As summer is drawing to a close, I felt a sudden weight on my shoulder thinking about the months ahead of wintery cold and perhaps snow, and the weight that I have to carry by wearing more layers of clothing and reflecting about another year drawing to an end.
Hence, I’m combining two novellas reviews into one today. A review that takes a look at the perceived weightlessness of the Sky Burial by Xinran against Weight by Jeanette Winterson a retelling of the story of Atlas and the weight that he has to carry in his shoulder.
Are you ready to shoulder the weight? Here goes…..
Sky Burial by Xinran
In the early 1960s a rumour circulated through China that one of its soldiers in Tibet had been brutally fed to vultures. Xinran was a little girl: the tale frightened and fascinated her. Thirty years later, she met a Chinese woman who could tell her the astonishing story that lay behind the legend. Her name was Shuwen and she had spent most of her adult life lost on the Tibetan plateau. . .
A native of Suzhou, Shu Wen marries Kejun, an army doctor, who is sent to Tibet in the fifties and goes missing soon thereafter. Having only been married for a hundred days, Shu Wen joins the army herself and sets out on a search for her husband whom she believes might still be alive.
In short succession, Wen saves the life of an aristocratic Tibetan woman, Zhouma, becomes separated from her unit and marooned in the Tibetan countryside with a Tibetan family who take her in, where Wen learnt the Tibetan way of life and survival skills — and where she stays for years, unable to leave. She never gives up her search for Kejun and in the end she finds the truth revealed.
Shu Wen disappeared after Xinran’s interviewed her.
It feels like a short succession because this is a novella, but when I look back and recount that Shu Wen spent 30 years wandering in the Tibetan mountain range in search of her husband, Shu Wen tenacity and perseverance is put in perspective.
I haven’t read many books on Tibetan plight or travel stories except, Dalai Lama’s teaching and Ma Jian’s Red Dust mentioned a little about Tibetan sky burial ritual but not very much. The book is written through the eyes and experience of a Chinese, and that not all Chinese revolutionary martyrs were hypocritical propaganda constructs, some are out there meaning to cure, to teach and to assist in the effort of integration.
A short explanation about Sky burial:
Sky burial (jhator in Tibetan) is where the corpse of a deceased person – the vehicle that carries the spirit and soul of the person but merely an empty vessel after death is cut up, the bones are crushed and fed to the vultures. Jhator is considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased, since the deceased and his/her surviving relatives are providing food to sustain living beings. Generosity and compassion for all beings are important virtues or paramita in Buddhism. It is a last gesture of kindness to the other living beings.
If you have the stomach to look up on write-up or videos of the sky burial procedure, please do so. I don’t guarantee that it will not give you nightmares!
Xinran succeed in bringing me to the realm of a vast and spiritual land called Tibet, where spirituality and hope entwined, savage and civilisation co-exists, a place where pencil is a luxury and manufactured goods are unheard of. The tribe carries what they have in the garments that they wear, days are spent herding and prayers. My reading experience and Shu Wen’s experience is so out-of-the-world that so much so that Wen live in complete ignorance of Cultural Revolution and Deng XiaoPing’s Reform era. In this part of the world, there is no radio, no newspaper, no knowledge of political changes.
Once again Xinran illuminates the strength and compassion of a strong woman. Sky Burial is a page turner, one that leaves you mesmerised by the extraordinary story of Shu Wen in Tibet long after you put down the book.
Weight by Jeanette Winterson
Choice of subject, like choice of lover, is an intimate decision.
Decision, the moment of saying yes, is prompted by something deeper; recognition. I recognise you; I know you again, from a dream or another life, or perhaps even from a chance sighting in a café, years ago.
These chance sighting, these portents, these returns, begin the unconscious connection with the subject, an unconscious connection that waits for an ordinary moment of daylight to show its face.
When I was asked to choose a myth to write about, I realised I had chosen already. The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call had ended. If the call had not come, perhaps I would never have written the story, but when the call did come, that story was waiting to be written.
And I want to tell the story again…
This is my second time reading Winterson, the first being Oranges are not the only fruits. What I like about her is her honesty, humour and whimsical use of words and expression that draws me into her inner world and experience her inner turmoil. This book did pretty much the same thing, but first about Atlas.
Atlas, a member of the original race of gods called Titans, leads a rebellion against the new deities, the Olympians. For this he incurs divine wrath: the victorious Olumpians force Atlas, guardian of the Garden of Hesperides and its golden apples of life, to eart the weight of the earth and the heavens for eternity.
When the hero Heracles, as one of his famous 12 labours, is tasked with stealing these apples he seeks out Atlas, offering to shoulder the world temporarily if the Titan will bring him the fruit. Knowing that Heracles is the only person with the strength to take his burden and enticed by the prospect of even a short-lived freedom, Atlas agrees……. but the question is: will Atlas return to take the world back again, or will Heracles be left with it on his shoulders for ever?
Some of the exchange is extremely funny, in particular the moment when Heracles (“no brains but plenty of cunning”) tricks Atlas to take the world back, with some wheedling complaints about how Switzerland – more precisely “the bloody Matterhorn” – is sticking in his back.
Some of my favourite passages:
Always boundaries and desire…
It is fit that a man should do his best and grapple with the world. It is meet that he should accept the challenge of his destiny. What happens when the sun reaches the heist point in the day? If it a failure for morning to become afternoon, or afternoon to turn into peaceful evening and star-bright night?
‘there was no enchantment, Atlas, you could not see the tree as it is. You could not see the changefulness of the world. All these pasts are yours, all these futures, all these presents. You could have chosen differently. You did not.’
Altas said, ‘Must my future be so heavy?’
Hera said ‘That is your present, Atlas”. Your future hardens every day, but it is not fixed.’
‘How can I escape my fate?’
‘You must choose your destiny.’
What can I tell you about the choices we make?
Fate reads like the polar opposite of decision, and so much of life reads like fate.
The two morals of the story that stick out for me from the book were:
- This is essentially a book about responsibility and dreams, or “boundaries and desire” Atlas carries the world, cares for it, makes his peace with it, is ultimately rewarded; the vividly unlikeable Hercules, on the other hand, “killed everything, shagged what was left, and ate the rest” (pp.31-32)—he ultimately dies, more or less as a result of his own failings.
- The tension between fate and free will that dominates the book. Winterson asks her own difficult questions about the nature of choice and coercion, and how we forge out own destiny, or have destiny impose on us. Winterson (and I) clearly accepts fate, but at the same time we continuously struggle against it.
When will I ever make peace with my fate? Will I make peace with coercion that shapes my current fate? I don’t know. But if there comes a day where I experienced the same beautiful ending and bliss as Atlas story that is rewritten by Winterson, my life would have been worthwhile.
- “The narrative of Hercules and Atlas is gradually intertwined with that of the author’s own life. Their heroic struggles become ways of exploring Winterson’s attempts to shift the burdens of her past and take control of her life.” – Simon Goldhill, New Statesman
As much as I like to share what happened at the end of the story, I would have to restrain myself and let those who want to give this novella a go to find out for yourselves. Only that it has a fulfilling coincidence to key word Sputnik and it’s the kind of silliness that only a retelling of myth could get away with it. 😉