I picked up my first own passport this week in preparation for fulfilling my dream of travelling parts of the world for a bit after I graduate my master’s in June! I’m stoked!
But why travel now, when money is short and it’d be important to follow up graduation with a nice entry-level job?
Well, I always had good reasons to delay travelling to a later stage of my life, when “the time” would be right. Before this decision to travel in 2018, I’d just always assumed I would travel to some distant parts of the world some day, that my life would definitely include that aspect. But I never made any concrete plans. Life always gets in the way. And before you know it, you’ve got a nice flat or house to pay and keep, a neat job, friendly coworkers, a membership at the gym and a busy circle of friends, maybe there are kids to take care of, and you’re so deeply established where you are that the idea of leaving it behind for even a bit is so uncomfortable and would require so many arrangements that “that time” just never comes.
Don’t get me wrong, this picture I painted sounds like a lovely life, but I would be so sad to miss out on this (potential) part of me. So I just have to try and dare and see what travelling does with me. 😊
The story follows the struggles and fates of a few central characters on and around the Dutch East Indies Company’s trading post Dejima right off the bay of Nagasaki, starting in 1799. We chiefly follow clerk Jacob de Zoet as he navigates his way around the foreign culture, corruption, homesickness, blossoming friendships, and rivalries.
And in the midst of it all, de Zoet falls in love with Miss Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife studying with a certain Dr Marinus. We follow her as she is sent off against her will the disquieting Lord Abbot Enomoto’s Mount Shiranui Shrine which holds a dark secret, and as she forges a place for herself within her confines.
What it really is about
This book weaves together clashes both at the level of cultures, at the level of groups, at the level of individuals, and at the level of values, goals, ambitions, dreams, and personalities – and captures the never-ending task of every human being to negotiate their own way through all of these struggles.
We see clashes of belief systems, of ambition and veracity, of cultural independence and colonial connectedness, of science and belief, of systems and principles of sovereignty, of the cruelties of slavery and how frighteningly easy one goes along with what counts as normal; of dreams and realities, of one’s personal goals and one’s loyalties, one’s ideals and the dark sides everyone has, of arrogance and humility, of struggling and of acceptance and making a place for oneself.
But Mitchell hardly ever suggests any easy answers for these clashes, and I really appreciate that. What I personally love most is the novel’s rich down-to-earth melancholia about the way one’s life turns out with time through all the forces and influences out of one’s control, including incalculable consequences of one’s own actions and inactions; and its depiction of the struggles one goes through in making the choices one has to make (or forever regret) to stay true to oneself. And, finally, the novel beautifully drives home how we can ultimately only ever ascertain and assess some of these things, and in hindsight.
A little postscript: Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks,” (2014) set in the same universe, should if possible be read before this book as it makes sense of some of the happenings at Mount Shiranui Shrine, at least partly redeeming their otherwise uncomfortably orientalist vibes.
It’s a sort of an end of an era for me recently since I finished the Gormenghast book trilogy and, almost in parallel, the video game Dark Souls 1.
Both works are difficult to navigate, but richly rewarding. Their worlds are uncanny and gothic, but distinct; the eerie characters and their fates as you live through them are intense – that is, if you find within yourself the patience and motivation to finish these difficult masterpieces. I did, and against all odds, I lived to tell you about it.
Dark Souls (videogame)
That’s because Dark Souls is one big incredible suffer fest journey of an action/adventure/roleplay videogame. Hated and loved universally for its incredible but somehow fair difficulty, it demands the utmost in concentration and in willingness to try, die, learn, and try again (the PC version is aptly named “Prepare to Die Edition”). It is so intense that at times, it feels like what you are doing is learning an area and its enemies’ moves by heart, and only when you have really internalised them will you succeed.
Nevertheless, this is for some reason fun; probably not least because of the genius level design and the incredible feeling of accomplishment upon finally mastering previously unthinkably difficult sections or boss fights (the other day, I actually dreamt reading an article online about the Gaping Dragon unanimously being seen as the objectively hardest boss. That was probably my brain justifying my endless fight with it).
Also, I admit I am a competitive person at times, and I don’t accept defeat. So this explains the 1 1/2 painful but intense years I spent with this game!
I absolutely love the dark atmosphere of ever-shifting mystery shrouding the world; I love the feel of the almost Gormenghast-ishly bizarre inhabitants and of your character’s own cryptic story and part to play in the world. You only ever get bits and pieces of stories to be puzzled together from seldom interactions with in-game characters, events, and item descriptions. I am a detective, I like that.
Gormenghast – what an incredible place, and what a wondrous journey of a book trilogy (written 1946, 1950, and 1959).
The books are textbook examples for portraying surreal characters. In time, the vast Gormenghast castle itself comes to feel like a character with a life entirely of its own – its personality consisting of immemorial, weird rituals meticulously observed by its inhabitants; its physical shape consisting of an unending, untraceable net of tracts, buildings, corridors, and rooms, one more ancient than the next; all of it labyrinthine and most of it long forgotten.
The plot of the first two books follows the madness, ambitions, hopes, and dreams of several inhabitants:
The old depressed Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan, whose only escape from the demands of his office is his library. His son, the 77th Earl Titus Groan who is born into Gormenghast and but an infant for the entire length of the first book, and whose yearning for freedom from the life written for him is a major driver for changes; along with the ambition of Steerpike, the kitchen boy of unknown origin; Sepulchrave’s loyal servant Mr Flay whose coming is ever accompanied by the persistent cracking of his joints and who takes marvellous pride in his profession; his nemesis, the horroresque cook Swelter; the hopelessly romantic, touchingly impulsive, artistic melancholy sister of Titus, Lady Fuchsia Groan, whose intense childhood and youth we follow; the uncannily mad but eerily ambitious twin sisters of Sepulchrave, Cora and Clarice; the inquisitive Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor and his annoying, vain sister Irma who is in dire need of love; the ever-fussy Nannie Slag; Sourdust, the ancient master of ritual, and his son Barquentine, the school professor Bellgrove, the Bright Carvers, The Thing, Kedra…
The first two books follow the castle inhabitants over several years through many events and developments: the library is burned, central characters die, others fall in love, and out of love; the castle is flooded, some characters manipulate others, some follow their hopes, others kill, yet others find a new life; some meet tragic ends; and Gormenghast castle is always in the background… many things happen, but the book takes its sweet time for them. I think comparisons with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are not entirely misplaced.
(For me, the third book in the trilogy felt rather odd and off. We leave Gormenghast behind and enter a world that is even stranger and more unpredictable. Maybe that is an accurate depiction of what it feels like to have grown up within the castle and then leave it. Also, the additional layer of Mervyn Peake’s alleged dwindling mental faculties during its writing makes the oddness of the book all the more eerie.)
I loved these first two books for their very own distinctive feel – not always smooth or easy to read, but richly rewarding, and always one-of-a-kind. You do need a lot of patience and time to let the picture these books paint develop, and flow, though. Suffice it to say that Mervyn Peake’s trilogy is a grand piece of olde English literature (and that I have probably learnt more new English words from it than during the whole previous year, although I would hazard a guess that Peake’s favourite word might just be “undulating”).
I painted a little reminder for the new year to let ourselves blossom in all the right directions for all the right reasons:
So I start off my planning for 2018 with a little thought experiment: Who, what, where would I be if nothing in the world held me back, neither circumstances nor fear? Dream big, no judging and no reality checks.
Now I review these visions. What of these things feel “just right” – which ideas hit the sweet spot between exactly-me, deeply motivating, and uncomfortable, but sort of attainable? Then I start planning out the steps needed to get there. Choose some priorities. And review regularly.
The regular-review step is what I neglected too much in 2017. So here’s to a fresh start with the magic of a whole new year spreading out ahead! And weekly and monthly review sessions 😉