Saturday, 26 September 2009

Saint George - 13. Curtain-call

Don't ask for the scenes among the prisoners at drawing lots. The emotions of their relatives simply got lost in the entire community's mammoth shudder that reduced everything else to sheer insignificance. Should this be called a mass hysteria?
Nor ask for details of the performance itself. Their fleeing, the attempts at resistance, their injuries and when at last they were crunched, what was to be heard thereof.
As of today, this would only evoke disgust.
Incidentally, there had been one who didn't flee at all, who didn't resist and never uttered a sound. He just stayed down, without a stir, as if saying 'come and eat me,' like a bread roll.
A hoot of scorn went up from the audience. For a moment the monster stood undecided and by its next move captivated all hearts. It looked around, went to a coppice nearby, broke off a bough and sharpened the torn end with its fangs. It then returned to the crouching figure and laid the weapon down within his reach. Quick as lightning the man now jumped at his last opportunity, or whatever he thought it to be, seized the stick and stormed the dragon, aiming at its eye. Poor soul, to the other he meant nothing but a sparring partner. However, it all but saved the show.

When the last prisoner had been consumed, though, a new decision had to be made. How to proceed from here on? To fall back on sheep was doomed from the start. Not a living soul would turn up at such a turn off. To let it starve then or, even worse, to insidiously waylay the beast and seek its destruction by joint assault? This also, was out of the question. For at present the monster had become a popular figure, it procured the top entertainment of the week and when only properly fed it wouldn't harm anyone.
And wasn't it even beautiful! The bright colours of its head, the sheen on its claws and scales, the agile movement of its armoured body. It should be kept safe, this much was settled too.
Besides, it appeared that people no longer felt ashamed of their feelings, that they dared openly confess to how luscious they found these shivers running down their spine, men as much as women. During an offering, it sometimes happened that by their common mood the population as a whole was elevated to a state of unity, which a pious congregation may now and then reach under influence of an inspiring pastor.
They even went so far as to grant the beast a curtain-call for acts of striking cruelty. From pure elation, they couldn't forgo exchanging glances often still radiant, while on their way home.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Dan Brown - The Lost Symbol

I just finished Dan Brown's latest, The Lost Symbol. Three nights of terrific reading, and reviving old memories of the 1960s and 70s 'taser' novels by Colin Wilson, like The Mind Parasites and The Space Vampires.
It's all there, Masons, underground passageways, demons and darkness, as well as the idea of putting at work the powers of the mind in lock-step with others to move mountains or, in the case of Wilson, no less than the moon itself!
I liked all of Dan Brown's cliff-hangers, but at their austere and breath-taking level of suspense, the particular qualities of the bogey is what's making the difference for me.
In his first novel, Digital Fortress, the bad guy is still a scientist, rather a stereotype of the over-ambitious, whereas Deception Point featured the blood-hounding Mute, Angels and Demons had its sadist Arab and The Da Vinci Code the hampered Monk.
Though the three of them are mere vehicles of violence, answering to a secret Master, the Mute is just a hired killer and the Monk a pathetic freak, wheras the Arab, indeed, is an embodiment of Evil, doing the job to satisfy his own pathological cravings and thus, a genuine creep. Therefore, I preferred Angels and Demons beyond the other novels on behalf of this convincingly spine-chilling character.

The demon of The Lost Symbol, though a freak of his own merit and a ruthless killer to that, equals the Arab in occult knowledge and malice, but beats him by far on the application of modern gadgetry and psychological trickery. Besides, he's self-employed. The disclosure of his true identity is a moment of shocking revelation.
The narrative starts with the familiar pattern of the telephone call at an ungodly hour, the rush by plane to a place of renown and the confrontation with a ghastly crime, shrouded in mystery. What is of note, however, the meeting of the hero and the local heroine-to-be remains long overdue. Whereas in the earlier thrillers, they're growing more and more close, so that at the last page they can't wait to spend the night as close as can be, in The Lost Symbol they happen to be old friends, who do embrace, incidentally, under emotional duress for support and consolation, but never in a way as to kindle the flame of passion. It may be their age.
Even the demon has taken precautions to avoid temptations of the flesh, a fact that doesn't harm his menacing powers, but puts him at a disadvantage with his Arab counter-part in Angels and Demons, whose sexual prowess, indeed, proved a convincing tool for rousing utter dread and desperation.
So, in the end, the only thing stirring is not the magic stick, but solely the spirit.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Saint George - 12. The Turn

People get used to anything. With time, everything loses its lustre, as happened here. Despite the monster's best effort to keep the audience spellbound, after the umpteenth sheep, interest really started to wane. Concourse to the stands kept decreasing to the great displeasure of those who were pocketing fat rents and of the sellers of lemonade and sweets there as well. Together, they reflected on new gimmicks.
One day, their faction - for in the council they had formed their own faction - brought in the following proposition.
'Why,' thus asked their spokesman,
'why are we to offer a precious sheep every single week, an innocent creature that is providing us food, whereas inside our prisons we keep a number of creatures not as innocent whom we ourselves must feed, whose very misdoings we remunerate with free board and lodging.
Whatever prevents us from exchanging them for the sheep! Thus, we'll dispose of them in a honourable fashion. As in each case they'll spare us a sheep, we enable them to wholly or partly square their due.
What we propose is a simple act of justice. Thereafter, our town will be free again of crime, even as before, and their empty lodgings we can put to a different use.'
Upon the real motive - to raise the yield from stands to former levels and, if possible, even to increase it - no words were wasted. On giving it away, they expected to meet with strong, moral opposition. However, this proved a gross miscalculation.
By the magistrate who, as mentioned before, possessed a major share in the stands the plan was welcomed with approval and others as well, disguised their real motives. The welfare of the state was all they cared for, or so they said. In reality, their motive was lust after a spectacle even more sensational by far.
Thus, the proposition of the stand-owners' faction was passed with a large majority of votes. Only the junior councillor, seeing with dread which way his own two proposals were leading, still tried to raise his voice in disapproval but this time, nobody was inclined to hear him out. The proclamation of the council's decision caused a general rebound and the next Saturday no stand was left empty though fees had doubled.
To the slaughtering of sheep everybody was used from childhood but now, a man was at stake, a human being just like oneself, whose anxiety and pain were all but empathetic, which made the horrors all the more exciting and the excitement all the more lustful.
When the monster, on that very Saturday, encountered a tied man instead of its usual sheep, there wasn't the slightest trace of amazement in its bearing, nor of hesitation. Rather, it seemed to have anticipated this turn.
It put on quite a show, alternating bites with growls and grins and at times, by a coarse laugh at which it raised its head heavenward and widely distended its jaws.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Monday, 7 September 2009

Saint George - 11. The Breath of the Beast

Strange as it may sound, between the monster and the crowd a bond evolved as between an actor and his audience. The at first altogether guileless behaviour of the animal developed into a genuine performance. At times, it played straight to the gallery, just showing off, making inane leaps, snapping in the air as if to crunch a bird in flight and playing cat-and-mouse with its prey for a while.
This latter quirk engendered a novelty. It was decided to extend the tether. In that way, the sheep would be given ampler dodging space so that it could put up a more interesting resistance. And this, in its turn, brought about another escalation, a revolution almost, to wit, it appeared that one sheep reacted completely different than the other. One of a flock a sheep may be, in these moments each animal was on its individual mettle.
For the first time now, the victim's behaviour and emotions became involved in the spectacle. It wasn't all about the strange and bewildering beast anymore, the plain little sheep became an object of fascination as well.
And next time, the tether would be eased off some more.

In this way they learned to live with the beast and there was no one to feel unhappy for it. On the contrary. The weekly show - if it be allowed to call it such - introduced to their minds and conversations a liveliness so far unknown and was both surprising and exciting each and every time to such an extent that everyone was longing for it the whole week over.
On going home, often people were heard saying 'Oh, how marvellous he was, never better' and 'But the sheep wasn't so bad either.'
This seemed the more remarkable as through the week daily life continued in the same old rut. Supposedly, the beast needed this whole time span to digest its meal. It was imagined as lying contentedly or sleeping perchance, in its subaqueous hidey-hole.
So, it was with a tinge of amazement indeed, when in the twilight of a late evening a shepherd who had been looking for a stray lamb for quite a while, heading for home along the pond, became aware of the monster's head in the centre of it, or rather only its skull, or rather still, the part of its head where its nostrils were. And what besides he saw was that from these openings jets of dark steam were spurting forth with great force.
The man quickly absconded and once home, didn't fail to realize that at the prevailing wind this steam was bound for the town straightaway and possibly, would be dispersed all over it. Although it upset him in no small way, he durst not mention it to anyone, afraid to make a fool out of himself.
Now, it is written in the chronicles of the monks that the breath of the beast was lethal. This can't be true, for during this entire stretch no one in the town died. Only to us, who know the sequel of the story, the true effect of the breath is apparent, namely, it didn't so much as kill people, it was corrupting their character.
We must assume that time and again, with favourable winds the monster let its breath drift across the town and had taken this up long before the shepherd had witnessed it.
The continuation of this tale unmistakably points in this direction.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Saint George - 10. Facing the music

Nothing in this world remains stationary, nor so did standing arrangements. The sheer horror that on first encounter had struck people dumb, steadily subsided each time and in consequence, silence was observed ever less. What had been feared, that the monster would baulk at so many staring eyes and turn back in fright, it didn't happen. On the contrary, it seemed rather to like it. At times, while proceeding, it raised its head to the gallery as if to say, 'stop hiding, will you. I do still see you!' and at once distorted its terrible jaws into something that might pass for a grin.
The public took this for a challenge and it wasn't long ere the boldest - youngsters, of course - dared from their hiding places and as they stood watching openly it didn't in the least seem to bother the monster. Also, when shouted at by a foolhardy lad, it only raised its grinning head.
'He knows we are here, already. We need not hide from him anymore!' became the new watchword and those in authority weren't slow to act on the consequences. Mandatory silence was abolished and instead of the covert gallery, they built open tiers rising to considerable height. Watching on the sly was over. Overnight, visibility became a matter of national importance and every tall building with a view, either public or private, was adapted accordingly.
Following the authorities, which from now on were levying entrance fees on their tiers, the owners of well situated premises started to rent their rooftops to spectators and were doing nicely by it. From this instant, financial interests were attached to the monster. The cost of the sheep became a side issue.

Now, one would think the eagerness of watching an ever repeating event might dwindle with time, but nothing was more beside the truth. Though all it came to was ought but the eating of a sheep, still, in the totality of events there was a mounting degree of suspense. Every next time the spectacle was enriched, at least by expectation itself. As soon as opinion prevailed that the beast seemed to appreciate the presence of a large audience, it received a boisterous welcome on arrival and still today, no one can tell whether it be hooting or cheering.
From this, someone got the idea to grace the offering fest - for this aspect gained in prominence ever more strongly - with music. A small orchestra was quickly composed and now, it so happened that the beast synchronized its appearance with the starting of the music as if listening for the tune of the orchestra rather than for the rumbling of its stomach. In this way, its arrival could be timed at will and of course, this proved a major boon to the whole enterprise.

English translation by Ronald Langereis © 2009
from the Dutch, "Sint Joris" by Belcampo, 1983