Two weeks ago, I returned to my project of going through all of the paperbacks that I inherited from my aunt and I read The KGB Candidate.
(My aunt, by the way, is fine. She just moved to a new place and couldn’t take all of her books with her.)
Published in 1988, The KGB Candidate is a brisk read. It opens with CIA agent Drew Ellis losing most of his men and his lover in Germany and then switches focus to the United States and a presidential election. Looking to continue their time in the White House, the Republicans have nominated a decent candidate who happens to be named after Abraham Lincoln but everyone knows that the Democrats have got the momentum. However, the Democrats also have several candidates competing for the spot at the top of the ticket and, as the convention approaches, none of them has won enough delegates to claim the nomination outright.
Who will win the nomination? Will it be the woman who announces early on that she has no interest in being vice president? Will it be the veteran civil rights activist? How about the dour, bow-tie wearing academic, the one who speaks about nuclear disarmament? Will it be the veteran politician, the one who feels that it’s his turn to run? Or will it be the young and charismatic dark horse, the one who no one initially gave much of a chance but who stunned the establishment by becoming a contender?
It’s an important question, not just because the winner of the nomination will probably win the election but also because one of the candidates is secretly pro-Russian! KGB agent Boris Pomarev is determined to get his candidate into the White House. He’s even stolen a computer program that can correctly predict how people are going to vote and what answers a candidate should give to the tough questions of the day. However, Pomarev is responsible for the death of Drew Ellis’s team. Along with wanting to protect democracy, Ellis is looking for revenge….
The KGB Candidate was an entertaining read. Author Owen Sela does a good job with the action scenes and the characters are memorable without being particularly deep. I have to admit that I was amused by the debate scene, in which all of the potential KGB candidates introduced themselves to the convention delegates. Each candidate represented a different stereotype that most readers would associate with the Democratic Party and the American Left and one gets the feeling that Sela wasn’t particularly impressed with any of them. Of course, in real life, there’s very little chance of any of us ever seeing a contested convention. The primary system is designed to force each party to quickly coalesce around whoever has the momentum. Still, contested conventions are always fun to read about.
For me, the most interesting part of the book dealt with the computer program that could predict who would win the election. In the book, everyone is shocked that a program could do such a thing and I guess, in 1988, it might have been a shocking idea. But today, that’s the sort of thing that people take for granted. I remember that, all through 2016, all I heard was that Hillary Clinton was guaranteed to win because her entire campaign was based on data analysis and algorithms. At the time, I thought that was kind of a hubristic way to run things and it turned out that I was right. I also felt it was a bit of a depressing way to look at the world, if just because it assumed that people would always behave in the same way and that it wasn’t even necessary to actually listen to the voters or even ask for their votes. Algorithms have their place but, in the end, people are more than just data points.
Okay, I’ve had dinner and now I’m ready to get back to sharing my picks for the best of 2018!
We’ve now come to my 10 favorite novels of 2018. I hate to say it but I didn’t read as many new novels as I should have this year. I read a lot of old James Bond novels and I inherited about a dozen vintage Choose Your Own Adventure Books. Those kept me pretty busy.
Plus, I also traveled a lot last year and I was also sick for several days. I’ve always assumed that traveling and having a serious sinus infection would lead to reading more books and not less. But apparently, it doesn’t work that way. That sucked.
As you might guess from the title, Night of the Ripper is set in London in 1888. A shadowy figure is haunting the foggy alleyways of Whitechapel, savagely murdering prostitutes, terrifying the public, and leaving the police baffled. In the taunting letters that he writes to the authorities, he says that his name is Jack.
Jack the Ripper, to be exact.
With both high and low society demanding an end to the murders, can the respected and determined Inspector Abberline discover the true identity of Jack the Ripper and bring his reign of terror to an end? Helping him out will be an American doctor named Mark Robinson. Robinson is an expert in a developing science called psychology but will that be enough?
This 1984 novel from Robert Bloch is an unfortunate misfire. I say that as someone who has spent a countless amount of time reading about the murders and all of the identified suspects. (Back in March, when Jeff and I were in London, we went on one of those Jack the Ripper walking tours. It was wonderfully creepy!) A century after his crimes, Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate us because, not only was he the first widely identified serial killer, but it also appears that he got away with it. The police may have speculated that Jack was a disgraced lawyer who committed suicide after the murder of Mary Kelly but they never actually presented any evidence to back that up. Over the last 130 years, countless people have been accused of being Jack the Ripper, everyone from an anonymous Russian doctor to Lewis Carroll to the son of Queen Victoria. Solely based on the fact that she didn’t care much for his paintings, Patricia Cornwell wrote an entire book arguing that the artist Walter Sickert was the murderer. In all probability, Jack the Ripper was an anonymous nobody but he’s become such a huge figure in the popular imagination that it’s difficult for many to accept that he was probably just a sexually dysfunctional loser who hated women. Instead, elaborate conspiracy theories are pursued and films like Murder by Decree and From Hell are produced.
Bloch’s novel features plenty of prominent Victorians, though none of them are identified as suspects. Oscar Wilde, Joseph Merrick, Conan Doyle, and Robert Lees all show up and then quickly disappear from the story. When Bloch does eventually reveal the identity of Jack the Ripper, he turns out to be a minor character who was first introduced just a few chapters previously. It’s a bit of a letdown.
Actually, the whole book is a letdown. It comes across as if it was written in haste and Bloch’s attempt to give the story some gravitas by opening the final few chapters be describing ancient torture methods doesn’t really have the effect that I presume he was going for. It’s a disappointment because, after all, this is Robert Bloch that we’re talking about. Bloch not only wrote Psycho but he also wrote Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, one of the best short stories ever written about Jack.
Read the short story but avoid the novel. And if you ever get a chance to take a Jack the Ripper walking tour, do it!
My look back at 2017 will conclude next week. On Monday, I’ll post my picks for the best non-fiction books of 2017. On Wednesday, I’ll post my picks for the best of 2017 Lifetime. And then, on Friday, my picks for the best 26 films of 2017!
(My apologies for dragging things out but I do need the extra time so I can catch up on a few films that I missed in 2017.)
Right now, I’m in the process of taking a look back at some of my favorite things from the previous year. Yesterday, I posted a list of my favorite non-fiction books of 2016. Today, I post my 20 favorite novels!
All of these are worth reading and in fact, I insist that you do. Let’s enjoy the written word while we can because, sadly, the future holds only illiteracy and propaganda.
Right now, I’m in the process of taking a look back at some of my favorite things from the previous year. Yesterday, I posted my 10 favorite non-fiction books of 2015. Today, I post my 20 favorite novels!
All of these are worth reading and in fact, I insist that you do. Let’s enjoy the written word while we can because the future is looking more and more like it’s going to be dominated by illiterates.
(Speaking of which, I should probably point out — before someone else does — that Barbara The Slut and The State We’re In are both collections of short stories, as opposed to being novels. So be it.)
Continuing my series on the best of 2012, I now present my 10 favorite novels of the previous year. For a lot of reasons, I didn’t get to read quite as much as I wanted to over the past year. My New Year’s resolution — well, one of them — is to do better in 2013.
Without further ado, here’s my list. All 10 of the novels provided an entertaining, thought-provoking read over the past year and you should read them all.
1) The Great Escape by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
2) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
3) Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
4) Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes
5) This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
6) The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall
7) The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
8) Odd Apocalypse by Dean Koontz
9) Blue Moon Bay by Lisa Wingate
10) On Demon Wings by Karina Halle
Coming up tomorrow, it’s the list that we’ve all been waiting for — my favorite 26 films of 2012!
Well, we’ve finally reached the end of the 33-day marathon which saw 32 dream-memories penned by renowned Japanese author Shigematsu Kiyoshi for the rpg title Lost Odyssey. For Day 33 (despite what the video may say it’s the 33rd dream and not 32nd) we have quite an appropriate memory from Kaim, the immortal warrior, who has seen 1000-plus years of war and experiences both good and bad. “An Old Soldier’s Legacy” speaks very much to the times we’re having now.
The memory ends this series on a down note. We see through Kaim’s reminiscing eyes how war creates a cycle of hate that never seems to end. Victor will punish the defeated. The defeated will rise up generations later to bring down their oppressors and begin the cycle of hate and violence anew.
It’s always the young men who have seen war strip them of their humanity and the men who led from safety who never seem to get the lesson needed to finally bring peace after years of war. It’s always the old soldier’s who have survived countless battles and have learned the lesson of compassion for one’s enemies who know how to stop the cycle. But in the end no one ever listens to these old warriors who only want peace.
As we look at the wars happening now across the globe are we just sowing the seeds for future generations who will rise up and do the same to their enemies or will the leaders and young men now fighting learn the lesson the old soldiers before them have learned through blood and tears: when the fighting ends let peace rule and not vengeance.
An Old Soldier’s Legacy
Kaim spent the entire summer surrounded by a fence that towered over him.
He was trapped in a prisoner of war camp.
It was a terrible mistake – not his but the dimwitted, cowardly commander’s. Kaim was a mercenary attached to the man’s regiment. They were invading the enemy’s main port city when the officer miscalculated at the end and the unit’s line of retreat was cut off. While the troops were prepared for an all-or-nothing charge, the commander almost casually opted for surrender.
“Don’t worry,” he had said to his men before they were locked up.
“Whatever happens now, the ultimate victory in this war will be ours. Instead of making a stand and dying for nothing, we’ll be much better off if we just quietly let them take us as prisoners of war. We’ll be liberated right away in any case.”
This made perfect sense.
But the officer completely misread the feelings of an enemy on the brink of defeat.
Having survived hundreds of battles, Kaim knew better than anyone how people felt towards prisoners of war after the hated enemy had taken the lives of their friends and loved ones and torched their hometowns.
To the members of his platoon at least, as they were preparing to enter the camp, he whispered,
“You’d better forget about any rosy pictures. This could be worse than the battlefield.”
His words proved all too accurate.
Life in the POW camp was bitterly harsh. Day after day, the men were forced to do backbreaking labor on a diet of scraps. The sick and injured went untreated and were not even allowed to rest. To collapse on the job was to die. Indeed, several of the prisoners died not by collapsing on the job but from brutal beatings for minor infractions.
Everyone with access to the camp – both the soldiers assigned to guard duty and ordinary citizens with business there – looked upon the prisoners with hatred in their eyes. Some guards would wave swords at them and boast, “I can kill you bastards any time I like,” and certain officers slaughtered one prisoner after another, disguising the killings as accidents.
Even as they tormented the prisoners, such men were suffering the deaths of their families and friends in the war, and spending their days in fear of the coming invasion. The camp was a place ruled by hatred and revenge, but also a place shrouded in uncertainty and fear of the day when the captives would become their captors. This tense, complicated atmosphere ate away at the spirits of all, friend and foe alike.
The horror of war lay not only in the mutual killing of enemies clashing on the battlefield but even more so in places such as this that were far from the front lines.
Kaim knew this with every bone in his body.
A month passed after the platoon entered the POW camp.
The enemy troops were thoroughly exhausted.
The fall of the capital was said to be imminent.
In spite or because of that, life in the camp was worse than ever.
The tasks assigned the prisoners were even crueler than before, and their diet, which was meager enough to begin with, fell below the level needed to sustain life.
The military guards bullied the prisoners as if for their own amusement, wounding them, and mistreating them with fatal consequences. All kinds of civilians did their part, too, hurling human waste over the fence into the camp. And even if secret stashes of food might be left for them, none of the prisoners dared eat them for fear they might be poisoned.
Hatred climbed to unseen heights.
To one prisoner who moaned “Why are you doing this to us?”
A guard spat out the answer, “It’s just what your country is doing to us.”
And it was true.
All the young men of the enemy country were being sent into battle, where most of them were being killed. Whole towns had been burned down and transformed into rubble.
While the soldiers assigned to guard duty knew that defeat in the war itself was certain, they continued to be victors where the POWs were concerned.
And while the captured soldiers believed in the victory of their fatherland and waited for the day when their comrades would resuce them, they continued to be vanquished among victors.
The moans of the POWs could be heard throughout the camp:
“When is the war going to end?”
“The war doesn’t have to end. Just let them get us out of here!”
“Have we been abandoned by the fatherland?”
Kaim kept offering the same advice to them again and again:
“Be patient,” he would say, “Don’t give up hope.”
Kaim knew everything there was to know about war, and so he realized what was happening now. The fatherland’s supreme commanders were trying to bring down the capital first and leaving the fall of this military port city for later. The POWs had, in fact, been abandoned.
The commander in chief would no doubts say, “For the sake of a great victory, we cannot let ourselves be concerned by a small set back.”
And he would be right.
But precisely because he would be right, Kaim could not convey this to the prisoners, who firmly believed that their side was trying their best to rescue them.
One POW after another made plans to escape, and for every one of those there was an informant who exposed his plan to the guards.
Both types of prisoner had the same thing in mind: to save himself alone. No one could be trusted. THere were even some “informants” who made up phony escape stories about perfectly innocent men just to put themselves in a little better position with the guards. The only thing awaiting such traitors when the war finally ended would be the revenge of their comrades. As much as they understood this, all they could do was ingratiate themselves with the guards so as to secure their momentary safety.
The fence was not the only thing surrounding the POWs. It was not just their bodies but their minds that had been taken captive. In addition to the ones who died from illness and injury were increasing numbers of those who ended their own lives after a period of mental suffering.
Don’t give up hope.
Kaim’s word gradually ceased to make an impression on anyone.
After the men had been prisoners of war for two months, a new guard took charge of Kaim’s barrack.
In place of the young warrior who had been guarding them came an old soldier.
His name was Jemii.
When he introduced himself to the men, he remarked with a grim smile,
“Things must be getting pretty desperate if they’re calling up an old goat like me.”
The young guard had been sent to the front lines. This probably meant that the battle for the capital had entered its final phase.
“I tell you, this war is almost over. In another month, you young fellows will be on the other side of the fence, and we’ll be locked in here. Our positions will be completely reversed.”
Jemii needed no prompting from the POWs, and his vocie contained none of the hate-filled agitation of the young guard’s.
“All you fellows have to do is hang in there a little longer, be patient, and not give up hope.”
His words were almost identical to Kaim’s, which meant that Jemii, like Kaim, had experienced many a battle over the years.
“We may be in different positions, but deep down we’re the same. You men are unarmed prisoners, and we’ll be under your control as soon as you come to occupy the country. I’m what you will be tomorrow, and you’re what I will be tomorrow. I don’t know how long we’re going to go on like this, but if you stop and think about it, isn’t it stupid for us to keep hating each other and snarling at each other? Let’s at least try to get along.”
He twisted his wrinkled face into a big grin and laughed aloud.
His smile deeply affect the mentally and physically exhausted men.
Before they knew it, they were smiling, too. THis was the first carefree smile that any of them had managed since their capture, or, rather, since their time on the battlefield.
Jemii’s kindness was not limited to words. Of course, the change of a single guard was not enough to substantially improve the prisoners’ treatment. The hard labor and meager food were the same as before. But Jemii would speak to them with real feeling.
“Sorry for working you so hard, but there aren’t any young men left in this town to do the muscle work. We’re not making you do these jobs to punish or discipline you but because the town needs your help with these constructing projects.”
“I’m sorry we can’t give you anything decent to eat. I really am. But everybody outside the fence is starving, too. We’re all in this together, so try to put up with it.”
Jemii would try to order somewhat easier jobs for prisoners who had taken ill, and he would sneak them extra food. THat is the kind of guard he was.
The prisoners started calling him “Uncle Jemii,” and would even joke around with him sometimes.
“We’d be way better off if the other guards were like you, Uncle Jemii,” said one prisoner, to which Jemii nodded sadly.
“I’ll tell you what, Uncle Jemii,” said another prisoner. “If I had known that there were people like you in this country, I never would have volunteered. I’m not forgetting my place as a POW, but let me shake your hand once.”
Jemii allowed himself the faintest of smiles at this and gave the man his hand.
“You know something, Kaim…” Jemii said, sitting down beside Kaim during a break in the heavy lifting.
It was a clear, beautiful day, but the sunlight pouring down on them had lost its midsummer glare. The season was shifting to autumn.
“I’d say you’re a little different from these other young prisoners.”
“I know you’ve seen your share of battles. I can smell it on you.”
Kaim’s only reply to Jemii was a strained smile. Jemii seemed to have known what Kaim’s response to his remark would be, and he wore the same kind of smile as he carried on the conversation.
“Why haven’t you escaped?” It would be easy for a man like you to break through the flimsy security they have here.”
“You give me too much credit.”
“You could make it by yourself, but taking everybody with you would be tough. Is that why you stayed?”
Kaim gave him another strained smile, saying nothing.
Jemii was right. If he decided to escape on his own, it would be easy for him to climb over the fence. If, however, he manged to gain his freedom, the prisoners he left behind would be punished or, at the very least, would have to live with increasingly harsh security measures. The young soldiers abandoned in the camp would feel only despair.
If he was going to escape, it would have to mean getting everyone over the fence. Most of the others, however, were so wasted away that they were beginning to lose even the strength to go on living. Men like that could only be a drag on his own flight to freedom.
“You’re a kind-hearted fellow, aren’t you?” Jemii said.
“And you’re a smart one, too, I’ll bet.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Any soldier with as much experience as you has already seen the handwriting on the wall. The war is over. Another three days, maybe a week, and our side is going to announce a total surrender. Right now, we’re just making our last stand out of sheer stubbornness. The second the war ends, you prisoners will go free, and we’ll take your place.”
“It’ll just be a little longer. Really, all you have to do is hold on a little longer. You must know that as well as I do. So you’re probably not even thinking of making the effort to escape.”
When Kaim nodded, Jemii smiled and said, “That’s fine. I’m just as fed up as you are with all the pointless fighting and hatred.”
He looked up at the autumn sky, his profile marked by a number of deep wrinkles. On closer inspection, Kaim realized that some of those wrinkles were scars left by sword cuts.
“Let me tell you something, Kaim.”
“Our country doesn’t have the strength left to make it through another hard winter. I knew that when summer was still here.”
“I just wish we had given up sooner. Then there wouldn’t have been so many young men killed in battle, and so many towns burned.”
Jemii released a deep sigh and added, “When this war is over, we’re going to have to do whatever your country tells us to do. We can’t complain if we’re enslaved or tortured to death by the young men who are now our prisoners of war.”
Kaim could not assure him that would never happen.
As a mercenary, he would just go off seeking new employment when this war ended, but this was not true of the other prisoners of war. As the conquerors, they would now have peace. They would return to the lives they led before. But how many among them would be able to treat the vanquished people with kindness and respect?
“I think you’ll know what I mean, Kaim, when I say you can be as cruel as you like to us old folks when the fighting ends, but please, I’m begging you, be decent to the young men and to the women and to the children. Don’t do anything to them that will make them hate your country. Otherwise, there’ll just be another war sometime in the future. Ten years, twenty years, thirty years, maybe even a hundred years from now. I don’t want any more of this. Countries fighting each other, people hating each other…”
It happened that very moment.
The violent ringing of a bell began to echo throughout the camp. It was the bell in the watchtower, signaling an emergency meeting of the guards.
“Oh, well, gotta go,” Jemii said, standing up. “Don’t bother going back to work right away. Tell the other fellows everybody can have a little break.”
He took a few steps before turning to say to Kaim with a smile, “You know, if we weren’t enemies, I would’ve liked to have a drink with you sometime.”
That was the last Kaim saw of Jemii as a guard.
The sun was overhead when Jemii left, but he did not come back even after it had begun sinking in the west.
The next time someone came into the enclosure it was to the cheers of the POWs welcoming the arrival of their countrymen.
“You’re going to be all right now, men! The war is over! It’s a huge victory for our side!”
Jemii’s country had agreed to a total surrender.
The guards assembled in the tower were stripped of their weapons, and anyone who resisted was killed on the spot.
“Get a move on there! Hurry up!”
The soldiers who, until a short time ago, had ruled the camp were herded into the enclosure with whips and under the threat of drawn swords.
The POWs, who until only moments ago had been under their rule, now lined up to stare at their former guards, and before anyone knew it, the guards were being cursed and stoned.
Hands tied, the soldiers could not ward off the stones, and before long they were drenched in blood.
Jemii was among them.
He started at Kaim, blood gushing from his forehead. His eyes showed no hatred or resentment. He simply gave Kaim a little nod, looking straight at him as if to say, “Remember what I asked you to do.”
Kaim shouted to the men surrounding these new prisoners,
“Stop it! Stop it! They’ve surrendered! Leave them alone!”
But, liberated from the fear of death and from days of humiliation, his young comrades, wild-eyed and screaming like animals, went on stoning their former guards.
“Can’t you see who this is? It’s Uncle Jemii! Stop it!”
One of the soldiers gave him a contemptuous snort and all but spit out the words, “The old bastard was just sucking up to us for when our side won.”
Another soldier – the young man who had asked to shake Jemii’s hand that day – shouted, “He might act like a good guy, but an enemy’s an enemy! And besides, he’s just some old geezer from a country we pounded into the dirt.” He threw another stone at Jemii.
Kaim’s shouts did no good. He started grabbing hands that were readying to hurl stones and smashing people in the face, but no one would listen to him.
The commander of the troops that had galloped to the rescue just grinned and said, “Good! Good! Get it out of your system!” and he handed swords to the unarmed men.
“Kill them all, and raise some victory cries while you’re at it! Think of the humilation you endured as prisoners. Now’s the time to get even!”
“No, stop it!” Kaim shouted. “The war is over!”
“Wait, I know you. You’re a mercenary.
You’re just spouting a lot of nonsense. A few good sword thrusts could shut that mouth of yours!”
The commander’s aides took this as a signal to surround Kaim.
“Don’t waste your time on him, men! Warriors of our beloved fatherland! Kill these soldiers first, and then we can attack the town. Set fires! Take the women! We won this war! This town, this country, everything belongs to us now!”
The commander laughed aloud, but in the next moment, his smile turned into a grimace. His aides were falling to the ground. Kaim had grabbed a sword from one of them, and now it flashed in his hand.
“Traitor! Somebody take him down!”
Kaim swung around and started for Jemii.
But it was too late.
The soldiers were already slashing wildly at the former guards, who had no means to defend themselves.
Standing amid the hellish scene of human butchery, Kaim saw it happen.
The old soldier, who had been kind because he knew all too well the link between war and hatred, fell to the ground without uttering a word, a hateful blade thrust into his back.
Kaim made a break for the camp gate.
He ran for all he was worth, a soundless roar reverberating inside him.
Why did people have to hate each other so?
Why did people have to fight each other so?
And why was it impossible for people to stop fighting and stop hating?
He did not know the answers to these questions.
Saddened and frustrated by his own incomprehension, Kaim ran at full speed through the rubble of the town.
A hundred years pass by.
“This is it, Kaim,” the commander says with a smile. “I am enormously grateful for the magnificent job you’ve done. You can name your own reward when this war is over.”
The last great offensive is about to begin.
This should bring the war to a close.
It has taken a hundred years.
After all these long, long years as a vassal state, the country that lost the war the year Kaim was a prisoner has raised its banner against the ruling power under which it endured such suffering in the last war.
The defeated country has spent a hundred years nurturing its hatred for the ruling power, passing the hatred down from parent to child to grandchild. The country that won the war a hundred years ago was too filled with a ruler’s arrogance and insensitivity to notice what was happening. The only things that it has handed down from parent to child to grandchild are the scorn and contempt for the “inferior country” under its sway.
This war ends with almost disappointing ease.
The results are the exact opposite of the war a hundred years earlier.
No one knows on which side the goddess of victory will smile if yet another war occurs a hundred years from now.
“All right, Kaim, name your reward.”
Kaim answers the commander’s question softly: “I don’t need a thing.”
“Why not? It’s true that you’re a mercenary, but you far outdid the regular troops. Our country wants to show its appreciation for your efforts.”
“If that’s how you really feel, I’d like you to promise me one thing.”
“Don’t make your enemy hate you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about treating the people of the defeated country with kindness and respect.”
A shocked expression on his face, the commander laughs and says, “Aren’t you the softhearted one!”
Kaim, however, is deadly serious.
“This is the legacy an old man from your own country left me a hundred years ago.”
“Enough,” says the commander, still looking shocked. “Dismissed.”
Kaim himself has no hope that Jemii’s legacy will be fulfilled. The hundred-year journey he has taken since that fateful day in the camp has shown him only the selfishness and stupidity of the human race. It will be the same from here on out as well. Indeed, nothing has changed since long before he met Jemii.
Back at his post, Kaim grips his sword and holds his breath.
It will change someday.
They will see someday.
I want to believe that.
Unless I believe it, I can’t go on with my endless journey.
You know what I mean, don’t you, Uncle Jemii?
Eyes closed, he can see Jemii’s face smiling sadly.
The order goes out to the entire assembled force: “Charge!”
Within the rising clouds of dust, Kaim grips his sword and starts to run.
We’re now down to the final two dream-memories on what has been the 33-day marathon. This penultimate entry is called “Samii the Storyteller” and this one makes a strong statement about what Churchill called the one of the first casualties of war: The truth.
War will always remain the main and perfect calling for man. It’s what we’re best whether we care to admit it or not. Cormac McCarthy said it best:
“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way is was and will be. That way and not some other way.”
Does this mean we’ll never stop ourselves from this cycle? The answer to that will always lie on how those who never see the battlefield and never fight the wars are told how it truly is. War has always been chronicled for the masses as something glorious. Something righteous and for the greater good of all when it’s never so simple as that. Yes, sometimes wars have to be fought and people will have to die, but how those in power keep the masses fired up is why the truth is always the first casualty of war.
Civilians will always be the fuel which drive wars. No matter how powerful a government is or how great an army can be on the battlefield they both cannot continue to do so without the consent of the very public they govern and protect. Dictator and autocrats know this and why they spin the truth of what war truly is into lies to keep them from learning the honest and brutal truth. Democracies and republics will always walk a fine line of how to tell the truth to it’s people. Give enough of the truth, but never so much that morale flags.
There will always be a need for people such as Samii the Storyteller, but whether it’s the Samii who starts the dream-memory or the one who finishes it will depend on the listener.
Samii the Storyteller
Samii was an outstanding storyteller, one of the best official reciters of the national history there had ever been.
And he was far and away the most popular of the storytellers in the country’s army.
Samii was not a soldier himself, but he always moved with the troops, and always with the units on the most hotly contest battle lines.
Whenever a battle ended and Samii came back to town, his head was filled with countless stories – stories of soldiers who had performed heroic deeds on the battlefield, stories of soldiers who had faced the enemy gallantly, stories of soldiers who had saved their buddies, stories of soldiers who had used their bodies as shields to protect their unit’s position., stories of daring soldiers who had broken into the enemy camp single-handedly, stories of soldiers who had fought fairly to the end against the most devious of enemies.
It was Samii’s job as a storyteller to depict events on the battlefield for the people of the town.
That year, Kaim was always by his side It was Kaim’s mission, as a particularly capable mercenary, to accompany Samii to the front and make sure that nothing happened to this nationally beloved storyteller.
Samii liked Kaim from the moment they teamed up.
Not only did they appear to be about the same age, but with the eye of an outstanding storyteller, Samii was able to perceive the long past – the too long past – that this quiet warrior carried with him.
Samii said, “I could tell the minute I saw you that you had more military experience than any of the others in the regular army. Your head is packed with even more battlefield stories than mine.
Am I right? The only difference between you and me is that you can’t put yours into words as well as I can. Am I right?”
Samii spoke in the professional reciter’s ringing, rhythmic tones.
“Come on Kaim, tell me something. I don’t care if it’s a scrap of a scrap. Just give me a hint of something you’ve seen on the battlefield, and leave the rest to me. I’ll turn it into a terrific story.”
This was probably true, Kaim thought.
If Kaim were to put himself in Samii’s hands, his never-ending life would surely be extolled in the form of a never-ending narrative poem.
And this was precisely why Kaim merely shook his head in silence.
The townspeople knew nothing of the actual battlefield – how soldiers fought on the front, how they killed their enemies, or how they themselves died in action. The people could only imagine these things upon hearing them celebrated in Samii’s stories.
Conversely, the soldiers fighting on the front had no way of knowing how their stories were being told in the town.
The only ones who knew both sides were Samii himself and his bodyguard Kaim, who clung to him like a shadow.
As soon as he returned from the battlefield to the town, without even pausing to catch his breath, Samii would head directly to the square in front of the castle gate. The people would be waiting for him there – not just the residents of the capital where the castle was located but many who had traveled for days from distant villages to get there.
They were hungering for his stories. They wanted to know how their husbands and sons and fathers and lovers and friends had fought and died on the battlefield.
For these people, Samii would mount the stage in the square and recount the drama of the battlefield in ringing tones, accompanying his stories with gestures and flourishes and, sometimes, even tears.
Samii’s stories of the battlefield, however, were by no means composed of unadorned fact. He beautified many parts.
He cleverly concealed elements that could be embarassing to the army.
And he acted out and embellished his stories in ways that were sure to set his listeners’ hearts to throbbing.
If a soldier happened to do something that was relatively helpful to his unit, in Samii’s hands it would be transformed into an amazing military exploit.
But that was just the normal level of exaggeration he introduced into his stories. At times, a soldier killed after a panicked escape from an enemy attack would be turned into a gallant warrior who died bravely without yielding an inch of soil.
A man who lost his life to a raging epidemic would be described as having met a glorious end after challenging an enemy general in hand to hand combat.
Even a soldier who had lost his mind out of sheer terror and breathed his last after a period of hallucinating, in Samii’s hands, could be refashioned into a hero who gave his life in exchange for turning the tide of battle.
In other words, Samii’s stories were almost all lies.
It could be said that he was deceiving the people.
But that was the mission of the storyteller.
In the square stood a number of soldiers carrying swords.
If Samii ever said anything that ran counter to the intentions of the military, they would have immediately arrested him, made it impossible for him ever to speak again by cutting his tongue out with a hot iron poker, and imprisoned him for whatever remained of his life.
Kaim knew well enough that Samii’s duty as a national reciter was to whip up the people’s fighting spirit.
While accomplishing that, his stories also served to comfort those who had lost their friends and family members in battle.
People would often ask Samii, “What was it like when my son died?” or “How was my boyfriend on the battlefield?” or “How about my father?”
Samii would ask the soldier’s name, answer, “Oh, him, yes, I remember him well.” and speak movingly of the death of a nameless soldier of whom he had no recollection whatever.
Before long, from here and there amid the throng crammed into every corner of the square, would come the sound of sobbing. These were not tears of sorrow, however. Rather, they were the hot tears of pride and gratitude for soldiers who had died fighting for the fatherland, tears of anger toward the enemy troops, tears filled with a determination to win this war at all costs, come what may, in the name of justice.
“And what’s wrong with that?” Samii would say in affirmation.
“The families of soldiers killed in action have grieved enough already from hearing the news that their loved ones have died. After that, it’s just a matter of how much meaning they can find in the person’s death, how much pride they can feel at the way it happened.
Am I right? Nobody wants to believe his or her loved one died for nothing. Nobody wants to face the fact that the person died in an embarrassing way. So I tell them lies, I make everybody into a hero. If it’s a choice between actual fact that can only cause sorrow and lies that raise people’s spirits, I’ll take the lies every time. It’s not for the army, it’s for the families that I go on telling these beautiful lies.
I’m absolutely committed to this as a storyteller.”
This was the kind of man that Samii was.
And this was why Kaim continued to protect him on the battlefield. Beyond his bodyguard duties, he would also go for a drink with him whenever Samii suggested it.
But then there were those times when Samii started pestering him for stories.
“Come on, Kaim, tell me what you remember from the battlefield. Share those stories with me. I’m sure you’ve got hundreds of them.”
No matter how much Samii begged, Kaim kept his mouth shut.
“It’s not as if I would use them for story material. If you don’t want me to tell anybody, I won’t. I swear. I just want to know, I have to know. Call it part of my nature as a storyteller. I have this incredible need to know your stories.”
Kaim said nothing.
“You know, Kaim, you look young, but you’re actually five or six hundred years old, aren’t you? I’ll bet you’ve got more stories packed inside you than a roomful of thick history books. I can tell. That’s why I’m so curious about you. Who are you? What are you? What have you been doing all these years? I’m dying to find out.”
Still Kaim said nothing.
Samii headed out once again to the front. This time it was for a major battle that was likely to determine the outcome of the war.
Samii and Kaim were sharing a drink in their barrack the night before a major confrontation when a young soldier, just a boy, paid them a visit.
“It’s me, Uncle Samii! Aran, the tailor’s son.”
Samii instantly broke into a warm nostalgic smile. Wrapping an arm around Aran’s shoulders, he expressed his joy at their reunion before turning to Kaim.
“Aran is from my home town.” he explained. “I’ve known him since he was an infant. He’s like a little brother to me.”
Turning back to Aran, he asked, “How’s your mother?”
“She’s well, thanks. You should hear her boasting about you, though, Uncle Samii. She tells everyone she’s so amazed how that mischievous little Samii turned out to be one of the most popular figures in the whole country!”
“I owe her a lot, Aran. She told me so many stories when I was a kid, that’s what helped me to be come a storyteller.”
“It’s true. She made me what I am today.”
Samii said this with a big smile, which suddenly gave way to a stern expression.
“But tell me Aran,” he said, “what are you doing here?”
“I enlisted. I’m in the army now.” he said, puffing out his chest.
“That’s what everybody does when they hear your stories.”
“You heard me telling stories?”
“Sure. I had to come into town for something and I saw this big crowd in the square. I looked to see what it was all about, and it was you! I stayed and heard every last story. I couldn’t stop crying at the end. Out of nowhere, I suddenly felt the courage to fight for the fatherland. As soon as you were through, I went to the castle and volunteered.”
Aran had not been the only one, apparently. The young men in the square had enlisted en masse.
“No wonder you’re so popular! The man in the enlistment office was saying the number of volunteers jumps every time you perform.”
Aran innocently sang Samii’s praises, but Samii’s stern expression never changed.
“Aran, you’re the only son in your family, aren’t you?”
“Sure, but that doesn’t matter.”
“Don’t you know this is the very front line?”
“Of course I know that much.”
“So what did your mother say?”
“Well, she tried to stop me of course, but so what? It was my decision. And besides, it was you, Uncle Samii, who taught me that fighting to protect the fatherland is more important than anything you can do for your parents.”
Suddenly the bugle sounded for nighttime roll call.
“Uh-oh, I’d better get to my post.” Aran said, and after a quick goodbye he hustled out of the barrack.
His conversation with Aran having been cut short, Samii sat up straight and gulped down his cup of liquor.
Kaim said nothing as he refilled Samii’s empty cup.
“You know, Kaim, starting tomorrow, you don’t have to protect me anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I want you to protect Aran instead of me.”
He gulped down another cup of liquor in a single breath. Kaim refilled it again without comment.
“I can’t let him die. His mother really did do a lot for me from the time I was a little kid.”
Samii pounded his fist against the wall. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” he moaned.
The battle started at dawn. The fighting was intense.
Soldiers on both sides died in great numbers. Kaim stationed himself besides Samii, protecting him from the enemy blades that came slashing his way.
“I told you Kaim, forget about me! Protect Aran! He’s the one you should be guarding!”
“I can’t do that.”
“Of course you can. You’re the only one who can keep him alive!”
“If I move away from here, I can’t be sure of keeping you alive.”
“I told you, it doesn’t matter about me!”
“I’ve been ordered to keep you alive. It’s my job.”
“No, I told you! Guard Aran!”
Samii stood there shouting when an enemy soldier charged in from the side, swinging his sword.
Kaim swept the sword aside and stabbed the soldier in the belly.
It was a close call.
If anyone other than Kaim had been assigned to guard duty, Samii would surely have been killed.
“I can’t let you die.” Kaim said.
“Is your duty that important to you? Or are you looking for a reward?” Samii taunted Kaim.
Just then another enemy soldier charged at him.
“Neither!” Kaim replied, as he cut the man down with a single slash and hid Samii behind him.
“So then, why?”
“Because there’s something left for you to do – something only you can do!”
Samii screamed at him “Don’t be stupid!” and came out from behind Kaim, exposing himself to the enemy.
“Something only I can do? What, tell another bunch of lies? Make up more stories about phony heroes? Excite more little kids like Aran to enlist?”
Kaim shot back, shielding Samii again and cutting down another charging enemy soldier.
“That’s not your real duty.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Not the duty the army assigned you. Your duty as a human being.”
“Now you’re talking nonsense.”
“No. I’m telling you, it’s something only you can do.”
Kaim continued swinging his sword, cutting down enemy soldiers to protect Samii.
Eventually the enemy attack ended.
Kaim grabbed Samii’s hand and started running.
They rushed toward the position of Aran’s unit.
Kaim had no intention of standing by and allowing the under age soldier to be killed, but abandoning Samii on the battlefield was out of the question.
His only option now was to guard them both at the same time.
But he was too late.
Aran was lying on the ground, drenched in blood, moaning in pain, weeping.
His guts had been gouged out.
He was done for.
Barely conscious, Aran caught sight of Samii and managed the faintest of smiles.
“Uncle Samii . . . I couldn’t do anything to serve the country . . . I’m sorry . . .”
Samii, in tears, shook his head.
“I messed up.” Aran continued. “I couldn’t even kill one enemy soldier . . . and now look at me . . .”
Samii tried to speak through quivering lips, but his words were drowned out by his own sobbing.
“I never knew . . . how scary it is to fight . . . how much it hurts to die . . .”
Aran vomited blood.
Convulsions wracked his entire body.
His eyes had lost their focus, and his breathing came only in snatches.
“Mama . . . Mama . . . oh, it hurts so much . . . my stomach hurts . . . Mama . . .”
Bloody tears poured from his empty eyes.
“Mama . . .”
That was the last word that Aran spoke.
Samii came back to town a few days later. The square was already filled with people anxiously waiting to hear his latest stories.
There were more people dressed in mourning than usual, evidence of the ferocity of the recent battle.
Samii took a long, deep breath before entering the square.
“You know, Kaim . . .”
“You said those strange things to me the other day. That I have a real duty to perform, that it’s my duty as a human being and only I can do it.”
“If, today, I do a good job at performing what you call my ‘real’ duty, will you tell me those stories of yours?”
Samii added that he had a vague idea of what Kaim was talking about.
Then, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, he said,
“Tell me, Kaim, how many men are standing guard in the square today?”
Kaim did a quick surver and reported that there were five guards.
Samii mumbled, “Can’t get away from all of them, I suppose . . .”
When he heard this, Kaim realized that Samii’s “vague idea” of what he was talking about was right on the mark.
“I’m sure I can get you out of here, Samii.” Kaim said with conviction.
“Forget it.” Samii answered with a grave expression.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“You know what they’ll do to you if they catch you . . . “
“Sure. I’m ready for that.”
Yes, without a doubt, Samii understood what his “real duty” was.
He not only understood but he intended to carry it out in exchange for his life as a storyteller.
“You know, Samii, you may be the one person who can stop this war.”
Kaim thrust out his right hand, and Samii grasped it shyly.
“It took me too long to realize it.”
“Not really.” Kaim said.
“You think there’s still time?”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Samii said with a smile and, releasing Kaim’s hand, he strode into the square. Amid cheers and applause, he made his way to the stage.
He never looked back at Kaim.
When Samii mounted the stage, a woman dressed in mourning called out to him.
“Samii, tell me what it was like when my sweet little Aran died. I’m sure he gave his life proudly, nobly for our dear country. Tell me, tell everyone, about Aran’s final moments.”
Eyes red and swollen from crying, she stared up at Samii, all but clinging to him.
Samii took heed of the look in her eyes.
Without a hint of a smile, he gave her a curt nod.
And then, he began to tell the story in a soft and gentle voice.
“Aran was in tears as he died. He was calling for you, his mother, and crying out in pain. His guts were hanging out of his body, he was smeared with blood, and he vomited blood at the end.”
A stir went through the crowded square.
Not wanting to believe what she had just heard, Aran’s mother covered her ears.
Samii did not let this stop him.
“Aran wasn’t the only one. They’re all like that. They’re in pain when they die. Some of them die soon after the pain begins, but for others it’s not so easy. Their wounds just barely miss a vital organ, so they die after tremendous agony that goes on and on and on. Bodies lie on the battlefield exposed to the weather. They get trampled and rained on and baked under the sun, covered with flies and maggots, rotting and giving off a foul stench that would make you sick.”
The stir in the crowd changed to angry shouts.
The guards on duty turned pale.
Samii went on quietly.
“I’ve been to dozens of battlefields and I’ve seen more deaths than I can count. I have learned one thing from it, and I’ll tell you honestly what that is. There are no beautiful deaths in war. It’s true for our enemies and it’s true for us. Everybody is afraid to die, they miss their home towns, they want to see their families again, and they want the damn war to end so badly they-“
“Enough! Stop right now!” shouted one of the military men standing guard.
“Have you gone mad?” another soldier yelled.
Samii went on talking without a glance in their direction.
“Nobody really wants to kill another person. They just have to do it because they’ve been ordered to. That’s what war is. If you hesitate to kill the enemy, he kills you first. I’m telling you, that’s what war is!”
The shouts of “Traitor!” “Arrest him!” that had been coming from the soldiers in the crowd gradually stilled as Kaim circulated through the audience, knocking one after another with well-placed blows.
Kaim was determined to do this much for Samii whether the storyteller liked it or not.
Of course, there was a limit to how much extra time he could buy for Samii.
But he would protect him to the end – until Samii had his final say.
“Listen, everybody! Why do you think I’ve been making the rounds of the battlefields? It was a terrible mistake on my part. What I have seen out there . . . my stories about what I have seen out there . . . I should have used to bring a halt to this stupid war!”
The commotion in the square had given way to utter silence, such power did the words of the peerless storyteller have over the crowd.
“Listen to me everyone! Let’s end this war. Let’s end all war. Don’t you see how crazy it is to call a man a hero for killing another man? Don’t you see how sad it is to call a man a hero for being killed by another man? Think of the people who have died in agony and tears. The one thing that we, their survivors, can do for them is not to venerate and glorify them but to stop producing more victims like them.”
Soldiers outside the square came charging in when they heard the commotion.
“Let’s stop having wars. Let each of us lend his or her own power to an effort to bring back the peace!”
A soldier leaped onto the stage and smashed into Samii with his massive shield.
Sprawling on the stage, blood gushing from his head, Samii gave a deeply satisfied smile.
“Cut my tongue out with a hot poker! Do it for the way I’ve been deceiving the people all these years! Go ahead, do it!”
The soldier kicked him in the stomach until he vomited blood, but still he went on.
“It’s wrong for people to kill people. It’s wrong for people to be killed by people. The nation has no right to make murderers out of us!”
Soldiers surrounded the stage.
Behind the wall of soldiers, Samii was pinned to the floor, his mouth pried open, and his tongue cut out with a red-hot glowing poker.
Even so, he kept up his appeal.
No longer capable of producing words, he continued his desperate appeal with groans.
Before long, the groans took the form of a melody – a song so beautiful and sorrowful, so frail and yet so powerful, that it was unforgettable after a single hearing.
The soldiers pounded Samii with their clubs, shouting, “Shut up, you traitor! Take that!”
Even so, the song did not end. Though it had no lyrics, it took on words as it reverberated inside each listener.
No more war.
“Shut him up! Kill him if you have to!”
In response to his superior’s order, a young soldier drew his sword.
Even after Samii had been stabbed in the chest and had taken his last breath, the song did not end.
The crowd filling the square went on singing.
Everyone was crying and singing, and as they sang they threw stones at the soldiers.
According to the history books, this was the beginning of the revolution.
Many years passed by.
There was no one left in the country who knew the living Samii.
Many more years passed by.
By then only the scholars of history knew that there once lived a storyteller named Samii who primed the pump of the revolution so long ago.
Now Kaim is here, on his first visit to this country in several hundred years. In a back alley in a far corner of the city, he hears a familiar melody.
A little girl is humming to herself as she bounces a ball. Yes, without a doubt, it is the song that Samii was singing after the soldiers cut out his tongue.
“What’s the name of that song you’re singing?” Kaim asks the little girl.
Still bouncing her ball, she answers “It’s called ‘Give Us Peace.'”
“Do you know who made it?”
“Uh-uh,” she says in all innocence, “but everybody sings it.”
Kaim gives her a gentle smile and says, “It’s a nice song, don’t you think?”
The little girl catches her ball in both hands and, hugging it, says with a beaming smile, “Yes, I just love it!”
Kaim pats her on the head and begins to walk away.
Before he realizes it, he is humming “Give Us Peace.”
When it finally dawns on him what he is doing, he thinks,
Humming? That’s not like me at all!
His grim smile is accompanied by a warm glow in the chest.