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Archive for September, 2011

I’ve had this book for a while, now – I bought it from a secondhand bookshop in Bristol when I was at university. I didn’t know too much about it. The front cover shows a man in a cloak with a huge sword slung over his shoulder, so I was expecting a fantasy novel, but really, it’s more science fictional.

The story takes place on a far-future Earth – known to the characters as ‘Urth’ – where advanced technology has been around for centuries and has often fallen into desuetude and incomprehensibility. Limited communication with other worlds or dimensions seems possible, but is as mysterious and menacing as trying to summon a demon. The moon sheds a green light because it was planted with forests in a previous age.

The feel of the novel – the first of a quartet, The Book of the New Sun – however, is more fantasy-like. The young hero, a junior member of the guild of torturers, is exiled to a distant posting after disgracing himself. His quest seems straightforward at first, but a bewildering series of events complicates it to near-impossibility. He is tricked into a duel to the death, crashes into a tent-temple on the way, accidentally joins a theatre troupe, is shown round a botanical gardens that may or may not be a series of portals to other worlds or times, and so on and so forth.

The world is just as confusing to the narrator’s young self as it is to the reader. It’s full of guilds and factions, intrigue and idiosyncrasy at every turn. Although Severian – the main character – is sent to this distant town, he doesn’t even get beyond the confines of his city – because of its vastness and labyrinthine detail. The narrator’s vocabulary is full of exotic words, nouns that heighten the sense of otherness of the setting.

The story is narrated from the point of view of an older Severian introducing his young adventures. The narration drops hints that in future volumes of his story, he rises far; it also suggests that his story itself is not entirely trustworthy.

All in all, <i>The Shadow of the Torturer</i>, for all the randomness of its plot and its unanswered questions, was a very engaging read. Expertly written, it trod a fine line between explicit story-telling and scene-setting on the one hand, and mystery and ambiguity on the other. It reminded me a lot of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, but without the same whimsicality; it also put me in mind, a little, of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (which, to be fair, I read a very long time ago).

I will definitely be purchasing the other three books, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch (the titles themselves demonstrate the baroque flavour of the story).

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Several weeks ago, now, shortly after my appendicectomy, I went to the Japanese island of Tsushima in order to get a fresh, three-month tourist visa in Korea. Tsushima (or Daemado, in Korean) is mid-way between Korea and Japan, and also about mid-way between the Sea of Japan to the north-east and the Korea Strait to the south-west. My friend Matthew had given me the details of a tour company that ran trips there, so I took gratefully advantage of that.

Early on Saturday morning, I took the bullet train down to Busan, caught the conveniently located and timed shuttle bus to the ferry terminal a short distance away, met a chubby, slightly cross-eyed young woman from the travel agency there, got my tickets and boarded the ferry.

There was a typhoon in the vicinity, so the voyage across was a bit of a roller-coaster ride, and it took longer than expected – so much so that its leaving time was brought ahead an hour so people returning to Korea could get back on time.

I arrived in Tsushima with plenty of daylight left, however. Once out of the ferry terminal there I didn’t really know what to do. I had the name of a hotel, so I asked directions (forgetting for a moment that the Japanese are culturally disinclined to given negative responses – which makes asking direction in Japan a hit-and-miss affair) and found the place a little later.

Then I had the problem that the receptionist, a middle-aged woman, didn’t speak any English at all and apparently wasn’t expecting a clueless westerner. Eventually, I was able to give her the phone number from the travel agency and she checked me in. Once I got to my room, I realised I had no adapter for the sockets – I asked in various shops and was even led to other places by a woman and a young boy, but with no luck. My laptop’s battery was almost flat, so no blogging, writing, films, TV or porn for me.

The town that I found myself in – Izuhara – was a pleasant little place that had a small channel running through it with lots of bridges and trees along its length, reminding me of Amsterdam. I spent some time wandering round. There was a little temple complex and a pretty, hillside cemetery.

The following morning, I was due to hook up with a Korean tour group, with whom I would travel across the island to the other town – from where we would take the ferry back to Busan. I was expecting to just be bussed across and to have the rest of the day to myself, but we stopped at various places of interest along the way – a fish farm, a Mount Eboshidake, Watazumi Shrine, which has five gates running in a line from the land to the sea (and where a young boy with the group was encouraged to talk to me – his family took photos of us), a restaurant for lunch (I was segregated from the group here and had sweet potato noodles with the staff) and a lookout point by the sea.

The Koreans were pretty friendly and tried to engage me in conversation – they might have had better luck with someone more outgoing. Some of them were wearing badges that said that Daemado and Dokdo (also known as the Liancourt Rocks, where a couple of Korean fishers live guarded by 37 police officers – the island is a cause célèbre of territorial contention between South Korea and Japan) are Korean land.

The tour guide was a Japanese man who spoke fluent Korean and spent the entire bus journey shouting at us over the PA system – often to rounds of applause from the Koreans.

The ferry departure time had been brought forward, and we got to the terminal at Hitakatsu with not too much time to spare. The ride back was as bumpy as the previous day’s, but was, at least, a lot shorter. The key part of the trip – getting a new visa – went without a hitch. I had been worried about getting back in time for my return train, but, in the event, I had plenty of time to spare.

I returned to Habiba with a few little gifts – some snacks (which I don’t think we’ve even touched yet) and a couple of things from the Japanese equivalent of a pound shop (a 100 yen shop): a pair-of-tongs-like device for squeezing as much as possible out of a sachet of, say, curry, and a square of black, spongey rubber about two and a half inches on a side for rubbing cat hair off fabric. They both work quite well.

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