September 03, 2008

Does fiction matter?

Who is the most famous storyteller in history? It has to be Scheherezade. And one of the most famous of the tales which she told for one thousand nights and one night is the story of the doctor who comes to the court of a Greek king and cures him of leprosy. Of course the vizier is jealous and tells the king all kinds of lies about the doctor, ultimately convincing him to sentence the doctor to death. Just before he is about to have his head cut off, the doctor tells the king that he has a book with a magic spell in it which will make his head, after it has been severed, answer any question the king asks. The king has the book brought to him, the doctor is beheaded, and the head tells the king to start reading. The king starts turning the pages to get to the spell which can reanimate the dead; the pages are stuck together and he has to lick his finger to turn them. “Where is it?” “Keep turning the pages.” The king's mouth begins to foam and he falls down dead. The doctor had poisoned the book.

syndetics-lcIf you thought, what a smart doctor, that’s what I always thought as well. But the mythologically surprising Marina Warner, in the July 11 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, offers the idea that the story is a parable about the power of literature: the book as a deadly weapon.

 New Zealand Book Month has arrived for its third annual visit, like a comet it appeared at sunset last night, low over the city, with a shimmering long tail of books trailing behind. To be exact, seventy-five tasty, succulent and meaty New Zealand books. Authors, publishers, booksellers and at least two librarians gathered to observe it at the opening ceremony which was magnificently orchestrated to put everyone in a good mood, certainly me who won a raffle prize and even, eventually, the friend of mine who had reacted a bit grumpily to being reminded of New Zealand's outsized fixation on a violent game by a performance of an excerpt from Foreskin's lament.

syndetics-lcGordon McLauchlan was at the Library the other day and I told him about my idea to have a New Zealand Book Month event that asks a question, something like “Is there a New Zealand literature?”. He told me that back when he reviewed books for the Listener, he could read every book published in New Zealand easily, without it putting any particular pressure on his time. Now of course it would be impossible, even if he didn’t take time out for the Finnish national radio’s news bulletin in Latin. We mused about whether we could ask “Is there a Great New Zealand Novel?”. He dangled The God Boy; I recalled how enraptured I was when I read The Godwits Fly. I wondered if it were true that narrative and fiction determine a country’s character as much as its laws and economy and politics do, as Marina Warner claims. We took a moment to chew this over and then Gordon said, "Maybe the question could simply be 'Does fiction matter?'"

"The sky behind the flat houses and the taller brick shape of the Old Men’s Home, dipped softly down, a perfect round. It was pale blue, not shiny, not cloudy, but shot with streams of tiny bubble, all moving upwards in an unending stream. Suddenly Eliza felt awed and happy. She thought, ‘Isn’t it big… isn’t it big…’ She tried to imagine anything bigger than the sky, and failed. The blue curve dipped down far away, just a little beyond shops and houses, and the foam-daisied harbour, and the brown hills. Because it was so big, there was nothing in the world unhappy or uncomforted; they were all streaming and shining up toward it, like the bubbles."

--Robin Hyde, The Godwits Fly, 1938

Does fiction matter?

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30


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