Saturday, October 09, 2010

Unfinished quest

THE QUEST is heroism distilled.

It’s been weeks since I’ve been tagged by friends to come up with a list of 15 books I read “that will always stick with me”.

Stickiness, as defined by the tagging rules, means the first 15 books to be remembered within 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes lapsed, I realized that my list, if it ever was going to be done at all, was going to be different.

Some titles naturally figured in the list because every rereading is nearly like the first time of discovery. When the sharks first hit the marlin in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” always stuns and saddens decades after I first read the novel in college.

Although the impact is partially due to the wily technique of inserting the unexpected at a paragraph’s closing rather than its opening, where it would be more predictable and less shocking, the storytelling is as powerful as the currents that test the old Cuban fisherman Santiago, battling with the sea and mortality.

In this list of mine, hardly 15 yet, some books had to be dredged up, like striking faces seen quickly and lost in a crowd, and remembered again. I have read two out of three of the Cormac McCarthy novels making up The Border Trilogy. I have yet to see the “architecture” of romanticism and desolation, which the novels, taken as a whole, are supposed to set up.

Yet, meeting 16-year-old Billy, as he returns to Mexico the she-wolf he rescues and loses in “The Crossing,” the second volume in the trilogy, and encountering him three years later in “The Cities of the Plain,” the final volume, where he finds and loses a friend, I wonder if the missing first novel reinforces or contests the storyteller’s claim that, without desolation, all love is suspect.

In working to finish my list of 15, I recognize one theme uniting the disparate members of this incomplete company. The stories that find their way beneath the skin are all centered on quests.

Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” is a trilogy that follows two friends—Lyra and Will—making their way between parallel worlds, intertwined consciousness (humans and dæmons) and three novels: “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”.

Bought in a school sale for my children, the volumes have been read and reread by the same fan at home. Pullman’s tale turns inside-out the Creation story of Adam and Eve: while Lyra is as deceitful and manipulative as Eve, the first stereotyped female, she and Will use Knowledge to destroy the fabrications of organized religion. Caveat: this trilogy will upset Narnians and expose anti-Potter critics as far from being wide readers, if at all.

Set in a less ambiguous but as magical stage—the Third Age of Middle-earth—“The Lord of the Rings” is my favorite of all heroic quests.

While Pullman’s wordplay is keen and tensile, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s prose can be earnest and bland as a grade school student’s effort to write “moral” poetry. Yet, perhaps because I discovered “The Fellowship of the Ring” first and then “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” when I was barely a year out of this school level, I am more forgiving about the starkness of Tolkien’s vision of good and evil (fair Elves and pure-hearted Hobbits versus power-hungry Wizards and deformed Orcs).

Why do these fictional quests enthrall? There is a goal that seems unreachable but turns out to be attainable. There is an unlikely hero (or heroine) who surprises not just the reader but even himself (or herself). There is a tale that, after much unraveling and unwinding, returns home.

In the real world, not all quests have these three elements, specially the third.

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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 10, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” column.

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