I experienced two culture things recently which I genuinely enjoyed and thought were good - A RARE EVENT, so I have decided to record and express that unexpected pleasure.
Susanna Clarkes Piranesi, which I listened to in Audiobook format, read by Chiwetel Ejiofor,
and Vinland Saga, an Anime which I found hidden away on Amazon Prime, the only media subscription service I use (it gets me stuff faster in Pandemic conditions).
A strange unity, both are about faith and the human struggle to create and sustain meaning and a sense of moral order in a cold even terrifying and chaotic world
PIRANESIPiranesi; first person unreliable narrator, adjacents are Gene Wolfes Soldier in the Mist books and House of Leaves. Though the labyrinth in Piranesi is partly wonderful, partly frightening, an awe-inspiring enfolding otherness rather than nihilistic horror. The narrator reads to us from his journals, or his journals simply speak. The journals have clearly been edited and changed, he mentions himself that there are big chunks torn out and he makes it clear from the start that he doesn't know why though initially, he thinks his memory is correct.
The narrators loss of faith in his own memory and records, the opening up of terrifying (to him) possibilities and fissures, and how he deals with and process that, is fascinating.
The narrator lives in a labyrinth of huge proportions interspersed with gigantic statues of human figures, each different, their meanings unknown. The place is huge enough that the lower floors are swept regularly by the sea while the upper floors have their own cloud formation and weather.
There is only the labyrinth, which he, the Narrator, Piranesi, calls The House. There is the sea, which sweeps though the lower halls in vast tides, and has already collapsed part of the house, but there is no shore, no land, no nation, no bedrock, no end to the house other than sea, sun and the sky, and the stars at night, just the house, more chambers and corridors and vast statues.
(Its actually a bit nice that Carceri)
So far as the narrator knows, and absolutely believes, both as natural intuition and an article of faith, the House is all there is and all there could be, and he lives his life in perfect harmony with the House, fishing in its lower halls, weaving things out of dried seaweed, carefully and painstakingly recording and predicting its tides.
We, the readers, know something is up. The Narrator has a watch, various plastic items, a sleeping bag, his journals, and there is an 'Other'. One other person in the House, who meets the Narrator every week at a regular time to discuss their important work, and who calls the narrator 'Piranesi'
VINLAND SAGAVinland Saga is an Anime in what I think is called the Shonen style? Its set in the early middle ages/late dark ages, a generation or so before the Battle of Hastings and takes place around the north sea world of the Vikings, going from Iceland to the Faeroes to Britain in this series.
The story initially follows Thorfinn, the very young son of Thors Snorrison in what initially looks like it’s going to be an exciting adventure, then looks like its going to be a serial revenge quest, then evolves into a study on revenge, hatred, fate, faith, history tragedy and meaning.
It goes through some changes!
Thorfinns father seems to be the classic surprisingly advanced human who acts as protagonist in a lot of historical fiction, he has a reputation as some kind of badass but currently lives as a farmer in Iceland and mainly just raises his family and is surprisingly near-pacifist and merciful to slaves. (Vinland Saga has about as much slavery and common references to slavery as actual history, the first sign that this is something slightly unusual).
Thors is a deserter from a badass mercenary band, the Joms Vikings, and they turn up in Iceland intending to recruit him by force and manipulation for the planned invasion of England.
Thors sets off and Thorfinn, maybe six or eight years old, stows away on his ship.
Will this be an exciting father/son adventure?
Well yes, in a sense, but mainly no, not at all.
Thors is ambushed in the Faeroe islands and, in an intense and extended battle of wits, skills and moral force, he is killed by Askeladd, the leader of the mercenary scumbag legion attacking him. Thorfinn survives this, swears revenge and trails after Askeladd. Unable or unwilling to kill him by assassination, he swears he will kill Askeladd in a duel and Askeladd promises him one if he can perform services on the battlefield.
Which, over years, turns into a really weird, fucked up father-son relationship with Thorfinn gradually getting better and better, Askeladd gradually getting older and slower, them duelling semi-regularly and both knowing it can only end one way, Thorfinn locked into his hatred but simultaneously getting closer to Askeladd and more like him all the time.
And that’s just the prologue to the prologue.
OCCIDENTAL SHONEN MIND COLLAPSEI have watched a handful of the more -popular Shonen anime and know a bit more about the period in question. It’s a fascinating mind collapse watching the Shonen archetypes and style collide with a really surprisingly well realised 11th century north sea setting. The fidelity to arms, armour, culture, society and hierarchies is impressive, probably more than that is the fidelity to a morality which is, maybe not exactly that of the historical people, but a hell of a lot closer than most other popular retellings.
Religion and faith are commonly edited out of these things but Vinland Saga is in large part ultimately about morality.
Canute starting off as a Bishonen-hot Anime-femme guy;
Would you believe that this characters relationship with Christianity is a central axis of the later series and that its really well done?
Thorfinn does the Naruto-run at one point (I think its an in-joke from the creators).
It’s just very 'Anime' but also very, very, 'Dark Ages/Medieval', so there is a constant low cuturespasm in watching.
Take a look at the opening bit from Youtube
ESCAPEBoth Piranesi and Vinland Saga are about people who are trapped and either don't know they are trapped, of who can intuit it, but cannot see it, yet are trying to escape.
(The question of whether someone can escape from a moral or physical trap which they *don't know they are in*, and how to do that, how to imagine a reality, or a moral possibility outside anything you can comprehend, is an invisible axis of both fictions.)
Piranesi's mind and memory alteration, his inability to conceive of anything outside the house, anything that is not-House, or that came before it or which will come after it, is, to us, a kind of defence or protection from trauma.
We learn as we go on that many people have been left in the Labyrinth, and all who stay there too long have gone insane and died. Piranesi may arguably have gone insane, and the person he was originally may have actually genuinely died, or changed so totally and irreversibly that we can reasonably consider it a death, but he survives and even thrives in an environment and situation that has destroyed everyone else.
In fact he is even happy, though lonely. His life is fulfilling. He weaves webs of meaning for himself and essentially develops his own proto religion/philosophy. He finds the bones of those who have died in the House and orders them, bringing them gifts of flowers and stories, talking to them so they need not be alone. He measures, records and comprehends the tides to the point that he need not fear them. He knows all the statues in the House individually, has particular feelings and intuitions about each. In a strike of intuitive brilliance, when forced to think of things which might be not-House, he makes combinations of the symbols and actions of those statues, extending them into a meta-space to comprehend what is otherwise comprehensible. He assists a lost albatross couple in building their nest. He communicates, perhaps insanely, but perhaps with real shamanic ability, with the birds which fly through and inhabit the House. He sees himself as the Beloved Child of the House. He loves his home, and his world. He seems in this isolated existence, empathic, dutiful, industrious, philosophical, even noble. In many ways he is a man totally at peace with his reality and his place within it.
We know that Piranesi is trapped, and we begin to suspect before he does that he is being manipulated. But while I hated the idea of Piranesi being used or made a slave, in some ways I did not want him to change beyond his evolved life path. Reality, our reality, would shock, ruin and perhaps destroy him, so the reader, or listener is poised between a desire for Piranesi to develop the means to escape the House, and a deep sorrow at the loss of his innocence.
CHITWELLS READINGAudiobooks can sometimes live or die by the relationship between the reading and the text. There are quite a few on my account which I have only got half way through because the reading just sat wrong. If someone enunciates in a slightly 'off' manner, over tens of hours of listening, that's going to drive you fucking nuts.
Anyway, Chitwell Ejiofors reading of Piranesi if fucking *lovely*. One of the neatest synthesis between reader, character and text that I have experienced. He captures the soul of this innocent, careful, intelligent and very pure soul.
THORFINN AND ASKELADDIt’s really hard, maybe impossible, to make a true, popular, anti-violence, anti-war fiction. Because violence is fucking cool and really handy for drama and on a screen or in a book, contained by limited time, all of its actually destructive aspects are muted.
Even to see how violence destroys you would need to build a world large, deep and morally complex enough to illuminate the fine mycelium strands of the trauma it creates, AND sustain the viewers interest and empathy in both the agents of violence AND its victims for long enough, both in actual reading/viewing time but also imagined time in the fiction, that the viewer could begin to get some sense of what violence actually does to people over time.
Well, mission at least partially accomplished I think.
All the main characters in Vinland Saga are monsters in someone else’s eyes, and in fact do act like monsters at times. Yet, all (or most) are sympathetic when seen through their own eyes.
There are no "evil" people in Vinland Saga, though almost everyone both suffers evil and commits it. Everyones rationale for what they do makes sense, and in a resource-poor world, no-one is ever entirely safe, either from violence, disease, starvation or enslavement. Everyone to some extent is living on a knife-edge, fighting over the scraps of a fallen world, amidst ruins they know they cannot repair.
(Not only that but most of the Christians think the world is literally going to end in about 20 or so years.)
"Revenge, tis a fucked up thing." - A Movie Protagonist.
Like ritualised gladiatorial child murder and high speed death races, revenge is one of those things people in fiction tell each other is bad while, from the evidence of that same fiction, its actually fucking BASED.
Watching Thorfinns gradual decay into someone so frozen in the instant of their trauma that it gradually degrades them into something awful and broken, is almost viscerally unpleasant, especially past the mid point of the series.
It is kind of fucking cool to begin with. The sheer willpower to survive, relentlessness and Throfinns gradual self-challenging and mastering new powers is kinda fun. But as we learn more and more about the characters, motivations and experiences of all the people linked in this great wheel of fortune, it turns more and more into a tragedy of meaningless hate.
This is made worse by the fact that literally everything Thors tried to teach his son is about not entering the cycle of death, hate and violence which he escaped from.
THE WHEEL OF FORTUNEIt’s one of the more impressive feats of popular fiction to take the guy who, in initial episodes looks like he is going to be Starscream; a scheming snakelike sidekick to the main enemy, and to slowly reveal more and more of him, in more and more complex situations, until he is something close to a terrible hero, the main character of the series.
Askeladd is the obverse side of Thors surprisingly-enlightened historical protagonist. Like Thors he is a badass, and he is highly intelligent, knowledgeable enough about the history of his world (at one point he delivers to a torture victim a brief history of the cyclic invasions which shaped Britain as justification for his own actions) and perceptive enough of its moral nature that he is one of the few people who can see the boundary of the way-things-are and realises how totally *fucked* everything is, and how trapped everyone in this world is.
He's also deeply alienated from his own culture by childhood trauma. Brilliant, manipulative, but wise enough to recognise in Thors someone who's intelligence and perception match his own, but who has found a way to live without surrendering his moral core. He tricks and manipulates Askeladds crew go from evil heavys, to cheery pirates, adventurous mercenaries, to soldiers to outright cold killers of innocents (but then they always were). Thorfinn betrays the woman who saved his life by lighting the fires to bring Askeladds raiders to the shore of her home. Two describe their own love as something like the love of god in a cheeky comedy interlude just before the Yule episodes.
The Yule episodes - which I won't spoil for you here.
THE SOUL FACING CHAOSThe main characters of Vinland Saga are all intelligent, perceptive people facing a world shaped by chaos, violence and death. We slowly learn about each of them that, in their own way, they are trying to deal with the trauma of their experiences and reaching for some way to make meaning out of the horror around them.
Thorfinn is locked into his crushing revenge cycle with his dark father figure. Askeladd is poisoned by memories of he and his mothers lives as degraded slaves. Canute, the Price they get tangled up with, is deeply religious and crushed by the fact his Father essentially views him as a tool, and by the total lack of any justice or meaning in the world around him. Each of them is learning at different times to either hold on to, re-create, or surrender some inner totem or distant faith in *something* that might lend purpose and meaning to their lives.
Piranesi, in his unending labyrinth, has built his web of meaning and purpose, more perfectly than anyone in "Vinland", but we know it can only exist inside his fractured reality, and we know he himself is on a course to break out of that reality, and escape into a larger, but darker one where his purity will likely not survive.
Well, they are pretty good fictions. Worth a look if you get a chance and both likely to appeal to readers of this blog.