The cartography is the story: the actual map
of the visitor's route is twisting but insistent, relentless, and finally
disorienting. In Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas
walks at random ("How random is random?" as William Burroughs asks) across
the city of San Francisco and discovers the unknowable extent of the conspiracy
onto which she has stumbled; similarly, in "Naples," the path is not from
Point A to Point B to Point C, but from Point A to some Point X outside
In Avram's excellent (and un-Conan-like) fantasy, "The Head of Shemesh the Eshurian," Corydon searches in vain for the Great Adyt of the Great Temple of the Cartha Cabira. After traversing the slums of the Monkey Dell section of Cartha Cabira, he sights three structures roughly approximate in distance and size.
The lepers' hostel.This "immense paradox" unfolds again and again in Avram's work, it might be said to be one of the essential qualities of his writing. In "Naples," Avram charts the path to a chilling revelation with the sights and smells of a tourist ramble in a poor quarter. His narrative pulls the reader along a strange route: look closely at the laundry hanging on the lines. This image recurs with ever more unsettling resonances. In fact, these are signposts along a road to one of many hells.
The dung pit.
The charnel house.
Thither, as though thitherunto doomed, Corydon picked his way.
He soon enough lost it. . . .
There were no longer lanes, nor were there alleys, but in between the stolid walls of stone and heaps of crumbled brick higher than his head, he half slid, half stumbled along in mere passages: round about, and round about and in and out, and round about. Up and down. And back and forth.
Thus it was that without warning and without transition, he found himself inside the Great Adyt. . . .
Afterwards (though not then) he bethought himself of the immense paradox that the great Adyt of the Great Temple of the Cartha Cabira was not actually within the Great Temple . . . nor, for that matter was it actually within the Cartha Cabira.
Ostensibly a bar-room tale in England in the
late 'forties. Some conventional models are John Buchan (especially The
Runagates Club), P.G. Wodehouse (the Mulliner stories and the golf
yarns), and Lord Dunsany's Jorkens stories. While Buchan occasionally and
Dunsany regularly ventured into the fantastical, as did Arthur C. Clarke
in Tales from the White Hart, or Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague
DeCamp in Tales from Gavagan's Bar, their tales remain stories told
in a bar, light entertainments.
Dropped off at the local -- "One gin and two ales, Alfred -- no more, mind!" -- by his aged but not pink or soft wife, the Gaffer (older even than Wodehouse's Oldest Member) tells a story from his youth as a soldier in India, of his friendship with a fellow soldier, Daniel Devore, known as "Docker;" of meeting and courting a girl from a Portuguese (i.e., Eurasian) family, and then, of the discovery that Devore murdered another soldier, apparently a rival for the affections of one Miss De Silva.
"There was that young chap from the newspaper, that wrote about it. Funny name 'e 'ad--something like Kipling--Ruddy Kipling, 'twas."
The narrator's "casual" questions give the tale a great dramatic turn at the end:
One of the best of Avram's many alternate history
tales, delivered with a minimum of razzle-dazzle or hype. Outrageous in
its total reworking of American history, the historical figures remain
true to their fundamental natures.
Frederick (son of George II), sent to America for his health, becomes widely popular and the center of a royalist revolt against England when the purse strings are cut. America becomes the seat of the monarchy, the Continental Congress (under the leadership of Franklin and then Washington) supersedes Parliament. England is invaded and occupied, seething under the tax burdens inflicted by the most Roman dictatorship under Washington's successor, "that scoundrelly American prime minister-president," Aaron Burr. Jefferson et al are refugees in London fomenting a war of independence from America.
Fred Silberman, returning to his hometown of
Parlour's Ferry (a city in one of the rust belts populated by colorful
but unfashionable immigrants from eastern Europe), is enough of an outsider
to the long history of relations between Slovos and Huzzuks that he hasn't
seen a Slovo stove (an impossible, wonderfully simple artifact, two pieces
of stone that together make heat) and doesn't understand the proverbial
Slovo joke ("'Was the water hot yet?'" "'Hot? Hot? It didn't even get warm!'")
told by Huzzuks. This joke is one that still rankles the Slovos, eighty
But where the descendants of the Slovos see in this joke only the arrogance of the Huzzuks (long ago their feudal landlords), Fred is fascinated by the Slovo stove.
"And how does it work, Mr. Grahdy? I mean . . . scientifically?"While Fred is seeking to understand the old-country origins of the stove, other, inexorable forces are at work. In this tale, Avram examines the process of forgetting that is immigration to America: how the magical and paradoxical is replaced by the mass-produced, by the hotplate and stove, and the old knowledge is lost. Many of Avram's stories reflect on the passing of tradition and wonder, but in "The Slovo Stove" the experience of loss is uniquely intense.
The one-shoulder shrug. "Who knows, my dear young gentleman? Consider the electrical properties of the amber, a great curiosity in the former age; but today, merely we flick a switch."
A story about a goldfish swimming in a bowl
Narrative of an American naval officer in old China before the victory of the People's Army: an opening that is in genuine Avram fashion both direct and indirect, lots of local color -- street life, some interesting observations on the life of a sailor or soldier. As the officer proceeds in search of the fulfillment of "certain hopes and expectations," the story seems to be moving in the direction of an exotic tale of concubinage. With the appearance in a restaurant of a conjuror and his disappearing bowl of goldfish, the narrative moves seamlessly from an arrogant, ironic account of luxury and contrasting squalor, to one of apotheosis, delusion, and a strange transformation of world and perception.
John Crowley also touches upon this notion of scale in Little, Big, when Ariel Hawksquill tells the demagogue Russell Eigenblick that "The Chinese, you know, believe that deep within each of us, no larger than the ball of your thumb, is the garden of the immortals, the great valley where we are all king forever" (446).
It also seems apposite to cite Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, vol.2: "To know that heaven and earth are no bigger than a grain of the smallest rice, and that the tip of a hair is as big as a mountain mass -- that is to understand the relativity of standards" (103).
Copyright 1996 by H. Wessells. All rights reserved