The Last Meal of the Literary Diners by Yuki Iwama

With rolling guts and erect nipples, Wilde stands naked. ‘Four thousand dollars!” he says. “Four thousand fucking dollars and I’m naked!’

‘Who says money can’t buy you freedom?’ Woolf says. She is tapping her laudanum (the bottle nail-polished the colour of sick dried blood; the blood of a cancerman) – and she looks grey, pulled thin, almost torn like a stressed plastic bag.

Wilde shakes and laughs – a popping, leathery sound from deep within his hard, round belly – and sits back down, grabbing a glass of wine which spills over his fingers.

‘It’s insanity. Four thousand just to rent out this place.’ Mishima is swimming, drowning, struggling to remain composed. He isn’t like Wilde (who has no floodgate) so the buzzing is unbearable. His laudanum is sitting beside his bourbon (a big neat ‘M’ – so decisive, though bordering on desperate) and his eyes bounce back to the tiny bottle every few minutes, as if it is a friendly buoy, bobbing in the sea of vibrations which pulls him away, far away, into a depth which he can only understand as hell.

Plath is in the restroom, rubbing herself on the dented lid of the toilet seat, the smell of piss sluicing down her nose as she makes slight, frantic noises. She feels the smooth hard shell of the laudanum, pressing into her, and she disappears into the back of her mind. Later, when she is pulling on her stockings, she feels the men and the heat of their sex in the other room (Woolf is there, but faint and blue like a stirring wish) and she almost lists to one side.

Back at the table: ‘Four thousand is worth it, Em. The food here is fantastically shit, the wine aplenty, and they have the most delicious carpet.’ Wilde demonstrates (though unseen by his fellow diners) under the table, pushing his toes into the plush black material.

‘Yes, but that’s exactly my point,’ Mishima says, lowering his head. ‘Why spend all that money on sub-par food?’

‘For the sentiment, darling,’ Wilde says. He slurps long and loud on his wine and lets out a gunfire laugh. ‘I mean, how long have we been coming here?’

‘One year-’

‘One year exactly! Yes! Is this not a palatable meal, Woolfy?’

Woolf jerks her shoulder and taps her little red bottle. ‘I wish you didn’t choose this meal to let yourself go – I was hoping to get it over and done with but then you had to go and pay for the restaurant and lavish us with sickening rich food. I feel like a whorish king before his wedding day.’

‘You know,’ Mishima says, ‘I think we should still do that thing we talked about-’

‘NO!’ Wilde leaps to his feet and sweeps his arms out to the side, knocking over the glass of wine. ‘Are you fucking crazy?’ There’s a bubbling pause.  ‘Look, no offence, darling, but I would much rather stay Wilde.’

‘I’m afraid I agree with him, Mishima’ Woolf says.

‘Four fucking thousand,’ Wilde says again, slapping his hands against the skin of his belly. ‘Not like we need the cash where we’re going, eh Em?’ He’s going nowhere now, but already he’s flying. He’s bouncing off the balls of his feet and his knees are rolling from one side to the other, fluid and strained like oars.

Mishima adjusts his glasses and rubs his hands. He is a mouse or a mole and he feels dim as he squints up at those he has come to think of as friends. If they share his sentiment, it is a silent one, passing between their bodies with shifting glances and wry smiles. Tonight however, there is only thickness and incessant tapping (Woolf’s fingers are a seizing spider by now) and Mishima (who picked that name for him again?) is finding it hard to grasp his own thoughts.

There is a new smell and Plath walks in like water; her dress dripping down her legs and trailing behind her, bringing in a current of air. Woolf recognises the smell and she looks at Plath, small and blonde, settling in beside her. She can see the white arm hairs and her mouth becomes full and wet.

‘Is everything alright?’ Mishima says.

‘Yes, thank you,’ Plath says. There is a ripple in her skin and a red flush chases it away.

‘You were in there for quite a while.’

Wilde lights a cigarette and chews on a chicken bone between puffs. ‘She was probably taking a shit. Were you taking a shit, darling?’

If I am a mole, Mishima thinks, then he is a boar.

‘Oh, no,’ Plath says to her lap. The red flush is gone and all that’s left is a shock of blue veins and sick white skin. The words fall from her lips like spittle as Woolf places a damp hand on the inside of her thigh. A minute more, and Plath feels a finger curling inside her.

The kitchen door sings and in comes the silent waiter who had disappeared an hour ago with the empty wine bottles. Wilde gave him five hundred to forget tonight and to make sure the chef stayed in the kitchen. Later, when the police and the CSU tape up the place, he will do what he does best and bury himself in the belly of the city. The diners watch this intruder, who moves like a vampire with his eyes drawn down and his lips pressed white, and there is a sense of unity between them, arranged against this person from the outside. The waiter doesn’t understand – no, he will never understand – and the diners feel the squeezing fist of pre-eminence.

This feels good, Plath thinks. And it’s not just because Woolf is inside me. This, for the young woman, is a drunken ride on a mad, broken horse. Her parents are back at home, tangled in the sheets, dreaming of the sex and the wants they once had a lifetime ago, and here she is, on the brink of something dark and good. Woolf is also something dark and good, but Plath can’t fully embrace the woman’s hand. It is like drowning and dancing at the same time and she has to work for air.

Wilde leans against the chafing back of his chair and his eyes follow the waiter as he picks up the empty bottles and sets down unopened ones. He sees himself push the waiter against the table and force his fine white face into the chicken grease, barking profanities and trembling like a ruddy sergeant with a strain in his battle dress. But the smell of foetid incense flips him around and he is back to the old wound, an ugly knotted scar leering up at him, and Plath’s stifled breath to his left. It is God’s scent, they say, the smell of the blessed – as if consuming it will purify them. His mother brought him into that place – with the high halls and wailing bells – and he was torn from the thing that made him real by the mad (with froth bubbling from their nostrils and white veins in spasm) and all the while the smell of God was consumed and did consume. The scar is all that is left and when the chance arises, he reveals it to the world.

‘Isn’t it dreadful?’ he says to the waiter, standing and pointing. The pale man stares, blinks, and continue working around the table.

Wilde is already with the ants on the crumbs and the shit in the ground. The past hour has been like drawing on poisoned water with nothing in view and now he is almost finished, shaking the flask for the last lethal drops.

When the waiter slips from the table one last time, he has already forgotten.

‘It is time for the notes.’ The last word rips the curtain from the window – there is a violent change, an exhaustive, electric rape. Wilde sits down, still and dewy.

Woolf pulls away from Plath and Mishima pulls off his glasses. This is the penultimate; the time of the hare. The bad greasy food sits heavy and the table throbs – whether by the diners or the sudden shift in energy, nobody knows – but that’s no matter now.  The notes – the notes – it is the last thing before they leave – the most important thing; the thing that gives each of them a meaning.

For Wilde, who is making odd whooping noises under his breath (no floodgate), the letter is showmanship – a part of the set. It is the bottle to the drunk; the needle to the junkie; the sour smell to the nympho. How funny! To cast himself into a gaudy painting, to splay himself before the nation as a mutant, castrated queen! To expose himself and shit on his mother’s crusade! If there is a god, he thinks, he’d better send me to hell. He is beyond the clouds now, shooting past the sun and into the unknown.

It is simple for Mishima. Not a note but a cheque with a neat number (with each perfect circle he was descending further into his contract) made out to his daughter. She is above and below him now, like a dying flare or a ripple of sound escaping the friction of his touch. He tells himself that it is the only thing he will focus on, but the laudanum with the ‘M’ brings him back again and again. Numbers are honest, he thinks. At least she’s safe from me.

He could have left her a better legacy, gone like his namesake, but he didn’t have anything to offer other than money. It will probably come out, he thinks. She will probably find out anyway. Because it was his daughter he had fucked in the afternoon light (not dissimilar to those cast in the restaurant) – though the body was another with the same curling black hair and the dimples in the chin. There is no name left for the body, but she used that afternoon as a weapon, leaving his wallet thin and self-worth less so. An impertinent child who took his sickness and his seed, cured him, condemned him, and pulled the rope tight. Now, she has a stomach full of soil and rancid roots and Mishima finds himself eager to see her once more.

The letter left empty but for what’s left of his savings sits with two others. Mishima turns to look at the slumber-eyed Woolf.

‘I didn’t write a note,’ Woolf says, and the others don’t know how to respond. ‘Fuck the note. It’s a tired ritual anyway.’ The tapping returns.

She doesn’t see the other diners as people. What do they look like? Plath has blonde hair, Mishima wears glasses, and Wilde has a belly, but is that what they look like? Woolf tries now, but there’s a tapping noise increasing in speed and when she realises it’s her making the sound, she comes back to the clock on the wall. The next hour is small and hard like a cold rock on the shores of a lost lake – it’s not real but it exists somewhere. Her bones stretch down to the ground, hooked by the nails of the dead (or is it just gravity warping?) and each time she blinks, it becomes harder to open them.

It was an onyx reel that brought her here, to these people and the orange lights. It was him as well, with the sweet cherry chin and the slippery eyes.

Woolf brings a blotched apple to her lips.

She could have killed his mother – the old bitch with the neurosis and grating words that drew a serrated knife through her throat. But he was still latched to those swinging milk bags like a whimpering pup, and it drained the fat from the air and left behind a skeletal cadaver. Though he sometimes had those golden looks when he watched that old bitch potter around his kitchen, lecturing him on this or that (asymptomatic of her mental problems, he told Woolf, but she knew he wasn’t convinced) and it affected her in a way that she had to excuse herself and rub it out in the bathroom, stifling that brazen cum-laugh. And it made her mad that it came to this – like some kind of oedipal claw-war between the wife and the mother.

I could have killed them both, Woolf thinks. It makes her so mad the ground stops shaking and she feels the molten flesh in her throat melt into something like ice.

Back then, she was left with the cadaver and he was left with the fat still dripping down his sweet cherry chin.

The clock groans on the wall and the skinny hand passes the apex.

The hare is going round the bend and the tortoise is in full view.

Each of them, save Woolf, places a tired envelope on the table (sticky with wine and sweat and chicken fat) and, in the stupor of the devout, they grasp their laudanum with unfeeling fingers.

‘I said I’m sorry,’ Plath says. The hour is coming too soon, too fast, feels like the shock of a cold shower when the heat hasn’t adjusted. She doesn’t remember herself saying the words even when she says them. ‘It’s a requirement isn’t it? A convention of the note? Millions of notes with the same two words – I’m sorry. Am I right? Or wrong?’

But even as she asks, she’s already cast back into the sick, plastic colours of a childhood fair – there’s murky spittle and concrete gum and it’s the same cheap thrill, sitting in this broken seat, and talking though she can only feel her lips move. The table is gone and she keens because she’s in the soiled office in the twisted milieu of the fair. The clown is her father, a shadow on her shoulder, and she is nothing more than a child on the ground – the tacked wood gnawing into her right cheek. There’s a loping waxed body with a broken leg, hugging the wainscot flecked with red and at that moment, it’s her eating the filth and dragging herself over the ground. Perhaps the fair is capsized – silently mindless like the rest of the shit – since she is sharing the bottom (the very bottom where a human can exist) with a wounded roach and the clown. She is a hard soul without any flesh; she is around her head and against the ceiling; the bristle in her chest is that acid hole that only appears when she’s not there (or as there as she once would have been, say, perhaps, a decade ago) and it’s too warm and at times not warm enough.

‘Is it customary to apologise when you have nothing to apologise for?’ It’s her speaking again, she thinks, but she can’t be too sure. ‘Do I have something to apologise for?’

‘I’ve seen some in my day,’ Mishima says. ‘It’s the same in Japan as it is here I guess.’

‘You Japs are always keen to leave,’ Wilde says. There’s the mania hiding under the words. ‘There must be a gene.’

‘That’s not justifiable-’

‘To hell it is!’

‘Do you think we are free from guilt?’ Mishima asks the question in earnest but Wilde looks away, smiling.

‘What is guilt but self-flagellation?’ Woolf says.

‘I said I’m sorry,’ Plath says again, but she’s not convinced – not anymore.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Woolf says. The end of the hour pushes into her stomach, the cold stone burning a hole. Wait too long and it will tear through the soles of her feet.

‘Is it time?’ Plath says. Her words come too slow, out of sync with her lips. ‘It’s so fast. It’s too quick. Is this happening?’

‘Better it be quick than slow, Plath. Take a breath.’

‘Take a drink you mean,’ Wilde says.

Is it time? The hour is the finish line. The tortoise is upon them.

‘Any last words?’ Mishima says.
But there is only silence as they each uncap their laudanum (200mg – they aren’t fucking around, not this time) and the vibrations drop from the air – a violence and a relief – and the four bottles wink in the orange light of the restaurant.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015

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MONOLOGUE: God’s Gramophone

MAN

I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know how this could have happened. You sit there, staring at me, too afraid to touch…like I was…so….long ago…

If I had a mouth, I would scream: “Get out! Get out now while you can!” But you’re too entranced. Too mesmerised. Like I was. So long ago.

You see kid, we had a beautiful brass gramophone that gathered dust in the attic. I used to go up there and sit with it, staring at it for hours. I was your age, twelve years old, when I first gathered up the courage to touch it. I reached out in the dim light, fingers hovering an inch above the horn, when it made a sound.

At first I thought it was a rat, trapped inside. But when I leaned in close, I heard it. The pitter-patter of tiny hands and feet. Scurrying up the curve of the horn. Before I could look inside, she slid out, bit by bit, like liquid.

First, her head collapsed into itself, then her neck turned soft, and then it was her spine, torso, arms, hips, legs, feet, all running out of the horn like slime. And there she was.

Standing tall. Trembling and broken. Oh, she was so beautiful. A cracked painting. Chipped teeth. Small white scars. Criss-crossing, flecked across her face. A mane of dreads and haughty eyes. Dark naked skin. Midnight blue. Liquid limbs. A dancer. A marionette. A junkyard beauty queen.

The first time I met god, she didn’t say a single word. She just reached down, took my hand, and placed it on her cunt.

The first time I met god, I learned to be an adult.

The second time I met god, was when I was sixteen. I was ready for it this time. The house was too hot for winter and I knew that dry air, that impossibly dry arid air, was a sign of her coming. When she slid out of the gramophone, we were both naked.

She said one word to me that day.

“Home.”

So we fucked. And we loved.

The second time I met god, I learned to be a human.

It was another six years before she came to me again. For the last time.
But you see, by then I was mad. I was spitting mad. She appeared to me every night in my sour fever dreams. I couldn’t ejaculate without her touching me, fucking me. I was shrunken, skin and bones, half-insane and mad with rage. Why wasn’t she coming? Why didn’t she love me? Was I not good enough for her?

So when the house grew hot and dry, when she finally slid out of the horn, I was waiting. I destroyed the gramophone as soon as she dissolved. I threw a wrench into the brass and the wood, again and again and again until I was shaking. She just stood in silence, watching, as I destroyed her only way out.
I thought she would be pleased. I thought that I was all she needed.

I was right. In a way.

She said two words to me that day.

“It’s finished.”

But it wasn’t. Not for me.

I pushed myself into her and lost my mind. For that brief moment, she was no longer god.

I was.

But as soon as I came, she pulled my lips open and climbed into my mouth. She slid down my throat and into my stomach.

That was the third time. The third and last time I met god.

And I realise now… I realise now that maybe that’s my punishment. Maybe this is how she is able to live for eternity. Consuming souls as she is consumed.
Because you see kid, the third and last time I met god, I learned to be a monster.
I swallowed my obsession in a fit of madness and now I wait. I wait for you to gather up the courage to touch me.

Because when you do, she will slide out of my mouth and that will be the beginning of my end.

Cunt

Photography by Nick Carr Edited by Yuki Iwama

Photography by Nick Carr
Edited by Yuki Iwama

Bee is a misogynistic, homophobic, agoraphobic writer with a drinking problem. He lives with his sister Tee who is a liberal, open-minded artist who cares for him. Their mother is the dark shadow looming over their shoulders, haunting them. When Bee gets a life-changing phone call, chaos ensues.

See CUNT @ Mudfest in the Union Theatre/Melbourne University:
MONDAY 24th August: 5pm
MONDAY 24th August: 9pm
TUESDAY 25th: 2pm
TUESDAY 25th: 9pm

Read it here:

Cunt

TRIGGER WARNING: rape, sexual abuse, animal cruelty, drugs, alcohol, incest, suicide

I Am Half Dog, All Hate

Photography by Nick Carr Edited by Yuki Iwama

Photography by Nick Carr
Edited by Yuki Iwama

War and occupation. Domestic violence. Generational racism and homophobia. We follow a family through history as they tell their stories of domestic, historical, and societal oppression. All three stories are based loosely on personal experiences and stories told by family and friends. 

See I AM HALF DOG, ALL HATE @ Mudfest in the Guild Theatre/Melbourne University:
FRIDAY 21st August: 5pm
SATURDAY 22nd August: 7pm
SUNDAY 23rd August : 2pm
MONDAY 24th August: 9pm

Read it here:

Half Dog, All Hate

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual abuse, physical abuse, death, rape, war, racism, alcoholism.

Nietzsche’s Ubermensch by Yuki Iwama

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (directly translated as ‘Overman’) is a theory that rejects the sedentary, cushioned modern man, and encourages us to overcome our current state of being to something immeasurably higher. First publicly appearing in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, speaking through the titular character, introduces to us the Ubermensch – the future of humanity. The Ubermensch is not within us, waiting for us to ‘find’ our inner superman; rather, it is something that must be attained (Safranski 2003, p.259). In this essay I will attempt (to the best of my abilities as a cushioned modern man) to uncover how to become Nietzsche’s Ubermensch; what this superman is; and the consequences of becoming.

From the ashes of inherent and transcendent morality, Nietzsche birthed the Ubermensch. His critique and rejection of the categorical imperative asserted his position on the life-affirming, “yes”-saying superman who the modern man should be striving to become. We are, at the moment, between ape and the Ubermensch – it is up to us whether we enforce our will to power and transcend from our current state of being.

So how do we do this? First, we must try and understand Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. The eternal recurrence theory was not unfamiliar to Nietzsche during his life, beginning from his early roots reading Schopenhauer to rediscovering it in his later writings (Safranski 2003, p.225). To Nietzsche, “the world of forces” could not possibly run by a linear existence, since it would have already reached the end; therefore, “the world of forces” is eternal, running not in a linear direction but circular, constantly ending then starting and so on and forth until existence is a seamless repetition throughout eternity (Safranski 2003, p.228). This terrifying revelation presents to us a dilemma of epic proportions: if everything we do and say and think in our lives is already predetermined and doomed to be repeated on an endless loop, then what is the point? How are we to live a life with no meaning (like those hopeless, manic-depressive nihilists)? From this dilemma, Nietzsche gives us the anti-nihilistic nihilism; the new, optimistic nihilism; the philosophy of the future. The eternal recurrence theory is not supposed to be presented as a truth (the possible despair and destruction stemming from this theory was something that Nietzsche found amusing) but as a “pragmatic, autosuggestive aid in structuring our lives” (Safranski 2003, pp.230-231).

Religion, mainly Christianity, has us living our afterlives; however, with the prospect of an eternally recurring life, shouldn’t we be concentrating on this life now? (Safranski 2003, p.231). Instead of focusing on the afterlife, we should be focusing on the nowlife – embrace the life that was given to us! Amor fati! Rejoice and revel in this life; embrace your fate; relish the darkness and the brightness of the life we have now! Only the weak willed are struck down by Christian morality and guilt; the denial of self and will; the constant “no”-saying. Nietzsche demands that we must have courage and strength; that we should not deny truth and reality; and that “knowledge, saying ‘yes’ to reality, is…a necessity for the strong…” (Nietzsche 2009, pp.46-47). Once we learn to do this, will we be that much closer to the Ubermensch.

Nietzsche distinguishes those of us who are perhaps blinded or herded by this slave-like morality. We are essentially slaves to our guilt and masochistic psyches (guilt is really just like self-flagellation) which, argues Nietzsche, is something that must be overcome and rejected. We are led by the delusions (or perhaps manipulations) of ‘priests’ who encourages herd-like mentality and conformity; who stresses the importance of selflessness and denying ourselves of certain desires and pleasures; who teaches us what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil; and who offers us ‘soothing balms’ to helps us ‘tolerate’ life – these priests, these enforcers of slave morality, must be unheeded (Bornedal 2010, pp. 414-417). We must enforce the life affirming, absolute amor fati, and the joyful embrace of both the suffering and pleasurable aspects of our lives – to the point, as Bornedal so puts it, “where [we] could want…eternal recurrence” (2010, p.418). The Ubermensch is not slave to superimposed values and morals – he scoffs at the categorical imperative – but the master of his own values and morals. He is both the “destroyer and creator of values…who needs no illusory fictions about an afterlife…but instead imbues this world with the affirmative values of his own making” (Daniels 2013, p.194).

Once we have thrown off the superimposed slave morality and adopted the life affirming ‘yes’-saying and noble morality, can we start to harness the will to power and the will to the Ubermensch. The will to power is essentially the shared characteristic of all living beings –in this case, the will to become, rather than existing as static beings; surviving and not living (Heidegger 1979, pp.18-19). To clarify, Heidegger emphasises the distinction of the semantics of the word. He posits that the word ‘will’ does not convey the concept of ‘want’ or ‘wish’, but rather “the submission of ourselves to our own command, and the resoluteness of such self-command…” (1979, p.40). When we say the phrase ‘will to power’, we assume that Nietzsche suggests a will with a goal or an end. However, as Heidegger points out, the ‘will’ itself is “as mastery out beyond itself…will is a willing beyond itself…it is the strength that is able to bring itself power” (1979, p.42). Will itself is power.

To Nietzsche life is a vibrating, humming, tautened elastic band of will to power. It is a matter of whether or not we release the elastic band and harness the will to power to really live our lives and, ultimately, overcome ourselves. To reiterate, we are sedentary and cushioned, too comfortable in our current state of being (and too weak willed) to change, to evolve. Nietzsche wants us to overcome this; to overcome ourselves. We must harness the will to power – the will to the Ubermensch – to overcome, change, and become what is destined for us.

In summary, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, the Dionysian ideal, is something that we must strive for (even if it is unattainable); since the simple of act of striving is in the spirit of the Ubermensch. With the eternal recurrence theory, instead of being horrified by the prospect of an eternity of the same life, we must learn to live life to the full; embracing everything, even the suffering and the pain. Nietzsche demands that we do not be satisfied with purely surviving – our main goal in life simply being happy, and cushioned and fattened by modernity – but we should (and must) want more from life and ourselves. We must throw off the trepidation and guilt of slave morality and we must become masters of our own values and morals. To yell and scream “yes!” to everything in life; to love the life given to us (amor fati!); and to actually want to live the same life over and over again for eternity – this truly is the most precious gift we could possibly ever hope to attain. However, we must first gaze upon ourselves, the modern man, and realise that to hope to simply be happy in life is not enough. We must want more; aim higher; and struggle to overcome ourselves. The future is in this overcoming.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015

Reference List

Bornedal, P 2010, The Surface and the Abyss: Nietzsche as philosopher of mind and knowledge, De Gruyter, Berlin & NY.

Daniels, PR 2013, Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy, Acumen, Durham.

Heidegger, M 1979, Nietzsche Volume I: the will to power as art, Harper & Row, NY.

Nietzsche, F 2009, Ecce Homo: a new translation by Duncan Large, Oxford University Press, NY.

Safranski, R 2003, Nietzsche: a philosophical biography, Granta Books, London.

Bibliography

White, A 1990, Within Nietzsche’s Labyrinth, Routledge, New York & London.

Review: Michelle de Kretser’s ‘Questions of Travel’ by Yuki Iwama

To travel is to say goodbye. To travel is to isolate. To travel is to connect. To travel is to escape. Michelle de Kretser’s fourth novel, Questions of Travel (published in 2012 by Allen and Unwin) is aptly named, as it attempts to answer the questions and poses concepts that readers would otherwise not associate with travelling. The author herself has lived parallel to her characters, having her roots in the east and living in the west. One can see how this novel can be seen as a bipolar reflection on the author’s own experiences with travel.

The story encompasses over forty years and is told by two characters: Laura, a Sydney woman who travels the world after gaining an inheritance; and Ravi, a Sri Lankan man who becomes a tourist in his own country before seeking asylum in Sydney. We see here two parallel lives, though from opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum. David Callahan writes in Transnational Literature, that this blatant polarity is obvious in the “economic ability of [Laura] to travel out of desire, and [Ravi’s] constraints of travel structured by politicised violence” in his home country (2013, p. 6). At face value, it may appear that de Kretser is postulating that travel is only for the wealthy, however travel can come in any form: from Ravi’s journey of asylum in Australia to Laura’s cyber travelling while she works for a travel guide publishers.

These different forms of travelling are explored at great length within the novel. De Kretser pens the beginning at 1970, at the first hesitant steps of the technological boom, to 2004, when technology is an organic part of humanity – for example, as Ravi has sex with his wife, he cannot stop thinking about the internet and “things [flowing] together on his mind’s screen” (de Kretser 2012, p. 88). Deborah Rice of the ABC quotes de Kretser, who says: “Travel of different kinds is central to the book and people are interested in that…I hope they perhaps have their ideas of travel shaken up a bit or perhaps affirmed” (2014). But, while travel is the foremost theme of the novel, the author also attempts to explore technology, human interactivity and connection, politics and war, wealth and poverty, cultural relativity and race.

The title itself is based on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem by the same name, which also attempts to answer the questions of travel; questions that de Kretser also asks in her novel. Bishop writes: “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come/to imagined places, not just stay at home?…Should we have stayed at home,/wherever that may be?” (Poem Hunter 2003, para. 4-5). We meet a plethora of characters through Ravi and Laura on their travels who all have a strong relationship with the concept of home – whether they are yearning and searching for one or buried deep in the roots of the land. From Theo, who seems to be constantly misplaced, especially in himself; and Hazel, who has a deep connection with her house and her family; to Hana, an Ethiopian woman trying her best to find a home in Australia. Then there is, of course, Laura and Ravi, who both feel displaced in their home countries, for different reasons. Questions of Travel then, argues Evelyn Juers of the Sydney Review of Books, poses to us questions not only about travel but also about “authenticity: of consanguinity and camouflage, of mimesis and alterity” (2013, para. 10).

Though the book has won a number of awards and recognition – in particular, the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction – it is not however, well received by those outside the academic and literary circles. De Kretser’s use of language is the most debated and striking aspect of the novel. It is one of the leading reasons why most readers feel disconnected to the story, since it is tacit and difficult to swallow.  De Kretser has a roundabout way of describing things, which can be seen quite perfectly when Ravi comments on a picture of Freda’s father (or some other relative), saying that “he filled the frame, a squared-off man. Ravi thought of good English butter. He thought of all the red roast beef the man contained” (de Kretser 2012, p.119). Just by association, we know that the man is stocky and well-built. It is a technique de Kretser uses almost constantly throughout the novel, and reading even one page is a cerebral quest – turning it into a puzzle one needs to solve before moving on in the narrative. Kim Forrester of Reading Matters, while giving the novel a positive review, admitted that she had trouble deciphering the language in some parts. She states that: “the author’s prose style…felt convoluted and “showy”…”; however, she continues on to say that once she familiarised herself with the language, it became easier to understand (Forrester 2013, para. 9).

There are, however, those who appreciate the beauty and complexity of the language. While Forrester is valid in her argument about the inaccessibility of the language in some parts of the novel, she also praises de Kretser and her mastery of description. “[The author’s] descriptions,” she says, “particularly of objects and places…were evocative and often quite beautiful” (Forrester 2013, para. 9). One can get a feel for the heady and almost drunk-like qualities of the novel, which offers a sensual mobility that parallels the book’s core theme. The book is one of fierce living (which can be seen in Laura’s character) and the inertia of death (Ravi here, serves as the metaphorical vehicle for this concept). It is hard not to find yourself breathless while reading Laura’s story, as the descriptions here are a smear of colours. Passages like: “It was lush with overgrown oranges, loquats, figs…The leaves of the orange trees were as glossy and distinct as if cut from green tin…on the station platform, surrounded by shouts, clanking, an aria oozing from the tannoy, the squeak of sneakered feet…” (de Kretser 2012, p.99). De Kretser indulges in the sensual like Laura indulges in the pleasures of living. Jenny Ackland writes on her blog that Questions “is lyrical yet compact yet wide and stuffed with detail” (2013, para. 15). Like the language, the story itself is tacit and both too macro and too micro.

Though quite beautiful, the book is not without its’ flaws. The structure of the novel was something that I had trouble grappling, as did many other readers. Randy Boyagoda of The New York Times describes the structure as a “huge game of Ping-Pong” and that de Kretser makes “too many minor plot excursions and secondary character profiles” (2013, para. 7). I did indeed have a difficult time tracking all the new characters that were being introduced in every chapter, some of whom did not appear again for the rest of the book, or were mentioned briefly five chapters later. It felt at times that these characters were pointless and only there for convenience. Names like Cassie and Phil (Laura’s roommates mentioned early in the novel) and Helmut Becker (Laura’s colleague at Ramsay’s) would only draw blank faces – these are characters who served little to no service whatsoever. It makes me wonder why de Kretser created them in the first place.

Boyagoda’s description of the chapters being like a game of Ping-Pong is also quite accurate – going from Ravi to Laura every chapter around a hundred times, with barely room to breathe, seems overwhelming and confusing at times. Boyagoda argues that this structure leaves the reader no time to reflect on “the emergence of distinctive patterns and juxtaposed meanings”, being “undermined by the sheer number and frequency of these switches” (2013, para. 7). It is perhaps too much to ask of the reader – plunging us deep into two parallel lives with stories riddled with implicit juxtaposition, only to pull us out head first before we can decipher any meaning from them.

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel is a dizzy drunk epic. Whilst reading, I found that her language seeped into my brain chemistry, leaving me with the feeling that I had smoked too much weed in the Botanical Gardens – the colours and the Pollack descriptions is the main (if not only) reason why I admire this book. Questions did have structural flaws that were hard to overcome, and the sheer number of minor (and seemingly pointless) characters lost de Kretser many readers. The political aspects of the novel were something I, as an Australian living in a multicultural society, understood and had been exposed to before – so there wasn’t anything new from the literary shores that I had been searching for. However, the philosophy of travel presented by de Kretser caught my attention and challenged my idea of the concept. Though the novel did have its’ flaws, if it can change or impact a reader’s perception, no matter how small of an influence, it is a book worth reading.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015

Reference List


Ackland, J <jmay100@iinet.net.au> 2013, ‘Book Review: Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser’, blog post, 26 July, Seraglio: not a pizza place, viewed 18 October 2014, <http://jennyackland.wordpress.com/2013/07/26/book-review-questions-of-travel-by-michelle-de-kretser/&gt;.

Boyagoda, R 2013, ‘When Two Paths Meet: ‘Questions of Travel,’ by Michelle de Kretser’, The New York Times, 21 June, viewed 19 October 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/books/review/questions-of-travel-by-michelle-de-kretser.html?_r=0&gt;.

Callahan, D 2013, ‘Review of Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser’, Transnational Literature, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 6-7.

Forrester, K <readingmatters@gmail.com> 2013, “Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser’, blog post, June 18, Reading Matters: Book reviews of mainly modern and contemporary fiction, viewed 17 October 2014, <http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2013/06/questions-of-travel-by-michelle-de-krester.html&gt;.

Juers, E 2013, Tripper Up, Tripped Out, Sydney Review of Books, 17 October 2014, <http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/tripped-up-tripped-out/&gt;.

Poem Hunter 2003, Questions of Travel, Poem Hunter, viewed 17 October 2014, <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/questions-of-travel/&gt;.

Rice, D 2014, ‘Michelle de Kretser’s Questions Of Travel wins Book of the Year at NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’, ABC News, 19 May, viewed 17 October 2014, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-19/michelle-de-kretser-wins-nsw-premiers-literary-award/5462540&gt;.

The Status of Sexual Violence in Balzac’s Adieu by Yuki Iwama

Sexual violence is the oppression and violation of women and the rhetoric through which men establish their masculine identity. Balzca’s Adieu is a text laden with sexual violence and phallocentricism palpable to a feminist reading. In this essay, I will be looking at the sexism of language and the model of the woman-beast used habitually in the text. I will also be exploring the consistent silencing of women in the text and how male narcissism actively oppresses and, ultimately, sexually violates women.

To own language is to own the reflection of reality. According to Gannett, our language is the language of men. It is comprised solely of the dominant (man as a humankind), the muted (the woman to the man), and the silenced (the hysterical and irrelevant – the animal and the child) (Gannett 1992, p.53). The dominant voice is of men – the authors and speakers of discourse and meaning; they are who creates our reality (Gannet 1992, p.53). The muted is of women – the voices must adhere to the dominant discourse (Gannet 1992, p.53). Voices outside of the dominant dialogue are left unheard, belonging only to the mad and hysterical and the inhuman (Gannet 1992, p.53). In Adieu, the language of men is evident.

Men as the writers of reality have time and again used the woman-beast comparison (though rather than a comparison it is more so a metaphorical relation and bestialisation). It is evident that it has its roots in the phallocentric binary of the rationality of man and the irrationality (hysteria) of women (Desblache 2005, p.381). Women, like animals, are creatures under men’s rule – even in Genesis, when God gives men the animals to tame, protect, and ultimately use. Animals are mute, without souls, unable to communicate like men do.

From the introduction of Stephanie in Adieu, Balzac offers us the first of many descriptions that adhere to the prevailing model of the woman-beast (prescribing to the language of the man – the dominant discourse): “At that moment,” Balzac writes, “the two huntsmen heard a cry that was something like that of a mouse caught in a trap” (2014, p.12). Then there is a description of the house where Stephanie resides. It is dilapidated, run down, with fruit rotting on the ground – emblematic of Stephanie’s mind (since no human woman would live in such disorder). A cow and goat greet the huntsmen as they approach the door, and already we are given a zoological image where Stephanie is simply another of the animals grazing in front of the house.  When Stephanie appears again, she is described as unintelligible and vacant, her teeth “as white as those of a dog” (Balzac 2014, p.13). There are only women-beasts in Adieu (sometimes described as a child – who fall into the muted group), a text that places women as subservient and secondary, even when not succumbed to madness. They are only silenced in madness because they do not adhere to the dominant discourse of language.

It is not only the narration that silences women in Adieu. According to Felman, the literary suppression of the female voice is also evident in the concept of women as the ‘unreal’ opposed to men as the ‘real’. Literary critics like Gascar and Berthier choose to focus on the war represented in the text (here we see the erasure of women in a more immediate and alarming form, especially within the academic circles) – chapter two being the focus of men and the other two chapters bringing Stephanie more so into the forefront of the story (though even then, she is more so a prop than an agent) (Felman 1993, pp.27-29). Adieu, according to Gascar and Berthier, is a story about the realistic heroism of soldiers (the ‘real protagonists’) and that Stephanie’s narrative is simply a supernatural streak within the text – unrealistic and ‘marvellous’ (Felman 1993, pp.28-30). Supernatural, Felman notes, is something not adhering to rationality, something to be dismissed, and “does not call for thought” (1993, p.30). Thus, women are reduced to a fictional status, a fairy tale – Stephanie is no longer a woman, or even an animal; she is Sleeping Beauty.

In regards to the woman-beast model, it is a simple yet illuminating reflection of a phallocentric reality. Stephanie’s journey in Adieu is one of dependence, objectification, and dehumanisation. From being rescued by Philippe during the war to being consistently hunted and captured by men (whether they had good or bad intentions), she is only independent outside of man’s grasp and in turn, their rationality. This desire to own, to have their female ‘Other’, is what drives the dominant discourse. For an example, Philippe attempts over a period of time to bring back Stephanie’s sanity (insanity marking the loss of femininity) by ‘taming’ her with sugar lumps and attempting to hear her utter his name. Felman notes that this is an effort to re-establish his own masculinity – since Stephanie as a woman-beast (something not human since the loss of femininity) is, to Philippe, a failure as a man (1993, pp.35-36). Stephanie, Felman argues, is Philippe’s Other; she is how he measures himself; she is his validator and establisher; without her recognition and lucidity, he is losing himself as she is to him (1993, pp.35-36). Man’s desire to own woman, to measure himself by her, is the aggressively ego-centric foundation to a hegemonic paradigm.

Fjelkestam, in her paper Gendering Cultural Memory, explores the erasure of Stephanie’s past traumas by Philippe and the suppression of sexual violence by the dominant voice. She quotes Hirsch and Smith on the gender perspective of historical and cultural memory: “what a culture remembers and what it chooses to forget are intricately bound up with issues of power and hegemony, and thus with gender” (cited in Fjelkestam 2013, p.240). Fjelkestam postulates that “what society chooses to remember becomes ‘the truth’”, which in this case the validity of memory and history falls upon the dominant voice (the authors), which was aforementioned (2013, p.245). Balzac, who writes under the dominant discourse as a male author, is an agent in this ‘selective remembering’. There is a detailed exploration of war and men but very little female representation. There is Stephanie, the only woman mentioned in Chapter Two of the text, and she is like a ghost (here, perhaps, is a supernatural element to her presence), half asleep and in a dream state, dumbly following Philippe. Her traumas following the river crossing is only mentioned in passing (within one or two sentences) and only serves to push the plot – to explain her insanity. The full extent of her trauma is dismissed and pushed into the background – suppressed and silenced, which is common when it comes to women and sexual abuse. Fjelkestam argues that Philippe’s refusal to acknowledge Stephanie’s trauma is what causes her to die (which in turn serves as his own death sentence) (2013, p.247). To elaborate, when Philippe attempts to recreate his own memory of the war (remembering as a man), Stephanie’s trauma is ultimately erased from the past – because Philippe refuses to acknowledge the distinction between past and present (Fjelkestam 2013, p.247). Thus, she dies because when her trauma is erased, she too is erased – in that her voice, her experiences, her memories and history are taken from her.

Ofcourse, though this is an exploration of a story from 19th Century France, a feminist reading of it is still critical to present day literature and society. Sexual violence is not only the literal abuse and rape of women, but also the metaphorical, the conceptual – the active oppression and silencing of women. We can see this, at the core, in the dominant/muted/silenced discourse in language, which is hardly noticed or challenged (which makes it dangerous); the dominant, hegemonic discourse by which all literary oppression of women conforms to. This distinction and subjugation of the man/woman opposition is also evident in the dehumanisation of women and the woman-beast model. By turning women into something other than human, they become easier to control and own – whether as an animal or a supernatural entity (unreal and marvellous). The obvious omission of the female experience in cultural memory and history, especially in relation to sexual violence and abuse, is not only harmful but possibly the worst violence one can inflict upon women. Balzac, whether intentional or not, has dismissed sexual violence, reducing it to a mere tool to explain Stephanie’s madness (as if a man can as easily take away a woman’s identity and femininity as he can control it). To look at the status of sexual violence in Balzac’s Adieu is to look at the state of male narcissism and ego-centrism. To take away a woman’s voice, her identity, and her experiences, is to metaphorically rape her and make her nothing. Though men may look at women as reflections of themselves, I think they must first look at themselves; and as women, we must unfailingly challenge this phallocentric reality and speak.

©Yuki Iwama, 2015

References

 

Balzac, HD 2014, Adieu, trans. KP Wormley, Ingram.

Desblache, L 2005, ‘Beauties and Beasts: contrasting visions of animal representation in women’s contemporary fiction’, Comparative Critical Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 381-395.

Gannet, C 1992, Gender and the Journal: diaries and academic discourse, SUNY Press, Albany.

Felman, S 1993, Women and Madness: the critical phallacy, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Fjelkestam, K 2013, ‘Gendering Cultural Memory: Balzac’ Adieu’, Culture Unbound, vol. 5, pp. 239-249.