31 August 2011

"Look-and-Tell Hamlet," from Time-Life 7/20/1962


See Hamlet run. Run, Hamlet, Run.
He is going to his mother's room.
‘I have something to tell you mother,’
says Hamlet. ‘Uncle Claudius is bad. He gave my father poison.
Poison is not good. I do not like poison. Do you like poison?’
‘Oh, no, indeed!’ says his mother. ‘I do not like poison.’
‘Oh, there is Uncle Claudius,’ says Hamlet. ‘He is hiding behind the curtain.
Why is he hiding behind the curtain?
Shall I stab him? What fun it would be to stab him through the curtain.’
See Hamlet draw his sword. See Hamlet stab. Stab, Hamlet, stab.
See Uncle Claudius' blood.
See Uncle Claudius' blood gushing.
Gush, blood, gush.
See Uncle Claudius fall. How funny he looks, stabbed.
Ha, ha, ha.
But it is not Uncle Claudius. It is Polonius. Polonius is Ophelia's father.
‘You are naughty, Hamlet,’ says Hamlet's mother. ‘You have stabbed Polonius.’
But Hamlet's mother is not cross. She is a good mother.
Hamlet loves his mother very much. Hamlet loves his mother very, very much.
Does Hamlet love his mother a little too much?
Perhaps.
See Hamlet run. Run, Hamlet, Run.
‘I am on my way to find Uncle Claudius,’ Hamlet says.
On the way he meets a man. ‘I am Laertes,’ says the man.
‘Let us draw our swords. Let us duel.’
See Hamlet and Laertes duel. See Laertes stab Hamlet. See
Hamlet stab Laertes. See Hamlet's mother drink poison. See
Hamlet stab King Claudius.
See everybody wounded and bleeding and dying and dead.
What fun they are having!
Wouldn't you like to have fun like that?

26 August 2011

Alan Caruba: Irresponsible and Dishonest

Alan Caruba, syndicated columnist and really old guy, had a column last week that was about how Obama was banning vitamins. Seriously.

Millions of Americans benefit from a daily regimen of vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements. Athletes use whey protein powders. Body builders take amino acids. Others augment food products that lack sufficient nutritional value. Their health and wellness is now threatened by the Obama administration’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

On the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, the FDA published a 47-page document that would ban all nutritional and supplemental ingredients by requiring them to file documentation involving multi-million-dollar testing and the regulations would be retroactive to 1994!

This will destroy the manufacturers of these products because most are small companies that could not afford such costs. It’s not like there is a vast body of information that demonstrates any threat to health from vitamins and minerals. Quite the contrary. There is ample information on their benefits. There are libraries filled with books devoted to this.

Who would benefit from such regulation of the natural supplement industry? Big Pharma. The same pharmaceutical companies that have a long record of putting forth FDA-approved medications that later prove to be lethal are looking to use the regulatory powers of FDA to literally increase levels of illness.

Needless to say, I was highly skeptical. Caruba generally is wrong at least 50% of the time in his columns whenever he makes a declaration of fact, but there didn't seem any way that this could be even half right. The original version of the column declared that the new FDA regulation was called the "Codex Alimentarius," which I happen to know is actually the name of international FAO/WHO food guidelines, so right from the start I knew there was a serious problem with Caruba's ideas in this one. I started off a comment pointing out the Codex Alimentarius mistake to him, and requesting a link to the report or at least its name.

He edited the column to remove the Codex Alimentarius mistake (without admitting his mistake or putting a notice of alteration, of course) but ignored my other request. So I went looking. The FDA newsroom didn't have anything from the stated period in early July. In fact, none of the releases seemed to announce any new guidelines that had anything to do with what Caruba described. What the hell was he referring to?

Caruba was alleging that the Obama administration was going to ban "vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements on which millions depend for wellness" in order to "literally increase levels of illness." That is a huge and outrageous claim, and it would be completely irresponsible if he didn't have something specific in mind. He's even urging citizens to "[w]rite, email, and fax your Representative and Senator to ensure that Congress intervenes with the FDA in the same fashion it is struggling to protect us against an out-of-control Environmental Protection Agency. In particular, contact the members of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee."

Was he really so irresponsible as to not have any evidence at all?

As it turns out, yes. Alan Caruba really is that irresponsible.

After some searching, I did eventually find an FDA document from July. It's a non-binding draft resolution published asking for commentary, establishing the guidelines for proving the safety of new dietary supplements introduced since 1994, as required by Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). It doesn't ban vitamins or minerals. It doesn't actually do anything, since it's a non-binding draft, but if it did go into effect it would just be establishing new documentation formats for requirements mandated by a Republican Congress in 1994 - the way that supplement makers who introduced a new ingredient (i.e. acacia berries) must submit health and study information to the FDA, to show that their new product was safe.

In other words, everything that Alan Caruba said was wrong and irresponsible (I'd say "shockingly irresponsible," but it's hard to be shocked by him these days). He is accusing the government of trying to ban vitamins to make American citizens sick for the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry, and he has no basis at all for it.

I tried to point this out to Caruba in another comment, but he has comment moderation on, and simply censored it and ignored me.

Alan Caruba: irresponsible and dishonest.

21 August 2011

Iowa Debate and Straw Poll

Ah, the smell of politics is seriously in the air. With the debate and Ames straw poll in Iowa both going down last week, we saw some sparks start to fly.

The debate was excellent, far better than the joke South Carolina debate (that included few serious candidates) or the CNN debate in New Hampshire (that swung wildly between gimmicky softballs and crotchballs). A lot of credit has to go to the moderators from Fox News and the Washington Examiner: they asked some serious and deeply-thought questions, they followed up intelligently but without badgering, and they maintained a great tenor throughout. They were even, astonishingly, able to give fair time to all the candidates. Performances varied.

Tim Pawlenty was one to watch. His performance in debates to date had been terrible. Just like last time, he seemed ill at ease, but this time he was determined to eliminate the impression that he was gutless by going after Michele Bachmann hard. He was still pretty afraid to hit Mitt Romney, probably because he rightly knows that Romney has a serious future and Bachmann doesn't. But he spared nothing in his attacks on Bachmann, pointing out her complete lack of legislative accomplishment and keeping at it. He must have known he needed a spectacular showing here if he wanted to stay in the race, and so he deployed some brilliant thrusts of rhetoric that were carefully-crafted but well-delivered ("You fought Obamacare but we got Obamacare. If this is your idea of helping, please stop, because you're killing us.") He must have been practicing for hours.

Michele Bachmann took the attacks without a flinch: she had clearly been anticipating them, and had a practiced counter-attack ready to go ("He supported cap-and-trade, and he sounds more like Obama to me.") Over the past few months, she has become a relentless talking-point machine, and is starting to shed the mantle of crazy firebomber that she once had. She's the farthest right of any of the candidates, so much so that she's actually had to swing a little towards moderation.

Mitt Romney just stood there, smiled, and looked handsome. He wanted to seem presidential, to cultivate the air of inevitability that's already hanging around him. And since none of the other candidates dare go after him (there's the future possibility of running mate to think about!) his job was easy. His questions were ones he had anticipated and had answers prepared, such as criticism about his time at Bain Capital. He made no mistakes, didn't take any bait, and was probably the top winner of the thing.

Newt Gingrich was at the top of his game, and showed that he was probably the smartest person on the stage. He has been talking and thinking about ideas for things for decades, and so on almost any topic he has a great if obscure answer crammed with things that sound true. He took each question he was given, considered it carefully in that instant, and then either returned a coherent and natural-sounding answer or slickly slid past it to give the answer he wanted. His reference to "Lean Six Sigma" management techniques was a new idea to the GOP field for the most part, but in the days since the debate it's now become a new topic and everyone else is lining up behind him.

Rick Santorum was a flaccid joke.

John Huntsman continued to run for election in 2016, fooling no one.

Ron Paul was consistent and outspoken, and showed why he has been the standard-bearer for libertarians for years. For all Bachmann's crap about being the "tip of the spear," it's Paul who had the only unique ideas on the stage. Unfortunately, while he sways the debate a little, the establishment is united against him. Not even his star performance at the debates will change that. It has to be said that he sounded more like a voice of reason and less like a crazy old man, this time around.

Herman Cain demonstrated how out of his depth he is - he followed everyone else's lead, parroted back things in an obvious manner, and generally just seemed like a bad copy of the other people on the stage.

After the excitement of the debate, the poll a few days later was boring. Bachmann bought the most votes and won, and Ron Paul came in a close second thanks to his fantastic organization - only to be ignored completely, as Jon Stewart would later point out. The only interesting things were twofold:

  • Pawlenty had to drop out after coming in third, having effectively run out of money. His "reasonable guy in the room" schtick just wasn't working out, since Romney already seems pretty reasonable to the GOP electorate. There was no money for it.
  • Rick Perry got in the race. He's the Governor of Texas and he stands little chance of winning.

More and more, it just seems like Romney is steadily ironing out his ascendancy. It's still his to lose, by a wide margin.

20 August 2011

Bachelorhood Again

So my wife, Lizzie, has been gone for weeks now back in the States, visiting her family (and meeting my mother and brother for the first time). It's been a weird time for me - a sort of pseudo-bachelorhood has taken hold.

I love my wife and miss her, don't get me wrong - I can't wait for her to come back! - but in her absence, I've had to sort out an entirely new routine to my life, and I had anticipated some things about that. I was looking forward to keeping my whatever hours I pleased, leaving my research scattered about in big heaps of space-occupying papers, and buying the good mouthwash with the savings from eating the $3 Hare Krishna lunches. But it's worked out strangely.

I remembered a time when I was living the idyllic free life. I did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. It was a time of great invention, like when I discovered that I didn't have to clean off the plate to lunch on a baguette but could use a sheet of plain paper to hold the smear of butter and catch the crumbs. And while I have never regretted choosing to share my life with Lizzie, I looked back at that time of bachelorhood as a great phase - in retrospect, it seemed so free.

Now I have that chance to seize that spirit again... but as it turns out, I just want her to come home.

It's weird. Let me elaborate with a metaphor.

It seems kind of like a house. There was a time when I was happy living in a scrubby hut, with ramshackle walls that let the wind in. And it was nice to bang the door as I came in carelessly, flop into a hammock, and play the ukulele all night while a trained monkey brought me grapefruit juice (it's my metaphor, so I can make it how I want). There's a time when that's what you want - a little hut and some grapefruit juice from your monkey.

But then I met Lizzie, and we started building a life together. And we pulled down my ramshackle walls of nonsense and put up solid planks. And we put up nice curtains that she'd made and a sturdy roof that kept out the rain and wind. And we got a big bed for the two of us. It's different, sure, and maybe I might occasionally miss monkey-juice. But my house - my life - is also bigger and better. And the idea of tearing down those new sturdy walls makes me sad, and at night I no longer want a carefree hammock. I just want my wife.

I do so love that woman.

18 August 2011

Some blogs

I read a lot of blogs. Here are some of my favorites, that I think others might enjoy.

Alyssa - Alyssa Rosenberg is ThinkProgress' culture blogger. Well-educated and thoughtful, she thinks and writes about pop culture with a careful consideration of the material, both by itself and in context. She spends a lot of time on items of importance in geek culture and highbrow television, lavishing long paragraphs of contemplation on the major shows like Six Feet Under or The Sopranos and how one adaptation of a comic book compares with another, but her interests are sufficiently diverse that she hits that sweet spot where I am familiar with the topics of discussion but get introduced to new things that might interest me. She's at the nexus of familiar and novel, and very well-spoken. She also spends some time on funding for the arts, which is important and often overlooked. She doesn't really have any big opus-style essays, since she's part of a larger running cultural conversation, but a good taste of her style can be found in her recent discussion of criticism of True Blood's character Tara or in the first installment of Alyssa's review of Deadwood.

Ask a Korean - My wife pointed me towards this one. It's of special interest to people of Korean descent or who have lived in Korea, but even beyond that I think many people will enjoy it. The eponymous Korean was raised in Korea but is currently in America, and is both articulate and clever about the country of his birth and the issues facing Korea and Koreans today. You might enjoy his lengthy explanation of "fan death" and its origins or the particularly Korean phenomenon of eating dog.

Letters of Note - This is an amazing collection of letters from or about famous people and events. It's frequently updated thanks to its growing popularity, and includes telegrams, handwritten letters, or other forms of correspondence - each with a brief historical setup, a scanned copy of the original, and a transcription. Some of my particular favorites are Hunter S. Thompson writing a movie studio exec ("Okay, you lazy bitch, I'm getting tired of this waterhead fuckaround that you're doing with The Rum Diary.") and Albert Einstein corresponding about religion ("The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.")

Language Log - A product of the University of Pennsylvania's Linguistics group, this blog is a collaborative one dominated by Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman. They examine popular manifestations and fallacies of linguistics, such as the bizarre idea that the use of passive tense implies personal passivity or the ways in which our language is evolving even as we speak it. They are, like most linguists nowadays, more descriptivist than proscriptivist - they prefer to describe rather than command, and so they often mock such titans as Strunk and White (to my considerable discomfort). A good example of Language Log is their discussion of eggcorns (the peculiar result of slight misunderstandings of common terms) or their amusement at journalist attempts to pronounce the name of Icelandic volcano "Eyjafjallajokull."

11 August 2011

"Feed Ma Lamz", by Tom Leonard

A Scottish-dialect retelling of the Ten Commandments, this poem by Tom Leonard is from Intimate Voices, his collection.

Amyir gaffirz Gaffir. Hark.

nay fornirz ur communists
nay langwij
nay lip
nay laffin ina Sunday
nay g.b.h. (septina war)
nay nooky huntin
nay tea-leaven
nay chanty rasslin
nay nooky huntin nix doar
nur kuvtin their ox

Oaky doaky. Stick way it
- rahl burn thi lohta yiz.

08 August 2011

Blame

I've stopped doing political posts for the most part, because while I love following politics, writing about it tends to make me angry. But here's something I just can't pass up.

Like most people, you too are probably aware that Standard & Poor's recently downgraded U.S. credit from AAA+ to AA+. Nate Silver has a great column about why S&P is actually terrible, but it's neither here nor there: this is a bad thing that happened, and there is clear blame.

This isn't like a lot of things in Washington. It's not a long time between events, where other factors could have gotten involved. There was a very clear sequence: the GOP refused to raise the debt ceiling and honor our obligations unless they received concessions, and they refused to compromise on the concessions. Their refusal to compromise was so absolute that they took the country to the very brink of default - it was a matter of days, even by the most generous measure, before the government was going to have to stop full payment on some bills.

Even more explicitly, there is a group of people who made this decision and can tell us about it. This isn't the failure to spur job creation, where the causes and results are obscure and varied. No, a group of people actually made a statement about why this happened, explicitly stating the causes.

So there's little wiggle room here when we assign blame.

When the debt ceiling vote was approaching, various leaders warned that it was vital that we raise it - that the consequences would be disastrous if we failed to do so. Even looking like we might fail to do so was a bad thing. People warned of exactly this sort of thing: that the world might start to think that America was unwilling to meet its obligations.

Now, many members of the Tea Party wanted people to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. This view was corresponded with some GOP members of Congress, who actually thought it might be a good thing. In their view, it would mean that the administration would be forced to make spending cuts rather than default - they didn't realize that Congress had already voted to spend this money.

So the GOP held America hostage, and extracted their demands. They'd only raise the debt ceiling if they got what they wanted. And they got almost every single thing they wanted. They succeeded in not only getting equal spending cuts to new revenues, they then demanded a huge majority be spending cuts. And then they demanded all spending cuts and no new revenues at all. Each time, the President was forced to assent. Because he knew that some of these people actually thought it would be okay to shoot the hostage.

As a result, the world was shocked to find that there was some question of whether or not America would agree to pay the bills on the things it had bought. America had gone into Rent-a-Center with a truck and hauled out the dining set and the big television, but when the bill came America decided that they didn't want to pay Rent-a-Center. The world, starting with S&P, decided that they would be more careful about allowing America to buy on layaway.

So the fact that the S&P downgraded our credit is indisputably and directly because of the recent actions of the Republican Party.

Prominent conservatives, somehow, disagree. Witness conservative star Erick Erickson of Redstate.com (emphasis mine):
The issue here, however, is that while present law presumed the GOP tax cuts would go away, the policy presumption is that they would get extended. Likewise, this is not blaming the GOP. This is a statement of reality that the GOP wasn’t going to raise taxes.

Consequently, because the GOP refused to raise taxes, the alternative needed to be more cuts.

And S&P clearly believes that the cuts the debt deal made were not enough. And who opposed big cuts? Why yes, a guy named Barack Obama and the Democrats.

I don't throw this word around lightly, but this is just plain delusional. In what other context could this logic possibly work?

Imagine ordering some fried rice and wontons from Happy Wok down the street. They deliver it, and you're ready to hand it out to the family. Your family really wants their wontons, and you know you can't refuse them. But you also know that you've run up your credit card and your family is also pissed about that and don't want to pay for the food. So you say to the delivery guy, "Listen, I know this food is $25, but my family just can't afford these record-breaking debts. So I don't think I'm going to pay you unless you agree to bring down your prices."

The delivery guy, of course, is just baffled. If you didn't want the food, the time to make that decision was when you wrote your family budget and ordered the food. But eventually and after several hours and huge hassle, he agrees grudgingly to forgo his tip. You in turn pay him, although you're not happy about it and neither is your family. Still, you have the food and it didn't cost as much and it seems like everything is okay.

Then, of course, the phone rings. It's Happy Wok. They will not be delivering to your residence again in the future.

So what kind of deluded person would you be if you declared that the problem was the delivery boy? How crazy would you have to be to say, "This isn't about blaming me or my family. This is a statement of reality that we weren't going to pay full price plus tip. And because we weren't willing to do that, that means that they should have charged us less. And who refused to charge less? Happy Wok's delivery boy."

It's completely out of touch with reality.

Weekly Book Review: "An Object of Beauty", "Ocean Roads", and "Season of Migrations to the North"

Short this time - not much pleasure reading, since I am deep in some year-long projects in three of my classes.

An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin

Yes, it's that Steve Martin. It's pretty surprising that he has found a reserve of talent in himself even beyond his considerable skills as a comedian and actor, but this is a pretty good book.

It tells a very simple story about Lacey, an ambitious young woman who enters the art world by working at Christie's auction house. She eventually moves from seeing the paintings as "objects of beauty" to seeing them as "objects of value." She's a very simple character, not written very complexly, but with a quality of Gatsby about her.

The novel was less interesting for its actual story than for the intriguing look into the world of art collection. The more sallow elements are explored, such as the goofy eagerness of collectors who want to impress everyone - friends, visitors, and even the people selling them the paintings. The grungy workhouse of Christie's basement is contrasted with its glamorous upper floors; in the one, they crank through B-list work as quickly as possible and try to offload it onto various rubes throughout the world, while in the latter they strut with unbearable pretension but just as much avarice.

The writing is well-done, though we don't connect very emotionally with Lacey or the narrator. They're both just guides - the narrator guides us around Lacey and does a lot of telling to make up for the lack of showing, and Lacey guides us around the dysfunctional world of art as she takes her predictable course towards degradation.

It's a good book; check it out.


Ocean Roads, James George

Sometimes it's interesting to see the process a writer took to reach their final product. That's why scholars and critics spend a lot of time picking things apart: it's not just what you can take from a book that can be fascinating. It's also how it was made.

At the best of times, you can cut to the heart of some drivel and pull out the unwitting hidden thoughts of a bad writer, or you can trace the delicate stitches that a great writer used to pull together his final shining work. These best of times let you glimpse into another mind and see the lows and highs of which writers are capable.

At the worst of times, you just see a factory. Machines humming, inserting themes at regular intervals, re-arranging chronology mechanically, and clamping things down with literary devices like lumps of slag.

Reading Ocean Roads was the worst of times.

Did you see what I just did there? I took that last sentence, which would ordinarily have been the conclusion of the previous paragraph, and set it carefully aside in its own paragraph. This makes the reader unconsciously absorb what he just read and then move on to the next thought, which is actually a counter-punch that uses the full weight of an extended metaphor.

Ocean Roads does this.

A lot.

This isn't a bad technique. I use it a lot myself and there's nothing wrong with it. But in the hands of James George, it becomes a thick thudding metal-stamp, slamming down to leave an imprint: *stamp* THIS IS IMPORTANT. *stamp* THIS CHARACTER IS SAD. *stamp* PROFOUND REALIZATION JUST OCCURRED.

This wouldn't even be worth mentioning, except that the rest of the book is written with the same sort of mechanical assembly. Set predominantly in Auckland, it tells the story of three generations of a family touched by the nuclear age. The grandfather worked at Los Alamos, the son gets cancer from radiation exposure, and the mother was a child of Nagasaki. Possibly the most glaringly obvious choices that could have been made to emphasize a nuclear theme.

You will be familiar with many elements of this book way before you read it. You know the story of the war-scarred Vietnam veteran, the remorseful scientist, the survivor of a bombing. They're old stories and heavily-used. You know, without me even telling you, that the Vietnam veteran saw innocent children being killed - he tried to stop them and save the kids, but he couldn't!

These parts came off a shelf somewhere, ready-made, and are slotted into place by the author. A buzzing yellow mechanical arm comes down and stamps down the seams.

Stamps them down.

And then it's on to the next part. The book leaps around chronologically, of course, probably because there's a checklist somewhere that includes that instruction. And the themes! Holes are drilled and themes are inserted all over the place!

Light is a theme. One character is always shooting pictures, another is looking through a scope, another is a physicist talking about the properties of light, and so on. Someone regains their sanity when they see a scrap of dust suspended in a beam of light. There's a discussion about how radiation is actually just light. It's endless, and it thunders down like a jackhammer.

Ocean Roads is painfully mediocre. Competently but mechanically written, it offers the reader no story they haven't heard, no thoughts they haven't had, and it's presented in a way that's the same as a thousand others. Skip it.


Season of Migrations to the North, Tayeb Salih (trans. Denys Johnson-Davies)

Before launching into my review of this book - which ranks as a serious masterpiece - let me pause for a note on translation.

Translation is seriously under-appreciated. Taking a book and putting it into a new language is a hugely creative act that requires judgment, aesthetic sense, and an intimate understanding of the source. For most readers, your translation will be the only exposure they will ever get to the original text, and that is a great burden when it comes to a great work. And the end of this labor seldom yields much money or fame. So Deny Johnson-Davies, one of the most lauded translators of Arabic, deserves some part of the praise herein. It's impossible how much, but I want to acknowledge that there is an oft-overlooked collaboration at work here.

So Season of Migration to the North is pretty famous in western criticism as one of the most notable works to come out of Africa, and within the Arabic community Sudanese Tayeb Salih is probably one of the most famous writers of the past century. His stuff is in many collections of Arabic short stories, and when he wrote his novel Season of Migration to the North, it was immediately and widely hailed as a great work.

Unfortunately, many critics seem to place it as just a response to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and little more. And it is definitely a rewriting of Conrad, but to leave it at that would miss a lot. There are numerous other preceding narratives that Salih is referencing, as well as building a strong story of his own. And there are some singular images that are superb and that will stick in your soul.

That's not to say that Conrad isn't a big part of the conversation that Salih want to have. Salih doesn't have quite the beef with Conrad that Chinua Achebe famously expressed ("offensive and deplorable") but Salih definitely wants to build his tower from Conrad's stone. It's important to recognize that. But it's not the only quarry in town.

I don't often do this, but I would like to urge you to pause here and read this book, before the rest of the review. It is truly a great work, and I wouldn't want to diminish it for anyone with foreknowledge.

Season is the story of a man who comes back to his hometown in the Sudan after seven years in Europe. The narrator - we never learn his name - is smug and proud of his accomplishments, having earned a doctorate and seen the world. But soon he discovers that a newcomer to his hometown has also been to the west. Mustafa Said is the newcomer, and in an intriguing visit Said tells a part of his own story: how he too had earned a doctorate and in fact become a famous instructor and teacher of poetry at the London School of Economics, and how he had stood on trial for driving enraptured white Englishwomen to suicide, and how he had returned to try to find a new life.

Said's story lasts until dawn, though he tells only a short part of it. The narrator and he will never meet again, because Said dies during another one of the narrator's absences in the first third of the book. And so begins a growing obsession, one that will eventually threaten to consume the narrator.

This is a planned trap by Mustafa Said, a man whose fierce intelligence and manipulation were matched only by his deep-seated anger. Said designates the narrator as guardian of his two sons to draw the man in. And it isn't long before the narrator becomes snared. He becomes eager to learn the rest of Said's story, and he falls in love with Said's widow.

At the end, there is a confrontation of the narrator with himself, and he makes a choice. He swims into the river.

Halfway across, he finds he can go no further, and yet does not call out for help. He is stuck halfway between the south and north banks, unable to go forward or go back. He feels himself being drawn under. He cannot find the answer to the horrors forced on him by Said. Without an answer, he is unwilling to live.

This is the primary plot of the novel. It's a strong story, and it is written with a sparse delicacy that is marvelous to behold. The characterization is flawless and uncompromising, unafraid to face cliche and overcome its limitations. In another book, the rebellious white women could be too obvious and clunky, caricatures of the shallow liberal eager to prove their own virtue by loving a black man. Or they might be slightly more complex, brassily renouncing that caricature and confounding expectations in a better but inadequate way. Said's women embody the cliche and consume it whole, using it to build characters that both embrace the stereotype and exalt it into reality.

It is here we can also begin to talk about Conrad. Heart of Darkness leaves a lot unsaid. It's a very short book about a company man who journeys into the center of Africa to find Kurtz, another employee of the company who has "gone native." Though he finds the maddened Kurtz, who is worshipped as a god by his followers, the sickened Kurtz dies on the way home. At the end, he has a seeming epiphany, murmuring as his last words, "The horror! the horror!"

There are many similarities. In Season the narrator is unnamed, and just as in Heart of Darkness he is telling his tale to an audience of some kind (never shown, known addressed only as "Gentlemen"). Both Said and Kurtz are compelling and brilliant men, able to seduce followers and inspire the impression that they have grasped some hidden truths. And the narrators of both novels become trapped by those truths.

Conrad's book is a short one, though, and Salih goes on to tell us a further story. He asks the question, "What happens next?"

The key to much of the novel is found in a brief passage on page 108, when the narrator encounters a Bedouin in the desert. The account is tossed out like it is meaningless, but it unlocks the end of Season.

From beneath a hill there came into view a bedouin, who hurried towards us, crossing the car's path. We drew up. His body and clothes were the colour of the earth. The driver asked him what he wanted.

He said, "Give me a cigarette or some tobacco for the sake of Allah - for two days I haven't tasted tobacco." As we had no tobacco I have him a cigarette. We thought we might as well stop a while and give ourselves a rest from sitting.

Never in my life have I seen a man smoke a cigarette with such gusto. Squatting down on his backside, the bedouin began gulping in the smoke with indescribable avidity. After a couple of minutes he put out his hand and I gave him another cigarette, which he devoured as he had done the first. Then he began writhing on the ground as though in an epileptic fit, after which he stretched himself out, encircled his head with his hands, and went stiff and lifeless as though dead. All the time we were there, around twenty minutes, he stayed like this, until the engine started up, when he jumped to his feet - a man brought back to life - and began thanking me ans asking Allah to grant me long life, so I threw him the packet with the rest of the cigarettes. Dust rose up behind us, and I watched the bedouin running towards some tattered tents by some bushes southwards of us, where there were diminutive sheep and naked children. Where, O God, is the shade? Such land brings forth nothing but prophets. This drought can be cured only by the sky.

This is the meaning that Salih brings to answer the unvoiced accusations of Kurtz. It's why, even as the narrator of Season treads water in the middle of the river and feels himself slowly sink, he feels a "violent desire for a cigarette. It wasn't merely a desire; it was a hunger, a thirst." It's why he jerks himself back to life and screams for help.

I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall try to forget. I shall live by force and cunning.