2017-05-30 10:00 dark-curricula

Dark Curricula: May 2017

History never really says goodbye. History says, 'See you later.' -- Eduardo Galeano

Day of the Oprichnik

Vladimir Sorokin

Second book I've read by Sorokin, first being The Blizzard. I read a particularly stuffy review column, don't recall where, that described Sorokin as a "bad-boy novelist". As if we still were thrashing around pop culture books that try to shock, like in the 80s--when the novelist portrayed himself as a rebel, as clever little fucker who gleefully points out the flaws in our civilization, these were "bad-boys". That period is over, nothing is shocking anymore. The other word about Sorokin that stuck out in that review was "bizarre". That's a mischaracterization which creates the wrong expectations. Reality is one big, solid magnitude more "bizarre" than this book.

The things I liked about The Blizzard are here, liking The Blizzard was no mistake. Sorokin is fearless, imaginative and funny. I mean that in a way, and in a time, when it seems that created things must fit into a template, they must either confirm a corporate strategy, or fit into social network approval. I don't think Sorokin gives two shits about this. He's got an inebriated kind of commitment to these scenarios, like he's in a poker game and pushes all the chips forward. All in, win or lose, at least he didn't hedge or hesitate. This means some things don't "work"--they aren't necessarily narratively optimal, or they're awkward, or they leave you feeling something is unresolved. But that's OK to me, I'm not buying fast food here, I'm reading a book, I admit I'm being taken where the author wants to go, not the other way around.

Set in a near-ish future, in a Russia that is simultaneously modern and ancient, ruled by a new Tsar and totally dominated by violence, fear and corruption, the Oprichnik are the Tsar's policy soliders, just as they were in the 1600s. We follow one, Andrei Danilovich, as he enforces, blackmails, manipulates, gets high, and generally enthusiastically espouses loyalty to the crown and his Oprichnik crew. Like The Blizzard, the drugs of choice are highly prized well crafted artifacts maybe made in China if you aren't so lucky, or maybe made by some segment of society that specializes in alternate experiences and fine workmanship of alternate reality.

Sorokin creates drugs which are also objects of art. Imagine a Faberge Egg that transports you into a hallucinatory reverie. Fittingly like a Faberge Egg since those were created specifically for the Russian Imperial family, these are used gleefully by the Oprichnik. The artists and entertainers of the city are pawns. The other royalty are often sufferers of punishments and sudden downfall in large political games. Independence is not valued or allowed. China is a powerful financial competitor, and some of the Oprichnik activity revolves around greasing the trade wheels to be as profitable as possible. And corruption, corruption everywhere.

Next up I'm going to read the first of his "Ice" trilogy which the NY Times described negatively as a "monstrous vision" and "anti-humanistic". Well, color me interested.

Batavia's Graveyard

Mike Dash

Sometimes you just need a good dose of disaster at sea. As I've probably mentioned before, I've got a thing for Arthur Gordon Pym which is its own brand of Poe generated sea misery. The tale of the Batavia, however, is very real.

In the 1600's the Dutch East India Company, AKA the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), dominated the financial and trade enterprises of the world:

The company was ... considered by many to be the very first major and the most successful corporation in history. Statistically, the VOC eclipsed all of its rivals in international trade for almost 200 years of existence. Between 1602 and 1796 the VOC sent almost a million Europeans to work in the Asia trade on 4,785 ships, and netted for their efforts more than 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods.

Twenty years after the creation of the VOC they commissioned a ship, the Batavia, to make a run to Java. The ship wrecked, the survivors--some of whom had already plotted mutiny--didn't get along well. Not well at all. Murderously not well.

Mike Dash builds up the back story, the skipper, the two representatives of the VOC, the crew and passengers. The details of life on ship, even a ship that was the largest and most well built for the time, are jaw-droppingly terrible. A certain amount of death was expected. Disobedience was punishable in awful, brutal ways. Torture was a matter of course. Also starvation and disease. Our primary villain of the story, Jeronimus Cornelisz, has an interesting mix of heretical lineage, libertine behavior, and failed businesses. The lead merchant, Francisco Pelsaert, had a weakness for native women and may have contributed to VOC's losing India to the English East Indian Company by his own political conniving and extra-marital relationships. And the skipper was a disagreeable hothead. Add to that a group of disgruntled underpaid soldiers. Then add a slew of sailors who's background is purely criminal. What could go wrong?

Everything. After wrecking on the western side of Australia, where on uninhabitable "islands" nothing more than outcrops of sand and coral, the survivors split into three groups. Pelsaert, the captain and the skilled sailors head for Jakarta in a long boat. The trip takes 33 days. Meanwhile, the second group became dominated by Jeronimus Cornelisz, and having greed in mind and mutiny in store, they stranded the stronger part of the group onto what they believed was a deadly waterless island. Once done, Cornelisz was free to recruit and incite murders to halve the remaining, violently. But Cornelisz didn't count on the abandoned islands' group finding water and other resources, and getting wind of what he was up to. In his mad grasp at removing the final opposition to taking whatever rescue ship he assumed would come, he and his murdering cohorts were captured. Pelsaert returns, and then come trials and torture and executions.

Nothing like a good tale of sea murder and crazed evil mutineers.