All the Lonely People

The action of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun occurs in an indeterminate future where Artificial Friends are all the rage, Klara herself being a prime example of a species of AF. Their fundamental purpose is to be fitting friends and companions to humans, thus assuaging the loneliness of the latter, their ‘unprocessed’ counterparts and of course creators.

Though she is nuts and bolts, Klara is a remarkably astute observer. She has honed this ability over hours spent witnessing human behaviour in all its exasperating bafflement. She has ample opportunity to do this from the windows of the store in which she is paraded in the hope that someone among the endless passers-by will choose her as their personal AF. Young Josie, who may not have long to live because of an incurable illness, and her doting mother fulfil this end for Klara.

The inconsistency, if not downright unpredictability, of human action Klara has noted previously is on full display in the dysfunctional family she now finds herself in. She comments in the wake of an outing to Morgan’s Falls, ‘… what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom …’ (P 113)

Prey to mood swings, both Josie and Mother are alternately warm and cold in manner toward the household’s new member. Mother is beholden to long-term mourning for another daughter. In her struggle with the thought of losing Josie too, rests an ulterior motive for her actions. The presence of their near neighbour Rick, Josie’s beau, and his mother adds another dimension to the mix.

The goal Mother has in mind puts her at loggerheads with her ex-husband Paul. In this context, in conversation with Klara, he poses a series of key questions about the human heart. He concludes that there is a heart in each of us, a heart that makes each one of us special and individual, a heart that can’t be impersonated or replicated or ever learnt fully.

Mr Capaldi, a man who has profoundly influenced Mother’s decision making, would beg to differ. He tells her, ‘We’re both of us sentimental. We can’t help it. Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that. For people our age it’s a hard one to let go. We have to let it go, Chrissie. There’s nothing there.’ (P 210)

As for Klara, she sees the point of Paul’s concerns but adamantly believes she’ll be equal to any impersonation she may be called on to make in the event of Josie’s early demise. She opines that there will be an end to what there is to learn about the mysterious heart of Josie, about the mysterious heart of any human for that matter. What has no limits is the lengths she’ll go to in trying to ‘save’ Josie for Mother and all who love the girl.

Loneliness and the sometimes extraordinary moves humans make in their efforts to manage it is a central theme here, as it is throughout the author’s entire work. The price of emotional detachment or coldness is banishment to lonely existences ‘on the outside of love.’ This is a simple given.

Klara learns that high on the list of the promises humans are notorious for making but not keeping are those they proclaim concerning love of the forever variety. The disclaimer offered in this novel, in the case of the sworn Josie and Rick, is that they sincerely believed it when they said it. That is good enough for the emotionally incisive Klara. Her artificiality notwithstanding, she sets a clear-eyed standard of dispassion leavened with empathy not often exhibited by the flesh and blood humans that inhabit Mr Ishiguro’s universe.

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Arcadian Weightlessness

Now that the music of earlier in the night is over

And the lights have been turned out

Cars swish by windows and canvas flaps

Much less frequently than they did

Even half an hour ago

(A nod to you, Jim!)

The voices of the lovers in the tent o’er yonder

Are muted here by the oceanside Parade

No room between them for Tom Eliot’s velleities

Or carefully caught regrets

Beware the utterance made against a backdrop of quiet

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A Father’s Wish For His Unborn Daughter

Terrified of a bladder that will no longer do as bid,

it crosses his mind that a night with a nymph

might shore up the virility oft feared dead,

and thinks no further than the beautiful progeny

of a once close colleague now held at arm’s length.

“But she’s not of age,” this one tells the emissary sent

to relay the president’s* whim.

“Even better. El Chivo likes them young and fresh.

And all going to plan, you’ll return to favour.

Tell your daughter the president invites her to a dance.”

The girl takes her chauffeured ride,

trusting her father’s “Think of the great honour.”

Still trusting, though less so, when the truth begins dawning.

But by evening’s end, El Chivo weeps only for himself,

unmindful of another life destroyed for evermore.

This is a world that prompts us to live

on the surface of existence. I like this, says the ego.

I don’t like that. The beauty of a woman or a girl

invites just such a glossing over, veiling

what is inestimable beneath.

But there’s a trail some have blazed before us

that leads to freedom and divine expansion.

With it will rise possibilities undreamt of,

not least the ability to see.

Till then, to the girl now germinating

in a mother’s womb: may you harness

a sullied beauty, may the line of your cheekbone

sit not quite right, freckles smudge your ivory skin,

or a gap separate your two front teeth.

*Rafael Trujillo was dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961

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Thunder Rolling in the Mountains

Let me be a free man – free to travel, free to stop,

free to work, free to trade, where I choose, free to

choose my own teachers; free to follow the religion

of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for

myself – and I will obey every law or submit to the

penalty.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians

They did not count on your determination to retain

what you could of your way of life. You knew your

race had to change though it was never your wish

tall, deep chested brave.

Rather than be forced to a place far from your

beloved homeland, and though you yearned not to

die in a strange land, you took flight. Across the line,

it was felt, you might form an alliance with the Sioux

handsome, high-cheekboned Indian.

For months they pursued you, came at you from every

direction, but failed to wear you down. Your war chiefs

outmanoeuvred them. And you too, camp chief,

played your part. Only when you were almost within

sight of your goal did you relinquish arms

quiet, dignified warrior.

Alas, they had a thousand promises to break still.

They brought you to one place, then another, but

never the one you were longing for

poor, weary diplomat.

And what of your adversary, the white man? He

holds a Bible in one hand, a gun in the other;

he imprisons himself in houses, covers

himself with clothing, fears hunger and solitude, is at

war with the earth; he fences the land, buys and sells

it, tears the soil with machinery; he is rarely silent

and never at ease, caught up as he is with ambition

and anxiety; he strives to make everyone adopt his

ways and still talks about freedom and equality; he

promises the world but delivers not the smallest part.

Such a man will never understand a nomad

gracious Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht.

Many years after your guardian departed they

inducted you into a hall of fame. They attributed

feats and leadership that were never yours;

Not even your memory was safe from their lies

dear Thunder Rolling in the Mountains.

Forgive, if you can, and may your spirit roam

unfettered in the serene valley. The time for which

you waited and prayed will one day come

beautiful Dreamer.

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Cover of Forthcoming New Book

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Worthy Successor to ‘Gold Dust’

Editor David Gardiner wasted no time in initiating a new project after stepping down as the prose editor of the now defunct London, UK based Gold Dust Magazine. Inviting would-be contributors to send in their self-selected ‘absolute best’ stories, the result in Personal Bests Issue 1 is a fascinatingly eclectic mix of 31 stories from writers based in countries all around the globe. The themes, settings, and subjects are as varied as the authors themselves. As was obvious from his Gold Dust days, Mr Gardiner loves a good tale well-told, and regardless of certain of the considerations that many other short story outlets routinely put in place. Long may this recently birthed journal live.

Released late 2020 and available on amazon.

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The Good-For-Nothing Bee (Translation of Quiroga story La Abeja Haragana)

Once upon a time in a beehive there was a bee that did not want to work. In other words she went from tree to tree and took the flowers’ juice, but instead of conserving it so as to convert it into honey, she drank it all.

She was, in effect, a good-for-nothing bee. Every morning, as soon as the sun warmed the air, the little bee showed herself at the beehive entrance, saw that the weather was good, combed her hair with her legs, like the flies, and then flew off, very pleased with the lovely day. She buzzed satiated from flower to flower, entered the hive, went off again, and thus she passed the whole day while the other bees killed themselves working to fill the hive with honey, because honey is the recently born bees’ food.

Because the bees are very serious, they began to get annoyed with their sister bee’s conduct. At the entrances of the beehives there are always some bees on guard to make sure no wild animals enter. These bees are very old, with much life experience, and have shorn backs because they have lost all their hair rubbing up against the hive entrances.

One day they stopped the good-for-nothing bee when she went to enter, saying: “Comrade, you’ve got to work, because all bees should work.”

The little bee answered: “I spend the day flying and it makes me very tired.”

“It’s not a question of your being tired,” they replied, “but that you do some work. “It’s our first warning to you.”

Saying this they let her through.

But the good-for-nothing bee did not mend her ways. So, the next afternoon the bees guarding the entrance said: “You’ve got to work, sister.” And she replied at once: “One of these days I’m going to!”

“It’s not a question of your going to do it one of these days,” they told her, “but tomorrow. Remember that.”

And they let her pass.

The next day the same thing occurred. But before they could say anything to her, the little bee exclaimed: “Yes, yes, sisters! I remember what I promised you!”

“It’s not a question of your remembering what you promised,” they told her, “but that you work. Today is April 19. Okay, tomorrow, the twentieth, be sure you make at least a drop of honey. Now, go in.”

And saying this they moved aside and allowed her entrance.

But the twentieth of April passed in vain like the rest. With the difference that at sunset the weather changed and a cold wind began blowing.

The good-for-nothing bee flew hurriedly toward the hive, thinking how warm it would be inside. But when she tried to enter, the bees maintaining watch at the entrance prevented her.

“You’re not allowed in!” they told her coldly.

“I want to go in!” cried the little bee. “This is my hive.”

“This is the hive of poor, hardworking bees,” the others replied. “The good-for-nothings aren’t allowed in.”

“For sure tomorrow I’m going to work!” insisted the little bee.

“There’s no tomorrow for those that don’t work,’ replied the bees, who knew a lot of philosophy.

And saying this they pushed her out.

The little bee, not knowing what to do, flew about for a moment longer, but already night had fallen and she could scarcely see. Wanting to take hold of a leaf, she fell to the ground. Her body turned numb in the cold air and she could fly no more.

Dragging herself along the ground, climbing and going down little posts and little rocks, which seemed like mountains to her, she arrived at the hive entrance just as cold drops of rain began falling.

“Oh, my God!” cried the defenceless one. “It’s going to rain and I’m going to die of cold.”

And she tried to enter the hive. But again they barred the way.

“Excuse me!” wailed the bee. “Let me through!”

“It’s already late,” they responded.

“Please, sisters! I’m sleepy!”

“Now, it’s even later.”

“Comrades, for pity’s sake! I’m cold!”

“Impossible.”

“For the last time! I’m going to die!”

Then, they said to her: “No, you won’t die. In only one night you’ll learn what it’s like to sleep after work. Go.”

And they threw her out.

Then, shivering with the cold, with her wings wet and bumping, the bee dragged herself along. She dragged herself along until suddenly she rolled down a hole. It would be better to say she went rolling down to the bottom of a cave.

She believed she would never stop falling. Finally, she arrived at the bottom and found herself suddenly before a viper, a green snake with a brick-coloured back that looked at her coiled and ready to strike.

In reality, that cave was the hollow of a tree that had been transplanted sometime ago and that the snake had chosen as its den.

The snakes eat bees, which they like very much. So, the little bee, finding herself before her enemy, murmured with eyes closed:

“Goodbye, life! This is the last time that I see the light.”

But to her great surprise, the green snake did not eat her but said to her: “How are you, little bee? You can’t be very hard-working if you’re here at such an hour.”

“True,” murmured the bee. “I don’t work and I feel guilty.”

“That being the case,” added the snake, mockingly, “I’m going to rid the world of a bad animal like you. I’m going to eat you, bee.”

The bee, trembling, then exclaimed: “That’s not right, that’s not right! It’s not right that you eat me because you’re stronger than me. Men know what justice is.”

“Ah, ah!” exclaimed the snake lightly coiling. “You know men well? You believe that men who take your honey are more just, great fool?”

“No, no it’s not because of that they take the honey,” replied the bee.

“Why then?”

“Because they’re more intelligent.”

So said the little bee. But the snake laughed, exclaiming: “Good! Just or not, I’m going to eat you. Get ready.”

And she threw herself back so as to hurl herself on the bee. But the bee exclaimed: “You do that because you’re less intelligent than me.”

“I, less intelligent than you, brat?” laughed the snake.

“That’s right,” affirmed the bee.

“In that case,” said the snake, “let’s see. Let’s do two tests. Whoever does best, wins. If I win, I eat you.”

“And if I win?” asked the little bee.

“If you win,” replied her enemy, “you’ve the right to spend the night here, until day comes. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” answered the bee.

The snake laughed again because she had just thought of something that a bee would never be able to do. And this is what she did. She left for an instant, so swiftly that the bee had no time for anything. And she returned with a capsule of eucalyptus seeds, from a tree that cast shade on the tree hollow from the side.

Boys and girls make the capsules dance like spinning tops and call them eucalyptus spinning tops.

“This is what I’m going to do,” said the snake. “Pay close attention!”

And rolling her tail in a lively manner around the spinning top like a twine,she set it going at full speed, with such swiftness that the spinning top danced and buzzed wildly. The snake laughed, and for good reason, because no bee had ever, or would ever, be able to make a spinning top. But when the spinning top, that had fallen asleep as it buzzed, as happens to orange spinning tops, fell at last to the floor, the bee said: “That’s very fine and I’d never be able to do it.”

“Then I’ll eat you,” exclaimed the snake.

“One moment! I can’t do that but there’s one thing I can do that nobody else can.”

“What’s that?”

“Disappear.”

“How?” exclaimed the snake, jumping with surprise. “Disappear without leaving here?”

“Without leaving here.”

“Without hiding in the ground?”

“Without hiding in the ground.”

“Okay, do it! And if you don’t do it, I’m going to eat you at once,” said the snake.

While the spinning top danced, the bee had had time to examine the cave and had seen a little plant that grew there. It was a shrub, practically a little weed, with enormous leaves of the kind on a two-centavo coin.

The bee drew close to the little plant, taking care not to touch it, and said: “Now listen to me, Mrs Snake. You’re going to do me the favour of turning your back and counting to three. When you reach three look for me everywhere, and you won’t be able to find me!”

And so it happened, sure enough. The snake rapidly counted: one…two…three, turned around and opened her mouth with surprise: nobody was there. She looked up, down, to all sides, searched the corners, took the measure of the plant with her tongue. To no avail. The bee had disappeared.

The snake understood then that if her test with the spinning top was very good, that of the bee was simply extraordinary. What had she done? Where was she? She could not find her.

“Well!” she exclaimed, finally. “I’m beaten. Where are you?”

A voice that scarcely sounded like the voice of the little bee emanated from the middle of the hollow.

“You’re not going to do anything to me?” said the voice. “I can count on your word?”

“Yes,” replied the snake. “I give you my word. Where are you?”

“Here,” replied the bee, appearing suddenly from the closed leaf of the little plant.

What had happened? Something very simple. The plant in question was very sensitive, a plant common here in Buenos Aires too, and one of its special features is that its leaves close at the least contact. But this happens only in Misiones, where the vegetation is rich and as a result the leaves of the sensitive plants are large. So, when the bee came in contact with them, the leaves closed, completely hiding the insect.

The snake’s intelligence was not so great that she had ever taken this phenomenon into account. But the bee observed it and took advantage of it to save her life.

The snake said nothing but her defeat left her very irritated, so much so that the bee passed the entire night reminding her enemy of the promise she had made to respect her.

It was a long night, interminable, which the two of them passed close to the highest wall of the hollow, because the storm run rampant and within the water flowed like a river.

It was very cold, besides, and within the deepest black reigned. From time to time the snake felt an impulse to throw herself upon the bee, who believed then that the end of her life had arrived.

Never, never, had the little bee believed that a night could be so cold, so long, so horrible. Remembering her earlier life, sleeping night after night in the hive, nice and warm, she cried in silence.

When day dawned, and the sun rose, because the weather had become composed, the bee flew and cried once again before the entrance of the hive made by her family. The bees on watch let her pass without saying anything to her, because they understood that the bee that returned was not the good-for-nothing but a bee that in the space of one night had learned a hard life lesson.

Such was in fact the case. From that day on, none harvested as much pollen or made as much honey as her. And when autumn arrived, and with it the end of her days, she still found time to impart a final lesson before dying to the young bees surrounding her: “It’s not our intelligence but our work that makes us so strong. I used my intelligence only once, to save my life. That effort wouldn’t have been necessary had I worked like everyone else. I’d become tired with so much flying from here to there, as if working. What I didn’t have was a notion of duty, which I acquired that night.

“Work, comrades, knowing that the result of our efforts, the happiness of all, is far superior to one’s fatigue. This is what men call an ideal and they’re right. No other philosophy is necessary in the life of a man and a bee.”

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Excerpt from title story in ‘Displaced and Other Etudes’

(Collection to be published early 2021)

They broke camp in quick time after the four days of diverse activities ended. By three o’clock, half the participants had left. The remainder, more than thirty boys, a handful of girls, and three teachers bided their time in the grounds in small groups, some in the shade of trees. The girls were from single-sex colleges in the area, but had been selected to see out their secondary schooling at the thriving establishment the boys attended. The orientation camp had marked a preamble to the commencement of formal studies the following week.

The seaside setting, a half hour’s drive from the school, by the side of a road that descended to the bay, was lambent and lively banter filled the air, residue of the enjoyment the camp brought the attendees. The prospect of the long year ahead was less daunting in such an informal atmosphere.

Mostly, the waiting groups consisted of three, four, or more individuals. In one instance, however, there were only two, a tall, thin boy and his shorter, chunkier companion. They stood apart from the rest. Bored with waiting for the bus due to pick them up in minutes, they contemplated whatever took their fancy. The quips of his mate kept the tall lad amused. When he first suggested they take a swim, he was only half-serious. But the idea appealed to him more as the afternoon wore on. His friend said he would come along and the pair headed off.

No one noticed their peremptory action until they neared the exit of the grounds. Their leaving caused a minor stir but neither could’ve cared less. The beach was half a mile away. They were there in minutes. They stripped down to their bathers, and entered the water – cool, clear, and delightful after the abrasive heat. After a quarter of an hour, they clambered out of the shallows, dried themselves off, and slipped their back clothes on. Rather than rejoin the others at the camp, they wilfully strode beyond it to the highway.

On they walked in the hot sunshine, arms outstretched, thumbs cocked. After twenty minutes, they heard the toot of a bus horn behind them. They looked around. The faces of their teachers and fellow students ogled them behind windows. The driver of the bus had blasted the horn in gloating triumph, and passed them without altering speed. Confident they would thumb down a ride, the friends didn’t react.

Their daring was rewarded when a Holden pulled over in front of them not five minutes later. The tall boy took the seat beside the driver. His friend shifted into the back. They settled, happy to be spared more exposure to the afternoon heat and thrilled that they’d gained a lift. They thought of it as vindication of their independent action.

The lankier of the two left the Holden when it reached Frankston, the town of his birth. He thanked the driver and in the same breath bid goodbye to his friend, who promptly replaced him in the front passenger seat. Home was to the east, more than a mile away. He walked the distance, thinking of the good things awaiting him there, the cool rooms in which he’d rest after this day and week, food and drink that agreed with him, television, music, the meal his mother would fix for dinner. All exerted an undeniable attraction and would be his soon.

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Short Stories

Preamble to forthcoming Displaced and Other Etudes:

Decades ago the Australian writer and activist the late Frank Hardy structured his little known novel But the Dead Are Many along the lines of a musical fugue. As a young budding scribe, I didn’t hesitate to purchase a copy of the book on the strength of his epic Power Without Glory. My memory of the later novel is of a ponderous, difficult to digest work, much less accessible than the tome with which he established his reputation. This reaction may have had as much to do with instinctive aversion to the morbid narrative, which deals with mid-twentieth century Australian communists on downward spirals, as it did confoundment with the fugue shape the author relied upon. Granted, some writers, like Mr. Hardy, may think in terms of concertos, sonatas, symphonies, or other musical forms when writing their opuses. Whether they are successful or not in their grandiose endeavours is perhaps best left up to music critics who also happen to read a lot to decide. In its simplicity the musical form the etude is, I feel, more relevant to any discussion of music’s influence upon literature. An etude is a short composition for a solo instrument, especially designed as an exercise, or for exploiting technical virtuosity. Arguably its closest literary equivalent is the vignette, which is a small, graceful literary sketch. Short stories, like short films, can eschew the major demand incumbent on feature films on the one hand and novels on the other, this being adherence to the concept of beginnings, middles, and ends. Life isn’t as neat and packaged as many movie narratives and novels would have us believe, and short films and vignettes, with their snapshot or ‘slice of life’ focus, are perhaps truer to ‘reality’ than longer films or written works will ever be. They can comprise a handful of brush strokes on a canvas that has no edges. Turning to the etudes in this collection … words he wrote as a young man come back to an ageing poet in a most surprising fashion in Experience at the Heights. Bird depicts a tragic, brutal reckoning in the Guatemalan highlands circa the 1980s, the height of that country’s civil war. The stories Intimidation, Walls, Cry, The Gratuity, and Run Wild are set in Australia, and feature diverse young heroes struggling to fit into, or make sense, of their surroundings. Crisis is a meditation on a world in which the citizens of a north American province suddenly become bereft of their principal outlets of diversion and entertainment. The Passenger, Sleeper, Kay, and Fortuity provide glimpses into the lives of the marginalised. The twin pieces The Ministration of Loss and Waiting cover similar terrain in a modern-day India setting, but more from the perspective of the determined Neha and her husband Ravi, who have dedicated their lives to helping those whom others overlook. An Australian – Sri Lankan journeys to the country of his forebears in The Impostor. The intransigent, under pressure Catholic cleric in Denial may bear an all too familiar resemblance to many church luminaries who in recent years have fallen from grace in the wider world. Bev, in The Umbrella, explains the significance of a pendant she wears to her old friend Rosie. A Greek humanitarian and scholar outlines the meaning he has attributed to his life in Light on the Mirror. The Asian set stories Noi and This is My Husband encompass the journeys to greater self-knowledge of two ‘rebels’ noticeably not lacking in causes. The young Czech Jaroslav in Philoctetes and Me introspects on life in his native land and America, the country he travels to in the years following the Velvet Revolution. At around 50,000 words, Displaced is by far the longest work in the collection. Initially written approximately thirty years ago, it traces the divergent experiences of two boyhood friends whose lives take radically different turns once their schooling ends. As many writers would attest, some works take a long time to satisfactorily germinate. The struggles and themes at the forefront of Displaced may no longer be quite ‘me’, but it is a high-fidelity portrait of a time. If this is the limit to what a writer can boast about when it comes to a pet project, maybe it will have to suffice. The reader can decide. My sincere hope is that this short novel is also redolent with those decided but endearing etude-like aspects aforementioned, regardless of its length. Prior publication, where relevant, is indicated.

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Personal Bests Journal Issue 1

Now available on amazon!

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