A writer who loved his characters

There are those writers that you simply cannot shake. As if you were bitten. Your brain might tell you to be merciful and lay off, but you go on, reading until the wee hours because the world these writers have created is just too powerful a drug, a place you do not want to trade for the real world. Know the feeling, right? It’s the power of words – the slow simmering words that sputter and fizz, and the quick ones,  the ones that spark as they strike, as if they had been wrought on an angry anvil. They chase you, hound you. The words flail your brain until you either collapse or get to that last, merciful page.

Andre_dubusAndre Dubus (père) was such a writer. He was not a prolific writer – short stories mostly, but he was a master at those. His style strikes a balance between rough-and-tumble dialogue and lyrical description, all the while cutting through the tortured flesh of his characters with surgical precision: “he heard her light feet in the hall, and he lay on the bed and watched her enter the room and cross it in the dark, and it was worth the fear.”

The writer of short stories faces a dilemma novelists do not: it is not easy to bring 515QZDbdlHL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_characters to live and let go of them almost instantaneously again in five, ten, or twenty pages. Lesser writers need that space just to set up the easel and stretch the canvas. Dubus, by contrast, throws paint against the wall: “The Jackmans’ marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days, they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying,” The Winter Father starts. Twenty sparse pages later it ends: “He watched her face, rosy tan now, lightly freckled; her small scar was already lower. Holding her hand, he reached over for David’s, and closed his eyes against the sun. His legs touched theirs. After a while he heard them sleeping. Then he slept.”

In the twenty pages this story takes up, we witness the pain of a flawed husband – an adulterer and drunk who desperately yearns to be a good father, to the point of wanting to grow a umbilical cord that would attach him to his children. He also becomes painfully aware that, after his divorce, his attachment to a woman is no longer centered in the physical realm now that “he and Norma had hurt each often deeply, and their bodies had absorbed the pain.” By the time the story ends, the reader has been taken from a disastrous divorce to an acceptance of reality, atumblr_m6uhouaHFw1qd9a66o1_400nd of finding hope. Lyrical yet precise, Dubus wields the artists’ brush as if it were a scalpel. It is as if light had been breathed into these stories, mercifully dotted between the lines that tell of damaged people, lonely and rudderless, or lost in religious fanaticism, and desperately seeking to love and be loved. The mystery of these stories is that the characters do not find grace – grace finds them. It comes as they look down at their unloved bodies while taking a shower, or while they hear a child tell them “I wish it were summer forever.” The presence of grace is not surprising perhaps, given that Dubus was raised a Catholic, and one raised in the South – not coincidentally he has often been compared to fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor, in whose stories violence is an unavoidable antechamber to grace.  In Dubus’s Voices From the Moon, Brenda finds this as she “listened to the silence of the room, and their smoking and swallowing and quiet breath, and she felt held by tranquility and shared solitude.”

“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live,” Dubus once wrote. And reading him is like floating inside a person’s head – an experience I have had while reading other masters of the short story such as Anaïs Nin and Clarice Lispector. The sentences are strung together as if part of a mu1361142sical movement, cavatinas wholly played in legato, and brought to a sudden end by a cadence that resolves any lingering doubt about the immense truth that has been revealed to the characters: that life is worth living, even for those who have been damaged and have damaged others. That there is love, but that loving might be more terrifying a prospect than being loved. One of the characters in Voices From the Moon says: “When I’m alone at night I look out my window and it comes to me: we don’t need to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.”

If ever there was a writer who loved his characters, it was Andre Dubus.

Travels in Gondwanaland

Outsized ego, that man
Outsized ego, that man

“Far” is a relative concept. Ferdinand Marcos, not exactly my favorite dictator, once commented, in a meeting of member states of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, that the member states were not far from each other at all. Despicable thought the man might have been, he did have a point there, and the name was subsequently changed to somet hing less relative and euro-centric.

Traveling to New Zealand, however, is not relative. This country is far by anyone’s standards, unless you live in Australia, but then again Australia is pretty much far from everyone else itself. It takes three hours to get to Australia, 24 to Europe, 18 to Los Angeles, 12 to Buenos Aires and about the same to Bangkok. I think “far” is the right word here.

Being interested in writing, and in the writers who do all that writing, I racked my brain to recall any New Zealand writers. The population is small – barely four million, but so is that of Denmark or Norway, countries that have produced great writers, and without the benefit of writing in a major world language. I simply could not recall any, and so did an Internet search. Turns out that there are quite a few of them, including the excellent katherine-mansfieldKatherine Mansfield, who wrote in the first few decades of the twentieth century. As is so often the case with artists from small countries moving to larger countries, however, Katherine Mansfield has been categorized by most readers as British. Or English, to be precise. And of what I do recall of her writings, it was not particularly about New Zealand either. Great writing – lots of angst and the rudderless soul-searching that so marked the years that followed the Great War. I do love writers who have managed to disentangle themselves, at least apparently, from their original cultures, and have managed to make their home in a borrowed culture. And I always look for the signs that give away the origins of the author, because they are usually there. But not in Mansfield’s writings, save the odd reference to her Wellington upbringing. Or at least I did not find them – few references to New Zealand, as if she had wanted to keep her childhood locked up and safe from prying eyes.

Except perhaps, from ”The Bay:”

“The breeze of morning lifted in the bush and the smell of leaves and wet black earth mingled with the sharp smell of the sea.”

Not sure if this is a NZ memory, but I should hope that it is: most descriptions of wind and sea, especially when they use smell, somehow come to writers from their childhood. Nothing is sweeter, it seems, than putting your finger on an exact smell – being able to describe in words what normally only a palate or a nose may sense. There is a distinct sense of victory in this for writers: the feeling that words may preserve for eternity what nothing else can.

Her again!
Her again!

Two things struck me in New Zealand: one is the remoteness and emptiness of huge parts of the country, and the peculiar flora that this remoteness has allowed to survive. The other thing is the quaint Britishness, so far from Britain’s shores. Scary at times, as in the architecture and density of all things Victorian – statues, streets, buildings, parks and what have you – I realize that the place was put on the map in the 19th century, and that the old dowager lived a very long time, but a bit of variety is always welcome. And when it’s not Victoria it’s Albert! Food is also invariably British, meaning lots of potatoes, and lots of beer. Sure there’s sushi and spaghetti, but especially when you’re a bit off the beaten track it’s all shepherd’s pie. Great lamb shank by the way, must give it to those Kiwis.

IMG_4091But it’s the flora that really surprised me, and has made me truly fall in love with this country. And I mean to specifically speak of the flora of the west coast on South Island. The stretch going south from Franz Joseph Glacier is absolutely stunning, and it is not for nothing that it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site – all 26,000 square kilometers of it! Te Wahipounami, as it is called in Maori, has some unique flora and fauna, and scientists believe that some of the flora most closely resembles that of gondwana and laurasiaancient Gondwanaland. For those who skipped prehistory in history class, Gondwanaland was one of the two original continents from which all present continents once were a part – we’re talking 200 million years ago here. It’s the kind of flora that movie directors would dream up to make a movie with dinosaurs in it – lush, green, wetter than a rat’s tail, dripping, soaking wet in fact. It would also come in size XXXL only, and in forms you would think are just not possible. Has anyone ever heard of a fern tree, for instance? Or perhaps a rimu tree, which can live up to one thousand years, with a diameter of three meters, and growing no branches or leaves until the very crown? It’s all there – mile after glorious green mile.

Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier

I drove over one thousand miles on the South Island. Through mountain passes at 3,000+ feet, along green coasts, angry surf, through forests, and crossing literally hundreds of rock-strewn alluvial plains of the coldest grey-blue water, just above freezing point, as rivers haul rocks and gravel from the majestic Southern Alps into the Tasman Sea. There were thirty-mile long, ultra-deep lakes held within the mountains, left behind by volcanic action hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The New Zealand poet Bill Manhire wrote:

I don't know where the dead go, Kevin.
The one far place I know
is inside the heavy radio. If I listen late at night,
there's that dark, celestial glow,
heaviness of the cave, the hive.
Moeraki Boulders
Moeraki Boulders

This poem could probably only have been written by someone in a place as far away as New Zealand. It was first published in 2005, and yet, the sense of remoteness comes through even in the era of the Internet. I had that sense of remoteness everywhere I went – whether on South Island, as you stare out across the Pacific and realize that there’s nothing from there until Chile, or in Auckland – a city cobbled together from a bunch a buildings that somehow still don’t make a city, because there can’t be any cities so far from where other people are, because cities exist only by the grace of their nearness to other cities. Barring that they are stockades – outposts, fortifications against nature.

AucklandMaybe that’s the essence of those few lines from Manhire’s poem as well: “far” is indeed absolute when physical obstacles (such as oceans and mountains) do not allow one to gauge distance, and as a result the farness migrates to our heads. There is a reason why we call a journey a journey – it’s the distance you can travel on foot within one day. In spite of technology, our heads continue to find it difficult to change our understanding of what “close” and “far” mean: 20-30 miles is close, anything beyond that is far, even when it takes us no more than half an hour to drive the distance. But it’s that distance that we can walk across in one single day.

And that make New Zealand really far.

An empty country and dead kangaroos

Empty Melbourne on a weekday
Melbourne on a week day

Remember that movie “The Devil’s Advocate”, where we see an empty Manhattan? That’s how Melbourne looks on weekdays. Not for nothing it has often been voted the world’s most livable city – no traffic jams, great biking lanes and the world’s largest urban tramway network – all free in the CBD – what’s not to like about that?

I lived in New York City for many years, and one thing that was always there – daytime, nighttime, rain or snow – was the honking, the wailing of sirens, and the permanent drone of hundreds of thousands of air-conditioners. You get used to it, but it’s a pesky reminder that you share a small island with another 7 million humans.

There’s none of that in Melbourne. At most you’ll hear the streetcar bells and the unmistakable

They sure do know how to wrap up a building
They sure do know how to wrap up a building

sound of their brakes against the tracks. But you hear no cars. In fact I can hear birds outside my window in central Melbourne as I write this. Can’t hear this in Paris or Rome, unless you live way outside the metropolitan area, away from revving Vespa’s and honking Renaults.

The amazing Twelve Apostles
The amazing Twelve Apostles

I just came back from a short road trip. Not exactly the Great Australian Outback, but barely ten miles out of Melbourne the bush starts. I drove almost one thousand miles, along the coast, inland, mountains and shrub. A lot of shrub. And when I came back and looked at the map I realized that what I had driven was no more than a blip on the map. As if someone had spat on it: there, don’t you even go thinking that you went anywhere. This country teaches you something about distances.

No, it’s not Uluru


And about emptiness.

Only slightly smaller than the US, Australia has a population of only 24 million – 14 times less than the US. Its population density is around 3 persons per square kilometer, leaving it in 236th position worldwide. In essence, it’s an empty country. The cities, the coast, the small towns – they’re big, with big buildings, vast oceans, wide-open skies, rambling country roads and never-ending fields where they grow God-knows-what, but definitely enough to keep everyone well-fed, because even the people are big. Everything is big, as if to fill up this vast space that taunts the minuscule humans living in it with its unending emptiness.

Yet there’s something uncanny about Australia’s emptiness that I did not find in the Sahara, Nevada or the Gobi Desert. Percy Reginald Stephensen, a contemporary and friend of Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, put it very succinctly:

Outlandish trees

“The blossoming of the waratah, the song of the lyrebird, typify the spirit of primitive loveliness in our continent; but the wail of the dingo, the gauntness of our tall trees by silent moonlight, can provide a shiver of terror to a newcomer (…) against background strangeness, of strange beasts and birds and plants, in a human emptiness of three million square miles…”

It’s that “human emptiness” that intrigues me. It’s all so ancient, almost as if it once were filled but everything has left since. A 19th century bushman reportedly once said: This is ”a queer country, so old that as you walk on and on, there’s a feeling comes over you that you are gone back to Genesis.”

The pier at Lorne

It’s true that, as you walk or drive on, there is in fact little to hold on to – the trees are a different shade of green – paler, as if bleached through centuries of drought under an angry sun. When you stand in front of the vast Southern Ocean, with just a few surfers dotting the waves, you realize that there is nothing between you and the faraway South Pole – why would any boats pass by here?

It is often said that this is a young country, but in truth it is a place that probably, essentially, has not changed for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, it is obscenely old, and the parched scrubland of the outback is a chilling reminder of how ancient this land really is, in spite of the few million coastal dwellers clinging to the illusion of a new country.

The great Australian poet Alec Derwent Hope wrote:

IMG_3589 - Copy
Sunset at Warrnambool

“They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry

Beautiful, isn’t it?

I also encountered tens of dead kangaroos. Not surprising perhaps, given that there are an estimated 50-60 million kangaroos in Australia –twice as many as there are cattle, and at least twice as many as there are people, so everyone might have their two personal boxing roo bodyguards. Sadly, some are bound to be hit by cars, as they hop and

A few miles out of Melbourne

leap at speeds of up to 70 km/h (43 mph). Contrary to what we might think, this fast method of travel did not evolve so they might escape predators (none other than humans, and now their cars of course), but because of the need to regularly cover large distances in search of food and water. Again amazing how this vast empty land forced the more successful species to adapt themselves. Another interesting fact I learned about kangaroos is that females are usually pregnant in permanence, except on the day she gives birth; Wikipedia adds that the mother

“has the ability to freeze the development of an embryo until the previous joey is able to leave the pouch. This is known as diapause, and will occur in times of drought and in areas with poor food sources. The composition of the milk produced by the mother varies according to the needs of the joey. In addition, the mother is able to produce two different kinds of milk simultaneously for the newborn and the older joey still in the pouch. And to top it all, the “during a dry period, males will not produce sperm, and females will only conceive if enough rain has fallen to produce a large quantity of green vegetation.[38]

How’s that for reproductive adaptability? Absolutely amazing. But it still is a sad sight to see a dead kangaroo by the side of the road. They look gentle, like deer, even in death. A curious cross between a rabbit and a deer. You wonder how, in this empty space, with so few cars passing through, it is possible for so many

Kangaroo skin for sale
Kangaroo skin for sale

kangaroos to be killed in road accidents. Mind you, the Australians do put up signs warning of crossing kangaroos, as well as phone numbers to call in case of injured wildlife. But I assume that few of them survive the clash between their own 70km/h hop and the 100km/h of a speeding car. Pretty graphic clip here: kangaroo road accident. In NSW alone, 7,000 animals are killed in traffic accidents every day, two-thirds of them involving kangaroos and wallabies. That’s millions each year. And yet the kangaroo population keeps growing at a healthy clip, not surprisingly perhaps if the females are permanently pregnant.

So there’s the tragedy: a vast empty country, and a highly-adaptable animal falling victim to collision by the millions. As the trailer of the fantastic movie Walkabout had it:

“There is a place where time stands still. Where 20151230_122426nature is harsh and demanding. Where only the quick and the strong and the deadly can survive. This place is no place for civilised man. In this place, man is just another one of God’s creatures.”

And that goes for kangaroos, too.

In the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Going up to the Tiger's Nest behind me.
Going up to the Tiger’s Nest behind me.

Earlier this month I spent a week in Bhutan – the Land of the Thunder Dragon as the Bhutanese call it. Thimphu, the capital, is wedged in between mountains on both sides, in a narrow valley cut out of the granite by a river of ice-cold water coming down straight from Himalayan peaks. There are few tourists in Thimphu – at most 100,000 tourists are allowed in each year, and the Bhutanese like to keep it this way: “High value, low impact,” they call their attempt to severely limit the potential impact of tourism on their quite unique society.

Not enough words to describe this
Exceedingly beautiful

What most impressed me is their quiet and unpretentious dignity, their strong connection to nature, and their deep sense of what is important in life. Buddhism is not an empty shell here, as I fear it has become in many parts of Asia, where opulence, inequality and entitlement by the few have perverted Buddhism’s essential belief in restraint, abnegation and detachment from prestige and worldly desires. Buddhism is truly lived here, not far from the birthplace of the Buddha, in it’s essential form – focused on the pursuit of happiness.

Security at Paro Airport - no natural enemies.
Security at Paro Airport.

Bhutan’s unique concept of gross national happiness has often been hailed as a bit of a gimmick, a Eutopian concept that might only be applied in countries or communities completely cut off from the rest of the world. Maybe so. Bhutan is a small country, and perhaps only small countries may try to apply Eutopian concepts and have a fair chance at making them work. Bhutan has taken the pursuit of happiness to its logical consequence, helped of course by its small size, isolated position, poor and largely rural population, and the (until recently) absence of the trappings of a democratic system.

Never seen a hospital prettier than this - Punakha, the former capital.
Never seen a hospital prettier than this – Punakha

People are still poor, the economy is still not integrated with the global economy, and the country remains largely isolated.  The latter is by choice – tourists are charged between 250 and 300 dollars each per day for the privilege of seeing this beautiful country. Not more than 100,000 visas are issued each year, which minimizes the impact of tourism on local lifestyles, and keeps out the hippies that have become ubiquitous in Nepal – no disrespect to hippies, I was one myself once. Part of that $300 per-day fee goes towards paying for the free education and healthcare enjoyed by all 600,000 Bhutanese citizens – money definitely well-spent in my view. Now, many countries would be like this: there is no scarcity of poor countries, and many of them try to provide free education and healthcare in a bid to escape the vicious cycle of poverty. So what makes Bhutan different?

Mother an daughter - they get the most glorious view of the Himalayas every day. They both speak perfect English as well.
Mother and daughter.
Carrying food up the mountain.

This perhaps: I never saw an unhappy face in Bhutan. Is this possible, with all the poverty many of them endure? Or was I in the wrong places? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that I walked around Thimpu and Punakha and never saw a beggar in the street. I walked up the Tiger’s Nest monastery and saw poor men and women carry up baskets filled with foodstuffs and firewood, and they were happy to chat and pose for a photo without asking for money – and they posed with a smile. I encountered one of the royal princesses on our way up to the Tiger’s Nest – she was on a pilgrimage that day – and she chatted and told us with a smile that she would “see us up there.”

88 years old and going strong

I have spent decades living in poor countries, and poverty just about always results in people begging. It also results in people being suspicious of the kindness of strangers. Again, not so in Bhutan. Children are happy to be photographed – in fact they will even pose for the camera. Their parents also seem to happily pose with them, and talk with you without the least sense of undue servility as often encountered when an outside civilization endowed with money engages with a poorer one. The Bhutanese seem to have no sense of inferiority – poor or not, they seem to engage with you on the basis of equality: “we are two human beings born equal, and the money bit makes no difference to this basic equation,” they seem to say.

Great gho

It is easy to say that their isolation and, to some extent, backwardness, has been imposed on the Bhutanese by a few powerful people who do not want the country to progress, or live in a past that cannot possibly survive the 21st century. But that would not explain the smiles. It has also been said that the Bhutanese are forced to wear the “gho” (traditional gear for man) or “kea” (for women), and that they would start wearing jeans and t-shirts the moment they could. But when you ask ordinary Bhutanese they seem to be quite happy wearing their traditional outfits. In fact, I bought a gho myself – it’s damn good-looking and practical to boot!

IMG_2293So I can only conclude that the Bhutanese have a deep-seated acceptance and love of their lifestyles, and of the connection to nature and all living beings that inspires them to pursue happiness even if this means not running towards material development. Yes, they all love their mobile phones as much as the next guy or girl. But they seem to be unwilling to give up everything else in their lives, everything that matters, just to obtain material goods.

IMG_2480And this is where I come back to that distinction between knowing and understanding: I do not think that this kind of feeling connected to the rest of society and to nature comes from theoretical learning or knowledge. Knowledge can only take us so far – we know that plastic bags are bad for the environment, and that the higher the GDP per capita the better off we are. But we do not necessarily understand this – if we do not live downstream a pristine mountain river we do not realize how dirty and clogged-up it might have been, and if we do not truly feel that the ultimate objective of all human life is happiness for all of us, then we do not understand that GDP per capita masks unhappiness, inequality, and injustice.IMG_2777

And those were my lessons learned in Bhutan. The climb up to the Tiger’s Nest was not easy. And when you get there you see that what was a shining city on a hill from below and afar, is nothing but a very old collection of dirty buildings, burned down twice yet re-built by determination and devotion. When you get up there you realize, as did Ulysses in Cafavy’s words, that the destination was but an excuse for the marvelous journey:


“And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”

Bhutan, Ithaka, they’re only names, aren’t they? It truly is the voyage that matters more than the destination.

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…

11334637_1448118972171542_691864830_nErnest Hemingway once said (or wrote): “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

And Maya Angelou added: “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Both of them indicated, in their own ways, that stories are waiting inside a writer’s head, or heart, and are giving him or her hell until they get out. It is a mysterious concept, and a concept that is in fact hard to describe – as if stories had a life of their own , inhabiting a person’s head until they find a way to come out and live lives of their own. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story,” as Homer (the Greek, dead guy) started the Odyssey.

Anyone who has ever made serious attempts to write fiction has probably experienced this struggle. I certainly have. The nagging voice in your head telling you bits and pieces, and sometimes they are just colors, a few words here, or images strung together to form a soundless tapestry. They are the foot soldiers sent out by the story in your head, to make sure you know who’s the boss. They won’t let go, they won’t let up. They nag until you su149rrender, and bleed.

There are probably as many writing techniques as there are writers – in fact there might even be more techniques than there are writers, as a whole cottage industry has grown up pretending to teach writers about writing. And while there are certainly structural issues to be learned in a formal setting, the mystery of the story inside your head cannot be captured or channeled by any writing class or technique. It simply needs to come out.

When I start writing I clear my head of everything else, and the story juts pushes itself out through my fingers. I rarely know where it will go, and I usually write between 600 and 1,000 words before even looking up from my keyboard. My screen usually looks like a mess – spelling errors, placeholders or words I could not coin exactly, and expect to find at a later time, because I do know what word it is not, but do not yet know which one it is. I would call this diarrhea. But it smells good to me.

I usually don’t go back to this primeval diarrhea until I have written a bit more. I let it ferment, and only go back to it when I need to actually understand it before I can go forward. In other words, I start trying to understand what I juts wrote. If this sounds nebulous, it surely is. But the one thing I do know is that I should not tinker with my original text too much. Better leave it – don’t argue with the voice in your head until it has finished pooping out everything.

Courtesy of the Whiskey River Soap Co.
Courtesy of the Whiskey River Soap Co.

Writer’s block is related to this, I think. It is not so much that you don’t know wat to say, or where to go next. It’s that story figuring out what it’s going to feed you next. When I try to force it, it often does not yield good results. The writing will come out flat, lifeless. It’ll be another couple of hundred words, so if you’re racing to write your quota of words for the week or month it will add a bit, but you will most likely end up throwing away the bulk of it.

There is a distinct pleasure in writing when you are truly inspired. In ancient times we used to call this “the Muse.” You can call it Divine Inspiration, the Muse, or vanilla ice-cream – the truth is that a writer’s brain collects every bit of knowledge and conviction he or she has ever acquired, douses it with every emotion he or she has ever felt, and shoves it out through a pen or a keyboard, as if turning out a tenant that had not paid rent. The result is breathtaking – it’s a journey of self-discovery, of realizing your purpose in life – sharing convictions Courtesy of AphroditeAgilityChickand emptions in such a way that others will be touched by them.

Writers do not write because they want to – they write because they have no choice. The voice in heir head will drive them crazy if it stays locked up.

Could Abel have slain Cain?

Fo591px-Cain_and_Abel,_15th_centuryr most of my younger years I thought of the story of Cain and Abel as just one more story – history if anything, and certainly a convenient way to introduce and start off a pretty large collection of stories about God and the rest of us.

We repeat the story that Abel was generous, and Cain was jealous, and so he slew his brother, and that was that, period. The first murder in the history of mankind, and barely fifteen minutes into the book. No mincing of words here, no long build-up, no backstory – just a simple whack job and let’s the turn the page.

But how evil was Cain really? He gets painted as the father of all throat slitters, and yes, it surely was a bad thing to kill his brother, but we are also told that he never repeated this single act of violence. And more importantly, I wonder, would Abel have done the same, if he had seen his brother’s offerings being accepted instead? We don’t know anything about Abel, so I wouldn’t yet bet the farm on it.

The point is, the men ) who wrote Bereishit – Genesis (without a doubt they were men), most probably wanted to tell us something about human nature, about the fact that anyone could become a murderer at instant notice. No need to be a psychopath, no need for scheming and plotting. Just a motive, an instant motive, and an opportunity to act on the motive.

The story of Cain and Abel runs through my book, Of Giants and Other Men – how human beings are capable of harming others without even realizing, or wanting to realize, that what they have done is wrong. It’s ugly, but real.

Hanna Ahrendt, writing about the Eichmann Trials in 1963, called this ‘the banality of evil’: the idea that evil is not the absence of good – it is the absence of assuming responsibility for one’s acts. Even Huckleberry Finn knew better than that, when he was faced with the choice between living comfortably in a hypocritical society and a life based on the gut instinct of what is right and what is not: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. These are not just awful words, they are very powerful words, and they are often quoted, I believe, because they encompass the core moral dilemma Huck – and everyone else, faces in life: as the master of our own deeds, we are responsible for our own choices.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study of the psychology involved in becoming either a prisoner of a prison guard, and how easily people slip into these roles. The experiment was conducted at Stanford University in 1971, by a team of researchers under professor Philip Zimbardo. The participants quickly adapted to their roles, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and even subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. These were all perfectly socialized colege students, and yet, they all very quickly became Cains and Abels – and could just as easily have swapped roles.

The Third Wave was an experimental social movement created by high school history teacher Ron james to explain how the German populace could accept the actions of the Nazis during WWII. Over the course of five days, Jones conducted a series of exercises in his classroom emphasizing discipline and community, intended to model certain characteristics of the Nazi movement. As the movement grew outside his class and began to number in the hundreds, Jones began to feel that the movement had spiraled out of control. How easy it is for people to suspend what we think are deelply-entrenched values and ethical principles, and simply join the “group” and whatever the “group” says is now ethical or normal.

In the new novel I am currently writing, The Keeper, I build on the story of Cain and Abel, again – it is the story of mankind after all. My new novel chronicles the story of two brothers and a mistaken identity that haunts them throughout the better part of a century. Spanning three continents, it is a story of self-discovery and ultimately acceptance of ourselves and others, in spite of our flkahn out of edenaws and shortcomings, but in the realization that these are the flaws that make us human.

Paul W. Kahn starts his masterful book Out of Eden, with these words: “Evil makes us human.” This is very true, most of us will agree, whether or not we have religious feelings. Only by becoming evil – and what is more evil than murder? – do we open up the path to repentance and redemption. Few novels I know of could have been written if they had not built on this central tenet, succinctly describing the human condition in all its fallen, miserable, yet infinitely redeemable splendor.

So could Abel have slain Cain? I think he could have. We all could have. So let’s make sure that we won’t, because the first time around caused trouble enough.

My blog

My regular blog, “Words Enough, and Time,” may be found here.

It’s where I write about the things that move me, fascinate me, or inspire me.

Not really where I brag about my novel, although it is an excellent read.

Go there. Now.

Is this a true story?

An early reviewer asked me a few months back if the book is based on a true story: “Your story is so well-crafted I found myself wondering if perhaps this was based on a true story? Is there truth to this story? I almost stopped reading to start checking history online.”

The truth is somewhere in-between, as it always is. Probably. Truthfully.
This war that was being waged in Nicaragua for almost fifty years, between the Somozas and the rest, was often low-intensity, and not really political in the cold-war sense. It was mostly about controlling resources and wealth. Did Somoza exist? Yes they did, both father and son, and it’s hard to say which of the two was the greater thief, but by the time the younger one was booted out the Somoza family “was reputed to be worth $500 million and to own or control 50 percent of Nicaragua’s land,” according to Encyclopedia Britanica.

Did the protagonists of the story exist? No, they did not. But people like the Colonel did exist, and did unspeakable things to keep the regime going. Students and other young people, including many of well-to-do families, did join the rebels in droves, or provided tacit support. In fact, it was not uncommon for families to be split down the middle, with some members supporting the Somoza regime (and getting some of the spoils in return, in the form of land titles, bank loans, government jobs, concessions and licenses et.al.), while others provided support to the rebels. In the end, family matters more than political views.

Somehow, the stories of many people have become interwoven into this story. It is a story about courage and honor, and about what may happen when we are either too obsessed with the past or too afraid of the future, and forget the simple things that make life worth living.


In that sense, it is a true story.

What others are saying

kirkus_500x95 Kirkus Reviews:

‘A beautifully realized novel that doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors of war as well as life’s moments of beauty.’

‘intricately textured narrative.’

‘Peek manages to weave the 20th century history of Nicaragua together with a moving story of betrayal and redemption, without sacrificing the tale’s descriptive beauty.’


The Midwest Book Review:mbr

‘…no casual read.’

Of Giants and Other Men is a sleeping giant, in and of itself. It promises much, evolves its plot slowly and carefully. The result is satisfyingly complex, recommended both for readers already familiar with Nicaragua’s culture and politics and for absolute newcomers who will find these facets easy to absorb in the process of understanding one boy’s growth and journey toward and within manhood.’


  pdxbrlogo Portland Book Review:

“A pretty strong read throughout.”

“a story about familial riffs, the contemplation of becoming like one’s parent, and the question of how love comes about and why it ends. There’s power in the tale of Tomas and Fausto.”

Of Giants and Other Men has plenty of charm to it, as well as compelling dialogue and beautiful descriptions. It is a book that sticks.”


sanfranciscobookreview_logo_90San Francisco Book Review:

Of Giants and Other Men begins and ends with an untimely death, but the middle is where the reader is well, and truly, hooked.’

‘Most memorable is Peek’s unique talent for capturing surroundings through the most under-referenced of senses: scent. (…) These elements are where Peek shows the most potential to become a great writer.’

‘Recommended for fans of literary fiction.’