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Sunday, 3 July 2005
Topic: July 2005
Thanks for visiting TWO-WAY MIRROR.

TWO-WAY MIRROR is presently on "sabbatical." We are in the process of restructuring this discussion as an interactive online book group. Please look for the new and improved TWO-WAY MIRROR discussion in 2006.

We welcome you to peruse our previous entries. Simply scroll below. We've previously covered Gabriel García Márquez's "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" and Jeanette Winterson's PASSION. Comments about either discussion can be sent here.

Thanks for your interest in TWO-WAY MIRROR.

The editors, MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism
Celebrating Five Fabulist Years!

Posted by at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Sunday, 3 July 2005 7:41 AM PDT
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Tuesday, 3 May 2005
Topic: May 2005
Some final random thoughts about THE PASSION:

Who wouldn't love that repetitive line completing this book? "I'm telling you stories. Trust me." It follows on the heels of Henri's plans to grow a "forest of red roses" on the hardpan of the island of San Servelo, the sanitarium where he rides out the end of his days fending off guilty dreams of murder. Henri at one point seems content to socialize with the ghost Patrick, that friend of his who was the extra-sighted soldier, as well as to write about and pine away for the unreachable Villanelle.

"I did not feel afraid to be in such strange company.

I only began to feel afraid when the voices started, and after the voices the dead themselves, walking the halls and watching me with their hollow eyes.

When Villanelle came the first few times, we talked about Venice and about life and she was full of hope for me. Then I told her about the voices and about the cook's hands on my throat.

'You're imagining it, Henry, hold on to yourself, you'll be free soon. There are no voices, no shapes.'

But there are. Under that stone, on the windowsill. There are voices and they must be heard."

Villanelle, too, cracks apart. When she learns the husband of her lover has left for parts unknown on a quest to find the Holy Grail, it is too late. Henri has already stolen back her heart. Instead, Villanelle recognizes the evidence of her own parallel lives. Timing, she sees now, is what either joins or separates such dual lives from one's dreams.

She posits: "Is this the explanation then when we meet someone we do not know and feel straight away that we have always known them? … Perhaps our lives spread out around us like a fan and we can only know one life, but by mistake sense others."

* * *

Through Henri's growing madness comes an intense clarity for the soldier that readers understood from page one. "Odd that a man should come to believe in myths of his own making," he says, referring to his zealous faith in Napoleon. Henri finally figures out the secret to his beloved leader's success, as well as the way in which Napoleon was ultimately dethroned: "They were clever, those Russians and English, they did not bother to hurt him, they simply diminished him."

Napoleon's ghost comes to visit Henri at San Servelo, taking up all the space and leaving behind the smell of chicken. (Perhaps we are what we eat, after all?) As well the dead dictator should, for the two decades of relentless duty Henri has already paid to him.

Best of all, we witness Henri's realization that the love he held for the great dictator was fabrication at nearly the same time we witness him realizing that his love for Villanelle is pure and real. In that sense, as readers we feel some closure for the poor fellow. He might be mad, but at least he'd found real love. And truth. There will be peace for Henri. He'll not likely roam the halls of San Servelo after he's dead.

"I invented Bonaparte as much as he invented himself. … My passion for [Villanelle], even though she could never return it, showed me the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love. … The one is about you, the other about someone else."

So we know Henri will die in peace, and isn't that what he truly wanted anyway? Perhaps not among the dandelions in France, but a forest of roses seems equally promising, don't you think?

As for Villanelle, she leaves behind the fantasy of her previous lover for the reality of bearing a child into the world without the webbed feet she'd been cursed with. Venice then seems to swallow them up inside its mysterious, unmappable canals, receding like the tide from Henri's memory.

* * *

I liked the ending of THE PASSION, which was a bit of a denouement, which I don't normally go for. Denouements can be tricky to write well; I remember the denouement in Stephen King's THE STAND was so long as to be annoying. And what can I say? I love to write and to read short fiction, where endings fall on half-notes or negative space, leaving the reader to wrap it up for themselves.

But Winterson's denouement made sense to me. In my mind, the fragmented (even if crystalline) views of the city, Henri's increasingly gauzy perceptions of reality, and the back-and-forth of POV were great ways to illustrate Henri's fade into madness, as well as to leave the reader with the feeling that the magical world of Venice was closing in on itself again, now that the war was over. That things were moving back to normal. (Well, in Venice, normal isn't.) But through the movement of intertwined plot and shifty perspective, we get the sense that this story is over and yet is timeless and will never actually be over. That is at the heart of love, is it not? The burn of its need, and then the residual coals when the flame loses to time and wind?

* * *

A final word about Venice: Winterson depicts the Italian city with more than a nod to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Writes Winterson at her website:

"Calvino was writing about Venice—all the Venices collapsed, folded or vanished behind the tourist façade. Anyone who loves Venice knows that its true life is half-glimpsed or dreamed, that the city reconfigures itself, yielding suddenly as you turn into a deserted square, snapping shut, as you walk past San Marco.…The only way to get at Venice is to use the water—its refractions, reflections, the play of light and shadow, and to re-create Venice where it has always been strongest—in the imagination."

I have never been to Venice, but I feel that, having read THE PASSION, I will know everything I need to know if I should ever go there. I absolutely loved the way she characterized this landscape. It's labyrinthine undulation recalls Borges.

I have a fondness for living landscapes to begin with; upon finishing this book I felt strongly that Venice was not really a place at all, but a character, or a nexus—one of those hotspots where humanity moves into a new dimension without being aware of it.

Winterson has such a fine handle on Venice's persona as a living landscape it's hard to believe she did not visit the place until after she'd written THE PASSION.

"The Venice I found when I arrived [after writing THE PASSION] was not a disappointment—it was unreal. Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. … No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venices, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value. … This is a cusp city, working at the intersection of art and life—where the best fiction works, too."

Her tribute to Calvino is equally a tribute to those great writers everywhere who inform us as writers, readers and human beings:

"Reading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts."

Posted by at 2:10 PM PDT
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Wednesday, 20 April 2005
Topic: April 2005
Jeanette Winterson has been plagued by critics with judgments about her sexual orientation and its impact on her narratives.

I did not know this going into the first, nor the second, reading of THE PASSION. And funny, my first response to critics' obsessions with her lesbian background and sexual frankness in the novel was, What's the big deal, people?

Of course, the sexuality in her books is an important, riveting element. In the case of THE PASSION, Henri's late-to-come "bland" or "lukewarm" sexuality, and Villanelle's unrequited longings for a married woman with whom she shared nine consecutive nights in passionate interlude, define a big part of these characters' worldviews.

But it's not the sexuality that defines this novel. At least not to me. It's the zealotry.

As readers, we may linger within the throes of romantic, sensual passion in the narrative, but we are also equally immersed in the inhuman aspects of war, as well as engaged in the nature of egomaniacal behavior (speaking of Napoleon, of course, but also of the various riffraff Villanelle encounters at the casino in Venice).

Because the backbone beneath all of this is Winterson's consistent and emotionally moving (but not self-righteous) commentary on God and church and religion and beliefs and morals, I found the measure of sexuality in THE PASSION appropriate and necessary to the theme of zealotry in the story line. This novel simply would not have worked without these two contrary characters in this reinvention of time and place.

In fact, to spend any time criticizing the moral implications of a novel such as THE PASSION misses the point entirely. This book is not about homosexuality or promiscuity, or even about sexual passion. Nor is Jeanette Winterson trying to make arguments for gay culture in an unforgiving world, because this novel isn't about homosexuality either.

THE PASSION is simply about the purposeful misuse of power, and the way God can be exploited by megalomaniacs like Bonaparte to motivate, galvanize and inspire followers on an emotional level. Zealots. People who, had they been left to the devices of mere logic, would have probably chosen a different course. This is a story of that space between God and the Devil, and what we make of it.

Not surprisingly, this is also the space where magical realism breeds. Not in the world of reason, nor in a world where the fantastical is, well, fantastical. It exists in the world of In Between.

* * *

Winterson has this to say about the purposes of her own writing life in an interview for Vintage Living Texts in 2002:

"I think I started writing before I could read because I wanted to write sermons, because I was driven by a need to preach to people and convert them which possibly I still am, except that now I do it for art's sake, and then I did it for God's sake. Being brought up by Pentecostal Evangelists meant that there was tremendous drive to go out there and make a difference, and think that literature does make a difference. I think that that's its purpose—to open up spaces in a closed world, and for me, it's a natural progression which seems bizarre perhaps—from those days of preaching the Word to these days of trying to make people see things imaginatively, transformatively."

These goals underline the purpose of magical realist authors (whether they consider themselves magical realist or not): to open up that mysterious space within the universe, which we all inhabit, and allow the truth to reveal itself.

It's not far-fetched to think that Winterson might also be trying to pose the notion that homosexuals are just as caught up in the same uneven struggles for love as straight folks. Loving the wrong person is a failed gambit, no matter who you are. It's universal. Doesn't matter if it's Europe in the 19th century or today. Doesn't matter if it's between the God fearing or the irreverent. An unreciprocated gift of love can sustain us for a while, even for years, but eventually it will become our death if we fail to recognize its illusion.

* * *

For Henri, his first love is a pure, patriotic devotion to Napoleon. Such blind obedience could be described as nearly pornographic, in the sense that he violates the sanctity of the presence of any true God by allowing a small man of lethal ways, who conspicuously seeks to appear larger than life, to usurp that title.

Henri knows logically that the consequences of his actions as a soldier in direct service to the Emperor are immoral, but his zeal is so intricately woven within the idea of being closer to God that he equates the two, even as he acknowledges there is a difference.

Thus Henri falls, in the land of In Between.

So does Villanelle, but in a more sensual way. She is born, in fact, with fringe charms: the child of a fisherman and born on the cusp of an eclipse, she's cursed with webbed feet.

She's also part of the living and breathing organism which is the city of Venice, a character all its own with arterials that may as well be filled with blood. She's also struck with an affinity for masculinity, which she, in good humor, entertains by cross-dressing as a boy while working as a card dealer at the casino.

It is there that she falls in love with a woman whose iconic card is not the Queen of Hearts, but the Queen of Spades. (Think about the meaning of that for a minute.) Villanelle cannot find this intriguing woman after their brief but significant encounter. Time passes. Providence smiles upon Villanelle and her love interest reappears. A tryst ensues; Villanelle admits she is not a boy; her lover admits she's married. They abandon their secrets for a nine-day affair, after which we learn later Villanelle is left without her heart.

(Henri literally breaks into the woman's ostentatious residence years later to find it beating in a box in the closet.)

Poor Henri! He has since fallen in love with Villanelle, having deserted the ecstasy of Napoleon after their march into Russia, itself an act of treason: the czar and the emperor had previously allied themselves.

But Villanelle is not cruel. She cares for Henri, in a loving way, but as a brother, not as the lover she aches for, the lover he aches to be. She is too much a part of the invisible streets of Venice, too woven into the character of that place, webbed feet and all, to imagine a life of passion where Henri longs to be: lying face up in the fields of France encircled by a simple adoration of dandelions.

(Which pleads an argument for the purity of Henri's love, no doubt. He truly did love his country, regardless Napoleon's hold over it.)

Which is to say that love crosses the wrong paths sometimes, and in doing so, has the ability to slay. Who can say that love is purely the domain of the here and now, the Real World? There is something divine in love, that requires entry into that space In Between. Anyone who's ever been in love will tell you so.

We all know of stories of people who are built and broken by their own shared passion. Are they not extraordinary to begin with, these people? I'm talking about the Romeos and Juliets of our times. People whose spaces collided when they probably shouldn't have.

* * *

Isn't the act of animating one's passion, whether it be for love or war or God, an extraordinary thing anyway? I cannot imagine any expression of passion being wholly ordinary. It has to take place In Between, or else it's not Passion.

"Somewhere in between fear and sex"? I'm not as convinced by this description as I am by Winterson's depiction of Venice:

"In this enchanted city all things seem possible. Time stops. Hearts beat. The laws of the real world are suspended."

And I prefer her other map, the one that points to "Somewhere between God and the Devil."

Posted by at 3:33 PM PDT
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Tuesday, 19 April 2005
Topic: April 2005
Thanks for your patience in awaiting the continuation of this discussion. Between illness, medical leave, travel and appearances, the last two months have been far too busy for the more thoughtful matters of this blog.

In the later sequences of the first part of four in this book (part one being dubbed "The Emperor"), we get an introduction of things to come in the form of Winterson's careful and exacting use of repetition.

Louise, a little girl who often followed Henri around, asks:

'Will you kill people, Henry?'

Henri's reply:

'Not people, Louise, just the enemy.'

'What is enemy?"

'Someone who's not on your side.'

This defamiliarization with humanity, a mindset commonly imposed upon military troops to make it more psychologically motivating for them to take lives in battle, says as much about the way Bonaparte viewed the masses.

It seems a bit clichéd to imagine the Emperor-to-be as a boy-man standing before a glistening board of carefully painted statues and terrain in miniature, using a long stick to move armies around as if they're nothing more, really, than decorated lead. But Winterson's take on Napoleon, and on the moral implications of war, is just that.

* * *

One can also trace Winterson's depiction of Bonaparte's continuing disdain for women in particular, despite his consistent sexual appetite for them, through references to chickens throughout THE PASSION. Consider this passage:

The cook grabbed a chicken from the hook above his head and scooped a handful of stuffing from the copper bowl.

He was smiling.

'Out on the town tonight, lads, and a night to remember, I swear it.' He rammed the stuffing inside the bird, twisiting his hand to get an even coating.

'You've all had a woman before I suppose?'

Most of us blushed and some of us giggled.

'If you haven't then there's nothing sweeter and if you have, well, Bonaparte himself doesn't tire of the same taste day after day.'

He held up the chicken for our inspection.

What follows is a lurid scene in a brothel where the cook gets a taste of his own crude disrespect. It's enough for our humble virgin Henri to seek shelter through the excuse of a headache.

* * *

What isn't clichéd at all is Winterson's considerable finesse in placing these repetitive images and phrases at key emotional "fractured zones" throughout the book. There are several memorable ones, often used verbatim, or in keen paraphrasing.

"Had I come all this way just to lose him?"
"There is only the present and nothing to remember."
"The cities of the interior are vast, do not lie on any map."
"We are a lukewarm people."
"In between fear and sex passion is."
"There's no such thing as a limited victory."

These returning phrases don't serve as reminders (though they do remind) as much as they enhance the tension of key moments in the story while achieving a hypnotic quality, not as sharp and direct as punctuation, but effective in accentuating the underlying theme of the book. This use of repetition, to my mind, prevents the narrative from running into polemics.

The effect on the reader is powerful. Consider the repeated lines in a long poem. You hear a line repeated in random fashion in a poem, you stop expecting it after a few stanzas are read and it doesn't turn up. But when it does crop up again, later, at a crucial axis in the poem, it takes on the peculiar power of shaping your perception by being familiar. You've heard it before and yet, in that instance, it is new. And true.

Posted by at 4:20 PM PDT
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Thursday, 17 February 2005
Topic: February 2005
The first 35 pages of this book are speckled with all sorts of magical realist riffs, not something I really recognized the first time.

Lemme see...

The idea of circuses and exaggeration. Larger-than-Lifeness.

Napoleon's exaggerated personality and appetite.

The extremities of life at camp, where "there is no heat, only degrees of cold."

The introduction of a curious and important character who could speak a "funny language none of us could understand," and yet "he understood everything" [italics added].

An underlying politics:

"We're white with red noses and blue fingers. The tricolour."
and the suggestion that war's reality is not sensible in the way that soldiers or leaders might imagine it.


This differentiates Henri, our narrator in this first section, from other soldiers. While being a true patriot, he recognizes the moral dichotomies of war, that "nowadays people talk about the things [Napoleon] did as though they made sense."

We get the following neat little summation from Henri more than once in this book: "I'm telling you stories. Trust me."

The authentic magical realist tale often demands the finesse of an extraordinary narrator, someone who can see inside and outside the story. Someone who can be reliable, or if unreliable, still believable. We want the tall tale to work.

Henri is one such extraordinary narrator, of good Catholic stock and born to serve his soon-to-be monarch, while still being capable of acknowledging the horrific side effects of war and "liberation":

"Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye."
In other words, he sees what's really going on. He recognizes how people will manage reality so that it's palatable, even when it's at its most horrible.

When he admits he's telling stories, you have two options as the reader: question him (after all, "telling stories" is only a hair different than "telling lies") or trust him.

Henri asks you to trust him. And why not? He's moral, obedient. His character is life-affirming; he loves his mother, is true to God, he believes in angels. And he's There. As Napoleon's private cook, Henri's got an inside into the little general's personal life.

This is how we get to the real stories in history—the reliable narrator. In this case, Henri's revelation of the seeds of tyranny and violence that constitute the rise of Napoleon occurs without ever baldly accusing his beloved leader of immorality.

Henri's observations are sly, but telling. For instance, when Henri is first introduced to Bonaparte's storeroom, he discovers dozens of chickens, sans beaks and claws, held inside wooden cages and "staring through the slats with dumb identical eyes."

The presence of these particular chickens is meaningful to a farm boy like Henri, who has seen plenty of wringed necks and caged animals in his life to not be shocked by the sight. What he is startled by, however, is the silence of the birds.

"Not even a rustle. They could have been dead, should have been dead, but for the eyes."
Henri is telling us something we need to know here. Author Jeanette Winterson is using Henri's point of view to structure the story's message in multiple ways.
1/ She's establishing the humanity of her main narrator to make him credible and sympathetic. Someone to trust? Absolutely.

2/ She's also hinting at events to come. Caged chickens are tyranny enough, after all; to then remove their beaks and claws after they've already been sequestered says something about Napoleon that we now understand to be true: that he was cruel, vain, and a serious control freak.

3/ And finally, she's suggesting the chickens represent something. Are they blind? No, only voiceless, and without any way to defend themselves. What could that stand for, but the aftermath of Napoleon's reign on the innocent? These chickens are witnesses.

That's why they bother Henri, because they're no longer just livestock to him. Not in this context.


Henri is a truthteller, then. One who lives up to his commitment to his family, his church, his country. One who both loves and loathes his leader. What could be more human? More grounded in reality?

Posted by at 4:29 PM PST
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Monday, 7 February 2005
Mood:  hungry
Topic: February 2005
I'd read Jeanette Winterson's The Passion some years ago (early 90s maybe?) and didn't know it to be a work of magical realism. I'd read it not long after I'd devoured Katharine Dunn's Geek Love, another work of 'strange fiction' with which I was moved to compare JW's book. After many, many years of reading fantasy and sci fi and horror, this new realm of 'strange fiction' (new to me, anyway) was a perfect match. It seemed to weave together my love for those genres but in a way more akin to the literature I enjoyed in college: Kafka, tall tales, Gogol. So The Passion was a nice treat.

I'd completely forgotten how much Napoleon enjoyed chicken until picking up the book once again. No wonder this book appealed to me when I first read it! At that time, I had been working as a cookbook editor and food writer in Chicago, and had discovered then how much I enjoyed reading both cookbooks (yes, recipes and all) and epicurean commentary. MFK Fisher and Raymond Sokolov and Betty Fussell and Laurie Colwin and James Beard and the Other Kafka (Barbara Kafka, for Gourmet) were all wonderful prose writers I'd already welcomed to my reading repertoire. I would go on from there to become fascinated with the culture of food politics, idolizing folks like Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter and Alice Waters for their sustainable sensibilities, a subject I would pursue for a few years as a writer, publisher (American Harvest) and researcher before my life changed with the birth of my first daughter.

The term 'food politics' is exactly what it says: Food in America means power, money, class division, morality, culture, identity. How we grow, buy, package, prepare and serve our food serves as a kind of marker highlighting our worldviews. There is a huge difference, for instance, between a red meat eater who buys the cheaper cuts for consuming everyday but Friday, versus a red meat eater who buys the most luxurious cuts by mail order from prime American rangeland, versus a red meat eater who buys only organically grown cuts from cattle grown without steroids or hormones.

What does this have to do with JW's The Passion? These two lines, which occur right away in the book, separated by a single sentence:

"It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock… Odd to be so governed by an appetite."
We are what we eat, let's face it. I'm not saying Napoleon was a chicken, though. What I'm saying is that, from JW's narrator Henri's point of view, Napoleon (who he loved like the patriotic countryman he was), Napoleon did everything in his power to give the world the illusion he was large. Consuming enormous quantities of chicken (defenseless creatures made even more helpless by the removal of their beaks and claws while they yet lived on in crowded cages in Boneparte's storehouse) fed Napoleon's megalomania. Henri says it so splendidly himself on the next page:

"[Napoleon] wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird."

What else might one expect coming from a tyrant? This is one of the reasons I so enjoyed JW's novel: she has a brilliant way of bringing every mundane thing into the spotlight of the extraordinary.

Posted by at 1:37 PM PST
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Friday, 4 February 2005
Topic: February 2005
Next week I shall begin re-reading and discussing Jeannette Winterson's, The Passion. Your comments are, of course, welcomed.


Posted by at 12:49 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 3:27 PM PST
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Now Playing: RE: finishing
Topic: January 2005
I come away from the rereading of this story marveling at the way in which Gabo's simple style, upon successive readings, reveals the complexity of human nature. I've read enough of the short work of Gabriel García Márquez to not be surprised with this finding. One of his shortest stories, "Tuesday Siesta," is also one of the most dense even as the narrative style remains so simple. His novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, reads in much the same way: easily and yet nuanced, like the story itself is a thin film hiding a much larger story. This stylistic prestidigitation is one of the main reason's why I love Gabo's work--and why some people do not love it at all.

As for fallen angels and women changed into spiders, I continue to find these curiosities engaging, but must defer to the particularity with which Gabo selected his language to tell their stories and the story of the community at large (including Elisanda and Pelayo's). To me, this remains a classic standard for magical realist short fiction, and one of the best stories for revealing the core of Gabo's worldview.

I'd like to thank Joe Benevento for his essay on teaching magical realism, which is widely read in university classrooms. From his essay, I read his deconstruction of "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," not too long after first encountering that story, and it was illuminating. I also enjoyed reading the entirety of his comparative analysis and hope you'll check out the essay for yourself.

Posted by at 12:42 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:55 PM PST
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Now Playing: RE: what to do with a dead angel 101
Topic: January 2005
Our angel, upon being forced out of the coop, thanks to spiderwoman (see previous entry if you don't know what this means!), is left to drag between rooms in Elisanda and Pelayo's home until it appears to them to be multiplying. The sense of crowdedness leads the couple to think of their home as "that hell full of angels."

Don't you just love the paradoxes of magical realism?

Eventually the angel is allowed to stay in the shed. At some point soon thereafter, E and P are alarmed to discover that the angel is showing signs of fever; they expect an imminent death.

What would you do with a dead angel? I'm not sure what I would do. Committing it to a tomb seems to be taking measures in the wrong direction, but a cremation only calls up images of hellfire, which might satisfy the opinions of the angel's hosts in this story, but which seem catastrophic and immoral to me, a Westerner with a penchant for believing in angels as wholesome and benevolent.

Fortunately for Pelayo and Elisanda, and for the angel too, this is not the outcome it suffers. Once left alone to heal (the townfolk have since grown bored of its presence), the angel grows back its wings and eventually flies away from the earth "with the risky flapping of a senile vulture."

This description is arch and sarcastic. The real vultures were the people who came to see a caged angel, after all. As for its senility, there's little room for this community to preach the morality of craziness.

You can bet Gabo meant every word of this description as a way to characterize society at large. While I generally think of Gabo's narratives as ultimately hopeful, I find his attitude in this story less generous. He seems to be suggesting that society has lost its proper faith, its ability to care selflessly. When Elisanda watches the miracle of the angel's disappearance into the sky, she is relieved, but not for the resurrection of the angel, but for the burden that's been lifted from her shoulders.

Posted by at 12:27 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:51 PM PST
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Now Playing: RE: An angel carnival
Topic: January 2005
As it turns out, the community puts a stay on Pelayo and Elisanda's plans to dispense the angel to the high seas: they arrive and interact with the angel as if it were a circus animal.

The people toss about ideas for what to do with the angel. Make it mayor of the world? Grant it the title of a high-ranking general so as to guarantee the success of all future battles? Breed it?

Me, I'd get it to an animal shelter, immediately. The poor thing needed health care.

Father Gonzaga appears at this point in the story. After a close examination, the priest determines the angel not to be an angel at all, but the work of a meddling Satan who has sent forth his evil in the form of an angel to confuse and influence the masses.

Predictably, the people don't listen. The angel was pathetically frail and covered in parasites. What sort of devil would bother sending such a loser specimen?

Elisanda, instead, begins to charge admission.

My first impulse to this is: How very American of her. Except that I'm wrong. It's not only an American response, to capitalize on something like a fallen angel. The idea of carnivals, and freak shows, and lookyloos, is not original to the West. This is a human inclination, no matter where it occurs. What we don't understand we either wish to kill or to own. The satiation of curiosity seems to be worth paying for.

The angel, of course, takes center stage. Other adjacent carnival acts cannot compete for the attention our Very Old Man receives from people all around, who are there either to see it for themselves, or in a few cases, to seek out healing miracles from the angel.

(Do I truly believe that a fallen angel would actually be treated like a circus animal if it were to happen today? I don't know. I find it more plausible that it would be treated like the sighting of the Virgin Mary, with all the markings of a Great America theme park ride--no line jumping, please!--and with merchandise being sold in the background. … At any rate, I suppose the way it would be treated would just depend upon the community into which the angel falls. Frankly, my cynical side thinks it'd be better off falling down in some place remote and unspoiled by human beings. But that's just me shortchanging the human race its ability to be compassionate.)

Pelayo and Elisanda make money hand over fist on admissions, while Gabo reports that "the angel was the only one who took no part in his own act." Of course not. The poor thing, it really just needed to be left alone, or at the very least, treated in a more sacred fashion.

Instead, it's left to entertain the masses inside the depths of a stinking chicken coop which eventually collapses under the weight of what we are told is a superficial, minor anomaly: a sideshow act featuring a woman changed into an enormous tarantula.

Huh? How that doesn't rate as highly in the freak show zone as the fallen angel, I don't know. A spider the size of a small farm animal seems miracle-worthy.

This is not to criticize Gabo, but rather to acknowledge his wicked sense of humor and his insights into the human condition. We have this strange capacity for adaptation.

The woman-spider, which would have been a curiosity in any other situation, is treated by the narrator as a kind of blasé, second-rate freak element that exists mostly as a nuisance for all involved.

This is precisely how we shape our realities, on the basis of what has come and gone before. It raises the question: When is the unreal acceptably real? In the footsteps of the fallen angel, the anansi-like creature is normal. Real. We're no longer grounded in the reality of the world pre-angel, but in one recast in post-angel reality.

I'm left with an image recalling Godzilla v. Rodan or somesuch. Which freak will destroy the other? This is the prevailing question, not whether any of it is real at all.

Posted by at 12:14 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:57 PM PST
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