Saturday, July 18, 2015

Marie-Hélène Sambou

I have been under the weather all week, feeling rotten and physically broken, and trying my best to keep it all together under a polished veneer. It worked out splendidly, well...aside from the weeping on Monday night, and then again on Wednesday night.

I don't mind a little sadness every now and then. Especially when it's for no particular reason (other than simply being a psychic sponge and a hypersensitive organism navigating through an extroverted planet). It's moments like these when I reflect on my past and the people I have lost, some for the better, others, at great expense.

Do you have friends or acquaintances, people you have known and who have either brought sunshine or drastic change in your life, people that you often wonder about after many years of not having seen them? How difficulty would it be, you ask, in this age of social media, to not find someone you were looking for. You would be surprised.

I talked myself into making a list of these fascinating people. There are two that I would love to describe to you. I would also love to see them again but I know it would be a difficult quest. One of them, I will speak of now.

Marie-Hélène Sambou

That is her real name. I knew this lady for the first 10 years of my life when I lived in Dakar and in Nantes.  And then I moved to Australia with my parents and never saw her again.

Who was she?

In common parlance, Marie-Hélène was our 'bonne', which is what we French-speaking expats living in Senegal called our 'help'.

But she was more than that.

From what I remember, my grandmother appointed her from the time I was born, or perhaps earlier. She was a young woman from the southern region of Casamance, a region I wrote about here. She could not read nor write. She was a Christian minority in a country that was and is still predominantly Muslim and she was, to me, absolutely fascinating.

Marie-Hélène took care of me from the time I was a baby. When I was separated from my mum aged 10 months, until the age of 3, Marie-Hélène came with me to France and continued to care for me at my grandparents' home.

Oh these were pretty cool days.
Here I am running alongside her in my grandmother's garden in Nantes. I was her star, I reckon.

She braided my hair into rastas. She liked that.

She played with me.

You could probably say she was like a mum to me.

Later when we lived in Dakar, at my grandparents' home. She and another lady (her cousin, Therese Sambou) did everything for us - that is to say they catered for a family of 7: my grandparents, my parents, my sister, my brother and I.

They rose with the sun. They washed all laundry by hand, waited on us at meal times, they scrubbed, mopped, tidied our rooms, cooked most meals, washed dishes by hand, made errands at the market daily, and prepared all ingredients.

When I say they prepared all ingredients, you probably wonder what I am talking about. Don't we all prepare ingredients?

Not really. In Senegal, well back in those days, preparation is time consuming. There is no packaging at the market, aside from rolled newspaper sheets and canvas bags.  The only packaging you can expect is from imported products purchased in a Lebanese or French deli. It goes without saying that most food arrives home in its raw form.

So you bought a chicken? Good for you.  Now go home, kill the chicken, pluck it's feathers, disembowel it. You can ask someone to chop off its head for you at the marketplace but you still have to prepare it when you get home.

Same story for the fish that my dad would bring back from his fishing trips and that would lay in a pool of blood on the concrete kitchen floor - Marie-Hélène would gasp at its size (much to my dad's pride) then haul it up upon the sink, scrub off its scales with a metal brush, and proceed to chop it into large pieces.

The rice we bought was crawling with vermin, mostly dead from the pesticides.  Marie-Hélène had to sift through the rice manually to remove all insects. She did this every time we ate rice. And I can tell you that we ate rice almost every day.

I wrote about Marie-Hélène a few years back. I regularly miss her and wonder what she is up to. I feel sad knowing that I never got to have an adult conversation with her. I feel regret for all my brat behavior and for dobbing her in whenever I felt indignant or bullied by the authority she had to show to get me to shower, sleep, behave or just obey my parents.

Truth is she was just an angel and she worked so hard, so damn hard. I remember that when I was eight, and we were living in France before coming to Australia, I would often sleep with her. One reason was that I loved the way she smelled and I felt comforted by her.  But the other reason is that she was so entertaining. I pestered her non-stop to tell me stories of magic and sorcery from her native Casamance and she begged me to let her sleep but I loved her stories so much, loved the way she told them so much, that I couldn't resist asking for more. Sadly the next day, after having had little sleep, she was up at four working at her chores, while I curled up in bed without a care in the world. All this makes me sad and I miss her terribly.

Marie-Hélène always gave of herself, despite the volume of chores she had to carry through. She was also always there for me. When she left us to return to Senegal before we emigrated to Australia, I remember how much she cried. She had been in our family for years and it would have hurt her enormously to leave. Leave where? Back in Dakar, somewhere. Or maybe in her village, in Casamance...

Where? I have no idea where. And that is what hurts so much. I feel as though a part of me is gone.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Enigma of The Mascherari

Call me indulgent and self-absorbed but I have longed for this post - a reflection on a mystery, or rather, a mystery within a mystery.

I feared that if I didn't put down these thoughts, then one of my beloved creations would never be truly understood. I do not feel good when my readers miss deeper meanings. I feel awfully superficial. Please remember that I am an INFJ and I will weave complex detail and subtleties into my writing beyond the narrative.

 You see, I wrote The Mascherari with a single puzzle in mind, but over time, as I became absorbed into the main character and sensed the response that his journey evoked within him, an enigma of another kind was born. I felt that there had to be more to Antonio da Parma.

 ***This post contains spoilers from The Mascherari: A Novel of Venice.***

What is The Mascherari *really* about?

It tells the story of a child witch who is denounced and imprisoned secretly by the evil Council of Ten so that over six years, her supernatural powers may come to serve their political purposes. The ghost of her mother, also a witch, once a leader in the Covent of Diana, haunts our inquisitor, Antonio da Parma as this one investigates a series of grizzly murders while in Venice.

Antonio likes being haunted, he follows the clues avidly, until they help him solve the murders, unveil a sinister family secret, and discover the identity of the witch. They also lead him to the woman of his dreams. He finds the imprisoned witch, now a young woman, and together they form a new Cult of Diana in Benevento, Southern Italy.

At the end of the story, Antonio takes on the pagan deity role he was always destined to take and she becomes his consort, Jana.

You have to read back to the Etruscan origins of the Cult of Diana to understand that Antonio da Parma is actually the embodiment of the pagan God, Janus. In Etruscan mythology, Jana (Diana) is the moon goddess and is also the consort of Janus. In The Mascherari, Janus and Jana, have found each other.

When you read The Mascherari, remember along your journey, that Antonio is much more than he seems. Look for the clues, they are there. Not those of the immediate mystery, no...the other clues.

When I was working on The Mascherari, I once mentioned that I began to notice surrealistic streams of expression in my writing. If this book were a surrealism painting, a work of free association, associations that came not from me, but from the main character, then one would read clearly a series of Janus symbols throughout.

Janus the god of doors and doorways 

Janus having two faces, one looking forward and one looking back, was given the role of Guardian of Gates by both the Etruscans and the Romans.  Doors, passageways and archways are therefore associated with Janus.  His name is not far from the Etruscan word, janua, which means "door".
On numerous occasions, Antonio encounters doorways almost as though he is himself a doorkeeper.

There is the scene when he attempts to make a first visit to Catarina Contarini and he pauses before the Moor's head on the door, then the night scene when he knocks unsuccessfully at the mask maker's door, when he pushes the door to the mask maker's upstairs atelier, and later, when he stands at the foot of the tower in Constanziaca island and when he negotiates locked doors in the cancelleria while snooping in the secret archives of the Council of Ten.

Even in his dream, Antonio, the spirit of Janus, has a vision of a marble archway at the top of a hill.

Antonio's experiences abound with doors and passageways, evoking time and time again, the symbolism of Janus.

Janus as the Opener of Doors

For the Romans, Janus was given the dual titles of Patulcius (Opener) and Clusius (Closer). Janus was more often the Opener of doors, being portrayed with a key in his left hand.

It is then significant that Antonio da Parma's passage is rarely if ever impeded.

He picks at the lock of the mask maker's atelier without a moment's hesitation. He manages to fool the palace notary into giving him the keys to the palace archives and even when he is imprisoned by the Council of Ten and all freedom seems lost, a free passage out of the dungeons comes to him through none other than the Doge.

Antonio, like Janus, is an Opener of doors, because no door remains closed to him for too long.

This uncanny ability reaches its climax when Antonio and Esteban find themselves erring in a hedge maze on the island of Constanziaca. One needs to conceive each pathway in the maze as a two-way gate, a gate that remains figuratively closed until such time when the riddle of the maze is solved.
Antonio, true to his role as Opener of gates, steps up to the task, resolving the maze and deriving a path to the tower.

Janus the two faced god

There is a scene where Catarina Contarini, whose husband has been accused of sodomy and who is visited by our inquisitor, becomes almost frightened of Antonio. She writes, in her diary:

 "Such was his presence that even as he left, I felt as though he had eyes on the back of his head."

And again, when Antonio is strolling through the gardens of the Giudecca with Lorenzo Contarini, we find him pausing as he reflects before the statue of a two-faced god, as though drawn irrevocably.

Did you miss all that?

Janus who can see into the future and into the past

As Almoro Donato indicates time and time again, Antonio possesses a remarkable intuition - one that comes to the fore in the atelier where he has a sort of premonition for the violence that has taken place and the revenge that will take place. He sees the death of the mask maker (the past) just as he senses what is about to happen to the broker, Rolandino (the future).

I added a short couplet both in Italian and English throughout the book. It effectively summarises the power of Janus conferred to Antonio: his uncanny powers of seeing all, both in the world of the living and of the dead, to the left and to the right, behind him (the past) and ahead of him (the future).

Vide attraverso il mondo interno
e il mondo esterno,
a destra ea sinistra,
sopra e sotto,
prima di lui e dopo di lui.

It is just perfect.

Janus as a manifestation of Chaos

When Zara, the Castilian card reader, unveils the third card to reveal Antonio da Parma's near future, we find that it is card 16, La Torre.
This card, The Tower, is traditionally associated with chaos, sudden change and revolution. It is one and the same with the ancient nature of Janus who was seen as the god of transitions. Not only does this card reveal Antonio's future, but it also reveals his nature come to life.

And the Castilian card reader knows this well. Later, in his diary, Antonio who at this point seems to only have a subconscious notion of who he really is, will write:

 "Then she bowed to me as though - and this is strange- as though she had been blessed."

Zara bows to him, a true daughter of the cult.

In true surrealistic fashion, Antonio does eventually encounter a tower, much like on the card. It is an isolated fortress on the ancient island of Constanziaca. There, he will meet his witch, for the first time. In the tower, he is catapulted through a series of chaotic events, which seal his fate, leading him to his destiny.

The revolution has begun. Antonio da Parma, the servant of the Venetian Republic, albeit a reluctant one, the accomplice of tyranny, of oppression and of feudalism, finally discovers new meaning in the cult begun by the 13th century preacher Aradia, adept of Diana. Freedom, freedom for all.

As Janus, Antonio is a priest of the Cult, a true mystic, a pilgrim of Diana.

Throughout the story, Antonio navigates Venice as though in longing, seeking his grail, dreaming of her, the woman in his dreams.
Antonio is a pilgrim but he is also a latent priest of the Cult.
Remember Esteban's intense reaction after Antonio, having cleverly disguised himself as a priest, invents a plague infestation charade to ward off the naval inspectors from their illegal ship.
Antonio writes:

Then he turned to me, and his voice was a blend of curiosity and surprise. 'You play the part of the priest convincingly, Antonio. It was your best performance yet.'"

But the clever Esteban, as we know, has long derived Antonio mystical nature. He is undoubtedly a strong catalyst in Antonio's transformation. Remember this exchange as both of them schemed in the Piazza:

"Signor da Parma, in time, you may even discover yourself through one such costume."
"You mean, lose myself," I mocked, reaching for the wine pitcher.
"Oh no. I mean that the costume will liberate you, edge you closer to the reality of your being." 

Esteban has known all along. "Oh, I have known men like you, Antonio da Parma," he says, as he compares Antonio to the many pilgrims he has taken on his ship to the Levant.

Janus the God of Beginnings

For the Romans, Janus was also the God of beginnings, lending his name to the month of January. It is in January, on the 1st day of the month, that Antonio visits the young genius, Leon Battista Alberti who reveals to him, through his brilliant deciphering, the secret of The Council of Ten. Enlightened by this new knowledge, Antonio, who was already beginning to be wary of the Council, undergoes a rapid transformation. Inasmuch as January is the month of Janus, it is the month in which Antonio's agency into the Cult of Diana is catalysed.

Janus and Jana as one entity

In a more ancient Etruscan tradition, Janus/Jana existed not as two entities but as one and the same, an androgynous being, with qualities both masculine and feminine.

In The Mascherari there are allusions to this representation of Janus/Jana.  One of these is Antonio's sexuality which raises eyebrows on two occasions.

In the first occasion, when Antonio finds himself judged by a prostitute, he makes an interesting reflection. He writes:

"She saw through me, saw that I had not been with a woman since my wife died. But she is mistaken in her summation of me."

Could Antonio not be attracted to women then? On the contrary, shortly after his visit to the carampane district, Antonio has an intense carnal dream involving the prostitute which leaves no doubts as to his interest in women.

And yet later, when he meets another equally astute prostitute, she remarks, "You are an admirer of Esteban, I can see it. He is so handsome, isn't he?"
There is without a doubt a duality in Antonio's sexuality, one that does not go unseen.

But Antonio, as we shall see, is only one half of a whole being.  He is the half that will only be complete once he meets the witch, Elena.

We find that as he reaches the top of the tower where she is imprisoned, he stumbles upon his knees. Weakened and blinded, he experiences a jolt, like a bolt through his heart: he feels her own heartbeat. At this point, we might be tempted to attribute this physical shock to the after-effects of having breathed in the poisonous miasma of the labyrinth. But it is not so. Antonio has, at this moment, rejoined his other half. Janus and Jana are one.

Going further, Janus/Jana is a balance of masculine and feminine forces that transcend what we label as masculine and feminine.  Similarly, though Antonio has come to rescue Elena, this is no traditional knight and damsel encounter. In the struggles that ensue, it is Elena who will save both of them.  The idea being that both Janus and Jana need each other.

This belief is highlighted at the very end of the novel where I have referenced the teachings of Aradia:

"Everything which lives is of male and female essence. 
Do not exalt one without the other. 
Come to know both as to be complete."

Janus - God of Deceit, and of Dual Nature

The veritable enigma and one that escapes even me, is whether Antonio is in fact conscious of his nature and has chosen to conceal it to all, even to the writer who naively assumes that he remains unaware of it until the very end.

Has he fooled us all?

Remember his hatred of Carnivale and his longing for the peaceful hills of Tuscany? Has he really come all the way to Venice at the behest of the Council of Ten, or did he return on his own volition, because three years ago, he might have also seen her, the witch, and wanted to see her again now that his wife was dead.

We cannot know. But his private nature and his designs are kept intensely close.

He has told no one of his capacity to see ghosts. Even when Catarina Contarini tells him that if he had seen one, she would believe him, Antonio coldly replies, "I told you no such thing." Of course we, the readers know that he has, and it is perplexing that Catarina's warm reassurance, especially when Antonio is usually faced with skepticism, should be met so harshly.

Can we deduce, then, that Antonio, despite his writer's best intentions, is an unreliable narrator? Or as Esteban remarks, when he introduces Antonio to his crew, "One who keeps much to himself."

As Janus, god of deceit, can we expect anything less from him?

Despite the patrician's cold-blooded nature, we almost come to sympathize with Lorenzo Contarini's scathing final address to the man he has spied upon all the way down South, in Benevento:

"You almost had me fooled, avogadore, you two-faced consort of witches."