King empire

Fiction: “Pollak’s Arm” and “Moon Witch, Spider King”

Considered by Pliny the Elder to be one of the greatest works of art of its time, the ancient Roman sculpture of Laocoon was discovered in 1506 and exhibited in the Vatican by Pope Julius II. The statue, which depicts the dying Trojan priest beset by sea serpents, was found in remarkably pristine condition, but was missing Laocoön’s right arm. The Renaissance artists responsible for the restoration imagined the skyward-extending appendix, “the sublime, heroic gesture”, wrote Hans von Trotha in “Pollak’s Arm”, a fictionalized account of the antiquarian who, in 1906, discovered the actual arm, which turns out to be strongly flexed – “almost twisted” – in a way that suggests not triumphant martyrdom but horrific agony. “This hero,” writes Mr. von Trotha, “is no hero.”

Arm of Pollak

By Hans von Trotha

New ship press

160 pages

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The novel situates this demythologization in the context of World War II and the Holocaust. Ludwig Pollak, a Czech-born Jew, was renowned for his expertise in antiquities, spending much of his professional life running the Barracco Museum of Ancient Sculpture in Rome. The book is set in 1943 after Italy surrendered and the Nazis annexed the part of the country not occupied by the Allies. The narrator is a German schoolteacher named K., who, stranded in Rome, has been sent by Church officials to pick up Pollak, now in his mid-70s, and bring him to the Vatican, where he will receive the asylum. It’s an open secret that the Nazis plan to arrest the Jewish population of Rome the next morning, so K.’s commission is urgent, but he finds the old antiquarian strangely reluctant to go with him, and the novel recounts the tense but exciting night. K. passes by to listen to Pollak talk about his life and his memories.

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Mr. von Trotha is a German historian and journalist, and this robust and dark novel, translated by Elisabeth Lauffer, commands attention more for its exploration of classical antiquities than for any literary flourish. Pollak’s nocturnal meditations often turn to the intersection of art and empire. While Julius II saw Laocoon as the model of the “grand, grand and harmonious guiding principles” of the Renaissance, the desecrations of Fascism and Nazism – “Rome has long since succumbed to sea serpents”, laments Pollak – confirm the painful origin of the statue. sense. The terrible fate of Pollak, and the suffering about which the old masters were never wrong, are visible in this torn and outstretched right arm.

At the end of Marlon James’ 2019 “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” a human-wolf hybrid bounty hunter called Tracker reflects that famous myths diverge from reality “because we tell stories to live, and that kind of history needs a purpose”. But legends are lies, he angrily concludes, “because at the end of a true story, there is only waste.”

Moon Witch, Spider King

By Marlon James

Riverhead Books

656pages

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“Moon Witch, Spider King,” the second volume in the so-called Dark Star Trilogy, returns to the site of so much wonder and devastation, though this book is not a continuation of the story, except the manner of most fantasy cycles. , but a counter-narrative describing some of the same bloody events. Mr. James’s epic is set in a fantastical pre-colonial Africa and is deeply inspired by the stories preserved from the oral traditions of the kingdoms of Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Ghana and elsewhere today. Because these empires predate the influence of Christianity or Islam, their worldviews, from cosmologies to sexual mores, are extremely unknown, and this twinkling weirdness pervades the vast cast of monsters, magicians and mercenaries of the books.

Yet the characters are also archetypally recognizable. The hero of the first volume, Tracker, is a lone wolf soldier of fortune who loves adventure but is too restless and cynical to align himself with any cause. “Moon Witch, Spider King” revolves around one of its antagonists, a sinister ancient witch named Sogolon. This novel begins about 150 years earlier, telling the unlikely story of Sogolon as a foundling and outcast who fortune thrusts into the center of a violent dynastic struggle spanning generations.

This struggle concerns the question of succession in the Northern Lands, where the king, supported by an immortal demigod chancellor called the Aesi, seeks to hunt down and kill his sister’s son, who, according to the matrilineal tradition of the empire, is the legitimate heir. Such concerns are indifferent to Tracker, but not to Sogolon, who coincidentally becomes an assistant to the King’s sister and, as she discovers her own occult powers, develops a deep enmity against the Aesi. Sogolon’s rage is rooted in the oppression of her gender, which the empire has locked into a state of terrified servitude through purges of anyone accused of witchcraft. (“The only difference between who’s a witch and who’s not is a man’s mouth,” Sogolon says.) Her centuries-old war against the Aesi has serious political consequences, but is also a crusade. vengeful for women.

It’s probably best to read these books in order, as it’s fascinating to mark the differences between the same scenes from volume to volume depending on who remembers the story. But I read “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” three years ago and didn’t remember much about it, and it turned out to be very unimportant. Mr. James is such a ferociously powerful and fast-paced storyteller that one rarely has time to worry about the larger plot scheme. Although the book covers a very long period of time, no grass grows between the actions. Galvanized by vernacular writing modeled on the oral tradition of African griots, the scenes are bawdy, declamatory and quick to confront. The events are so crazy and whirlwind that they become almost hallucinatory.

What the big picture looks like, when viewed from afar, remains a puzzle. “Moon Witch, Spider King,” also ends in a picture of mess and ruin. It’s the prodigious passions of this trilogy, not an obvious narrative purpose, that makes it so captivating. I hope the last book will be narrated by the Aesi, so far the only villain in the epic. It would make the madness even more confusing and captivating.

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