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In the Fortress of the Assassins

First Love

Today, I’m posting another extract from my novel The Tiger and the Cauldron 

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Two figures detached themselves from the shadows of the lower terrace and climbed the steps towards him.
‘Hassan.’ It was Sayyid’s voice. ‘The Captain has commanded me to relieve you.’
‘An hour, no more, Sayyid,’ said Doquz who accompanied him. She too wore a horse blanket round her shoulders. ‘Another should take your place. It’s too cold for extended watches when we have fifty able to undertake the duty. Come with me,’ she said to Hassan. She led him down the steps and across the courtyard, stopping and bending down to rub her hands together by one of the dying fires. ‘You are in need of some warmth.’ She unsheathed her scimitar and hooked it through the handle of a kettle that lay in the embers. Then, taking him by the arm, she drew him into the shelter of one of the rooms, which was empty save for a burning candle and yet another blanket that had been laid as a bed. There she set down the kettle. She took off her helmet and gave it to him. With the blanket edge protecting her hand she lifted the kettle again and poured its contents into the helmet.
‘Drink,’ she ordered.
Hassan raised the helmet to his lips. The aroma of warm wine mixed with spices drifted into his nostrils and he sipped the liquid gratefully. His chill abated.
‘That was good,’ he said.
‘In the Zagros winter, it was a most welcome beverage,’ said she. ‘Who would have thought it would prove equally so in the Alburz summer? In the fortress of Alamut?’
She drank what remained of the wine, threw the helmet aside and sat down on the horse blanket. She undraped the one that covered her shoulders, loosened her corslet and extended both her arms towards him. The candle flickered.
Hassan knelt and took her hands in his. ‘Doquz …’
She pulled him down beside her. ‘I cannot pretend you were the first, Hassan,’ she said. ‘Does that trouble you?’
‘That, no. It troubles me only that I could not please you.’
‘Then I was the first for you, as I thought. Truly you did not bed your Luciana?’
‘Not my Luciana!’ Hassan felt his cheeks burn, but if she had not guessed the whole truth he was not now going to confess it. ‘I could not love her as she wished.’
‘Yet with me you were gentleness itself.’
‘I beg you do not tease me.’
‘I do not tease, Hassan. You are young, but there is more to manhood than most men learn in a lifetime. With you …’ She did not finish the sentence but reached up and kissed him full on the mouth.
Hassan allowed his lips to linger on hers before breaking free to pose the question that had haunted him since Maragha.
‘Then I did not displease you?’
‘How could you think that? My life had become so grim and, before that night, I had not thought to find such love again.’ She paused to kiss him once more, this time fiercely, her mouth open and her tongue seeking his. When it seemed to Hassan that neither could any longer draw breath, she released him. Her lips found the lobe of his ear. ‘No, indeed, it was more, Hassan,’ she whispered. ‘The other was a childish fancy. I know that now. It excited and thrilled, but did not satisfy.’
Once more Hassan was gripped by a fever of excitement. He felt he ought to respond in some way but found he could not speak without stumbling over the words.
‘The last few nights,’ he began. ‘… when we camped in the hills … I would have come to you. I wanted to come to you … when you cried out in your sleep. Yet you sent me away …’
‘It would not have been proper. You must know that.’
She bit the lobe of his ear, very gently, and encircled his neck with her arm – the left – and only then did Hassan notice she no longer wore the bandage.
‘I know.’
‘Then let us lie together now while we have the time, my Hassan,’ said Doquz. She pulled him even closer, then down beside her on the blanket. The ground beneath his elbow was hard but he scarcely noticed.
‘My breasts are warm,’ she breathed. ‘Feel my heart; ‘tis beating so fast. Come to me again. In case there are soon to be no more tomorrows for us, I want to know your love one more time.’

The Cuckoo’s Calling

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I knew before I even opened this book that the author, Robert Galbraith, was actually JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame. I think everyone knew that, almost from the day it was published. My hesitation and delay before reading it stemmed from my disappointment with The Casual Vacancy. That just wasn’t my thing at all.  See https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/its-not-harry-potter/

The Cuckoo’s Calling is quite a different sort of novel, a detective story featuring a PI who steps out of the pages like the bomb that took off part of his leg. Cormoran Strike is ex British army, over-weight, broke and has been dumped by his girl friend. He is also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star.

The mystery, and the first case for a while that’s likely to help Strike with his debts, concerns the death of a celebrity model called Lula Landry, who has apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of her luxury appartment. Lula, we learn early on, was adopted, and it is her brother John Bristow, also adopted, who engages Strike to find out the truth. Assisted by his temporary “secretary”, Robin, Strike embarks on his search for evidence that Lula was murdered, and to find the killer. His investigation takes us on a tour of London, from the fashionable West End to the colourful world of designers, models, film producers and pop stars, and into the less glamourous lives of wannabees.

Strike is a cerebral detective, Robin an efficient and intuitive assistant. The other players we meet in the course of the novel are brash, self-opinionated, camp, frivolous, sad or just plain funny. Lula, whom we never meet except as a dead body, is described as having a ‘drive towards self-destruction, a tendency which seemed to have revealed itself first in early adolescence, when her adoptive father … dropped dead from a heart attack. Lula had subsequently run away from two schools, and been expelled from a third, all of them expensive private establishments.’

Among the possible suspects for the crime is designer Guy Some, whose face ‘contrasted strangely with his taut, lean body, for it abounded in exaggerated curves: the eyes exophthalmic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head.’ Another is model Ciara Porter who, ‘attenuated and angular, with milk-white skin, hair almost as fair, and pale blue eyes set very wide apart … stretched out her endless legs, in platform shoes that were tied with long silver threads up her calves, and lit a Marlborough Light.’

Then there’s film producer Freddie Bestigui – ‘… tiny eyes between pouches of flesh, black moles sprinkled over the swarthy skin’ and Lula’s mother, cancer-ridden Lady Bristow, whose ‘death was an almost palpable presence in the room, as though it stood waiting patiently, politely, behind the curtains.’

Ms Rowling has an eye for detail, a flair for characterisation and a wonderful bizarre sense of humour which, I think, is best demonstrated in this kind of story. I enjoyed reading The Cuckoo’s Calling and will quite happily read the next book in the Galbraith series when I get the opportunity. Strike, who seems rather sad at the beginning, improves as we get to know him better. Another book and we might actually get to admire him.

******

Gosho, Geisha and Gion

Memories of Japan (Part Four)

From the eleventh floor of the Isetan department store in Kyoto station, you can see the whole city. Its rectilinear boulevards of clean, modern buildings – shops, offices and hotels – stretch away into the haze of the hills that surround it on three sides. Criss-crossing them are neat, narrow lanes lined with boutiques and traditional teahouses that speak of an age long gone, when Kyoto was Japan’s capital and the geisha was queen. Here and there, a temple roof peeps out from a verdant cocoon of maple and pine, while patches of sakura, the much-vaunted cherry blossom, make an unlikely appearance midst the jungle of garish neon signs.

GinkakujiKyoto

Kyoto – Ginkakuji – the silver temple

To the north and somewhere in the centre of this panorama lies the Imperial Palace, the Kyoto-gosho, a complex of buildings set amid stunning gardens, with avenues of acer, cedar and azalea. There are streams crossed by dainty, arched bridges, and well-stocked ornamental ponds. This site was the official residence of the Japanese emperors for five hundred years, though most of the original palace that stood here has long gone, damaged by fire beyond repair. The present buildings were completed only in 1855, just thirteen years before the move to Tokyo. Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years.

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Kyoto – Kinkakuji – the golden temple

Apart from the palace, the city boasts one castle of note, the early seventeenth century Nijo-jo, built by a powerful Shogun, but now public property. It too is set in magnificent gardens. Nijo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Tea Ceremony

Kyoto abounds in gardens, havens of peace and tranquillity in the Zen tradition with ancient stones laid in symbolic patterns, arboreta of shapely conifers and mirror pools that teem with enormous carp. Sometimes there are pavilions with walls of paper and wood, their floors laid with tatami. There you can squat and, for little more than the price of a downtown coffee, be served with a bowl of green tea and a cake by a kimono-clad waitress in a ceremony that is as old as Kyoto itself.

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

In the evening, the streets are swelling with people, shopping, dining or simply enjoying the spring air by the river. April is the time of the hanami – blossom viewing. The Japanese have a thing about the seasons, and they celebrate each in their own special way with ceremonies and festivals, some semi-religious and dignified, others sheer outrageous fun – an excuse for partying, fireworks and plenty of sake.

Women in kimono and obi are still to be seen gliding along in Gion among suited sararimen and teenagers with bared midriffs and bright red hair, but real geisha are comparatively rare. There are probably no more than two hundred in Kyoto today compared with ten times that number a century ago. They earn their living on the stage or in a semi-secret world the western tourist seldom penetrates. Perhaps it’s the secrecy that has led to western misconceptions. These women, more properly called maiko and geiko – have nothing to do with the sex trade. They are talented entertainers who sing, dance and play musical instruments for the delight of private, exclusive banquets and parties. At their own theatre in Gion, they perform traditional music and dance for the public at large. Their most famous and colourful presentation, the Miyako Odori. – the ‘Cherry Dances’ – is given in April at hanami time, when the Japanese often picnic under the blossoming trees.

Travelling around Kyoto is relatively simple. There are the underground train lines and, if you can come to terms with the station maze and master the ticket machines, they offer a speedy and comfortable way of traversing the city. The bus service is even more practical – and cheaper – once you pluck up courage to try it. For less than £1.50 sterling [about $2.00] *, it will transport you anywhere within the city limits. The main destinations and street names are displayed in romaji – English lettering – on an electronic board at the front of the bus, so the language isn’t a problem.

Like any city in the world, Kyoto also has its museums, theatres and cinemas. It has fashionable department stores too, but if you are looking for souvenirs, – real souvenirs – visit the smaller shops where specialist advice and personal service are the norm. You might even get a cup of tea. Often there is a price to be paid. Electronic goods – cameras, mobile phones and the like – are inexpensive and funky and you can buy a genuine Japanese fan for around 5,000 yen.
But if you want a kimono, better sell your car first!

* Current rates

Just an ordinary guy …

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

by Haruki Murakami

(translated by Philip Gabriel)

tazaki

Straight off, I will say that I loved this character-driven story. Tazaki is just your average guy but he carries a lot of emotional baggage. He likes railway stations, he likes music, he plays sport and (we’ll come to this later because it has a lot to do with the plot) he likes girls. The biggest problem of all is his name; while his four best friends at high school have names that translate as colours, his does not! He sees himself as grey and uninteresting and has a very poor idea of his self worth.

One day, he takes a call from one of his friends, who tells him that none of the group wishes to see or have anything to do with him again. Instead of trying to find out why, he simply says OK and puts the phone down. He considers death and suicide but eventually decides to carry on with his life. Sixteen years later, he has become a competent engineer, building stations for a living. He begins a new relationship with Sara, a woman two years older than himself. Sara sees the worth in him but realises there are issues that need resolving before she can take their liaison to the next stage.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is one of those novels where to reveal too much of the plot would mean lots of spoilers. Suffice to say that Sara persuades Tazaki that he needs to find his old friends and ask them to explain why they rejected him. The answer, not unexpectedly, has to do with sex, and hinges on Tazaki’s relationship (real or imagined) with the two female members of his high school group. Regular readers of Murakami’s work may not be too shocked; he has a habit of weaving dreamlike fantasies into his novels. And in this case, though Tazaki is innocent of the charge brought against him, we (and he) are tempted to look for an explanation in the subliminal. However, despite subtle hints of some sinister force at work, Tazaki is driven to conclude that he is not such a colourless fellow after all.

To lovers of a nicely rounded romantic ending, the last chapter of the novel may be disappointing but I think it wraps up the character better than ‘happy ever after’ would do.

Whilst I’m sure that Mr Gabriel has made an excellent translation of the work, I do sometimes feel that Japanese literature does not translate well into English. There are complexities of the Japanese psyche, peculiar to their nation  – such as ‘face’ and ‘worth’ – that are not easily understood by Europeans. The concepts of colour and number too have more powerful emotional associations in their culture and language than they do in ours.

***

Hypatia of Alexandria

The Beautiful Mathematician

“The greatest loss of all, however, is the absence of your divine spirit. I had hoped that this would always remain with me, to conquer both the caprices of fortune and the evil turns of fate.” (Syrenios of Cyrene to Hypatia)

I wrote recently in a post of how history and historians have been unkind to women. In the main, historians treated women as mere accompaniments to the men to whom they belonged. When they did not, they often portrayed them as weak, irresolute or bloodthirsty.

Happily, the past sixty years have brought changes – changes of emphasis and in method. With the help of television, interest in history has been awakened. No longer solemn, monotonous, date-heavy and masculine, history is a vibrant and colourful pageant that not only reveals the past but tells us much about who and what we are today. Modern historians are revisiting the past with a more critical eye and discovering women who, until modern times, lived only in the pages of legend, or of fiction.

“Esteemed by the ruling elite, sympathetic towards Christians, indifferent to pagan cults, neutral in the religious fights and altercations, she lived … enjoying the city’s rulers’ respect and her disciples’ love.” (Maria Dzielska)

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hypatiadzskRomanticised through the work of Charles Kingsley, Hypatia of Alexandria was one such woman who is brought alive in two biographies of the past twenty years by writers with very different approaches to her life and work. Somewhat confusingly, both have the same eponymous title.

Hypatia, born in Alexandria, probably around 360 CE although opinions vary, was a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and teacher of the Neoplatonist School. Daughter of the celebrated mathematician Theon, she lived her whole life in the city and taught there for more than twenty years. Students – pagan, Jewish and Christian – flocked to her lectures and public debates. They included two later bishops of the Christian Church, two Roman governors and several men who would go on to be philosophers, teachers and authors in their own right.

“But that tide of opinion which knows no possibility of doubt, which adheres blindly and mindlessly to a cause, which abandons intellectual quest for the assurance of a mute and unquestioning ‘faith’ – all this was against her, and her life became forfeit to the bloodlust of those who would claim …. their access to a higher morality.” (Michael AB Deakin)

In 415 CE, she became a victim of the doctrinal war that waged under the archbishopric of Cyril of Alexandria. She was attacked by a Christian mob, stripped naked and savagely beaten to death. Afterwards, her body – or what was left of it – was consigned to a fire. The exact circumstances of her death vary depending on who is telling the story, and whether they are admirers or detractors. Likewise, argument still rages as to the precise identity of her killers. Nevertheless, all accounts, even those of her enemies, agree that she was murdered in a most brutal manner.

The layout of the two books alone gives some indication of each author’s approach to Hypatia’s life, work, death and legacy. The earlier of the two, by Maria Dzielska, is 157 pages long and comprises three longish chapters occupying about 100 pages and some 50 pages of notes and sources. Ms Dzielska focuses on the legend, the philosophy of Hypatia through the correspondence of her students, and the background and controversy leading to her death.

The later work by Michael AB Deakin is longer (231 pages). Again, the main text, consisting of ten short chapters, occupies about 100 pages. The rest comprises mathematical appendices, diagrams and source notes in translation. Mr Deakin’s emphasis is on Hypatia the mathematician and on her contribution to the sciences we know today as geometry, algebra and astronomy.

His assessment seems the slightly more sympathetic of the two and he does occasionally wax lyrical about her qualities and achievements. He is clearly an admirer. Maria Dzielska is an admirer too but she takes a more feminine stance, refusing to overplay the ‘beautiful mathematician’ idea, clearly promoted by the film Agora, starring the talented Rachel Weisz in the role of Hypatia.

Almost every extant record of Hypatia describes her as physically attractive, but so many leave us with the impression of a young woman suffering an agonising death at the hands of terrorists. [Most men, I have to say, cannot handle that sort of thing.] However, the two biographies share the conclusion that, beautiful or not, Hypatia was certainly not a young woman when she died. This does not make her death any less dreadful. And the idea of the young, beautiful martyr detracts from the real historical tragedy.

Hypatia’s contribution to both science and philosophy is largely lost; we know her through the works of others. We might even consider the possibility that she was sabotaged by a patriarchal and misogynist world; it would not be the first attempt to excise a woman’s life from history.

If indeed such an attempt at excision was made, thankfully it did not succeed.

Which biography do I prefer? They are complementary and thus both are necessary to build a complete picture. Ms Dzielska’s work is the easier read yet if I have a preference at all it falls slightly towards Mr Deakin’s book. Some of it is quite technical. It is a book for a mathematician with an interest in history – or for a historian with an interest in mathematics, and I hold myself to be loosely in one or other of those categories.

*****

Mannequin

bookheathen:

This is a wonderful example of how few words are needed to tell a story!

Originally posted on inkposts:

My wife asked me to come to the mall, but I wasn’t in the mood for its crowds or life-like mannequins. “Careful,” I said, “last time one of them tried to grab me.” She laughed, left and never came back.

I reported her missing: “She has a green handbag and a scar on her forehead,” I told police. “She’s beautiful.”

They promised to find her. They never did.

Sometimes, I pass the store where she was last seen; one of its mannequins carries a green handbag and has a mark on its forehead. For a piece of plastic, it’s beautiful.

Note on Mannequin

I wrote Mannequin for Off the Shelf’s competition, Retail Tales, which was made in partnership with Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield. The word limit was 100 words. It came runner up and appears on the Off the Shelf Festival of Words website.

View original

It’s a Wonderful World

In a world so often corrupted by wars and darkened by terrible acts in the name of perverted philosophies, occasionally a ray of light shines through the abyss of hatred and intolerance to remind you that life is not all bad news.

Sometimes, the tiny shafts of illumination come in a form so unexpected, yet so obvious, that they simply take your breath away. The following gem came to me from a friend, and I felt compelled to pass it on:

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*********************

 

Margaret Skea, Author

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