Sunday, 30 December 2012

Debating the "comfort women" issue in Japan

Over the past couple of days Twitter has been abuzz with debate over the recurring issue of "comfort women" -- the predominantly Korean women coerced into prostitution by the Japanese army during the Second World War -- and their claims for acknowledgement and compensation. This time round, Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times was on hand to provide translations of some of the arguments against the women's claims and their comments reveal part of the uglier side of Japan -- the part that those of us involved in one way or another with trying to give Japanese culture a boost always find thoroughly dispiriting.

Before I get into the arguments, though, a warning. I use terms like "morality" and "national conscience" in here, which I'm not entirely comfortable with and which I usually approach with extreme caution in other people's writing. However, for want of better words, I'm forced to use the inadequate tools with which my vocabulary has provided me in the hope that I don't lose too much in terms of clarity.

First, I'm not going to debate the fundamental facts. There are primary documents available to peruse on this site, and if someone still wants to just flat-out deny that anything happened… well, if someone really doesn't want to believe something, they'll always find a way of not believing it. This blog is predicated on the reality that forced sexual slavery carried out on behalf of the Japanese army did occur. That's my position, that's the position of most reputable historians from what I can gather, and that's the position of the firsthand data so take it or leave it.

What I'm going to focus on instead is some of the arguments that fly forth from the denialist side whenever this issue or similar ones relating to war crimes, even painstakingly documented ones, come up. There are obvious similarities with Holocaust denial, Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide, and all manner of other crimes.

Because people in many countries are in some degree of denial about atrocities in their own past -- Britain and France have ugly colonial legacies and America has its own violent horrors in its westward expansion -- and taking a look at the arguments made in these various cases it's clear that the process of denial takes similar paths.

One of the most common arguments is precisely that: the fact that many countries have done horrible things in their pasts. There are three parts to this dynamic.

1. It's an argument that seeks to mute the impact of a crime by spreading the blame. It doesn't seek to legitimise the act so much as muddy the waters, to give the impression that in "other times" things were different and to give the impression of a moral grey area. By making the issue appear too morally complex, most people will either back off, or…

2. It forces critics from overseas onto the defensive. "But what about YOUR COUNTRY? What about what YOU did?" goes the cry. This argument forces the opponent to either admit moral equivalence or go on the defensive, thus evening out the field of battle as it were. This sort of argument is known as "whataboutery" and was first coined (I believe) due to the constant use of these "what about…" arguments in debates over sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

3. It implies that their country and their country alone is being unfairly victimised. "Why are WE being picked on when other countries also did bad things? Why are you not picking on THEM for what THEY did?" This argument attempts to usurp the mantle of victimhood from the actual victims of the crimes, as well as subtly implying an agenda that seeks to attack the speaker's own country for unspecified but probably nefarious reasons.

All of these points are attempts to divert the argument away from any discussion of the actual events and the evidence and testimonies of the victims, and the answer to all three of these points is basically always going to be a variant on, "Yeah, but we're not talking about what those countries did," followed by a repeated assertion of the actual issue under discussion.

There are also a couple of specific arguments particular to Japan and the comfort women issue that I've seen come up.

One is that the South Korean government is just using it as a stick to beat Japan with for political gain, particularly at election time, and that no matter what Japan does, they're never going to back off. This is a tricky argument because on the one hand, it's clearly true, but on the other, it's another attempt at distraction because it really doesn't matter.

It's an argument that only makes sense if you think that the only reason for Japan to acknowledge, apologise to and compensate women who were forced to work as sex slaves for its army would be in order to gain something in return (in the form of increased national good will or whatever) rather than out of any sense of basic justice and morality. Put another way, it shouldn't matter as far as Japan and its own national conscience is concerned that South Korean politicians are using the issue for political gain -- that's Korea's own ethical issue.

Another argument I've heard is that the comfort women were employed by private brothel owners and weren't being run by the military, so as a result, the Japanese government has nothing to apologise for. This legalistic argument is more blatantly desperate and seems designed mostly to satisfy the conscience of the speaker. Perhaps it's an appeal to the neoliberal capitalist in the listener, but it's hard to find anyone else really being convinced by it.

In capitalist terms, if the military has a certain level of demand and the supply is limited, the supplier is clearly going to be under enormous pressure to meet that demand. If the military decides to look the other way and not question the legitimacy of the source, the military is a co-conspirator just as any company caught handling illegally-obtained goods would be.

To take another example, my home town is Bristol in the United Kingdom. Growing up in Bristol, one of the first things I learned about local history was that the city's wealth in the early colonial era was built largely off the back of the slave trade. Initially, corrupt magistrates would manipulate petty criminals into going to the American colonies as indentured servants, taking a cut off the unscrupulous traders' profits as they sold the prisoner's contract to plantation owners across the Atlantic. Later, when demand became too high even for these practices, the trade expanded to the transport of black slaves from Africa. In all these cases, these were private transactions, not government policy, and yet the city of Bristol and the country as a whole were responsible every bit as much as the wealthy businessmen who profited off the slave trade.

It might be fashionable in these post-Wall Street Crash and post-Blackwater days to argue that governments aren't responsible for what happens under their watch, but when they set the rules that allow injustices to occur, they are responsible as if they pulled the trigger or wielded the baton -- or the whip -- themselves.

The most common argument, however, is the one that goes, "It was a long time ago. I didn't do any of these things. Why should we still feel the guilt for these crimes committed by past generations?"

This brings up the awkward morality of the Old Testament "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation", which I'm going to just lay aside here, partly because the Old Testament is full of crap no one needs to listen to, and secondly because this is a quote from a self-confessed "jealous God" who was probably a bit upset at the time. It's pretty obvious, I think, that we don't need to punish children for their fathers' crimes in every situation.

In the case of the comfort women, there are two points that put this argument on shaky foundations though. The first is that many of these women are still alive now, and who is going to acknowledge, apologise to and compensate them if not the country in whose name their mistreatment was carried out? Secondly, many of the men who carried out this mistreatment, whether directly or indirectly, are still alive, and many of them (and their families) have done very well thank you very much since the end of the war.

It's certainly an argument you can make that as modern Japan didn't commit these crimes, it shouldn't be held responsible for paying. However, I think that as these arguments so frequently find themselves accompanied by denials and diversions of other sorts, the people making them secretly know that if the comfort women's stories are accepted as true, the moral weight of acknowledging and compensating the victims would indeed lie on their shoulders. To play a little whataboutery of my own, one needs only to look at Germany to see a very different approach (the Contingent Refugee Act of 1991, for example, removed many immigration barriers to Jewish people, leading to a large influx of Jewish people from former Soviet states that had previously been ravaged by the Nazis).

Some of this is no doubt down to straightforward, ugly nationalism, but many of the people who come out with these kinds of responses are perfectly ordinary, not particularly politically motivated individuals. I'm inclined to put some of the blame on films like Isao Takahata's traumatic animated feature Grave of the Fireflies -- a very effective, alternately horrifying and beautiful film, but also a deeply manipulative one -- for colouring many Japanese people's image of the war with deep hues of victimhood, focussing attention and images of the war almost entirely on the suffering endured by children and families at home and, along with sanitised schoolbooks, providing little wider sense of the Japan's role in the war as a whole.

There's also the tendency of those of us from the West to view national trauma as something to be purged through a kind of bleeding of the national conscience. A sort of therapeutic introspection to purify the national soul, whereas Japan perhaps prefers not to hang out its dirty washing in public. It's a different way of dealing with trauma, and one shouldn't be too quick to dismiss it. In this case, however, there are real victims, still living and breathing, and still desperate for acknowledgement.

Worldwide, Japan is one of the countries viewed in the most positive light by foreigners, and attitudes like these are a rare stain on its international image. More importantly though, regardless of how it benefits (if at all) Japan and perceptions of it in the world, it should be a matter of basic decency and sense of justice that this cycle of denial is broken.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Ideology, Terror and making fantasy relevant

One of the dangers of fantasy or science fiction writing is for the author to imagine an alternative world too much through the filters of the prevailing attitudes of his or her time or social circles.

For a science fiction writer, it's often necessary to stay in closer touch with the here and now, since much of sci-fi involves extending current trends into the future and developing them to their logical conclusions. The trick there is to recognise how attitudes will differ while making sure that the path by which society got to that place remains visible and relatable to the present day.

Fantasy has a couple of characteristics that make it a bit different. Firstly, it's much more about world building, in that the author doesn't have a set of established historical, geographical and cultural data that readers share and on which he or she can build the story. The fantasy author must build the entire geography, history and set of cultures from scratch (by and large they will pick and choose fragments from history and legend, but they still can't rely on the reader's familiarity with the background). Secondly, fantasy is a fundamentally conservative genre. Settings are largely based on historical or mythical themes, science is primitive or non-existent, society in a fantasy world usually has to deal with different challenges to modern industrial or post-industrial societies.

The result of these two factors means that the social and political world of a fantasy novel would likely be utterly alien to a modern day reader. The values of the people in it would reflect different social priorities and any insertion of the attitudes of the writer's own time will look clumsy at best and utterly shatter the fourth wall at worst. The ending of Philip Pullman's otherwise wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy with its "Republic of Heaven" premise is a classic example of this, because Pullman's own modern day liberal-left sensibilities jar with the alien world(s) he's spent the past several hundred pages constructing.

Obviously that doesn't mean that fantasy can only be written by right wingers. Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series is legendarily awful in large part because he can't let go of his own Randian wingnuttery. Where Pullman perhaps unwittingly allows a glimpse past the curtain, Goodkind places the ideological stage machinery front and centre. Pullman also has the advantage that his fantasy is rooted in a more fluid, technological universe in which social and political change are ideas that are by no means anathema to its existence. It doesn't quite work but it doesn't fail so utterly and completely.

But if you're writing about an archaic seeming world with a largely rural population, who the fuck is going to care about ideas like liberty, democracy and self-actualisation? Could an ancient or medieval society, even a magical one, even function along those lines outside of the city-state setup? Inserting those values into a fantasy novel is like giving Frodo Baggins a Segway to help him across the Plains of Mordor. 

We have of late been living in a society where those values are taken for granted though, and it's easy for them to slip unquestioned into our literature (and especially our Hollywood-dominated cinema). It also means that the values of the bad guys, which were born out of 19th century antipathy towards despotism, 20th century fears of fascism and communism, and 21st century anxieties about religious fundamentalism, also too often pass unquestioned. In fact Lord of the Rings itself never even bothers to explain what life under the rule of Sauron would be like. He's evil and that's that, just go ahead and imagine your worst nightmares (which at the time basically meant Hitler).

Taking on and providing analogues to real world political and ideological conflicts isn't a bad thing of course. The West's model of liberty and democracy and the sense that the march of these ideals is inevitable and unstoppable is challenged by places like China that have far less interest in democracy and yet seems to be doing very well thank you without it, so there is great value and probably more than a little interest in exploring alternative models of society in order to question and probe our own model. As I mention earlier, those kinds of questions are part of the job description of a science fiction author, and while it's a thornier problem for fantasy authors (given that escape from the real world is pretty much their raison d'etre) it can be done, particularly if the writer is skilled at mining historical sources for relevant but also convincing allegories.

That isn't often what the writer's looking for though. The writer is usually, whether they realise it or not, looking for a quick fix: a Big Bad that will get the audience on their side. They may think they're being challenging by dealing with an "issue", but they're not really challenging anything, and both the writer and audience are able to feel comfortable in their horror and revulsion. It's easy to look at the systematic murder of groups of people or the ethnic cleansing of populations and say, "No matter what your explanation, that's just wrong." Moral certainties like that are comforting.

Cultural relativism can be understood as an automatic and even necessary response to a world that is becoming more connected, and more and more information and conflicting values are forced to coexist in the media and especially online spheres. Trying to reconcile all those different ways of thinking, sets of values and traditions is going to drive you insane, so it's natural to look for an out: to say, "Oh well, different horses for different courses." It's a kind of tolerance of others' differences, but it's also a distancing mechanism. It's a way of saying, "That's nothing to do with me."

The flipside of that of course is that pretty much everyone has a line they draw somewhere, where they say, "No, enough is enough. That's just wrong." At some level, your tolerance for other people's differences has to give way because you feel something they do or think has intruded on your own ethical, moral or ideological territory. For some people, for example a religious fundamentalist, this line is drawn widely and they feel very offended and put upon, sometimes to homicidal degrees, by all kinds of things other people do with their lives. But for almost everyone, there are moments where your own values, your own sense of identity, pushes you to intolerance.

These moments can be interesting for a writer, and the minds of people who do things we find unacceptable are fertile grounds for literature.

Most people who commit atrocities aren't like Sauron. Most people would agree that even the worst crimes against humanity are often committed by people who think they're doing right. What gets less attention is the fact that a lot of horrendous crimes are not only committed in a spirit of righteousness, but they're also quite logical.

Robespierre and Saint-Just were quite rational in their application of the Jacobin Terror and while the period is frowned upon by modern liberals, a look at the history of revolution and counterrevolution in many countries suggests that a period of terror to rigorously instill revolutionary values (Zizek takes it further, adding the idea of "divine violence", although the philosophy isn't as much of a concern to me here as the practical side) is an entirely logical response to the danger of reassertion of the old regime or the creeping return of their remnants through the weakening of revolutionary zeal. Similarly, the murder of the Russian royal family and the destruction of their remains was a logical response to the reality of such figures' symbolic power -- revolutions had failed in Russia before, and the punishments of the perpetrators had been severe. In both cases people did horrible things that nonetheless made perfect sense in terms of the situation in which they occurred and what the people were trying to achieve.

There is much controversy over the issue, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that from a moral perspective, it's very difficult to defend Israel's actions in Palestine. Nevertheless, one could argue that from a strictly rational point of view, Israel doesn't go nearly far enough. What kind of Palestinian state could ever emerge from that situation that would be anything other than pathologically hostile to Israel? We may see Palestinians as victims and instinctively sympathise with them but Israel's own history shows us how easily oppressed can become oppressors. In the mind of someone like Benjamin Netenyahu he is not committing crimes, he is Doing What Has To Be Done. A more ruthless man might do more, as America did to its native population without apparently seeming to even notice it.

We live in a world where "terror" has become an evil in itself, a binary opposite of "humanity", but this is a function of our own comfortable lives and society (and one Robespierre and Saint-Just would have disagreed with fundamentally). For us there is no greater evil than the disruption of our peaceful existence. How easily might we slip into a new fascism all of our own if that comfort were threatened? For me, one of the most interesting and valuable avenues that the science fiction or fantasy author can explore is the minds and rationales of the people with whose values and actions we disagree or reject. Not in the sensitive, liberal-minded and relativistic way of "tolerating" them from a distance but to really get inside the heads of those who trespass upon the ideological ground that makes up our identity.

In this sense, fantasy, so often intellectually the idiot sibling of science fiction, can in fact provide a more subtle, allegorical comment on the world, challenging contemporary assumptions about The Way It Is and taking us ideologically on tangents from the straight lines that science fiction tends to draw into the future. Of course most won't do that, and undoubtedly many writers and fans in the genre are attracted to it precisely for the way it presents us with an established social hierarchy with simplistic and small "c" conservative values.

Even then, however, there is something interesting in showing us the thought processes and logical steps a king goes through in his decision to go to war or levy a tax, and then letting us see the effect that has on the peasant farmer. Does the farmer dream of change? If so, what sort of change can he envisage? As I said before, a modern liberal democracy would probably be low down on the list. Another, better king might be more like it, because this imaginary peasant's sense of the natural order of things would likely be just as limited by his experience as ours is by our own world. Where we usually hold fantasy at a distance like good social relativists -- "it's another place, they live differently there." -- and where bad fantasy writing allows modern ideas to unwelcomely intrude, an alternative model of fantasy literature can induce the reader to examine their own ideas by introducing recognisable problems into the world of the story but having the characters tackle them using a totally different set of ideological tools. Our response -- horror, pathos, amusement, anger, whatever -- is influenced by our consciousness of the gap between what we see or read happening and what our instincts tell us should be happening. Thus the writer is able to address contemporary values or issues by their very absence, sidestepping the awkwardness of inserting them into an arena where they don't necessarily belong.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

An current overview of anime in Japan

I was asked by MTV's new English language site devoted to Japanese music and pop culture to do a feature outlining general trends in anime in Japan to act as a sort of introduction for overseas readers. The site, MTV 81, is primarily designed to promote Japanese culture and everything they publish starts from the point that it's all going to be basically positive, so don't expect to find me ranting and raving about the evils of moé or calling Makoto Shinkai a sentimental faux artistic hack. Anyway, it's posted online here if you're interested.

Also, I started from the assumption that readers are going to have some idea of what I'm talking about since anime is pretty widely known and the kind of person who comes to a Japan-orientated site like MTV 81 is probably going to have at least a fair idea of what to expect from anime. If there are any truly egregious errors, I apologise (yeah, I know "Bakemonogatari" has a typo in it), but I tried to be as fair as I could in my assessment. Of course I'll have left out loads of stuff, and I admit I've been pretty much dead out of anime for the past few years, but I was able to field a lot of pointers from mates Wah from Analog Housou/Mistakes of Youth and especially Matt from Colony Drop (bearing in mind the obvious biases those sources entail).

Monday, 19 November 2012

Resident Evil: Damnation Review

I wrote a review of the terrible new Resident Evil: Damnation computer animated movie for Otaku USA Magazine and you can read it here.

It's great getting paid money to say stuff sucked. I actually quite enjoyed the film, but it's important not to confuse that with it actually being any good. It really was poor, but it was poor in a sort of, "What the fuck is going on?" and "I can't believe they actually thought that would be a good idea!" kind of way.

Kill Your Sempai!

Last week I did a small pop-art exhibition with a friend of mine and produced seven new illustrations. Some of them worked better than others, but in any case, it was a fun thing to be involved in.

"All art is pornography."

No story behind this one, it just is. It's also probably the worst illustration out of the bunch. It just didn't quite work somehow. My wife says she looks like she has Down Syndrome, which seems a bit mean but now she's said it, I can't get the idea out of my head.

"My favourite band is more hardcore than your favourite band."

Those conversations about music where you end up trapped in a stupid battle of one-upmanship.

"Just because I'm drunk, it doesn't mean I want to fuck you."
Date rape. Don't do it. 

 "Nogizaka46 are our no.1 geopolitical enemy."

I remember Mitt Romney saying something like this about Russia during the U.S. election campaign, which struck me as deliberately constructing a false enemy for his own benefit. This image came from an AKB48 (mass-member idol pop group) coffee commercial and Nogizaka46 are AKB48's "official rivals", despite being produced by the same guy and the money basically flowing to the same place.

 "Guest lists are killing music. Stop! Live theft."

Record industry types are constantly bitching and whining about how downloading music is "stealing", but if getting music for free is theft, then every time a music industry shill gets on the guest list, he's stealing music too. The last line is based on the slogan "No More! Eiga dorobou", which comes from these stupid commercials you see at the cinema here with a guy with a camcorder for a head warning us not to steal movies.

"I'm sorry for the trouble but I'm going to cause a terrible inconvenience by killing you."

The event title was "Kill Your Sempai!" "Sempai" is a Japanese word for someone who is your elder or senior in college or your job or wherever. They have a sort of master-apprentice role and you nave to use certain polite language when addressing them. So the joke here is that if you're going to kill your sempai, you must make sure you do it using the correct form of respectful language. I thought about giving her a Kalashnikov or something, but I thought this way is more fun since it leaves the intriguing possibility that she's planning to beat the guy to death with a tennis racket. 

"The Senkakus are ours."

The question is whose though. The Senkaku Islands are this group of uninhabited rocks that are claimed by Japan and China. It's a really acrimonious political issue, but in this picture, there's an ambiguity over where the girl is from. I actually used the 1970s singer Agnes Chan, a Hong Kong singer who was phenomenally popular in Japan, as the model for this one, although I guess since she was popular in the 70s, that means she was neither Chinese nor Japanese. Maybe this is actually a comment on British imperialism instead.

Actually, this came from a conversation I had with a student. She said she can't listen to Korean pop anymore because when she sees them dancing on TV, she just knows they're all thinking, "Takeshima (yet another island dispute Japan has, this time with Korea) is ours" while they take Japanese money. I thought this was kind of strange, the idea of such meaningless, bubblegum pop music being tied in with political nationalism, but in a way, both are equally fluffy and inconsequential, so perhaps it's an appropriate connection.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 4 - Final)

Part one of the story can be found here, part two is here and part three is here.

Ian Martin

*          *          *

In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 4 - Final)

by Elin Mynach
12th of Ash, Rigantona 12


In the end, however, it was in the jagged spires and water cathedrals that nature itself has so elegantly hewn in the East that I was able to establish his presence, and for all the infantrymen's tales of Joyahon's vast and majestic terrain, it was from a sailor that I was finally able to pin Macsen Fallo the soldier down to a particular place and time.

The tavern where I met this sailor was less disreputable than some of the places I had been frequenting, perched neatly on the East Bank of the Afon. A wooden deck protruded outwards over the water, allowing drinkers to sit out on a summer's night and watch the sun go down over the river. For those with a sense of smell inured to the river's excesses, it could be rather pleasant.

Carrying no permanent injuries and seemingly none of the ailments of the mind that appear so unfortunately prevalent among those who experienced the war's horrors firsthand, he appeared to suffer primarily from the melancholy of loneliness. Like many returning soldiers, he had come home from the war a changed man, and now only found companionship among those like him, those who had shared his experiences. So he sought them out, exchanging reminiscences of the triumphs, tragedies, heroics and horrors, reliving the war nightly in the company of the only people he could trust to understand. He was willing to open up to me only warily, for I was not a creature of his world. It was as if he saw me as a child or a foreigner, a semi-ignorant intruder, yet in the end one to be reluctantly indulged.

The sailor, Seaman T____, had been an enlisted man serving on the light cruiser IMS Addanc, which in the month of Alder of the year Lir 42 was at sea in the vicinity of the Ivachan Archipelago. As a result, the Addanc was one of the first ships to respond to distress calls during the Pechen Incident.

For three days after its arrival at Polum, the Addanc changed its position of anchorage, altering its appearance by the construction of phony additional gun turrets and by kindling fires at the base of a false third funnel to mislead Admiral Lupe into believing that he was confronted with a squadron of ships including other, more powerful vessels rather than a lone, lightly armoured patrol ship. Lupe's hesitation and eventual withdrawal made heroes out of the crew of the Addanc just as it led to Lupe's own downfall and suicide. Military historians believe it is this incident that ensured the war with the Lunaeans would catch light in the West rather than the East, and thus it may be seen as the pivot on which the destinies of many thousands of men, women and children turned, the keystone around which our current empire rests. 

This much is the red clay of which legends are moulded, and Seaman T____ took a gruff but nonetheless obvious pleasure in recounting his role. However, nestled in the shadow of the Addanc's famous tale lay a curious series of events that unfolded in the days following the retreat of the unfortunate Admiral Lupe and his squadron.

IMS Addanc at anchor off the port of Polum during the infamous Pechen Incident. Note the counterfeit third funnel held in place with guy-wires at the rear.

As a relief fleet arrived to secure the port of Polum, the Addanc was detailed to patrol the islands for the purposes of scouting out any lingering Lunaean military presence and relieving any Sarffi units still besieged. It was a slow process, picking their way between the archipelago's many reefs and islets, the clear skies and calm seas creating in the men a sense of boredom edged with unease and anxiety that at any moment a hail of gunfire may tear forth from some wooded coastline.

It was during this painstaking duty that the ship took onboard two soldiers of The Duke of Twr Aran's Light Infantry Regiment who claimed to have escaped from the capture of Kovmraz. One of the men gave his name as Macsen and seemed a jovial enough fellow, drinking and joking with the sailors in the mess hall, and yet Seaman T____ believed the pair were concealing something. In his own words:

"They were fierce clear that they'd be lodged in the same cabin," the sailor confided in me, "and they weren't hardly never out of each other's sight. Rumour was that they was a pair of mandrakes, if you know what I mean, but it weren't that. You could see it in their eyes. I know the look of love, and it ain't nothing like that. They looked at each other like card sharps over a game of gwendid, suspicious like."

His unease about the pair was heightened by a mysterious package, wrapped in a cloth bandage, that Macsen, now confirmed by the Addanc's Captain Parry as Lieutenant Fallo, seemed to keep close by. He once caught Fallo alone in his cabin, carefully looking over the item, but Fallo wrapped it up again before the seaman could glimpse it. Seeing the young sailor's curiosity, Fallo had smiled coldly and said:

"This trinket has already cost more than you or I can afford. Forget it if you have any sense."

By this time, the two soldiers' secrecy was making many of the crewmen nervous, and one imagines that their disquiet only grew when the captain suddenly announced that the Addanc would, rather than returning to Polum, instead make directly for the distant naval station of Helalma. No explanation was given, but it was widely suspected that their two new guests were somehow responsible.

Finally, one night, while Seaman T____ was afflicted with a particularly unpleasant bout of an ailment of the stomach, the details of which he pronounced himself too much of a gentleman to recount in front of a lady like me, he retreated to the ship's deck and was surprised to find the aft lookout position unmanned. Initially thinking to report this neglect of duty with all due speed, he was distracted by movement near the rearmost torpedo tubes.

At first all he could see was a single man working clumsily to unfasten one of the smaller life-rafts from where it was nested, but as he moved closer, he realised that a second man stood nearby, holding a gun in one hand and something he couldn't discern in the other. At the direction of the man with the gun, the first figure dragged the heavy raft towards the stern, then fastened it by rope to the Addanc's rail and let it into the black water. He then motioned the first man to climb in, the man protested at first, but eventually obeyed. After this, the armed man concealed his weapon, approached the rail and began to cut away at the rope, at which Seaman T____ made the decision to flee the scene.

The next day, Fallo was nowhere to be seen, while his companion spent most of the day fortified in his cabin. It was officially announced that Lieutenant Fallo had deserted, stealing one of the life-rafts and absconding during the night. When the men asked the previous night's rear lookout if he had seen anything, he insisted angrily that he had been at his post all night and witnessed nothing.

Seaman T____ claims that he had eventually confessed his tale to the captain himself, stating that:

"He just looks at me, like. Eyes on me cold like I'm some cove he ain't never seen before, and says he: 'I must apologise to you,' or some like that, 'but I did not hear a word of what you just said to me. It must be these damned seagulls.' But there weren't no seagulls, and he heard me fine. I didn't say no more to no one after that."

And nor, it appears, did anyone else. The lookout seems to have died in a tavern brawl soon after making landfall, Captain Parry famously went down with the battlecruiser IMS Draig, and of those stationed at Kovmraz who survived the war and the Lunaean prison camps, few could recall much of the confusion that reigned during the incident. As for the identity of Fallo's companion on the Addanc, Seaman T____ was curiously reticent although records and recollections of survivors indicate that Gwydion Brutus, then a Lieutenant Colonel, was head of the battalion stationed in Kovmraz.

Was the other man Brutus? Why had the Addanc changed course so suddenly? What was in the package that Fallo had guarded so jealously? None of these questions I have been able to answer, and indeed, more credible sightings of Fallo himself I have been unable to find.

That he survived being set adrift, and spent much of the war close to the scene of fighting are evidenced at the very least by his writing. Also, it is strongly suggested by the sailor's tale that whatever had happened to Fallo and his companion among the Ivachan islands seemed to have had a shattering effect on him. How his salvation occurred is another mystery, but it was likely either by a chance encounter with an unsung, unknown hero of a fisherman, or by washing back ashore on a tiny beach, lost in the unmapped inlets of the Ivachan Archipelago.

I suspect the latter, although I must confess that my judgment is coloured by the mystery and beauty of those islands, whose bleak, windswept clifftops and ridges, dark forests, jagged peaks and rippling lagoons inhabited by terrifying cryptids and their ancient, inscrutable cults, and whose hardy, plain-spoken people seem to me like a mirror of Fallo himself.

I have travelled the archipelago in search of clues, but found only echoes of his presence. It is possible that a castaway washed ashore and made a nuisance of himself among the strange people of Okte Vrach over a period that appears to coincide with that following Fallo's disappearance, although one must note with sadness that the outbreak of full scale war at around that time led to a glut of stranded sailors of all stripes and creeds.

No, it is at this point that we must take leave of Macsen Fallo the man and immerse ourselves once more in the brash, crass, charming and rash world of his poison pen. As Fallo himself put it in The Cursed Treasure of Yuna Mette:

What use do we have of the past in this place, in the rotten here and now, scratching for answers and explanations for what happened to us, what we did so wrong that we ended up as we are now and not in a country villa with a dirty puzzle of a countess waiting upstairs while we give the green gown to a kitchen maid in the apple orchard? The past is for heroes and widows: give me a stiff drink, another to chase it down, and a purse full of brass and I'll show you a night, be sure of it. I'll show you a night that would make those toff boys weep with envy and their sisters weep with joy.

It was of course only a matter of time before such a writer was declared harmful to the moral and spiritual health of the Sarffi people and his work banned on these shores. For some time afterwards, new works and bound editions of his earlier stories appeared from an obscure Lunaean publishing house, but as the war faded into the past and diplomatic affairs between our two empires became more cordial, it seems that even our enemies became embarrassed by Fallo's often vulgar satires and had him silenced.

There are some who believe that Fallo is now dead, perhaps in the torture room of some Lunaean Religious Police gaol -- certainly no new work under his name has come to light in recent years. Others believe that he retired of his own volition, with political changes on Ynys Sarff rendering his work unnecessary, although critics of this theory can point with some justification to certain discrepancies in the dates.

There are still others who hold more outlandish hypotheses: that Fallo was an alias of the mysterious Glass Marchioness Charlotte Synamon, that he was merely a creation of the Lunaean propaganda ministry, that he has been sighted in Aberafon at a revolutionary meeting, even that he is involved in mythical sects such as the Brotherhood of the Raven. Needless to say, believers in each of these postulations disagree with each other passionately and frequently, with heated discussions in coffee houses of a more radical literary persuasion regularly erupting into violence of one sort or another.

To speak personally once more, I would venture an alternative theory. As an avid reader of Fallo's work for many years now, I have come to recognise certain stylistic idiosyncrasies -- quirks if you will -- to which he is prone. For example, throughout his body of work, Fallo reveals a preference for direct over reported speech, a fondness for military metaphors, and a recurring theme of the facade, the veil, and the masquerade.

Among the pages of a number of periodicals, including this august journal and its sister publication Clyddyf Cultural Review, I have recognised pieces, both fictional and ostensibly factual, by writers under various names, that bear a striking, albeit more restrained, resemblance to Fallo's own writing. While I concede the likelihood that many of these writers are merely admirers of Fallo's work who have appropriated his style, I shall be charitable and say inadvertently, I propose that it is at least possible that they not are all the work of such people.

Yet perhaps this is simply my own manifestation of the insufferable romanticism that Lunaeans call The Sarffi Disease. Perhaps I have fallen for the too-perfect symmetry that -- having been alternately intrigued, horrified, thrilled and seduced by Fallo's exquisitely crafted barbs, cruel moral conundrums, and, yes, even his rakish manipulation of my emotions -- I should find myself sharing these very pages with this most enigmatic of authors. In this way, it is perhaps appropriate that this story ends where it begins: with me, still in thrall to my seducer, reaching to turn back the veil that only my imagination can reach.


Monday, 8 October 2012

In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 3)

Part one of the story can be found here and part two is here.

Ian Martin

*          *          *

In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 3)

by Elin Mynach
12th of Ash, Rigantona 12


After some time, the nurse re-entered the room and declared that our interview would soon have to end, so I asked my final question, regarding Fallo's political views. To be frank, I had asked the question only with some trepidation, lest the old gentleman think me an impertinent young woman, but to my surprise, he responded by unleashing a deathly rattling sound from his throat that I eventually deciphered as a laugh. Cledwyn Fallo, at least, had been no more political than he had been a poet.

While this in itself was perhaps a point of note, the Exegesis was the next piece of the puzzle, and by my continuing good fortune, the old tutor permitted me to bring it back to Caerafon to study at my leisure. Saint Macsen was naturally an important figure in the early Sarffi church, although bulk of his adherents have traditionally been confined to the Eastern Principalities and The Martyrdom of Saint Macsen remains to this day a seldom-read text in the lowlands.

In the popular legend, of course, Saint Macsen was a prince of the East who took arms on behalf of the Goddess against a heathen neighbour, only to be betrayed by his treacherous cousin on the night before the final battle. He is interesting to scholars because he is an unusually early example of what modern religious historians refer to as a Type 3 saint. The Type 1 saints, of course, were primarily sailors, reflecting the Goddess' maritime origins, while the Type 2 saints were largely pilgrims, bringing word of her merciful deeds to the Sarffi hinterland. Type 3 saints were the kings and war leaders who unified Ynys Sarff under one spiritual ruler, if not yet a corporeal one.

The early sections of the story, often known as The Nine Sins of Saint Macsen, deal with the young prince’s rambunctious early life. Among them is the famous tale of how he seduced the beautiful virgin daughter of the Duke of Carreg Aethnen by climbing up the tower in which she had been imprisoned by her jealous father, and escaping his paternal wrath disguised as a chambermaid -- a story that has become a staple of the vulgar musical theatre that flourishes west of the river.

Another popular tale is of the young Macsen's wager with Celyn Quickhand, where he gambled his firstborn child against the famous enchanter's magic box of secrets. Expecting the young prince to select a challenge by strength or skill at arms -- challenges that Celyn, despite his withered frame, always won -- the old wizard was surprised when Macsen instead suggested a game of dice.

Of course, Macsen cheated and won easily, claiming the box and making off before Celyn had time to discover his opponent's trick. Flying into a rage, Celyn summoned an army of phantoms and besieged the prince's castle, where his young bride had just given birth to a baby boy, demanding he be given both box and child lest he tear down the walls stone by stone and rip the child from the mother's dead hands.

After three days and nights with no word from within, the gates finally opened and Macsen emerged leading twenty women, each bringing with them a child of varying ages. The prince then calmly explained that his firstborn could be any of these children, for he had been slipping it to all of these women at one time or another. When Celyn asked in dismay how he could know which was truly the prince's child, Macsen offered to sell Celyn back his box of secrets in exchange for all the enchanter's lands so that he could ask it himself.

At this, Celyn flew into another rage, and cursed the box so that the only secret it would ever reveal to the inquisitive soul who opened it would be the manner of their own death.

Some versions go on to tell that at that very moment, the young princess herself, unknowing of what it was, opened the box and learned that she would die through her husband's selfishness and betrayal, whereupon she threw herself from the window of the castle keep in despair.

Of course the latter part of the story of St. Macsen deals with the more familiar tale of how he was visited by the Goddess, who appeared to him on a mountaintop in her winged form -- as was common in many of the Eastern Principalities' traditional tales -- and made him renounce his degenerate ways. After this, so the tale says, Prince Macsen devoted himself to spreading word of the Goddess within both his own lands and eventually the neighbouring principalities, right up until his eventual betrayal and death.

Despite the obvious attraction that the young Prince Macsen's wanton ways might have had for his now namesake, it was at first glance hard to see what attraction this otherwise fairly conventional tale of the sinner redeemed by the love of the Goddess would have had, and it was with this thought in mind that I turned to the dusty old Exegesis.

As I can attest from my own religious instruction, the traditional reading of St. Macsen's story is as a tale of how the love of the Goddess can overcome the wickedness of men and turn them to a life of good deeds, and I must confess that despite myself, I was perhaps a little disappointed that the roguish Cledwyn Fallo could have been so easily influenced by a tale with such a respectable teaching at its heart. However, Alwyn of Argoed's reading of the story proved rather more intriguing.

It is easy to imagine the kind of monk Alwyn was. Argoed was one of Ynys Sarff's foremost brewery monasteries, and is perhaps best known as the home of the notoriously potent Bragawd Fflam pale ale. Monasteries of this caste were famously idiosyncratic in their pronouncements, with many  a curious or radical notion lost in the avalanche of competing theories, spared the oppressive scrutiny of Lunaean religious scholars, but also denied the acclaim or infamy that often emerged from the passionate, frequently inflammatory scientific and literary debates of the age.

And so it was in the permissive and typically intoxicated atmosphere of Argoed, amid the gushing river of religious theories destined to be published, absorbed, mused over, adopted, abandoned and forgotten, that Alwyn decided that St. Macsen had reached his enlightenment through his dissolute behaviour rather than despite it.

Alwyn's Exegesis focussed in large part on the Nine Sins part of the story, detailing how by his self-absorption, gorging himself on transient pleasures at the expense of other people, Macsen had purged his mind and soul of the compromises and negotiations that comprise the human world, allowing him to accept enlightenment with a clear heart. To Alwyn's mind, it was this purity that made Macsen such a powerful servant to the Goddess, just as it was the dimming of this purity -- in this case Macsen's sentimental devotion to his cousin and former sword brother -- that was his downfall.

In this way, we can see in the Macsen Fallo that left for the army that day a picture of a young man, fresh from a year of travels, buoyed by a new, mystically inclined bent to his individualistic hedonism.

And yet this is still not the Macsen Fallo, burning with a mixture of righteous anger and bawdy pub humour, that we know from his stories, so the question we must now ask is what happened? How can we reconcile the man who wrote with such intensity and detail of the powerful and deeply-rooted bonds shared by men, and sometimes of women, with the self-centred philosophy espoused by Alwyn of Argoed? 

My first instinct was that his family's misfortunes had uncovered in him stronger bonds than he had expected to the ever-tantalising, part-consummated human world, and I determined to seek out what clues I could find of Fallo's military record that might help me learn if and when any such change in his character had occurred.

This proved difficult. The Ministry of War has never been in the habit of releasing the military records of its servicemen to members of the public, least of all reporters, and therefore I was forced to resort to subterfuge. Though it would be immodest to recount precisely how, let it suffice to say that I learned the records of Lieutenant Cledwyn Fallo had been lost -- or more likely destroyed -- many years previously, after having been requested by Gwydion Brutus himself, by then ennobled as Lord Penllew and sitting in the Senedd as Minister of War. Powerful forces indeed had been roused to concern by the affairs of the man who called himself Macsen Fallo.

Having hit this dead end, the next step in my quest was to search places frequented by war veterans and military hospital out-pensioners in the hope of tracing men who might have served with Fallo.

The banks of the Afon are home to numerous drinking establishments of both good and ill repute.

The veterans of the war are a group of men much celebrated in the popular literature and press of our empire, and yet they are paradoxically little seen in the flesh. They have been called the empire's Hidden Heroes by some, although that term itself is guilty of painting its own sordid romantic gloss over the reality of their existence.

Gathering in taverns, doss-houses and black drop dens, there is an underclass of former servicemen haunted and perhaps irreparably damaged by their experiences, whose scars run far deeper than the crippling physical wounds that many still carry -- men who escape their nightmares by retreating into the comforting embrace of the dream pipe or simply annihilate their treacherous minds each night by drowning themselves in gwirod and ale.

While Ynys Sarff and The High City glared at each other across the sound, down the barrels of our great cannons, these men fought through the dust and mud of distant lands, shedding their blood on foreign soil for the glory of the empire. It would be unfair to say that our island itself was untouched by the years of struggle -- too many of us lost family members, and all of us suffered through the fear and want of those straitened times -- but we can perhaps say that as a people we were insulated from the true reality of the war.

To walk among the out-pensioners and veterans is to see the characters of Autumn of Blood in their own later years, shattered and broken by the war, their stories discarded, rewritten into heroic tales by journalists, novelists and historians alike. The reality of their existence is an unwelcome intrusion into the fantasy that we tell ourselves and our children, just as Fallo's stories must have been to the politicians and generals on whose behalf these men prosecuted that bloody conflict.

Among these run down dens in the Caerafon's forgotten underbelly I heard many blood-curdling tales of the war; the men to whom I spoke seemed to take a delight in competing with each other to shock me. One man in particular, an artilleryman who had lost a leg and an eye in Joyahon, spoke with tremendous glee of a certain incident whose details I will spare you but which he claims was single handedly responsible for the introduction of the army's current cannon safety guidelines. Another man, a cavalry officer, told through laughter and sobs of how he had commandeered digs in a native village and woken up to find the tendons in his horse's legs had been cut during the night. The soldiers had lined up and bayonetted every man in the village one by one, and when none confessed, they had started on the women. Three of his comrades had taken their own lives in the months that followed, while others had gone on to commit even greater crimes. He himself had put a bullet through the head of his crippled horse. Even before they had left, the surviving villagers had started stripping its flesh for food.

Through hearing the tales of these former soldiers, one curious feature of Fallo's writing came to my attention. It had troubled me for some time how the religious interests of the young up country man could have so thoroughly disappeared from the work of the writer whose work I knew so well, but as these veterans talked, something seemed to click into place.

While a follower of the Goddess might see them as rather irreligious works, there is perhaps another spiritual presence in Her place. Particularly in Fallo's early works like Autumn of Blood and The Cursed Treasure of Yuna Mette, the ruined temples and monumental statues and structures that litter the Joyahon deserts, jungles and mountains are a constant presence -- ancient eyes watching over the petty, ant-like, scurrying of the human participants. Could it be that what began in Alwyn of Argoed's Exegesis of The Martyrdom of St. Macsen had been transmuted into something else by Fallo's contact with the ancient magic of the West?

To be continued...

Thursday, 4 October 2012

In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 2)

Part one of the story can be found here.

Ian Martin

*          *          *

In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 2)

by Elin Mynach
12th of Ash, Rigantona 12


But who is Macsen Fallo? In many ways he seems like a character more fictional than any of his literary creations: a masked highwayman who robs the undeserving rich at poison pen-point and fades away into the night like a spectre. Yet behind that mask, there is surely a being of flesh and blood, so what can we know of the man himself? 

From his writing, we can draw few firm conclusions, yet we can nonetheless make some suppositions. Firstly, it seems that he has a military background, most likely in the infantry. His descriptions of life on the battlefront, of the interactions between men and officers, of the jokes and songs soldiers share, speak of firsthand experience of army life. However, in contrast with Autumn of Blood, Fallo’s naval tale Married to the Sea rings less true. The brutality of life on the waves is depicted in the same visceral detail, but the characters' dialect occasionally slips into the clichés of more traditional maritime adventure serials. It reads like the work of one familiar with the sea, but not himself a navy man.

Another thing we can surmise from Fallo’s writing is that he was originally a man of the educated classes, more likely a commissioned officer than an enlisted man. His politicians and people of quality are often grotesques, but there is usually a seed of truth in his depictions. Moreover, Fallo is multilingual, with an authorial voice that occasionally reveals a weakness for allusions, not only from Sarffi, but also Lunaean, Ivachan and Joyahon literature. Thus, it would be logical to assume that he received some manner of classical education. 

So the man we are looking for is likely to be a commissioned officer in the infantry, possibly serving under Gwydion Brutus during the early years of the war. Reasonably well educated, and a fluent speaker of several languages, it also seems probable that he is a well-travelled gentleman, with some experience of life at sea, although perhaps not himself a sailor.

Of known facts, however, there are few. There are a number of families named Fallo in and around Caerafon, although none willing to claim Macsen as their own. One tempting possible origin for our mysterious author lay in a family of up country Fallos who were declared bankrupt in Lir 35. The father took his own life shortly after, the mother was soon lost to illness while living on the charity of relatives, while the elder son, Eurig, travelled west to go into business and has not been heard of since. The second son, Cledwyn, is of greater interest to us, since it appears that the family purchased a military commission for him even as the debt collectors closed in around them.

While the name did not match, Cledwyn's age and the time of his entry into the army made me suspicious enough that I took a trip to the former home of the Fallos. The chapel's birth records verified that there was indeed a Cledwyn Fallo born in the parish, who would have been about twenty years old at the time of his commission, and the diviner was able to confirm the fate of the unfortunate Fallo clan. He was unable, however, to provide any further information on the younger son, who it appears was an infrequent visitor to the chapel.

The up country chapel where Cledwyn Fallo's birth is registered.

Talking to people around the village, I was able to discern from those who remembered the family that Cledwyn had been schooled privately at the family home by an elderly tutor of the Fallo patriarch's acquaintance, and that he had been considered something of a dissolute, with a reputation for drunkenness and philandering.

It was at this point that I began worrying that I too was drifting into the world of mystery and adventure serials, for I found myself reasoning, like any number of fictional sleuths, that I may find some clues to Fallo's identity among his former lovers, inwardly quoting Inspector Daukyn's famous line, Find the woman, and I shall find the man. Is it not ever the case?

Of course, among the women of an age to have known Cledwyn Fallo, most were now thoroughly respectable ladies of the community, and not of a mind to recount intimacies of past romances to anyone, least of all a reporter, as the villagers insisted on calling me. However, one lady, a childhood sweetheart of sorts, for the sake of whose modesty I shall refer to as Miss Y____, was able to tell me something of the man.

It appears that Miss Y____ and Cledwyn had courted, perhaps somewhat against the will of their parents. However, while not denying that her former beau had a reputation as something of a rake, the portrait she painted of the man was far from the boorish drunk that other villagers had described. In fact, after some time in conversation, she confided that she had kept in her possession some of his letters and poetry.

Upon hearing this, it may not surprise dear reader to learn that my heart skipped a beat. Far from being part of my work, this was now my quest. I tried not to let my eagerness get ahead of me, and guided Miss Y____ towards her memories of Cledwyn's life outside of their more intimately shared moments. Here, the story was more familiar. He would often take a horse to a nearby town and return only after several days, on some occasions missing items of clothing that he had left with, and on others sporting fresh items he had not had with him upon departure, and at the age of eighteen, he had left Ynys Sarff, announcing with a flourish that he would travel the empire.

Of Cledwyn's travels, Miss Y____ would say little, but it appears that he wrote seldom, and with diminishing frequency as time went by. Her next encounter with him came quite suddenly a year later, when, on a visit to Avonford, she saw him with a group of young men emerging from an ale house, and this again pricked my interest.

It seems that Miss Y____ called his name twice, both times within easy hearing range, but that he did not respond. Then, in a fit of pique, she called after him once more, Mr. Fallo! Upon hearing this, his companions turned to face her one by one, until eventually Cledwyn had looked at Miss Y____, with what she described to me as the coldest of eyes, as if he were a stranger wearing the mask of her beloved. He had flashed a smile, extended a greeting that pirouetted insolently on the border between cordial and flirtatious, then turned and continued on his way.

I must confess that at this time, I was convince that I had found the identity of Macsen Fallo. Clearly on his travels, the young Cledwyn had chosen to invent himself anew, beginning with a new name -- a pretension I gather not unknown amongst the young and foolish, including many of my own acquaintance -- and he had been caught in a clumsy predicament by a paramour from his other life. What made this episode so striking, however, was the alarm in Miss Y____'s voice as she re-lived the moment. Something in the look he had given her had filled her with fear. It was more than just a name, she insisted to me: he really was another person.

In comparison, the letters and poetry were disappointingly inconclusive. Where Macsen Fallo used words like jagged rocks from a slingshot, the young Cledwyn Fallo was at best a poet of mediocre talents, and certainly one unsuited to the composition of romantic verse. Similarly, while his letters occasionally displayed a sharpness of wit when caricaturing mutual acquaintances in the village, they contained none of the controlled, righteous anger of Macsen's satirical grotesques.

I returned to my inn conflicted, and was preparing to make my journey back to Caerafon, when I encountered the most extraordinary piece of luck. A reply to one of my speculative requests for associates of the Fallo clan arrived informing me that Cledwyn's old tutor, who I had assumed to have passed on long ago, was still alive, living in a cottage not far from the village, and would be amenable to a short interview.

I was shown in by a plump, fussy nurse, but upon first meeting the old tutor, I admit that I suspected my contact of exaggerating his claims regarding the old gentleman's continued existence this side of the Grey Sea, for he seemed to me quite dead. Nevertheless, his eyes eventually flickered open, a sharp rattle from his throat began to form itself into words, and a slow, painstaking conversation ensued between us.

Cledwyn appeared to have been a gifted, if somewhat inattentive student, lavishing more care and attention on excuses for work not completed than he ever devoted to his actual studies. Where he did not allow himself to become idle was in his reading. I asked the tutor if he would be able to direct me towards works in which the young Cledwyn had shown a particular interest, and the old man was silent for the longest time.

When I was beginning to suspect once more that he may have passed from this world, he rose from his seat and slowly made his way to the book shelf, returning with an ancient tome, whose title and author had long been lost from the cover to erosion and the elements. Laying it on the table before me, I opened to the title page, and opposite the delicately calligraphied frontispiece were the words An Exegesis of The Martyrdom of Saint Macsen, written by a monk named Alwyn of Argoed.

A saint's exegesis seemed a curious choice for a young man of the sort that Cledwyn Fallo appeared to have been, and yet there at last was the name. Cledwyn and Macsen Fallo were surely the same man, yet as Miss Y____ had seen that day in Avonford to her great discomfort, they were also very different men.

To be continued...