showed that in the long term those practices would not be economically viable.

Even just as a biography, the book is excellent at showing how science is actually done, and how scientists think and feel as they do their work. Simard’s personal story is also compelling: the death of a beloved brother, her struggles to balance her work with being a wife and mother; her subsequent divorce; her diagnosis of breast cancer and the treatment for that.

At times the book feels a little dense with the botanic detail, but overall this was an excellent and very interesting read.

Completed Since Last Issue

Her by Garry Disher

(Thanks to Bruce Gillespie for recommending this book to me).

Garry Disher is justifiably high on the list of Australia’s best crime writers. But he has published, by my count, more than 50 books, ranging from crime fiction to young adult and children’s literature to non-fiction. His first books were published in the early 1980s, so he’s been going for more than 40 years now, and so far as we know (and hope!) he’s still writing, though he’s now in his mid-70s.

This novel, Her, is very different from his crime fiction. It’s set in the early 1900s, in various rural locations in NSW and Victoria, and centers entirely on the life and inner thoughts of its protagonist, the “her” of the title, because she is never given a name. By this I don’t mean that the author never names her, I mean that in the book she is a child who is sold as a toddler, and considered of so little worth that no one ever bothers to name her. For the first part of the book she’s just addressed as “You” by the man who buys her, and so that’s how she thinks of herself.

In fact, every female character in the book is nameless. Names give people identity and agency, but they are allowed no agency by the man who controls them. In fact, we never learn his name either, but that’s because he gives a variety of false names when asked.

The man who buys this young child is a disreputable, shady character who makes a meagre living by collecting and re-selling scrap metal, or else selling badly-made household items like toasting-forks wound out of wire, or aprons and pillowships sewn from scrap cloth. The scrap man doesn’t make any of these items himself. He forces his wife and daughter (known only as Wife and Big Girl) to make them; they are essentially slave labour. He is a cruel, brutal man who swears he will track the women down and kill them if they try to escape, and they have no doubt that he would do it. Much of the small amount of money the group make (I hesitate to use the word “family”) is spent on drink by the scrap man, and they frequently go hungry. He’s sexually voracious and has impregnated Big Girl, his own daughter. He literally cares for no one at all in the world other than himself.

We learn all of this through the eyes of “You” as she grows up from a toddler to her early teens. Only the outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent devastation of the Spanish Flu serve to throw the scrap man off-kilter from his selfish, utterly corrupt way of life.

“You” slowly starts to rebel against her miserable existence and the iron control of the scrap man. She eventually names herself “Lilly” after a flower she likes. When Big Girl’s child is born—another girl—Lilly dedicates herself to protecting her and trying to free them both from this cycle of despair and abuse.

This is a sad, depressing story, and we only see a glimmer of hope at the very end. But it’s nevertheless very well worth reading. The protagonist’s character is immediately engaging and we read on, hoping at every moment she can find a way out of her situation. It’s also an excellent depiction of poverty in rural Victoria in the early part of the 20th Century, and the impact of major events like the war and the pandemic.

Joan by Katherine J. Chen

(Thanks to Lucy Sussex for lending me a copy of this book)

This is a powerful re-imagining of the life and character of Joan of Arc. It takes a very different look at the "Maid of Orléans". Rather than seeing her as a naive young woman driven half-crazy by religious visions, somehow able to inspire French soldiers to greater efforts in their battles merely by her holy presence on the battlefield, the Joan of this book is a physically-powerful, determined young woman with no religious fervour, just an remorseless drive for vengeance on the hated English which drives her to extraordinary feats.

The novel is set during the Hundred Year's War (1337-1453), when England was fighting France for control of that country. As the story opens, England and its ally the Duchy of Burgundy have occupied much of Northern France including Paris and Orléans.

Joan is born in the little rural village of Domrémy, close to the border with the part of the country then controlled by Burgundy. The novel opens when she's about 7 or 8 years old. In this fictional story, her father, Jacques d'Arc, is a successful farmer but a brutal father. He's a tall, strongly-built man. Joan takes after her father in looks and physique and so is considered ugly compared with her older sister, Catherine, who is beautiful. Joan is constantly in trouble with her father, who regularly bashes and beats her in response. So she is used to pain and knows how to deal with it. She has no more love for her father than he has for her.

By the time Joan is in her teens, she has grown until she is a head taller than her father, and strong enough to hit him back. Indeed, she's known around the village for her physical strength, able to haul a cart out of the mud single-handedly. She has no religious visions, and tends to go to sleep in church. But when the English raid and sack the village of Domrémy, Joan cannot prevent her beloved sister Catherine from being raped. She makes a pact with God that she will destroy the rulers of Burgundy and England:

She thinks, The priests don't teach you to pray, at least not like this... It is always kneeling, back bent, head bowed, hands pressed in supplication, a stifled voice aware of its own lowness. They don't instruct you to stand, feet apart, arms raised, human eye meeting the eye of heaven. They don't tell you to bargain with your God, like you are trying to whittle down the price of a piece of mackerel with a fishmonger, to command the angels as if they were kitchen boys, and to treat the saints like servants who have forgotten to empty their masters' chamber pots.

Through a series of incidents I won't detail, Joan eventually comes to the attention of the local authorities because of her strength and willingness to trade blows with men—she's seen as unnatural, a prodigy. She's set a series of tests, including drawing an English longbow and shooting and hitting a target, which to their astonishment she is able to do. They pass her name upwards and eventually she is presented to the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, as a kind of freak of nature, perhaps a sign from God.

Joan, in this story, pushes herself to become adept with military weapons through constant training and exercise. As a farmer's daughter, she also understands the issues of supply and transport, vital to the morale of the soldiers. She manages to convince the Dauphin that she should attempt the relief of Orléans. But the only way her leadership can be accepted is if she's presented as a Holy Warrior, a woman who sees visions of God and the angels. The Dauphin’s mother-in-law Yolande says to her:

“I will tell you something I have learned in my forty-eight years. Either a woman must be raised high, higher than the heads of men, or she will be crushed beneath their feet. So, we must raise you high. We must raise you to the height of the heavens themselves. We must dress you in the very mantle of God. Do you understand, Joan?”

In the field, Joan is fearsome and implacable, a knight in all but name who rides into battle wielding a sword. Climbing a ladder up the walls of Orléans, she's badly wounded, but gets up to fight again, and the troops rally behind her. She has success after success, relieving Orléans and other cities. On the march to Rheims, towns under occupation throw open their gates and surrender as they hear that her army is approaching.

Eventually all this comes tumbling down. The Dauphin (now Charles VI) is jealous of the adulation that the common people give to Joan, and fears her ambition. When she insists that he try to liberate Paris from its occupiers, he sends her with far too few troops, and she predictably fails. From then on it's all downhill, until in one last futile battle, she is captured (or allows herself to be captured) by the enemy.

It's impossible to know whether Katherine Chen's fictional Joan is closer to the truth than the idealised religiously-inspired version who centuries later was declared a saint. But in many ways, she is a much more believable figure than the legend. Chen points out that historical sources show that Joan was badly wounded in battle a number of times, so there seems no doubt that she actually took part in the fighting rather than merely standing to one side waving a banner to inspire the troops. Whatever the truth, there's no doubt that Joan d'Arc was a truly remarkable individual.

Certainly the imagined Joan in this novel is no saint, but a down-to-earth, living being and is all the more interesting because of that. She is driven by anger and a healthy degree of pride, and has many character flaws but is admirable nonetheless.

I thought this was an excellent read. Highly recommended.

Waiting on the Shelf

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