Categories
Essay

Farewell Keri Hulme

Author Keri Hulme (1947-2021) was the first New Zealander to win the prestigious Booker prize for the bone people*. Keith Lyons recalls times he spent in a remote coastal settlement with the humble writer, who remains a divisive enigma.

Okarito, home of Keri Hulme. Courtesy: Creative Commons

“You want to know about anybody? See what books they read, and how they’ve been read…” Keri Hulme

I was in high school when I heard the news that Keri Hulme’s the bone people had won the 1985 Booker Prize, literature’s most prestigious award for a novel in English. At 38 years old, she was the first New Zealander to receive the prize. Hulme became the first author to win with their debut novel. Later, in 2013, Eleanor Catton became the second Kiwi, the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize, and also holds the record for the longest novel, 832 pages.

The following summer while hitchhiking around the South Island, I visited the small settlement of Okarito on the West Coast, where Keri had built her own house and lived since the 1970s. A converted schoolhouse in the former 1860s gold mining town was the main accommodation available: a youth hostel with bunk beds. I’d been attracted to the area because of the rugged coastline, placid tidal lagoon, mountain views and the elegant white herons which nested in the nearby forest.

Even though I’d struggled through an early edition of the bone people, I wasn’t as enthralled about the book as some of my fellow travellers who occupied bunk beds in the spartan hostel. Several European visitors carried copies of the book, which had been translated into many languages, several with different covers. It seemed that every day I went out walking along the main street of the settlement (population: 13 permanent residents), there would be an earnest woman from Cologne clutching Unter dem Tagmond or a young couple from Aarhus plodding along the road in the hope of finding Keri’s octagonal tower two-story house. Visitors wandered over the sand dunes desiring to encounter the acclaimed pipe-smoking author, beach combing for driftwood or gemstones washed up on the high tide.

There for the scenery and sanctuary of the coast, lagoon and native forest, rather than to spot the world-famous author, I did locate her house further along the settlement’s main road. A sign on the gate read “Unknown cats and dogs will be shot on sight”. The hostel warden Bill Minehan, who lived next door to Keri, told me she didn’t really like the attention or surprise visitors. Some of the other residents, protective of the community’s drawcard, would give wrong directions, so visitors after sightings of the elusive author could be seen pacing up and down the rutted grass airstrip — signposted Okarito International Airport and flying the Okarito Free Republic flag — or sidestepping around sheep grazing on the settlement’s rough golf course.

Often, after rains, Keri’s front yard flooded, creating a moat to protect her from rubberneckers. The Okarito Free Republic flag sometimes fluttered from a flagpole at Keri’s house, along with an alternative New Zealand flag, with a stylised spiral fern frond, made by Austrian painter and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. She moved to Okarito after winning a ballot for a section of land in 1973, building the house herself, lining bookcases with some 6,000 books, and setting up her writing desk with views out to the sea.

Keri was increasingly portrayed as reclusive. Rumours were that she’d spent all her Booker Prize thousands on alcohol from the Whataroa Hotel, some 25 km away. She didn’t like meeting strangers. She was reluctant to give interviews, and very rarely did she allow anyone into her house. She preferred solitude. “A large part of my life is the surge of the sea, listen to the sea, the pulse of the sea,” she once said.

I did catch a glimpse of Keri on my last day when returning a key to Bill — she was wielding a hammer, fixing the side of her house. The sweet aromatic scent of pipe tobacco floated in the humid air. Then I realised it was probably her I’d seen surf-cast fishing while on a long coastal walk towards the lagoon’s outlet into the Tasman Sea.

Bill let slip that Keri was formidable, but not unbeatable, at Scrabble. Having told him I had been at a Catholic boys’ school in Christchurch, and that I was also a writer, he asked if I knew any good high-scoring Scrabble words. I gave him ‘exorcise’ and ‘queazy’.

One of Keri’s favourite Scrabble words, I later found out, was ‘syzygy’, meaning the alignment of three celestial bodies. Three main characters make up ‘the bone people’. Keri said the characters for her book first came into her imagination when she was eighteen years old. After dreaming about a mute child with strange green eyes, she mused over the vision, eventually developing it into the character of the shipwrecked boy Simon Peter, whose life is intertwined with what one critic described as ‘his child-battering stepfather and a virgin feminist’.

The eldest daughter of a carpenter, whose parents came from Lancashire, and a mother who came from Orkney Scots and Māoris, she grew up in my hometown Christchurch. Her father died when she was aged eleven. After leaving school she dropped out of university part way through a law degree. She worked as a tobacco picker, in a woollen mill, delivering mail, cooking fish and chips at a takeaway shop, as a pharmacist’s assistant, a proofreader at a local newspaper, and in television production.

It took her almost two decades to finish the novel. She spent a dozen years trying to find a publisher. All New Zealand’s main publishing houses rejected the manuscript outright or insisted on extensive heavy re-writing before they would consider taking on the book.

In the end, it was published by a small obscure three-woman feminist collective (it was only the second book they produced), and typeset by students at a university newspaper, with an initial print run of just 2,000 copies. The book, which contained numerous typographical errors, was launched at an event at a teacher’s training college.

The year after its humble beginnings, the bone people won the Oscars of world literature, against the odds and against such literary heavyweights as Peter Carey, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. The somewhat controversial win showcased writing from New Zealand to an international audience, who would perhaps only be aware of the likes of modernist short story writer Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame, who explored madness and language.

Hulme’s contribution, blending indigenous myth and Celtic symbology, and set in a distinctly wild coastal New Zealand setting, is described as “an unusual story of love”’  or in the Amazon blurb “a true evocation of loneliness and attempts by deeply flawed people to connect to each other”. The main character of three, part-Māori artist Kerewin is convinced that her solitary life is the only way to face the world. How autobiographical is it, you ask? The more you delve into it, the more you find similarities with the unusual literary star, who increasingly got dubbed “reclusive” by the media because she wished to remain out of the limelight.

Part of the legend around Hulme is about the surprising success of her debut novel. She didn’t fancy her chances of winning the Booker Prize, so was in the US when the awards ceremony was held in London (plumes of cigarette smoke swirled up in the film footage) — she was the only contender not in the audience at London’s Guildhall. When she was called in her Salt Lake City hotel room during the event, she didn’t believe the news down the phone line. “You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?” she said, “Oh, bloody hell.”

She was full of self-doubt. The literary world had a mixed response to her breakout novel. “Set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, bound in Māori myth and entwined with Christian symbols, Miss Hulme’s provocative novel summons power with words, as a conjurer’s spell,” wrote one New York Times review. “She casts her magic on three fiercely unique characters, but reminds us that we, like them, are ‘nothing more than people’, and that, in a sense, we are all cannibals, compelled to consume the gift of love with demands for perfection’.

Another review in the same publication was more critical. “It’s not so much that the novel offers ‘a taste passing strange’ as the author notes in the preface — interior monologues, disjointed narratives and vulgar language, after all, are hardly news these days. It’s more that the novel is unevenly written, often portentous, and considerably overlong.” The Guardian described the bone people as “a morass of bad, barely comprehensible prose.”

Even one of the Booker Prize judges, Joanna Lumley, was against it being picked as the winner, saying its subject matter was ‘indefensible’. A recent article described the bone people as one of the most divisive novels in Booker Prize history. The four words to sum up the book were violent, disturbing, poetic and striking.

While dismissed by some as unreadable and pretentious, in New Zealand the novel combining reality with dreams was seen as a masterpiece by others with its vision of a society regenerated by the adoption of Māori values and spirituality. For some, it challenged their worldview and sense of place at home in the world. Author Joy Cowley wrote, “Keri Hulme sat in our skulls while she wrote this work . . . she has given us — us.”

Keri said she wanted the novel to harmonise New Zealand’s two major cultural influences, indigenous Māori and European-descendent settlers (she herself shared both heritages). If you were to discover other authors who have explored in new ways what it means to be Māori, look up works by Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera, or for a raw look at the debilitating effect urban life has had on Maori, Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors.

By the time I returned to Okarito the following August holidays to write a story for the Youth Hostel Association, the secluded hamlet had grown in population with the addition of a few more hardy souls and holiday houses, I only saw Keri a few times. One time, after gutting some snapper, she was off to clear the mailbox and collect the newspaper at the highway junction (there was no shop in the township). Another time she was cleaning a gun, bespectacled, and wearing her trademark red bush shirt. Like Hemingway, Keri liked hunting, (she favoured a .22 Ruger rifle among her collection of guns, swords and knives), and often took to the forest in search of deer.

Another time she was assembling poles, screens, nets, waders and buckets for the official start of the white baiting season. My father had worked in marine administration for decades, which included the monitoring of whitebait jetties and official seasons, so I knew a few things about the obsession. “Are the whitebait running yet?” I asked as she made the finishing touches to repairing nets. “Any day now,” she replied, looking expectedly towards the clouds billowing in the west. The season officially started the following day, and she had already checked her favoured locations for a 5am start. Normally a night owl and late riser, even her writing routine was swept aside for the ten weeks of the season when she was out trying to catch the coveted tiny fish. While throughout the year she might be catching rig or kahawai in the surf, netting for flounders in the lagoon, or trying to land salmon or trout in the rivers, her main springtime preoccupation was catching whitebait, the prized juveniles of migratory Southern Hemisphere fish.

I helped Bill load up driftwood onto the back of his vehicle before the rains set in, for use as firewood at the hostel (with a load for Keri too) and found some fool’s gold in quartz rock. Bill confirmed my folly. I gave him some more Scrabble words: Quartzy and Quickly.

That next summer I returned again to ‘The Big O’, hitching on the dusty corrugated gravel road to the coast with its pounding surf, driftwood sculptures and star-filled nights. Just before Christmas, with Bill away, Keri asked me if I could look after things at the hostel and check her place while she visited relatives on the other side of the South Island. The only other person staying medium-term was a German dwarf actor, who joked with me that he was a big man in European television and movies. Before she left, she dropped off a carton of a dozen beer, and some frozen whitebait, silvery eyes glistening through the plastic bag, with advice on how to make a batter for fritters with beer, flour, salt, and fresh parsley growing outside the hostel. “You could spice it up with some chilli pepper,” she said, pointing to a half-full jar of pepper left behind in the communal pantry by a Chilean backpacker.

Later, as we drank beer and watched the sunset from the old wharf, I mentioned to Manfred that even though Keri showed typical West Coast conviviality, we never once talked about writing. We’d talked about the moods of the weather, birdcalls from creatures seldom seen, what remedies protected vegetable gardens from slugs, and strange things which washed up on remote beaches. Having lived in that place for so long, she had plenty of stories about incidents, characters, or her own eccentric foibles. And I think that seeing her as a three-dimensional person (almost ignoring that she was a Booker Prize winner) rather than a 2-D writer made a difference, because it took away the pretensions and the expectations. She was direct, and also had a dry sense of humour. Manfred liked her rugged independent spirit, and kindly nature, not just because she had given us a box of beer. “She is like a good Kiwi bloke, yah?”

However, in the literary world, there was an expectation that a second novel was due. Her debut novel was on track to sell over a million copies. She’d retained the film rights, as its form couldn’t be easily adapted to the big screen. She believed that some stories work best ‘behind human eyes, not in front of them’. Surely she wasn’t going to be a ‘one-hit wonder’ like the band who sang the Macarena, Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger?

She finally announced her second novel, about fishing and death, she finally announced. And it would be called BAIT. She published a second collection of poems in 1992, and two collections of short stories appeared in 1986 and 2005. As for BAIT, it later would be published along with its twinned novel, On the Shadow Side.

She once declared she didn’t believe in writer’s block. “I know about distractions, laziness, daydreaming, stressful events that push writing to the background, and the sheer enjoyment of doing other things for a change … I am a slow, but very, very persistent writer.”

I can’t exactly recall when the last time it was I saw Keri. I just remember seeing her heading out on a fishing trip, along the windswept beach towards the lagoon and its ever-shifting outlet to the sea. She gave me a nod, and gradually faded into the misty greyness of the day and the distance. That night, after sunset at the beach, I witnessed the rare phenomena sometimes seen when the surf glows neon-blue from a bioluminescent algal bloom or plankton. Above it and beyond, the stars twinkled.

A decade ago, after almost forty years at Okarito, Keri left to move to the other coast, where she felt more at home. She had been dismayed by the development with ‘very ugly McMansions’ holiday homes visited by outsiders who would fly in by helicopter or plane. Her council rates were becoming unaffordable. She was also suffering from arthritis in her hips, back and elbows.

A few years ago, I went back to Okarito with a friend, but it felt different without her being there. We both hold the wish to buy her house, mainly in memory and tribute to Keri’s life and work, and also, to inspire our own writing. Though we both admit that Keri has fished all the best words, and woven the most compelling tales.

The much-anticipated second novel was never published, nor was the promised third. She died in late December last year. A family representative said she wasn’t after fame or fortune. “There were stories of her being this literary giant. It wasn’t really something that she discussed. It was never about fame for her, she’s always been a storyteller. It was never about the glitz and glam, she just had stories to share.”

*Please note ‘the bone people’ all lower case is the correct version of her title

 A view over Okarito and its lagoon and beach. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on early morning slow-lane swimming, the perfect cup of masala chai tea, and after-dark tabs of dark chocolate. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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Categories
Musings

To Infinity & Beyond!

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Inclusiveness seeks to bridge gaps between peoples and places. Too often our parochial approach in life, leaves us alienated and estranged. But speaking of aliens … in the 2000’s it seems we are at last coming to the point in time where humans will begin to, if not live off world, then visit in greater numbers. Space travel? That’s truly borderless. How exciting to imagine traveling the universe and having our eyes opened to the immense possibilities of space!

Though the elites enjoy space travel, the question remains, will the human race en mass ever truly reach the stars and expand beyond Earth? With this in mind, I posit the following questions;

Is it viable?

Back in the 1950s there was a contagious worldwide fervour to go to space, fuelled by the fantasy of sci-fi writers and films that made this achievement seem imminent. Maybe after the two world wars and the fatigue of poverty contrasted with the hopefulness of better days ahead, we were finally able to dream. In a way, space travel has always been the purview of the dreamer. The Soviets launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. The competition and fear between America and the Soviet Union no doubt accelerated the development of space exploration during this time. Additionally, the cessation of world wars made this logistically more possible, and the knowledge gained from those wars was utilised to create space worthy ships. The race to get to space was a Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop their respective aerospace abilities and send satellites, space probes, and humans up into space. But the whole world was involved, with astronauts, scientists and researchers working together as much as they competed with each other.

In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered Earth’s orbit, in Vostok I, a space craft for one person, becoming the first man ‘in space’. In the 1960s, the US reached the moon (unless you believe that this was faked, in which case, film maker Stanley Kubrick made a faux film of reaching the moon, information on this can be found in the revealing documentary Room 237, by Rodney Ascher made in 2012!). If indeed the moon was reached, it seemed back then, this was just the beginning. There was a palpable obsession with the future. Technology that would get us to space gripped the United States and deeply influenced the cultural artefacts of the time. In 1955, Walt Disney paid consultants who worked on space-related projects to help him design the rocket ship rides of Disney’s Tomorrowland. Songs about space, art and fashion relating to space were all fascinations that beget the drive forward. Stanley Kubrick‘s film The Shining (1980) is supposed to have secret references to the faking of the lunar landing. Whether faked or real, the world believed humans landed on the moon and in a way that’s what counts most — perception.

Then wham! Our predictions of where we’d be by the 2000’s seemed vastly optimistic. For a plethora of reasons, not least, the sheer magnitude and cost of space travel. We were not riding on space elevators or darting around the universe by the 2000’s – so all those old shows predicting we’d be there by now, seemed to be just fantasy. Some people point to the Challenger explosion as the beginning of the end of American at least, space adventure. Cost, danger, the environment, many reasons can be ascribed but do not explain the extreme and total diminishment of interest. Once upon a time people pressed themselves to store fronts to watch old TV’s displaying live rocket takeoffs and now nobody seemed to care if America has abandoned her search for the stars. Was the interest just an epoch in time that has been replaced with other technologies and obsessions? How does this explain other countries who continue to fund and grow their space programmes? How can something as crucial as endeavouring to reach another world, be shelved in favour of the latest iPhone?

Astronauts have spoken out claiming the reason humans have only just returned to the lunar surface since 1973 (China just landed in 2020) isn’t based on science or technical challenges, but budget and political hurdles. This is easy to believe if you consider the American technology that landed them on the moon had less ‘tech’ than a modern-day scientific calculator. I remember going to Houston and seeing the original ‘space control’ and how tiny everything was and wondering how on earth they landed men on the moon and returned them safely. To advance that technology for further space exploration is both expensive, daunting and involves consistent agreement among politicians. Makes you wonder how it was ever made possible! The reason America funded the space race initially was because it was a point of pride (beating the Soviet Union) which as pathetic as that seems, seemed to gear up enough people to make it happen. Without that impetus, politics drowns the scientist and astronauts wish to advance space exploration.

The mother of invention isn’t just necessity, it’s also fantasy. Artists have long influenced inventors – think Star Trek and the low-tech ideas they had, which have been replicated more recently in flip-phones and video-chat. Sci-Fi writers and thinkers have influenced those who seek to go to space as much as anyone else. It could be argued there is no real delineation between fiction and reality in this case, owing to their mutual influence. If we could create a lunar base, scientists believe this base could evolve into a fuelling point for future further-flung missions into deep space. It could also lead to the creation of improved space telescopes and eventually enable us to live on Mars. We need to push ourselves to the next level of exploration – having relied upon ageing technologies that we have not funded sufficiently to advance. Now, billionaires like Elon Musk push for space tourism, rather than chronically underfunded agencies.

One of the biggest impediments, is how to pay and guarantee safety. NASA is under-funded and receives a tiny percentage of the overall US budget. Priorities go to the military and other immediate programs that are deemed more essential. Since this is political, it’s up to the public to generate an interest in space travel. Sadly, even when the Apollo program was at its greatest; after Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, only 53% of Americans said they thought the programme was worth the cost, according to a report in the Insider.With politicians changing too frequently to see through long-term investment space projects, this stymies those who believe space exploration should be prioritised. Buzz Aldrin has been strategising to get to Mars for over 30 years, as he lamented the lack of support space exploration receives. Aldrin and other experts agreed it must involve international cooperation: “A US-led coalition would include Europe, Russia, India, Japan and China, as well as emerging space nations the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Saudi Arabia,” Aldrin said in an article in The Gaurdian. “We can afford to go to Mars but we must have fiscal discipline. We must focus our limited resources on only those things that are really necessary to get to Mars. In my view, we are currently spending over $6bn on programs we do not need to get to Mars. We need reusability, every element of the system.”

It’s nearly 2022 and we’re still not there en mass or reaching further. We’re told it’s possible but technologically there are hurdles to overcome, not least the effect of long-term space travel on the human body, or the effects of uncontrolled radiation from the (belt) or the methods by which we fuel vessels for such long-haul trips. Space radiation is one of the greatest risks for astronauts. “Determining astronaut health consequences following radiation exposure involve very complex processes,” stated Tony Slaba, Ph.D., NASA research physicist in a government website. “It’s difficult to quantify exactly how radiation is interacting with tissues and cells – and more complicated to quantify and determine what long-term outcomes are going to be in terms of the potential diseases and biological system effects.”

And that’s without touching on putting people into statis or some kind of sleep. We have great ideas and history tells us great ideas eventually become reality, but it’s taken us longer than we anticipated back then. Technologies like magnetic and water shielding have only gone so far and need to be prioritised if we’re to live off-planet. Another real threat, alien microorganisms, prions or diseases humans have zero exposure or immunity to. If we imagine what Covid-19 has wrought, it’s easy to see why bringing ‘space-bugs’ back to earth or exposing astronauts to unknown elements, could be fatal. Finding unbreakable ways of protecting everyone will prevent the science fiction horror stories from coming true. But what’s more likely? Thinking about potential dangers being brought back to Earth, or the excitement of exploration?

What does it bring us if we achieve it?

The people who will benefit from space travel won’t be you and I. It will be the trillionaires who can fund projects and much like early explorers they will exploit natural resources and profit from them. Whether they find planets made of diamonds or copper or other expensive minerals it will be they with their reach, who like plantation and slave owners will come out on top. One can argue this is a replication of the exploitation of the Earth, and those people working for the giant industries. I would agree. Does this mean all space exploration is without value? There is always value to reaching further, but it generally comes at a cost and requires exploiting the masses by the few. Pluses could include sending people off world to ease the burden on the planet as we become overpopulated. We might be able to terra form, and create liveable planets that can sustain life, although predictions suggest this would take lifetimes. One idea has been generation ships; where ships are able to manufacture a way to self-generate power and travel for long distances and time. Those in the ship may live their entire lives onboard and it may be their children or grandchildren who reach the final destination. The idea of sacrifice always exists when considering far-flung exploration, and this was often the case when people got into little wooden boats centuries ago in quest of unknown continents.

Can we learn from the mistakes made by early explorers? Or will we repeat history because it’s our nature? If we cannot create planets that are self-sustaining then we rely upon earth to supply those planets with food and water etc. and that’s less sustainable than not going off world. Potentially if we could make this work, it would be years in the future, but might give the human race the opportunity to significantly grow due to increased resources. Without this, we are stymied by the resources of one planet, which we are using up rapidly. Whether it’s a good thing to increase the human race throughout a galaxy or universe, remains unknown. We could be viewed as cockroaches or explorers, that’s up to the interpreter and our choices should we become a race of space farers.

A 2018 Pew Research Center poll showed the tide is turning, with the majority of voters saying NASA space exploration is necessary but majority want the skies scanned for killer asteroids. Maybe the way we get to space will change, in that we have to think of modern day, pragmatic methods of funding space travel, even if its in the guise of space tourism or tagging on the back of projects to protect the planet against killer asteroids. Maybe it will take another tragedy like an asteroid hitting the Earth to advance our current knowledge, as this seems to be the only way humans operate. We are less inclined to prevent disaster as to respond to it. Sadly, if the environment continues to be eroded, we may have no choice but to seek off-world options, and we don’t want to leave that option till it is too late to act. With dramatic weather pattern changes throughout the world, it’s never been more essential to protect Earth but we’ve not doing a very good job if the oceans and air pollution are anything to go by.

What are the potential down-sides?

It isn’t possible to talk about this without considering the many side-effects of space travel. Many I’ve already touched on but it’s worth really to reconsider history which has shown the penchant of humans to dominate and disrespect other cultures. Humans often consider themselves the ultimate alpha, the top dog, but in truth they could be replaced tomorrow depending on weather and climate and natural disasters, just as the dinosaurs were. We shouldn’t let our hubris make us forget our responsibility to our planet. Some argue space travel is a waste of resources and money because it’s looking beyond us rather than at what we already have. Shouldn’t we be fixing our home-grown problems before we focus on the skies? Others say we should look at the ocean before we consider space. Home grown issues include the devastation human beings have wrought on Earth, which most of us are familiar with.

Given we are reckless with our inventions. They benefit us but not necessarily the natural world around us. Is it any wonder to guess why expanding the human race can be a matter of concern? I’m not one who believes humans are the apex and that we are entitled to be. I predict one day we’ll give up our throne. But there’s the other side of me filled with the wonder of imagining what is out there. I mean, if space is infinite, which they have agreed upon, that means it never ends, a concept few of us can even understand or relate to. Imagine? Infinity. What does that even mean? When we humans begin-middle-end and everything around us does the same. It’s the true sense of forever, something larger than we will ever be. I’m filled with a fascination for a universe that doesn’t end, how do I wrap my head around that and comprehend the myriad possibilities this entails!

What I do know is if something never ends there literally are eternal possibilities meaning every possible eventuality must occur, because of the law of replication. There are only a certain number of creations that come from a universe containing certain components and those creations if given affinity, will reproduce in varied forms, but also replicate. I think this is where the concept of parallel universes comes from. Rather than a literal slice in time dividing one notion of reality from another similar but not the same version of reality. A universe that has no end, will eventually ‘play out’ every scenario, a little like you could crack any code if you had long enough to go through the permeations – but we don’t have time, so we don’t do that. The universe, however, does have time, infinite, so all that can be created will be, and all that has been created (including us) will be created (again) in shades of similarity. This I believe is where we get the concept of a parallel universe, although that’s not quite what it is.

If we add to this the concept of space and time, how time is not a set notion but rather, a perception based on humanity, the same goes for our understanding of the material world. In other words, we’re limited by our own physical presence and lifespan in our understanding of what is beyond us. For those like Steven Hawkins or Ashwin Vasavada (Project Scientist for NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity, in charge of a team of 500 researchers), they can see beyond what is literal and imagine like any great thinker, beyond what we know and assume, and extrapolate. This extrapolation includes quantum physics and the breaking away from normal modes of thinking to include things we’re only beginning to understand.

If time is not mutable, if concepts of reality really don’t exist as we assumed they did, then it throws everything into question. Is what we perceive as reality even remotely real? Or just a flawed, human-centric bias? And if the latter, the universe’s secrets are closed to the limitations of our minds? This is why some who have taken psychedelic drugs have said, sometimes the doorways of perception (Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, written about his experiences with mescaline in May 1953) must be opened differently. Huxley was in turn influenced by the poet William Blake who wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Science, logic, mathematics, will probably provide us with many answers but in order for us, as sentient but limited-sentient beings, to evolve perceptively, we may need a further key to elucidate things beyond subjective perception. Some evaluation of psychedelic drugs as facilitators of mystical insight with great potential benefits for science could be that missing link.

Having read a great deal of science fiction, I wonder if I would think like this had the ideas not been implanted by some of those great science fiction tomes and operas. I suspect we build on what we learn, so nothing is entirely original, but in building on others, we may come closer to answers than if we operated in a vacuum. This is also true with making science fiction a reality. But just as our urge is to explore, we should be mindful of past mistakes as a race (human) and not repeat the colonialist model that only caused pain. Otherwise, life could be no more than a petri dish with us experimenter or experimented upon. There is more to life than conquer or absolute knowledge. There is the humility of experience and growing from it, which is something we often diminish. Perhaps spirituality and hard science are not after all, so incompatible.

Will it actually happen?

The development of nuclear-thermic powered propulsion systems to enable long-haul space-flight is essential to reduce crews journey time and make travel to Mars and beyond realistic. Heat shields to ensure landing is safer on unknown planets, would cut down on landing fatalities. Next generation space suits that are flexible and livable would allow explorers to spend more time in their suits than the suits of old that were not invented for long term use. There would also need to be a nuclear fusion style power system that enabled those landing on planets, to tap into power whilst on planet, and not fear running out. Radio systems used currently, can take up to nine years to send transmissions from say, Mars to Earth, so the development of technology like lasers to send information and communications rapidly would be essential. Scientists like Sharmila Bhattacharya (Director of Research in the Biomodel Performance Laboratory of the Space Bio-sciences Division, NASA) are spending decades researching the effects of the human body in space to understand how to survive, even thrive in space.

I’d love to think our progeny will reach space in a way we have yet to. Why? Because there is something fantastic about imagining us getting off-world and exploring. I think human beings are innately curious but like cats, their curiosity can be destructive. I would like a more utopian future, where we learn from prior mistakes and if we do reach space, we do so ethically. I don’t know if that’s possible, but anything less will be just another belching coal mine, suffocating those who work in it and those who live around it and that is not a dream I share.

Why is going to space so bewitching when we have unexplored oceans that we’re contaminating rather than exploring (Eight million metric tons: That’s how much plastic we dump into the oceans each year. That’s about 17.6 billion pounds — or the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales — every single year. By 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish.). Without the ocean, the planet dies Is space travel selfish when starving people here on Earth need immediate help rather than pouring money into space flights that are at this time, only for the privileged? I think we all share a bigger dream of being ‘more’ than simply Earthlings. If a God exists maybe they don’t want us to go beyond these confines, or maybe they do. If a God doesn’t exist, then it seems obvious we’d want to go as far as we could, because again, this is our nature. It’s how we do it. And if we do it because we’ve ruined this planet, that’s a pretty good determinant that we’re going to make the same mistakes in space.  

Finally, is it necessary?

This is perhaps the most important question because we do a lot of things that are not strictly speaking necessary. Ever noticed how when someone gets money, they spend a lot of it on ‘unnecessary’ things? Why don’t some of these uber-rich people put money into worthy causes with the same intensity as frivolous? Why do those with money often need more? Why is the accumulation of material gain, so addictive? All this relates to a bigger question, a moral question. What is necessary versus what is not? For a rich person they go well beyond what is necessary in an ordinary sense because their wealth gives them more opportunity. Interestingly those who win the lottery are often said to be less happy after winning than before. Perhaps money is a double-edged sword. There is something to be said for adversity and earning our own way in the world, and a realistic measure. A bit like when you spoil and ruin a child because you indulged them and they no longer have a sense of the true worth of things.

We are very entitled when we get into those vaunted positions and perhaps things we think are necessary, are not. So how do we decide? Is it right for us to be a moral judge and tell others their dreams and excesses are not allowed? Realistically we could never control excess, so it’s not an option. There will always be people who live on different levels and have excesses the ordinary person cannot imagine. Those people may use up the resources we have to share, in greater quantity, which is bad. Or they may inadvertently propel our collective aspirations further. By having some of us who are capable of making dreams come true, the rest of us are swept along by the excess and the dream. In this sense, dreams are necessary, as they give us all something to aspire to, even if we may not literally be the one possessing the outcome of the dream.

I think it is necessary to have aspiration and fanciful dreams that aren’t strictly speaking practical or entirely pragmatic. Sometimes we just want to dream bigger than we are, because we know we are all going to die eventually, and we want something astounding. For some of us this may be God, for others it may be space (or it may be both). Without this, we revert back to the star gazers of the past, who probably also hoped their progeny would reach those stars but didn’t have the means to make it come true themselves. If you have the means, maybe you should use them, just as if you have the ability to invent and conceptualise, you do so. Maybe it’s an intrinsic collective wish that we should not neglect, by being entirely sensible. Maybe we won’t save the planet by aiming for the stars, but we might find a little magic.

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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Categories
Musings

Leo Messi’s Magic Realism

By Saurabh Nagpal

Though it emerged as a political response to Eurocentric, objective forms of literature, magic realism is a postcolonial literary mode, which in its most elementary sense, fuses the fantastic, the magical, the mythical, the imaginary, the supernatural with the realistic, displaying the unbelievable in everyday, modern society in a very normal and acceptable manner. Unlike surrealism, this literary form does not make grandiose claims of transcending reality and unlike realism, it does not aim to represent one absolute Truth, rather it seeks to amplify the scope of and incorporate variant realities. One way in which magic realism functions is that it strives to defamiliarise the mundane, that is, to open alternatives, differing points of view on commonplace things and phenomena for its audience, thereby presenting newer realities. This literary form aspires to heighten the awareness of life’s connectedness or hidden meanings for its reader.

German intellectual, Franz Roh, coined the term ‘magic realism’ in 1925, however, the sense in which he used the term differs mightily from the literary genre that was responsible for the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 70s, and the revival of the novel form. The genre of magic realism finds its essence and context in the socio-political reality of Latin America. Alejo Carpentier, in his essay, On the Marvellous Real in America, delineates that in magic realism “improbable juxtapositions and marvellous mixtures exist by virtue of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, and politics – not by manifesto.” Gabriel García Márquez, a champion of this form, often elucidated that magic realist writings were unfathomable or were things to marvel at for a Western or a non-Latin-American reader, but for the natives, the so-called magical or imaginary was merely a part of their reality.

Lionel Andrés Messi, born on June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina, hails from the land of literary giants and masters of the magic realism genre like Jorges Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar. Anyone who even has an inkling of football would have, most certainly, heard the name of Messi. Those more familiar with the beautiful game would be aware of the ridiculous records that he has set, the feats that he has achieved, the trophies that he has won, individual and collective, and so forth.

While his achievements are quantifiable, to a limited extent, in terms of goals, assists, trophies, and in the numerous new forms of statistical and analytical data catalogue tools that are emerging with the speed of light in the football industry, his greatest accomplishments still remain in the qualitative and emotional realm – he is a professor of joy and jubilance; a distributor of dreams; an inspiration to millions; a poet of bodily, sporting, and physiological aesthetics.

Messi’s astonishing or as the commentator Ray Hudson might put it, “magisterial” goals and moments of sheer excellence on the greens of a football turf are unforgettable and hence, very well documented, whether it be the dribbling wondergoal against Getafe in 2007 or against Real Madrid in the 2011 Champions League semifinal or against Athletic Bilbao in the 2015 Copa Del Rey final or that herculean header against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final or the outrageous chip against Real Betis in La Liga in 2019 or against Bayern Munich in the 2015 Champion’s League semifinal or the motley of searing free kicks that he has scored over the years. Honestly, the list is unending.

However, I want to emphasize that there is magic present in most, if not all, games that Messi plays in; that this magic is his every game reality; that he, in a way, defamiliarises football through his ability and body. This magic does not only exist in the dumbfounding, jaw-dropping goals that he scores or the killer assists that he makes (although it is most perceptible in such moments) but it also percolates through his whole manner of playing. It even resides in the seemingly less productive or significant things and movements that he performs on the field.

He stands at 5 feet 6 inches and visibly does not have the towering physique of an ultra-athlete that is fast becoming the norm of the game. He often slouches, bides his time by walking during a game, but his strolls are purposeful. While sauntering, he usually reads the game, mentally maps his surroundings, and acquires a nuanced kinesthetic awareness of his region. He does not have one of the fastest brains in the game for no reason.

Messi speaks the loudest when he has the ball at his feet. One of my friends said that his feet possess a strong spiritual connection with the ball. With the ball, he behaves like a child who just would not let go of his favourite toy. The thirty-four-old has championed the skill of dribbling and demonstrates it in its easiest, simplest form. He hardly performs flamboyant tricks, rather he makes efficient use of speed, time, and space by cunningly manipulating them. He can accelerate and stop dead and go again with rapid quickness. He shimmies, skims, skitters, skips, scampers with the ball at differing speeds and intensity in differing contexts, but is always oriented to solve some footballing problem. Repeatedly, with a drop of a shoulder or a twist of his body or a sudden change of direction, he opens newer perspectives and avenues to exploit on the field, making the viewer feel like a fool for not perceiving earlier that this move was also a possibility, that this route could have also been a reality. Similarly, the range of passes that he pulls off combined with his incisive vision that again and again opens the football field, like it is mozzarella on a pizza, show the diversified points of view that are visible to him, and with actions, he makes them visible to others as well. This is what is meant by defamiliarising events on a football field.

From his interviews and social media presence, Messi comes across as a shy, humble, quiet person in his private life but on the pitch, he is La Pulga Atomica, which translates as The Atomic Flea. A week after the start of 2021 Copa América, Jonathan Liew wrote in The Guardian, “Even at his (Messi’s) advanced age, is there a more purely expressive footballer in the world right now? A footballer with a richer or more varied vocabulary? Perhaps it’s no surprise that when you can perform something to the proficiency and complexity of language, a lot of people will confuse it with talking.” Like Liew, many others have also stated that Messi talks and expresses through playing football. I would like to take this notion further and assert that – like many postcolonial (among others) authors who understand language’s limitedness and its inability to express something fully, yet they seek to expand the scope of language by using innovative ways and choosing genres like magic realism (among others) – Messi too, through his style of play, his movements, his use of his body, in a way, tries to broaden the scope of footballing language.

Pep Guardiola once said, “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him.” While Guardiola was implying that the genius of Messi was beyond description, he was also, through words and language, paradoxically describing the Argentinian. Articulating through paradoxes and by breaking binaries is another deconstructionist, postcolonial technique that writers regularly resort to when employing the conventions of the magic realist genre. And to comprehend what Messi does on the field, we are forced to make avail of paradoxes, contrasts, metaphors, and extra-terrestrial epithets because simple language fails us, even though he simplifies and unwraps football.

Eduardo Galeano, in his book, Soccer in Sun and Shadow appropriately pens, “The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy, and outlaws daring.” However, Leo Messi, Barcelona and Argentina’s magical reality, drops his shoulder, shifts his body weight, and gracefully ballets pasts this assertion to stand for everything Galeano was longing for. Even in this contemporary football industry, Messi makes us feel the sport with such an intensity, such a passion that we are moved to express his play while, simultaneously, failing to do justice to it in our expression. 

Saurabh Nagpal is an aspiring sports journalist who loves cricket, football, and tennis, but a lot more than that also, beyond the field of sports. Follow him on Instagram @SportMelon_, Facebook @SportMelon, and Twitter @saurabhnagpal19

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