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Friday, November 6, 2009

The Ambergris Week - Part 1: City of Saints and Madmen

Once upon a time, a man started to have weird dreams.

And stories sprang forth from his brow, as once wise Athena from the head of her father, mighty Zeus - or, in adapting the metaphor to a more postmodern setting, we could say that stories started seeping from his brain, oozing like slime from the bottom of undisturbed oceans where ancient squid gods lie asleep until their time to wake and rule Earth again has come.

These stories - the first, at least, but by no means the last - were collected in a book. The man was Jeff VanderMeer, and the book was City of Saints and Madmen.

Why such a convoluted, baroque post beginning, you ask? Because this is only fitting in approaching the review of a multi-faceted work. The stories of this book are reminiscent of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Vandermeer is an avid Borgesian: for what other reason the major bookstore in Ambergris would display the blind librarian name?

(In fact, there is a well-concocted explanation in the glossary, elegant as in all good written fiction: BORGES would be the juxtaposition of the first two syllables of the bookstore´s two founders and first owners, Bormund and Gestrand Kubtek.)

The book opens with an introduction by Grand Master Michael Moorcock, who guides us into the mysterious mind of Captain VanderMeer, acquaintance to the famous Duncan Shriek, according to writer Josef Conrad. Moorcock prepares us for what we are going to read: a tapestry of tales and visions, a rare treasure that we should admire for the "rare texture of the writing, the engaging vividness of his description and the quirks of his idiosyncratic mind which conducts its network of realities with celebratory panache."

And of what kind of realities this network consists?

The first reality (for we should consider all the stories here as being, or having been, real) is Dradin in Love. Upon seeing a young woman through the window of "Hoegbotton & Sons, Distributors", young monk Dradin Kashmir falls in love - and he must court this woman at all costs. Naturally, things aren´t so simple, and what begins as an innocent adventure slowly turns into a very dangerous rite of passage.

Dradin in Love is a story which takes us by the hand in awe - we already know where it is going to take us, and it not a pretty place, but we consent in going all the same, because we want to know how it is done. Such it is with magic, and Jeff Vandermeer plays with words as a magician with the tools of his trade. Vandermeer is in love with language, but he never drops the ball, that is, never in any moment he will sacrifice content for the sake of form alone.

The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris is exactly what it purports to be: a guide. But not a guide like any other, for Ambergris is not a common city, and its writer is not any writer. We are talking of historian Duncan Shriek, an artiste, a man who shines more than the subjects he choose to write about. So reading this guide is already a travel in itself: upon reading it you become as acquainted with Shriek as with Ambergris. Don´t forget to read carefully the footnotes: they are infinitely more important than the text proper. Duncan Shriek has made a point of it, and he doesn´t let the reader forget it.

The Transformation of Martin Lake is another story of a confused young man, his ambitions and dreams and how everything can go wrong (and indeed does). Lake is a celebrated painter who lives in interesting times, under the iron rule of master composer-turned-dictator Voss Bender. Suddenly the news of Bender´s death shake Ambergris, and the city is torn apart between two major political factions: the Reds (who challenge Bender´s rule) and the Greens (who doesn´t believe Bender is dead, and state that he is returning soon to put an end to the chaos that took the city). Lake declares himself neutral, soon to discover nobody can be neutral in such matters and be forced to undertake a sinister deed he can´t run away from.

The story reads like a mix of Gothic novel and some of the Sardonic Tales of the French symbolist writer Villiers de L´Isle Adam, by his turn a fervent reader of Edgar Allan Poe. Martin Lake is a truly Gothic character, and the story is scary as hell, for it could happen to any of us - if we were careless painters and lived in Ambergris, that is.

The Strange Case of X is the story of an interrogation - a metalinguistical experience in which the author of a book called City of Saints and Madmen is confronted by someone (a policeman? A psychiatrist? we don´t know for sure) who questions him why does he think everything he wrote about in his book is real.

The second half of the book consists of a mosaic of stories that introduces the reader to the somber city of Ambergris (whose name carries in its sound something bittersweet in it, as if to remember us that everything has two sides, and after dusk comes dawn). It ends up being almost as big in size as the other stories, and here VanderMeer excels in his plurality of styles, bringing forth such different stories in scope and intention as In the short story
The Hours After Death, the story-within-a-story structure of The Exchange, the essay King Squid, and the psychiatric-related letters from Dr. V. to Dr. Simpkin and X´s Notes, among many other stories (for they seem endless, though never tiresome).

The book ends with the enlightening Ambergris Glossary, which will help the reader until the end of the cycle, through the reading of both
Shriek and Finch. (More on that on later posts, though.)

The final stories both explain and confound us. They are meant to do so, for the reader is also a visitor in Ambergris, and she/he must experience the same disorientation a real tourist would. Perhaps the same horror. Certainly the same wonder.

(This review was first posted in Post-Weird Thoughts)


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a confounding story, I have heard of Vandermeer, but what is the theme of all these stories?


Fabio Fernandes said...

The city of Ambergris. That´s the only perennial character along all the stories, which make an encyclopaedia of sorts.


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