The Secret History, or the Terror of Beauty

The Secret History is one of those books that I saw thousands of times in bookshops and its cover has been in every account Instagram of bookworms, but to be honest I never took enough time to try to figure out what the fuss was all about. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was wondering in a bookshop and I found myself reading the first page. After that I couldn’t put it down.

    The beginning is rather unexpected. We have a murder, but immediately after reading the first line we already know who is the victim, and we know who committed the crime. And this happens all before we even get to know who is narrating the story. Starting from there, the novel is a massive flashback that will explain how we got there.

    It all starts with a boy, Richard Papen, who start studying  at Hampden Collage, due to his will to change is social status and not pursuing his father’s footsteps. As soon as he arrives he will be fascinated by the mysterious group of students who have been taken under the protecting wing of Julian Morrow, an eccentric  Classic professor. Henry, Charles, Francis, Bunny and Camilla look like gods to him. Rich and young, they represent everything he wants to be and have. Against all odds, and thanks to his knowledge of greek, Richard will find himself being part of the group and being accepted by Professor Morrow as one of his pupils. But it will not be how he imagined it. There is way more under the shiny surface, and after a surrealist chain of events Richard will be part of a plan to assassinate Bunny. The murder is sensed as the bottom of the horror they will endure, but it will reveal to be only the surfaces to all the other dark secrets that lied beneath the illusory aura of the group.

The group is mesmerizing and draws the complete attention of Richard. Henry is the most clever and charismatic, his indifference is seen as a sign of strenght and wisdom, but it is just the consequence of detachment from the world and from emotions. He is the one making the decisions and manipolating the others. Charles and Camilla, twin siblings, are very close, sometimes too close and this leads to some comments from Bunny that could hide more truth than they like to let people know. Francis is the smart buy lazy one. He is the one who accepts Richard since the beginning, maybe due also to his sexual interest in him. Bunny is the loud one, he has always something to say and money to borrow. His tongue doesn’t really know when it is time to stop, and he will have to pay a high price for it.

Finally, we have Richard Papen, our narrator. Through his eyes we can understand how fascinating this group is. He’s the typical passive narrator, who finds himself by chance to be spectator of extraordinary events. He has the luck to have a glimpse of a life that otherwise would be too far from him to be imagined. That is not a life meant for him. He is haunted by Bunny’s murder, and finds in writing the only relief.

    The Secret History appeals perfectly to anyone who is fascinated by the bohemian atmosphere of young and rich intellectuals, who find having a conversation in greek a routine. Window to a golden world, the protagonists are eccentric enough to make easy to fall in love with them and their lifestyle. What makes this possible is also the element that distinguish them: the Greek. Both the language and culture have a deep role in their interactions. The myth of beauty, love and dionysiac euphoria is brought to the excess and they feel free from any kind of restrictions that others seems to have.

This novel is made by all elements that can easily fascinate the reader. The beginning is a clever way to build up suspence: we already know the outcome, we foresee the death of Bunny, but the only thing we can do is to wait for it to happen. While reading the book I found myself thinking often about his destiny, and this cover every event with a light but steady patina of inevitable doom. Once the murder happens I believed that the worst part was over. I couldn’t think of something else of same intensity to happen, but I was wrong. The murder of Bunny is only the first little step into something much bigger. After that, we have a quick escalation of events that will show us all the shades of darkness and human twisted wickedness. This is the greatness of Donna Tartt, since the beginning everything is based on suspence. These secrets were hanging in the air, overing the events, casting just a faint shadow on that, a shadow too horrible to be takes into consideration. But then, when they come down they hit hard because they are real now. I found myself starting to read another book to lighten the hardest part of The Secret History. This is happens when a book is great: it just punches you in the guts.

Julia

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Mongrels, or the becoming of a wolf

The presence of werevolves is crucial in the horror genre, but I have to admit that this is the first book I have read featuring these big wild dogs. I think it would not be wrong to consider myself a vampire fan (no, not the Twilight thing, please let’s talk about something else), therefore, most of what I know about werewolves come from a general and vague knowledge, made up by pieces of movies, and few information found here and there. I feel the need to say this because it means that I will not be able to compare this novel to others having a similar subject.

    Mongrels is also one of the finalist of the Bram Stoker Award 2016, a literary award that I’m willing to know better. We are talking about a coming-of-age novel. The protagonist is a young guy who lives with his grandfather, his uncle and his aunt. Her mother died giving him birth, and that happened because his father was a werewolf while her mother wasn’t. A curse his kind has to live with.

    What I found refreshing is the presence of chapters that can be read as independent short stories. It’s obvious that all of them concern our protagonist, but, even if they are in chronological order, there is no need to read one after the other. This also means that the novel can be cover a huge span of time, without the fear of losing the thread. Such trick turns out to work really well, and one of the key elements for this to happen is the always changing point of view. What we end up reading is the becoming of a person – or better, a wolf – without having to read a 1000 pages book.

    My main concern about this reading was about having werewolves in there, but this is a good horror novel, which means that werewolves are mostly a tool used to explain and examine other topics. In this case we are superficially talking about werewolves, but we are actually talking about identity, belonging and the pressure of being what everyone is expecting us to be. Sometimes this pressure comes from the people we love the most, but some other times it comes from ourselves. We feel often as if we have to show others that we are important, that we have value, but most of the time it turns out that the only person we really need to show that is ourselves.

    It is also a story of family, and the complicated relationship we can have with different members of it. It is always nice to picture the blood bound as something strong and unbreakable but most of the times what really lies there are secrets, and hate, and jealousy, and way more. This is a story of all of this, and trying to find your place in a world that doesn’t seem to be for you.

 

Julia

Song of Kali, or the viciousness of Calcutta

“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.”

As much as the famous “This is not for you” that opens House of Leaves, this is a great line to start a novel, and it sets since the start the focus of Song of Kali (1987). The storyline follows Robert Luzczak, a journalist that has to write an article about an eccentric Indian poet. M Das, the man behind these unconventional poems, disappeared years ago and was believed to be dead, but now some new poems let believe that he is still alive. To unveil this mystery Luzczak goes with his wife, Amrita, and his baby daughter, Victoria, to Calcutta. Once there he finds himself in a city that is too evil to be allowed to exist.

More than the adventures of the protagonist, what is crucial in this story is the wicked setting. Calcutta is depicted as a hideous place, and the numerous descriptions make the sense of uneasiness stronger and stronger. Every scene is an excuse to point out the awful stink of the city, or the poverty, or the heartbreaking downfall of humanity. Seeing a dead body is not uncommon in this place, and the closeness to death is quite shocking for the European audience, who is used to treat death with respect and cold distance.

Not only the place but also the people are described in the worst way possible. One of the most common critics moved to this novel is about it, about Indian culture shown as evil. There are two things I would like to say. The first one is that the representation is in line with a tendency of British literature of the 18th century, to portrait the colonies in negative terms. Also, nature is portrayed as wild and scary, in opposition to the idyllic landscape of European countries. It is not fair, and it is not true, but it is something Indian culture had to live with. The second thing I would like to point out is how throughout the novel is evident a good knowledge of Hindu. The thing that Dan Simmons did is to take what he needed for a horror novel from such important mythology. I would consider this more a celebration of this culture than a negative portrait.

Calcutta is the center of the Evil, but according to M Das there is no evil in this world. What we consider evil turns out to be just a tool to exercise power on someone, and power is the only principle that rules the world. This depressing vision of humanity and the universe in the focus of the famous Song of Kali, the darkest poem written by M Das. He, now more a person come back from the dead than a living creature, wants the world to know this violence, and that’s why he pushes Luzczak into publishing it in America. Only in this way the destructive energy of the goddess Kali will doom humankind.

This novel left me with a feeling of anguish and pessimism. Not only the cruelty but also the strong idea that violence is perpetrated by anyone for the only purpose of feeling superior made me lose a little more the faith in humankind. Even if this is the first I read by Dan Simmons I had seen his amazing skill as a writer. He started from a culture and decided to pick the creepy elements in there to bring up a horrible story about cruelty and suffering.

 

Julia

My Friend Dahmer, or the becoming of a serial killer

Serial killers are able to arise the curiosity and the interest in many of us. Most people find themselves browsing Jack The Ripper’s Wikipedia page, or Ted Bundy’s, or Ed Gein’s. Somehow, serial killers can drag all of our attention. Somehow we crave for more. Somehow we want to see. At least until it remains a pure theoretical research. I’m pretty sure no one would like to face the next Zodiac killer.

There could be many reasons why some of us find serial killers fascinating. I think the main explanation behind it is to investigate, in a very personal way, how dark the human soul can be. Most of us would never commit such crimes, but at the same time we cannot deny that Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and Ed Gein belong to the human species, just like us. But don’t worry, today we are going to have a different approach to the topic and we are not going to fall into endless philosophical questions.

This long and unnecessary introduction helped me to highlight the main reason why I liked so much the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. We like to think that serial killers are so different from us, but the truth is that, at least at some level, they are not. But let’s procede in a more organized way. Derf Backderf was a high school friend of Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, the Milwaukee Monster. That Dahmer. This already sounds promising. And this comic book is his version of that story.

Why is Jeffrey’s story so interesting? Or better, why is Backderf’s point of view so interesting? Well, part of the answer lies in the tool he uses: the comic book. Even if I like words and language I must admit that visual impact has always a strong impact. It is also interesting to notice how Backderf uses this medium in the best way possible. The first sign of that can be found when we take a moment to analyze the arrangement of the pictures in the page. Unlike some other comic books, they are ordinary, simple. There are no overlapping, or objects that cross the border line. Everything is ordinary, and it creates a huge contrast with what is happening inside of them. There is also the choice to use only black and white, which turns out to have a symbolic meaning. Even if it can be banal, it happens often that Jeffrey’s face is black, while the face of the other people with him is white, such as underlining that his thoughts are different, that are evil.

The story of the Milwaukee Monster has been narrated from many and different point of views, but this case is different, because it is more personal. What we get to know is not Dahmer the serial killer, but Dahmer the schoolmate. What Derf Backderf does is to recreate Dahmer’s school years and to look for something that could explain his behaviour.

Jeffrey Dahmer is in and for all a monster. He rapes his victims, he kills them, he performed necrophilia on many of them and ate them. Derf doesn’t justify any of this, and it is crucial for him to make it clear since the beginning. But he can’t prevent himself from still seeing Dahmer as a schoolmate. In the last page of this comic book we have the moment when Derf gets to know what Dahmer has done. What he says to himself is not “What has he done?” or “What has Dahmer done?”, but “What have you done?”. The “you” is personal, is close, is how you would talk to a person you know. There is also the other realization: I could have been one of them. This is the main sensation that get stuck with the reader. It almost leads the reader to wonder if he or she has some close friend that could turn out to be a serial killer.

Backderf work leads us to another consideration. Many people wondered how it was possible that Dahmer’s schoolmates didn’t notice anything different with their friend, but, according to Backderf, there is another question that is more relevant: where were the adults? Why didn’t anyone noticed anything? Why didn’t anyone did something when Dahmen went to school drunk? And again, here the real question is another: have there been a point when, if someone did something different, all of this could have been prevented?

Schermata 2018-11-24 alle 16.25.03

 

Julia E.

Bodies of Water

The eternal female underworld

I have recently read a book that deals with water and the Thames. Water has always had a strong symbolic meaning, especially in literature. It can be linked with religion, purification, but also with death (drowning, in case I had to be more specific). By “water” we can mean a sea, a lake, the ocean, a river. It is the latest one that interests me the most. As I have already said here, I recently moved to London. Last time I was here I had to walk on the Waterloo Bridge to go to work and it allowed me to see the Thames every single day. This river caught my attention since the first time my eyes laid on it. Why? Because it is different. I used to lived in the countryside and there is a river close to my parent’s home where I spent some time when I was a kid. The water is so transparent that it makes you wonder if it is actually there. It can look too cheesy, or too bucolic to be real, but it cheesy and bucolic, and the point is that looked like positive water. It has a good feeling, if it makes sense. Why am I telling you this? Because the water of Thames is not like that. This river looks more like a sleeping dragon that crosses the city, a silent dragon that keeps all the negativity that saturated the city. Perhaps it is because I knew (almost) how London was back in time, let’s say around the 18th century, when the city was polluted and people died in that water. Every time I look at it I think that it is the same river that Jack the Ripper has seen, or the same one that has lived so many horrible things in history. I have the impression that all the negativity has been trapped by its waters.

I felt that his long preface was necessary to introduce the book I recently read, which is Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie, and now I’m going to write about why it was a reading I enjoyed. We have two temporal storylines, one set in the present with Kirsten, and the other one set in 1871 with Evelyn. Kirsten, a woman that tries to start her life after an unfortunate love story, moves in Wakewater Apartments, that was a sort of hospital where people were cured with water. I know, but this is not the point. The other protagonist was, obviously, a patient.

Both these characters are strongly connected with water, and they seek its presence. The story of Elizabeth is the one that relies more on water and it is the one I like the most because it has also a strong feminist mark. This is possible because Elizabeth spent much of her time trying to save the lost women, mostly prostitutes, who have been destroyed by society. This brings up some moral questions like “Would I be like them if I wasn’t born into the right family?” or “Do I consider myself better than the people I try to help?”. But what I liked most was the way she sees the world. All these women would not be in this position if it wasn’t for men. Yeah. Men are the evil here. I personally don’t believe that men have to be considered the only reason for all human pain, but in the eyes of a 19th-century woman they probably were. Evelyn herself has to be cured by men, because other men decided that she does not fit the role that they want women to cover. The society was shaped by men and women had just to deal with it somehow. Is it for this reason that a lot of them decided to end their life in this way? Maybe they looked for redemption one last time, hoping that water would wash away all their sins and heal their wounds, or maybe it is because the water, the underworld, is where women belong. The world is made for men, who are allowed to live underneath the sun.

The other story, Kirsten’s story, is still connected with water and the Wakewater Apartments. She finds herself alone in this new place and starts to see weird things on the riverbank. The first time she sees the new neighbor, the strange lady whose house is filled with books about women drowned in the Thames. But the second time she sees a beautiful lady with wet hair who seems to come from a different time. Kirsten will try to understand what it means, what the river wants from her. All of this is happens within her personal fight against a betrayed love. The key element in her story is figuring out that we have to let go things that hurt us. Obviously, even her story is spiced with nightmares of women coming out of water and ghosts. At the end, she finds herself to be free from what made her suffer, but irremediably tied to the river, and the gifts it wants from her.

This short novel has all elements that made me love it: the 19th century setting, London, lost women, a feminist spirit, the river that keeps all the secrets and all the sadness within it. It is a journey in one of the deepest scar of human history, the one let by people thinking that half of humankind has less value than the other, and water has been the grave for the victims of it. I have never seen the Thames as a positive river, and for sure I’m not going to change my mind after Bodies of Water.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No! It is a really unnecessary blog of whom no one really felt the need of. You are welcome.

Yep. That’s it. I had some blogs in the past years, but this is the first one where I write in English. Why? Thanks for the question. The main reason is that I recently moved to London and I want to fully embrace this experience. Also, English is a language that (almost) everyone talks and reads, and it will allow me to reach a wider public. Yeah. I know. You do this for the fame! Well, not really. It is just frustrating to put so much effort on something and having so little back. I’m not saying that my blog will be the best in the world or something like that, but I would like people to have the chance to read it. Maybe they will not like it, and it is ok, but I’m interested in the possibilities. And what are you going to write on this blog? Thank you for the question, it is nice to have such an active public. My main topic will be literature and books. But, I will probably write about some other things, like some nice experiences I will have or some general thoughts that will crowd my head.

I think this is everything for today. Thank you for your attention and come back if you are curious to see what I will post.

Julia