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Zafon’s Barcelona (3)

The Prisoner of Heaven

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

trans. by Lucia Graves

‘Cast against the light from the street, the silhouette resembled a tree trunk lashed by the wind. The visitor ….took one step forward, limping visibly. He had the cold eyes of a bird of prey, patient and calculating.’

The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book in Zafon’s cycle of stories set in Barcelona and featuring the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It is much shorter than either of its predecessors yet lacks none of the intrigue of the earlier books. Nor is it missing their compelling characters.

We return again to Sempere’s Bookshop and renew acquaintance with Daniel Sempere, his father and their loveable helper, Fermin Romero de Torres, central characters in The Shadow of the Wind. And we meet again David Martin and Isabella, protagonists in The Angel’s Game.


Two years after the events related in The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel Sempere is happily married with an infant son. It is Christmas. A stranger walks into his father’s bookshop and enquires after a special edition of The Count of Monte Cristo. He is willing to pay far more than the book is worth. When he leaves the book behind with a dedication for Daniel’s friend, Fermin, it sparks a mystery that has its roots in Barcelona’s revolutionary history. Fermin’s disquiet on being told of the stranger’s visit prompts Daniel to question him about his past.

The past is something the reader feels Fermin would rather forget. However, his problem can be simply stated: he loves Bernarda and wants to marry her; he needs papers to marry; he has none; Fermin Romero de Torres does not exist; he died in prison a quarter of a century ago!

‘Fermin went on cleaning him as best he could, silently, and then covered him with the piece of blanket they shared – teeming with nits and stinking of urine. He sat next to the thief until Salgado closed his eyes ….. “Tell me he’s already dead,” came Number 15’s voice.’

Zafon now switches from first to third person point of view to relate the story of Fermin’s earlier life, a story at the heart of which is a sinister secret that will disturb Daniel’s newly-found happiness.

In 1940, Spain still suffers the effects of the civil war and its people are cruelly and mercilessly ruled by an oppressive regime. The authorities arrest Fermin and confine him in a cell in Montjuic Castle, then Barcelona’s fascist prison. David Martin, the haunted narrator of The Angel’s Game, the second book in Zafon’s cycle, has already been confined there for several years when Fermin arrives. Prisoners in Montjuic routinely die of cold, starvation or disease. However, for his own reasons, Valls, the prison governor, is determined to keep Martin alive. The story reintroduces us to Isabella, who has always been Martin’s friend, and is making strenuous efforts to have him released from prison.

Like Monte Cristo, Fermin’s tale involves conspiracy, murder and a large fortune. And like Edmond Dantes, Fermin, with help from Martin and an apparent corpse, makes a dramatic escape. But unlike Dantes, Fermin does not find gold and jewels in an Aladdin’s cave. He goes on the run, possessed of the secret that, when told, will shatter Daniel’s perception of himself and his family’s past.

‘My father stared at her in astonishment, as if he’d seen a ghost. I gulped, feeling a shiver run through my body. That girl was the spitting image of my mother: she had the same face that appeared in the set of photographs my father kept in his desk.’

Again, as in his earlier novels, Zafon challenges our idea of the conventional hero. He paints Fermin as a brave but gentle man who values friendship and honour above fame and wealth. And once again, in Valls, he introduces us to a villain with no apparent redeeming qualities, one that demands a fourth novel to satisfy the reader’s sense of justice.

I would add only that, for me, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, though fantasy, is one of the greatest fictional creations of all time.


Zafon’s Barcelona (2)

The Angel’s Game

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

trans. by Lucia Graves

If you like happy-ever-after endings, if your taste is for stories that resolve neatly, all questions answered and evil routed by good, The Angel’s Game is not for you. If you want heroic tragedy or vale of tears, pick up a copy of Romeo and Juliet or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Should you prefer, however, to be thrilled, chilled and baffled, to read and ponder the immense power of human imagination, where the end is less important than the journey, then read on.

The Angel’s Game is the second novel in Zafon’s cycle of stories set in twentieth-century Barcelona. Although it fits between The Shadow of the Wind and The Prisoner of Heaven in literary chronology, its action precedes that of the former by a quarter century.

In this Faustian tale, Zafon casts David Martin, writer, in the role of Goethe’s hero. Mephistopheles is represented by a mysterious Parisian publisher, Andrea Corelli, while readers familiar with the play may recognise shades of Gretchen in either or both of Cristina and Isabella, the two main female characters. Yet The Angel’s Game is not Faust. Neither Martin nor Corelli may be what they seem. Zafon and his publishers invite us to read the books in any order and, indeed, one may do so without spoiling any of the stories. However, there are both benefits and handicaps in reading them out of sequence, with arguably the greatest enjoyment being had from taking them in historical rather than publication order.

In The Angel’s Game, readers of The Shadow of the Wind will recognise Sempere’s Bookshop and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The shop’s proprietor, Sempere Senior, is the grandfather of Shadow’s narrator, Daniel, and it is he who introduces the young David Martin to the cavernous labyrinth of lost literature beneath the streets of Barcelona. We meet a younger Isaac, the Cemetery’s custodian, and we make the acquaintance, if only briefly, with a younger Don Gustavo Barcelo. In Sempere Junior, the younger version of Daniel’s father, we see the beginnings of the shy introvert who, in certain respects, is the one character who draws all three novels together.

Readers of The Prisoner of Heaven will already have met David Martin and may approach the story of his earlier life with confusing foreknowledge. However, one may choose instead to ignore the man he will become and allow oneself to be swept up in the current of mystery, corruption and surreal horror that follows David throughout his narrative.


David Martin makes his living writing cheap literature under a pseudonym for second rate Barcelona publishers. He is in love with Cristina, daughter of the chauffeur to his patron and friend Don Pedro Vidal. Vidal is also an author, but of lesser talent, who is engaged in writing his magnum opus. He makes no headway until David and Cristina conspire to rewrite it for him without his knowledge. The novel becomes an instant success to the detriment of David’s own work, published at the same time. David’s health suffers as a result.

Just when life seemingly has nothing more to offer, Martin receives an offer from Corelli of an obscene sum of money to write a novel about religion. Something is not quite right about both the offer and the man himself, but when the story seems to be taking a turn towards the supernatural, it twists in a new direction. A series of deaths, starting with those of his former publishers, plunges David into danger as a suspect for murder. We are introduced to a host of new characters, corrupt policemen and lawyers, an actress of doubtful virtue, not to mention a witch, before beginning to suspect where the novel is heading – even without the foreknowledge of The Prisoner of Heaven.

Chills and gore there are a-plenty as David follows a carefully-laid trail through dark streets, deserted mansions, graveyards, and an improbable sanatorium towards the resolution of a mystery and a reuniting with his beloved. Sexual scenes are mild and infrequent, but throughout Martin’s relationship with Isabella, there is a latent tension which from time to time threatens to lead to fulfilment.

Zafon explores the no-man’s-land between fantasy and reality with great skill and understanding. His technique, of using Martin as narrator, allows him to blur the actual boundary. But if we study the clues carefully, we see in his protagonist a man who inhabits both worlds. Zafon is master of the gothic. He manages the plot cleverly, leaving us always guessing as to the novel’s underlying genre. Always literary, it borders at times on macabre thriller, low fantasy or parable.

The Angel’s Game is one of the outstanding novels of the twenty-first century. Lucia Graves’s rendering of the original text into English ensures that its deserved success in Spain is replicated abroad, and that the book can be enjoyed by English speakers everywhere.


Zafon’s Barcelona

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

translated by Lucia Graves

I wrote reviews of Zafon’s Barcelona trilogy a few years ago now. However, since the Shadow of the Wind and the other two are among the best novels of the last 50 years and some of my all-time favourites, I thought I’d like to post them again. So here goes with the first:


The Shadow of the Wind is literary fiction in the truest sense. It is a novel about books – about one book in particular – and about the power of words to inspire, inflame and ultimately destroy.

10-year-old Daniel Sempere discovers ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and from that moment his life becomes entwined with, and begins to follow a similar path to that of the book’s author Julian Carax. The drama is played out amid the horrors and uncertainties of Revolutionary and Post-revolutionary Barcelona, where class is everything and yet where power rests not only with rich families but with anyone sufficiently ambitious and unscrupulous to take full advantage of the vacuum that war has left.

Daniel, the novel’s narrator, is none of these things. He is just a normal boy caught up in events beyond his understanding and control, and which threaten to overwhelm him.

Amid the realities of time and place, however, Zafon’s sense of humour shines through. He is able to see comedy in the grimmest settings and situations. Indeed, there are passages where the line between grim drama, comedy and even farce is finely drawn, as in many scenes featuring the novel’s most endearing character, Fermin Romero de Torres, spy turned tramp turned bookshop guru. It is Fermin who shines a light on life’s tragedy and shows us the real meaning of loyalty and friendship.

The Shadow of the Wind has its malevolent villain too, one who evokes shades of Hugo’s Javert, though without Javert’s morality or redeemability. Fumero is corruption and decadence personified, almost to the point of melodrama.

The novel is literary, for sure, but it is also a historical romance with gothic overtones. Julian Carax haunts its pages with an almost but not quite supernatural presence. Yet amid all the horrors and amorality of this war-torn society resides love that defies class and convention.

Daniel, vaguely reminiscent of John Ridd in Lorna Doone, is a self-deprecating hero. He confesses to being a coward yet he seems not enough of a fool to risk his life when the odds are so stacked against him. When it really matters to the story he comes through to his own cost.

Translations are tricky. The translator must not only translate the words but must also capture the mood, the emotion, the sense of time and place and the nuances of language of the original, and present them convincingly as the author’s own. He or she must remove that ‘alien’ feel and render the work as acceptable to the reader as a work in his or her own language.

In this translation, Lucia Graves manages to do just that. By the end, I felt I knew the Barcelona of the nineteen-thirties, -forties and -fifties; in her prose, I could feel the texture of the snow; I could be disgusted by the fetidness of the abandoned garrets and be awed at the ostentatious luxury of the upper-class villas; I could hear the clanking of trams as they made their way along the Avenido del Tibidabo and the peal of church bells across the city.

The Shadow of the Wind has all the elements of an enduring classic. It is a story that sometimes shocks but often makes you laugh. And just once or twice, it makes you shed a tear or two.



Scott’s Talisman

The Story of the Lee Penny

Truth, Myth and Fiction

‘ “Stay, let me finish one cure ere I commence another,” said the Arab; “I will pass with you when I have given my patient the second cup of this most holy elixir.”
‘So saying he pulled out a silver cup, and filling it with water from a gourd which stood by the bedside, he next drew forth a small silken bag made of network, twisted with silver …. and, immersing it in the cup, continued to watch it in silence …‘ “Drink,” said the physician to the sick man – “sleep, and awaken free from malady.” ‘ [Walter Scott – The Talisman]


Sir Walter Scott’s historical romance The Talisman is set in the Levant during the Third Crusade.  It tells of a supposed meeting between King Richard I of England and the Kurdish General Salah ad-Din Yusuf (Saladin). Richard, sick in his tent, is visited by the Muslim in the guise of a physician. Saladin cures the king of his malady with the help of a mysterious amulet, which he dips in plain water to make a healing potion. The novel mixes European high politics and religion with a touching love affair between a Scottish knight (actually Prince David, heir to the Scottish throne) and King Richard’s fictional cousin, Edith Plantagenet. It all ends happily with the villains punished, the heroes (including Saladin) vindicated and the lovers reunited.

As all lovers of his books know, Walter Scott was not one to let history get in the way of a good story. By his own admission, The Talisman was full of historical inaccuracies yet the story of the amulet at least was based on fact.

The tale begins in June 1329. King Robert I of Scotland -the Bruce – was on his deathbed. With him was his friend Sir James Douglas, who had fought with him throughout the struggle for Scottish independence. Like many of his contemporaries, Bruce was inspired by the Crusades, and his last request to Douglas was that his heart should repose in the Holy Land, at the Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Whether Bruce meant the request literally, or indeed whether he made it at all, may be doubted, but why should that matter? James Douglas apparently took it literally. Early in 1330, he set out for Spain with a small group of knightly followers. Douglas himself carried Bruce’s heart in a silver casket. Beside him rode another knight, Sir Symon Locard of Lee, whom he had entrusted with the key.


To carry out Bruce’s dying wish was never going to be feasible. By 1330, for good or ill, the Crusader cause was already lost. Jerusalem had long returned to Muslim control and the last Christian outpost in the Levant, the fortress of Acre, had fallen in 1292. It is probable that Douglas intended to fulfil his commission symbolically by carrying his dead king’s heart into battle against the Muslims of Andalusia.

That is what he did. The Scots joined forces with the army of King Alfonso of Castile in his campaign against Sultan Mohammed of Granada. In the ensuing battle, Douglas and most of his small army were killed. Sir Symon, according to legend, returned to Scotland with Bruce’s heart, which was buried in Melrose Abbey.

What about the amulet, you ask. Well, I’m coming to that! Sir Walter Scott’s interest in the Douglas story was a personal one. In 1820, his elder daughter Sophia married John Gibson Lockhart (*), an up-and-coming lawyer, writer and classicist. And it was from Lockhart that Scott learned something of his new son-in-law’s family traditions, including the curious case of the Lee Penny.

‘As far as is known, the true account is as follows: at the battle of Teba Sir Symon Locard took prisoner an Emir of wealth and distinction for whom he demanded a ransom. When the Prince’s mother came to pay … a jewel dropped from her purse and by the haste with which she recovered it, Sir Symon guessed it to be valuable. He demanded that it be added to the ransom and the mother surrendered it rather than lose her son. She told Sir Symon that the stone was …. sovereign remedy against bleeding and the fever, the bite of a mad dog, and the sickness in horses and cattle. Such is the tradition of the Lee Penny.’ [Simon Macdonald Lockhart – Seven Centuries]


This account of the Lee Penny is touched with myth but it does at least have some hard evidence to back it up. The Lee Penny has indeed been in the possession of the Lockharts of Lee for several centuries. In its present form it comprises a ruby red triangular jewel, mounted on a 15th C. coin and preserved in a gold snuff-box, itself an item of some historical value. The box was a gift from the Austrian Empress Maria Theresia to James Lockhart, Count of the Holy Roman Empire, for services rendered to the House of Habsburg in the late 1700s.



The amulet is credited with many ‘miraculous’ cures some of which are related in Simon Macdonald Lockhart’s book Seven Centuries.  Most of these seem to relate to the curing of cattle sickness but its use nevertheless caught the attention of the Church of Scotland and the witchfinders. Post-Reformation, one of the Lockhart heritors, Sir James of Lee, was brought before the Church Synod and charged with sorcery. The charges were dismissed but one of James’s grand-daughters was later found guilty of meddling with charmers -(she got off lightly by confessing her sin). Not so fortunate was Isobel Young, a woman burned at the stake in 1629 for daring to make use of water in which Sir James had dipped the amulet to cure a cattle plague!

‘Quhilk day amongest the referries of the Brethren of the Ministry of Lanark, it was proposed to the Synod that Gavin Hamilton of Reploch had pursueit an Complaint before them against Sir James Lockhart of Lee, anent the superstitious using of an Stone, set in silver, for the curing of deseased Cattle ….. The Assemblie ….. considering that in nature thair are many things seem to work strange effects, whereof no human wit can give a reason ….. advises the Brethren to surcease thair process ….. and admonishes the said Laird of Lee ….. to take heid that [the stone] be usit hereafter with the least scandle ….’ [The Assemblie Books at Glasgow – quoted by Walter Scott in an appendix to The Talisman]


Unlike the Phantom of the Opera, the Lee Penny exists but, in an age when miraculous cures are no longer fashionable, it has probably outlived its usefulness. Yet, as with so many legends, we are left with the thought that maybe behind the mystery lies some tiny grain of truth. Or maybe not.

John Gibson Lockhart’s association with the Scott family ended tragically. Sophia Scott Lockhart died in 1837 having herself lost two sons. Their daughter Charlotte also died young, aged 30, though she left a daughter who later married into the military.

This article was prompted by a post about the Crusades by Cindy at My Book File.

(*) The transposition of the name Locard to Lockhart, possibly via Lockheart, is another story, part of the legend which may indeed be apocryphal. But who cares?



Revolutions are never gentle.

‘Something interesting happened to me at work today . . .’

Iran Awakening

by Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi is one of my very few real life heroes. An Iranian woman, born during the relatively liberal early reign of the last shah, when true democracy seemed only round the corner, she grew up to become a passionate advocate of women’s rights. A supporter of the popular revolution of 1979 that saw the CIA-backed shah flee the country, she quickly became a casualty of it. Deprived of her rights to practice as a judge, she continued to fight for what she believes in, enduring the wrath of the regime, and prison, before winning a Nobel Prize.


Iran Awakening is a touching and sometimes humorous autobiography of her early life and later struggles against patriarchal and often corrupt government. Shirin Ebadi was not a typical Iranian child. Contrary to the tradition in many families, her father treated all his children, boys and girls, equally. In 1965, she went to law school and qualified as a judge. In those days, young women could wear mini-skirts, go to the movies and join friends of both sexes in outings and trips to the cafés. The 1979 revolution that followed the extravagances of the shah and his harsh treatment of opponents was a turning point in her life:

‘That day, a feeling of pride washed over me that in hindsight makes me laugh. I felt that I too had won, alongside this victorious revolution. It took scarcely a month for me to realize that, in act, I had willingly and enthusiastically participated in my own demise. I was a woman, and this revolution demanded my defeat.’

Ebadi had never worn a headscarf in her life, but now the government of the Ayatollah demanded that they be worn. Deprived of her professional status, she was sent to work in a menial capacity at the legal office. Under the newly imposed Islamic law, instead of an equal partner in her marriage, she became a chattel. (*) She describes in detail the climax of the 444-day-long siege of the US embassy, its conclusion and political as well as personal consequences.  Shortly after the lifting of the siege and the birth of her daughter Negar, Ebadi (and Iran) had other threats to worry about. In September 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded.

(*) In fact her husband signed a post-nuptual agreement restoring equal rights and giving her the automatic right to a divorce and to the care of their children.

Iran Awakening goes on in two chapters to discuss the Iran-Iraq War, its horrific death toll and its effect on daily life in Iran. Ebadi does not draw back in her criticism of the United States and Britain where their role in supporting Saddam merits it, but she is also critical of her own nation’s rulers and their mediaeval morality.

‘The drafters of the penal code had apparently consulted the seventh century for legal advice. The laws, in short, turned the clock back fourteen hundred years, to the early days of Islam’s spread, the days when stoning a woman for adultery and chopping off the hands of thieves were considered appropriate sentences.’

After many years of lobbying the Justice Department along with female colleagues, Shirin Ebadi eventually regained her licence to practice law and set up her own legal firm. Her pursuit of fairness and justice continued to bring her into conflict with the authorities. At one point, she found her name on a death list; the quotation at the head of my article is what she said to her husband on the day she discovered it!! Her defence of dissidents earned her a time in prison.

In 2003, Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following quotation is part of her acceptance lecture:

‘Today coincides with the 55th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a declaration which begins with the recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, as the guarantor of freedom, justice and peace. And it promises a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of expression and opinion, and be safeguarded and protected against fear and poverty.’ 


Iran is a country with a long history, a cradle of our modern civilisation, a land of philosophers, scientists and poets. Its rulers over the centuries have not always been inspired and driven by humanist ideals (or even religious ones!) but that is an accusation we can level at just about every regime that has ever existed. Yet it was the founding ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great, who once announced that he ‘would not reign over a people if they did not wish it.’ In her Nobel speech, Ebadi also called Cyrus’ freedom charter ‘one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights.’

In Iran Awakening, Shirin Ebadi presents us with a picture of her country and its people which goes contrary to all the propaganda spouted by politicians and leaders on this side of longitude 25 degrees. Despite all the wrongs perpetrated in the name of Islam, she remains true to her beliefs while being tolerant of others. Above all, she is a woman who stands for peace, justice and equality in a world that has not nearly enough of any of them. Everyone, of whatever sex, race or religion, should read this important autobiography.


Readers of my musings on this forum may have been wondering (or maybe not) why I haven’t written anything in a fortnight. Well, last week I was in Italy at an Interkultur choral festival. While there, by coincidence, I visited an exhibition of ancient Iranian artifacts in the town of Aquileia, about 100 kilometers from Venice. Contrary to what I have found many people in the West believe, Iran does not seek to destroy its pre-Islamic heritage, rather to take major steps to preserve it. In the words of the Iranian vice-president: ‘In the present world a shared cultural heritage is undoubtedly one of the most effective means of establishing constructive dialogue …. between different peoples.’

The music festival that I attended had similar objectives.


For King and Country

by Karen Gray

‘History’ – it’s not what you think!

This novel came to my attention through a recommendation  by Anne on WordPress. I don’t usually read high fantasy these days but the book’s description – swords and castles, mythological beasts and twenty-seventh century Scotland – was irresistible, so I bought it and promised to read it.


Karen Gray has created a world that mixes an historical past with a  future post-apocalyptic century inhabited by people and strange beasts with telepathic powers. The feel is mediaeval, and we can almost imagine we are in the Scotland of the Stewart kings, or maybe Robert Bruce, but with technology that is at once advanced for then and primitive for now.

” ‘When the Albannach princess was taken south as a hostage to control the nobility of Alba, there was widespread outrage. The highland clans conspired to steal her away home, but their plan was discovered. The Sassanach punishment was swift and severe ….’ “

The main protagonist in For King and Country is Morag who, though brought up in humble surroundings, is actually heir to the throne. As a teenager  she is taken for training in the military, when she begins to develop and extend the strange powers she has nourished from childhood. These include the ability to communicate with animals and to tap into the mind of other humans, even to influence their actions.

‘The major … chuckled, then attached a thick chain round her legs and let it drop from his hand. Agony engulfed her and she wailed despite herself. She could feel the terrifying slow shredding of her muscle fibres, and moaned in response. The evil, satisfied laugh behind her made her skin crawl ….’

The tough endurance training Morag experiences is made even tougher by the harsh, brutal treatment of some of her instructors. Watched over by her ‘familiar’, the nemeocorn Rannoch, and aided by her friend, the much abused and reviled Brax (Andrew), Morag sees it through.

Like all good heroes, Morag enjoys breaking the rules and she makes enemies as well as friends. Despised for her apparently lowly origins and her friendship with Brax, she attracts the attention of the dastardly General Raine who sets his cohorts on her team during a training exercise, and the young people have to fight for their lives. However, Morag has more friends than she realises, including Colonels  Randall and Rossen. The former not only knows her true background but owes to her psychic abilities his escape from the mental hold of the usurper king.

‘Randall froze, foot hovering over the first step. The girl’s mindcast had force and strength behind it. It rose up from the depths and drowned his soul with authority. He found himself standing in a dark room, dressed in bloody overalls, chain in hand. In front of him Morag’s familiar, showing his true form ……’

Randall and Brax both have their own links to Morag’s mother, the dead Albannach princess Catriona, but we learn only a little about them in this novel. By the end of For King and Country, Morag is aware of her heritage but seems a long, long way from claiming her rights.

Although the setting of the book is clearly THIS Earth rather than the imaginary worlds of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Martin’s Westeros or even McCaffrey’s Acorna, the plot and action of For King and Country tugged at my memory strings from long ago as well as from the recent past. Besides, having grown up in Scotland, I was more than adequately immersed in her history and could see the clear parallels between the fierce Anglo-Scottish wars of olden times and the futuristic struggle between Albanach and Sassanach portrayed by Karen Gray.

As a rule, I prefer my history unadorned by make-believe [*** see note]. For this reason I found the beginning of the novel disorienting as I fought to separate in my mind the apparently real background from the unfamiliar fantasy. I had to put it down until I was in the right mood to try again. When I re-read the first two chapters, I began to enjoy it. Highly imaginative and well-written, For King and Country is an easy read and the sort of story that’s hard to put down. I liked the cover too! The only real negative is that it’s incomplete and part of a series – (a subject on which I’ve often expressed negative opinions in the past).


*** note: as I have many times discovered, a great deal of the history I learned at school was make-believe anyhow, or at least (euphemistically)  unbalanced.


History of the Future

The Foundation Novels

by Isaac Asimov

‘There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire … It was the last half-century in which that could be said.’

Isaac Asimov is one of my all-time favourite writers. Not only can he spin a great yarn but his sci-fi carries the stamp of authority and authenticity. He was a scientist himself, graduating from junior high school at the age of 12 and going on to do a master’s degree from Columbia in 1942 and a PhD in 1948.

Looking back at his early work from the 1940s and 50s, we can see he got a few things wrong, yet he was nevertheless (in a literary sense) an inventor, an innovator and a prophet.

In my little book, It’s a Fantasy World *, published at the beginning of this year, I had quite a lot to say about his Foundation, whilst not actually reviewing any of the books:

[The Foundations are] a comfortable vision for those of us living in the 21st century, not because the Foundation galaxy is some kind of cosmic paradise – it is anything but – rather that, with our wars, famines and plagues, it is remarkable that our species has managed to survive long enough to colonise one other planet, let alone millions.

Asimov’s contributions to fictional science were many; the laws of robotics, the hyperdrive, the positronic brain.  He wrote seven Foundation novels altogether, including the so-called Foundation Trilogy, which first appeared as short stories during the 1940s. Even without the other stories, the Trilogy is a masterpiece in its own right. In it, the author created psychohistory, which, as I wrote early in 2016 is a mathematical science which combines an understanding of the human mind with the laws of probability to predict events centuries in the future. Asimov’s galactic populations are large – quadrillions or quintillions – making such predictions feasible, especially as the direction of events is in the hands of Second Foundationers with mind controlling abilities.


For the first three hundred years or so, the Foundation (the FIRST Foundation) is concerned mostly with establishing itself on the outer rim of the Galaxy. We see its struggles, its wars and its internal politics. We meet its heroes and contend with its villains, yet all are part of a greater plan – the Seldon Plan – that will ultimately lead to a new Galactic Empire. The First Foundation, according to its leaders, cannot lose.

‘Bayta, face frozen white, lifted her blaster and shot, with an echoing clap of noise. From the waist upwards [**] was not, and a ragged hole was in the wall behind. From numb fingers, Bayta’s blaster dropped to the floor.’

But it can! Along comes a new character, the Mule, an emotional telepath who can adjust minds to do his bidding – and believe in what they are doing. The First Foundation is defeated and the Galaxy is now dependent on the hidden Second Foundation to defeat the Mule and put the Seldon Plan back on its original course.

The First Foundation has laboured hard to find  the planet of these psychohistorians. All they have to go on is a remark by the great Seldon, recorded for posterity, that it lies at ‘the other end of the Galaxy, at Star’s End‘. But what precisely does that mean? The Second Foundation is prepared to sacrifice something of itself to prevent the First from finding out.

‘The first Speaker looked out silently as the window gained transparency. Past the giant structures to the quiet, crowding stars. A year would pass quickly. Would any of them, any of Seldon’s heritage, be alive at its end.’

We may criticise Asimov’s work on a number of counts. His characters are shallow; they move out of the picture just as we begin to find them interesting; he has almost completely missed the rise of the computer; he relies too much on verbal sparring between his characters, telling us what is happening through their words. What, we may ask, has happened to all his robots? Why aren’t there any aliens in his books?

Each of these deficiencies – if that’s what they are – can be countered. In the vast scope of five hundred years of history, individual human beings matter less than their deeds; Asimov gives us a nuclear age where miniaturised nucleic devices are every bit as enticing as our mobile/cell-phones and i-pads; dialogue is a strength, part of the very structure and style of Asimov’s writing. *** The absence of robots in the Foundation world is addressed in later books of the series, written in the years after 1980. As for aliens, had the author not died prematurely of an HIV infection contracted during surgery, we might have found out.

Isaac Asimov is one of the greats who has elevated sci-fi from its early days as a ‘pulp’ fiction to its rightful place as a true literary genre. The Foundation books are classics in their own right.


* It’s a Fantasy World available from Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B019ZGPV5I

** to fill in the blank would be a spoiler.

*** read the brilliant trial of words between robot and roboticist in Robots and Empire and you will get an additional flavour of what I mean.



Heroic Conflict

Five Great Literary Battles

Conflict is a feature of all good fiction. It stirs the emotions, moving us to love or to hate the characters. Heroic acts against the odds, family feuds, human beings against the natural elements, tense sexual encounters – all serve as stimuli, teasing us to imagine ourselves in the world of make-believe.

Pit man against man, woman against woman (or even against man) for noble reasons, in a contest where winner takes all, and you have the makings of a great story. There may be blood, or there may not, but regardless you will have an irresistible formula that makes us read on to the very end. Gratuitous violence, blood for its own sake, is all too prevalent in literature, but that’s not what I mean. I’m thinking  here of the Good versus Evil thing, not in any religious sense but as a means to an end: the king restored to his kingdom; the lovers reunited; the mindless and destructive enemy humbled; the hero’s courage vindicated.

I guess everyone will have their own particular favourite battle scenes, duels, heroic stands. Here are five of the best for me. If you agree, or disagree, or have favourites of your own, please let me know in the comments.

1.Odysseus versus The Suitors from Homer’s Odyssey

Odysseus has been away from Ithaca for twenty years, ten fighting the Trojans, ten finding his way home through a series of adventures with giants, goddesses, witches and monsters. Meantime his baby son Telemachus has grown up and his wife Penelope has resorted to desperate measures to keep her many suitors away. However, the suitors have camped in the palace and are wasting away its resources in riotous living. Odysseus must devise with Telemachus a scheme to get rid of them once and for all. Fortunately, he has his mighty bow, which no one else can bend.

‘Casting his beggarly raiment aside, deep-plotting Odysseus  Leapt on the threshold of stone, still holding the bow and the quiver
Laden with bolts; and before him the swift-winged arrows he poured out
Close to his feet on the floor. . .
and at Antinous directed the sharp-fanged arrow.’.

2. Sir Gawain versus The Green Knight from the mediaeval Romance Poem


At the court of King Arthur, at the New Year, the knights are still celebrating Christmas when a gigantic horseman, green-featured, clad in green armour and mounted on a green charger, rides into the hall. He issues a challenge to the Round Table for a knight brave enough to trade blow for blow with him. Gawain accepts the challenge. The problem is this: when he strikes off the Green Knight’s head, the latter picks it up and puts it back on his neck! Now Gawain has a year to prepare to accept the return blow.

‘He stands ready to swing
Face puckered. Imagine how
Gawain is suffering
For there is no hope now.
He lifts the mighty weapon, lets it fall Straight: the blade brushes the bare neck . . .’

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem with pagan associations, so please don’t read the contest too literally.

 3. Umslopogaas holds the stair from Allan Quatermain by H. Rider Haggard

Quatermain and his friends must defend the fair Queen Nyleptha, wife of his friend Curtis, against the hordes of her twin sister, the dark Queen Sorais. Umslopogaas, the ageing, axe-wielding Zulu warrior, who has been through many adventures with Quatermain, volunteers to hold the palace stair against the enemy. With one swordsman at his side, he takes on the advancing army.

‘Umslopogaas was alone now, but he never blenched or turned. Shouting out some wild Zulu battle-cry, he beat down a foe, ay, and another, and another, till at last they drew back from the slippery blood-stained steps . . . thinking that he was no mortal man.’


4. Eowyn faces the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Against the orders of her uncle King Theoden, and disguised as the young warrior Dernhelm, Eowyn finds herself defending Merry in the battle of the Pelennor Fields. The winged creature swoops down to sink its talons in the King’s horse and he is pinned to the ground. The Lord of the Nazgul, whom no living man may kill, has Theoden at his mercy.


‘But Theoden was not utterly forsaken . . . Yet one stood there still; Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept for he had loved his lord as a father.’

‘Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin.. Begone if thou be not deathless!” ‘

5. Iorek versus Iofur Raknison from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman


Iofur has usurped the armoured bear kingdom by trickery and has banished Iorek, the rightful ruler. Lyra has convinced Iofur that she is Iorek’s daemon. And since he wants a real live daemon for himself he agrees to fight Iorek in single combat for the right to take her. The two huge bears face one another across the ice and snow of the Arctic.

‘That was when Iorek moved. Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean . . . so Iorek Byrnison rose up against Iofur, exploding upwards from his firm footing on the dry rock and slashing with a ferocious left hand at the exposed jaw of Iofur Raknison. It was a horrifying blow. It tore the lower part of the jaw clean off . . .’


Source notes: the Odyssey translation is by H.B. Cotterill (1912); the Sir Gawain translation is by Keith Harrison (1983)



‘How many goodly creatures…..’

Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley


‘They entered. The air seemed hot and somehow breathless with the scent of ambergris and sandalwood. On the domed ceiling of the hall, the colour organ had momentarily painted a tropical sunset. The Sixteen Sexophonists were playing an old favourite: “There ain’t no Bottle in all the world like that dear little Bottle of mine.” ‘

I can’t believe I’ve never read Brave New World from cover to cover before and, no, that isn’t a typo! Written in 1932, and set in a futuristic world where everyone knows his/her place and is happy in it – principally due to hypnotic conditioning and drug-induced stupor, Aldous Huxley’s brilliant and enduring dystopian novel explores methods of population control by velvet glove. He writes a lot about bottles, and organs, and sex; the above quotation is from one of my favourite episodes, when two of the characters, Lenina and Henry, go on a date to the Westminster Abbey Cabaret.

‘Zip! The rounded pinkness fell apart like a neatly divided apple. A wriggle of the arms, a lifting first of the right foot, then the left: the zippicamiknicks were lying lifeless and as though deflated on the floor …. “Darling. Darling! If only you’d said so before!” She held out her arms.’

However, let’s for the moment strip away character and plot and consider Huxley’s method, language and style. His Brave New World is a world, a society, that is superficially benign but underneath which lie sinister currents of disorder. These are presented, like the surface itself, as satire and sometimes dark grey humour, which nevertheless pricks in a disturbing way our twenty-first century sensibilities. Many of the ideas and constructs of Brave New World, whilst being futuristic and outrageous in 1932, we can recognise today as already part of our own society. Flashing neon lights and loud piped music are commonplace. Sexual promiscuity, whilst not perhaps the norm, is not regarded with the same distaste as it undoubtedly was in the the early years of last century.

‘Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun,

Kiss the girls and make them One.

Boys at one and girls at peace;

Orgy-porgy gives release.’

In Huxley’s imaginary (and prophetic) world, pregnancy has been abolished, children are made in test tubes by genetic engineering, a process called bokanovskification, hatched in incubators – hundreds, thousands at a time -and human beings are classified at birth in one of five categories – Alpha to Epsilon. Alphas are the intelligent upper class; Epsilons are the moronic workers at the bottom of the social scale. The very words ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘family’ and even ‘love’ are obscenities. As a consequence, free, promiscuous sex is on tap. It is the objective of most decent people, men and women alike, to ‘get laid’ as many times and with as many partners as possible. [Huxley does not use the expression ‘get laid’ of course, but his euphemistic ‘have’ seems to suggest the same degree of vulgarity.]

‘Streptock-Gee to Banbury-T,
To see a fine bathroom and WC.’

Education (conditioning) begins at birth and involves the process of hypnopaedia, or ‘sleep-teaching’. Neuroses and other unpleasant psychological conditions are held at bay with daily doses of the drug Soma, a sort of LSD-cum-ecstasy that instils a happy acceptance of one’s lot in life. By the simple transposition of four letters of the alphabet, x to t and l to f, Huxley creates at once a new religion and a new politics. The supreme being is Ford (late Henry Ford), his creed is mass production and consumerism, and his cross is the mighty T.

A few titles will suffice to convey the general idea:

  • The Ford Chief Justice
  • The Arch-Community-Songster of Canterbury
  • The Professor of Feelies (if you want to know what feelies are you’ll have to read the book)
  • The Chief Bottler
  • The Director of Predestination

Lenina Crowne works in the the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. She has ‘had’ quite a few men, but has set her cap at Bernard Marx. Bernard is a malcontent who likes to be alone and when threatened with banishment to Iceland he devises a plan to save himself. Bernard and Lenina on their date travel to the reservations and bring back John Savage, the unintended product of an illicit relationship between the Director of the aforementioned Hatchery and a woman called Linda, who has been left behind among the savages (in America, as it happens).

‘As soon as they got back . . . [Lenina] swallowed six half-gramme tablets of Soma, lay down on the bed, and within ten minutes had embarked for lunar eternity.’

John, like Bernard, is a misfit in his society, an outsider, a white European among Indians. However, he fits even less into the Brave New World. He believes in God, in Love and in flagellation. The object of his love is Lenina but when she tries to seduce him, his reaction is not quite what you would expect and, thereafter, his choices are (as you WOULD expect) limited. Bernard is at last banished to Iceland, which does not sound too unpleasant a fate, and life for the others goes on much as before.

Comparisons between Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four are tempting; Margaret Atwood makes the point in her stimulating introduction to my edition of the book. Indeed, on opening the first chapter of Orwell, one is immediately faced with a sentence reminiscent of this one from Chapter III of Huxley:

‘In the few thousand rooms of the Centre, the four thousand electric clocks simultaneously struck four.’

However, the resemblances, it seems to me, are few. We view both novels with the benefit of history and we want to see similarities of intention where none exist.

Brave New World is an easy read, unlike many of the modernist works of the early nineteen hundreds. Less daring now than it was in 1932, it’s brilliant and fun – though it carries a message and a warning!




Brief Candle in the Dark

A Life in Science

by Richard Dawkins

Brief Candle in the Dark is the second volume of Dawkins’s autobiography; the first part, An Appetite for Wonder I reviewed here.

Rather than being a chronological account of his life, this volume is set out by subject and is all the more interesting and enjoyable because of it. It means that one can skip, ignore and/or go back to chapters at will without disturbing the flow of Professor Dawkins’s narrative.

‘I experienced the same ….near-lachrymose pride in what humans can do when they co-operate, across nations and across language barriers.’ [of a visit to CERN]

dawkins candle

He begins with details of his life as a reader at New College, Oxford and goes on to describe his experiences as speaker at various scientific conferences, and as an invited lecturer, in – for example – the USA and Japan as well as in Oxford and London. Dawkins has long been a controversial figure, not only among his fellow scientists but also among practitioners of other disciplines, most famously (or notoriously, depending on one’s stance in these matters) when he strays into the subject of religion. He has been fortunate enough to be at the cutting edge of developments and discoveries in his field of expertise and his books on zoology and genetics have sold millions in several foreign languages as well as English.

‘The overwhelming impression I took away from the Galapagos was the tameness of the animals and the almost “Martian” weirdness of the vegetation…. You have to take care not to tread on the sunbathing marine iguanas and the nesting boobies and albatrosses.’

Two of his more ‘exotic’ experiences (of which I’m quite envious) were visits to the Galapagos Islands and diving in a submersible off the islands of Japan to look for the Giant Squid. He is passionate about his work and that of his students as well as his contemporaries. He does not draw back in his appreciation of and respect for both, or stint his admiration and gratitude to his mentors and those who have gone before. He is in awe of Darwin and does not let us forget it.

Professor Dawkins’s interests extend beyond science (and religion) into other fields such as philosophy, literature and IT. The title of Brief Candle in the Dark is a composite one from two literary sources: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a book by Carl Sagan. He is quite accomplished as a computer programmer. Whilst he does move in fairly lofty company, I suspect Dawkins enjoys name-dropping, but he does it in an unoffensive way.

‘I arrived at his tall Islington house and rang the bell. Douglas opened the door, already laughing. I immediately had the sense that he was laughing not at me but at himself or perhaps more precisely at my anticipated reaction … to his spectacular height.’ [on meeting Douglas Adams]

His circle of friends and acquaintances include some very well-known past and present public figures – Richard and (Sir) David Attenborough, Martin Rees (Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal), Jocelyn Burnell (discoverer of pulsars), Douglas Adams, to name but a few*. Perhaps more surprising – given his atheism – is his liking and admiration for Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi).

In the second half of the book, Dawkins talks about his experiences in television and in live debate. He seems genuinely surprised and humbled by the honours he has received.The last hundred pages of Brief Candle in the Dark are reserved for discussion of ‘Dawkins Science’ (if I may call it that). He talks at length about genes, phenotypes, wasps, cuckoos and immortality, always in the same fluid style, his seriousness interspersed with moments of humour.

‘I am strongly in favour of teaching children ABOUT religion, even as I passionately oppose indoctrinating children in the particular religious tradition into which they happen to have been born.’

He also talks about religion, in particular his book The God Delusion, which is one that I would indeed recommend, along with The Greatest Show on Earth, to readers of all shades of opinion and belief. Both his work and his beliefs about life and death are part of the man. You can’t have one without the other.

In my review of An Appetite for Wonder I wrote:

‘Professor Dawkins is not a modest man. He is proud of his achievements, and this comes over in his writing. However, he is not a boastful man either and is equally ready to admit his mistakes and regrets. Although he argues with passion, his reputation as a ‘militant’ is ill-deserved….’

After reading Brief Candle in the Dark I have no reason to change my opinion. Dawkins is a scientist whom I admire greatly, as I do Attenborough (see above), Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock. This is a book that can be enjoyed by scientist and non-scientist alike.

[*I would be seriously name-dropping were I to continue!]


PS I have to admit I was quite sad when I read recently in the press that Dawkins had separated from his wife Lalla Ward, the artist and former Dr Who actress, although I’m pleased to learn they are still ‘friends’. In several chapters of Brief Candle in the Dark, he writes lovingly of her and has indeed dedicated this and others of his books to her.