Friday, November 28, 2008

Guy Gavriel Kay - Ysabel

Guy Gavriel Kay, Ysabel, Roc, 2008.

Spoiler warning!

This is a fantasy novel set in our world, and that is both its strength and its weakness. Kay returns to the approach adopted in his early trilogy, the Fionavar Tapestry. This trilogy featured characters taken from our world to Fionavar, where magic is part of life. In Ysabel, the magic happens in our world, and some characters from the Fionavar Tapestry return.

This is the story of Ned Marriner, aged 15, a Canadian in Provence, who becomes involved in the magic of the place. It turns out that this is no coincidence, as he is related to Kim Ford, a character familiar to readers of the Fionavar Tapestry.

One of my problems with reading fantasy is that the magic often seems arbitrary. Sometimes there is a consistent system of magic rules, the equivalent of the laws of nature. In this case, the story doesn't make much sense, at least to me:

Once upon a time, the first Greek traders arrived in Provence, and a local Celtic woman chose one of the Greek traders as her husband, thus angering the Celtic man who was expecting to marry her. After that, over the centuries, these two men seem to be reincarnated, in their original bodies, and fight each other for the love of the woman. In one incarnation, the Greek was (or became) the Roman general Marius who fought a famous battle in Provence. It is not clear whether this change took place at Marius's birth in Rome, or only when he arrived in Provence. The woman, meanwhile, takes over the body of a living woman in a Druidic rite, and each time she keeps some of the characteristics of the woman she has possessed. The rivalry between the two men, encouraged by the woman, caused all of the major battles that took place in Provence over the centuries. Usually one of the men died, and the other claimed the woman, and they lived a normal life thereafter. I am confused as to why the men appear in their original bodies while the woman's spirit must possess an existing woman and be less consistent since the occupied woman's spirit influences her behaviour.

However, having suspended disbelief at the strange inconsistency of the magic involved, one discovers that Kay is here revisiting one of his main themes in many of his works - the evil done in the name of love. The men claim they are fighting each other for the woman's love, and she seems to not only accept this but expect and even enjoy it. The battles often cause the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. It seems to me that this should not be called love. It is selfish, possessive and competitive passion. Love should be something that improves and inspires the lovers to greatness, not something that turns them into greedy and violent rivals.

Another theme explored here is the clash of cultures between the traditional Celtic way of life (portrayed as inherently linked to the land, although even before the Greeks and Romans arrived in the region many different tribes and cultures existed and moved around this part of Europe), and the "modern" Graeco-Roman culture, involving different religious and cultural elements. While readers may choose to identify with the perceived underdog, the culture that was first occupied by outsiders and then obliterated, further contemplation may show that the Celtic way of life was quite primitive and violent. Some evidence shows that the Druids conducted human sacrifice. While the Roman occupation may have been brutal, I find it hard to believe that most modern readers would have preferred the Celtic culture to have prevailed.

The book is full of beautiful descriptions of the landscape and sites of Kay's beloved Provence. If I ever travel there, I will take this book with me as a sort of guide. It seems to be accurately researched, and here Kay can apply his historical research more directly than in his fantasy novels set in other worlds, which are only loosely based on our history, being sort of parallels to our world. This is one advantage of this novel. One can relate to real places in our world more easily than to imagined landscapes and cities that we will never visit. Perhaps some readers also find it easier to identify with modern day characters from our world than with people from invented worlds and cultures. However, I enjoy the exploration of what it is to be human that features in works set in different worlds in both fantasy and science fiction.

The plot is a simple quest. Ned and his new American friend Kate witness the Druidic ceremony where the woman's spirit possesses a present-day woman, in this case Ned's father's assistant Melanie. They see Melanie turn into a different woman, who takes the name Ysabel, and then challenges the two men to search for her and find her within three days. Ned and his friends and relatives then try to find Ysabel before the men do, assuming that if one of them finds her first there will be no way of bringing Melanie back, but not knowing if it would be possible to bring her back anyway.

Ned's character is well-drawn, in a sensitive portrait of a modern adolescent undergoing a strange process of rapid maturation. Kate, however, is an underdeveloped character. Kay gives her a characteristic mannerism (biting her lip), and otherwise makes her similar in character to the disappeared Melanie, which is no accident as Kate could have been the woman who became Ysabel, and as Ned is attracted to both of them, probably for similar reasons.

As always in fantasy novels, good triumphs and our hero saves the day. Ned manages to bring Melanie back; the two men are sacrificed in a way that is supposed to end the cycle and prevent further incarnations; he comes to terms with his magical powers; and there are hints that he may be rewarded by the ultimate growing-up experience, sex. The novel does not resolve this issue, as Ned appreciates the attentions of the grateful Melanie, but postpones any action, and later spends time with Kate, who may be interested and seems a more acceptable partner, being the same age as Ned, but the book ends before anything happens. Since sexual passion (not love) was the cause of the whole recurring story, it is seen here as a force to be treated with caution, and not just because Ned is young and inexperienced.

I enjoyed reading this book more the second time, and it is moving and well-written. However, I consider it not Kay's best work, and plan to write about his other novels later.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Carmelit - Haifa's Underground Railway

I came across a short film called Strangers, which has a positive message of co-existence and anti-racism. However, my main interest in this film is that it was made on Haifa's underground railway, the Carmelit.

I enjoy using the Carmelit when I have to go to parts of the city close to its stations. There is no other underground railway in Israel, so this is the closest I can get to the cosmopolitan feeling of using the "underground" or "metro" or "subway". However, it is very different to other undergrounds, since it is a funicular railway going up and down the Carmel mountain, and so both the trains and the stations are built on a slope, with steps (this can be seen at the end of the film and in the photos on the linked sites).

The Carmelit takes just 8 minutes to travel its entire line (much quicker than driving up or down the hill, or taking the bus). However, it has two main problems, which reduce its popularity. I have never seen it crowded or had to stand, in contrast to the frequent overcrowding on Israel Railways trains and on buses. First, the location of the stations. These places used to be important city centres when it was built, but now they are less popular, and other important city areas are not on the route. Second, there is a shortage of parking spaces near the stations, so people can't park and catch the Carmelit very easily. If I want to use the Carmelit, I take a bus to the nearest station as I know it would be difficult or impossible to park nearby.

There is talk of extending the Carmelit one day, but I'll believe it when I see it. Other proposals include a cable car going up the hill to Haifa University. That would make Haifa by far the most transportationally diverse city in Israel. There is already a cable car, going from Stella Maris down to the beach at Bat Galim, but it is primarily a tourist attraction.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


It is difficult to build things and easy to destroy them. Sometimes a moment of thoughtlessness can cause great damage.

It has just been reported that the recent fire in California, which has burned down many houses and forced thousands to be evacuated, may have been started by a student bonfire that was not properly extinguished. It seems very obvious that people lighting a fire should make absolutely sure that it is put out before leaving.

Responsibility requires people to take a wider view. It involves thinking ahead, thinking about possible consequences, and thinking about other people. Acting responsibly should come naturally to properly educated people. It should become second nature, part of one's habits.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Here in Haifa we often hear loud sonic booms from jets. Sometimes, when I can't hear a jet in the minutes before or after the boom, I wonder if the boom was some other sort of explosion. The options I consider include a suicide bomb or a terrorist bomb, a rocket from Lebanon like the ones we experienced daily during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, a gas leak or an accident in one of the factories in the Haifa Bay. I wait to hear if there are ambulance sirens, and if not, I usually decide it was a sonic boom after all.

An incident today has made me add another option to this list. In Tel Aviv today, a notorious crime boss was blown up in his car. Four passers-by were injured. The police predict a series of revenge attacks among the crime families. Who knows how many uninvolved people may be hurt in this private war.

These criminal families have often attacked each other's members, injuring or killing innocent bystanders in the process. It is so difficult to get them convicted, and they remain free to conduct their violent competition in public.

So here's another fear to add to our not insignificant list...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Apathy vs. Empowerment

This week in Israel we had local elections for Mayors and municipal councils. The overall turnout was about 50%, while in the large cities it was much lower, around 30%.

Here in Haifa the turnout was 33%, and the current Mayor, Yona Yahav, was reelected with 46% of the votes. If I'm calculating correctly, this means that just 15% of the registered voters actually chose to vote for the Mayor.

The voter apathy and the resulting distortion of the democratic principle of majority choice are causing concern. People once fought for the right to vote and elect representatives. Now many people can't be bothered to go out and vote. Some may be cynical, thinking that it doesn't make any difference who's in power. Some just don't like thinking about "politics", although in the case of municipal elections, the choice is more closely related to specific local policies than to the party affiliation of the candidates.

Empowerment means increasing the power of individuals or groups. In a democracy, the voting population is empowered by being granted the right to vote for representatives to rule or manage the national or local affairs of the community. Being granted the right is obviously insufficient. People have to want to exercise this right, or democracy won't work properly. It seems to me that granting people empowerment or rights is like registering them to a gym. If they don't want to make the effort to go and train, this makes no difference to their lives. They are actively choosing to disempower themselves. They could just as well be living in an absolute monarchy or totalitarian dictatorship.

More education seems to be required in democracies to encourage voters to cast their votes. Apathy and cynicism are a lazy and dangerous option, allowing leaders to rule when they represent only a small portion of the public. As I said in a previous post, the presidential elections in the USA seem to have brought some new voters out of their apathy and given them sufficient hope and enthusiasm to go and vote. All democracies should aim for such an atmosphere before elections.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thoughts on the US Presidential Elections

1. Race still matters. However much tolerant, pluralistic and liberal people might like to think that in today's society everyone can achieve what they want by merit, regardless of their race, it has become apparent that race is important. Perhaps individual voters know whether they voted for Obama because of his race ("It's about time we had a black president"), or despite his race ("He's the better candidate even though he's black"), but I doubt that any voters thought that race was completely unimportant and irrelevant to their choice. One can only hope that President Obama will be remembered as much for his positive achievements in office as for being the first black president.

2. Turnout. It seems that despite early predictions, the turnout was not higher than in the 2004 elections. However, there does seem to have been a different composition of those voters who did decide to cast their votes. The election campaign seemed to arouse more interest and excitement than previous ones. This shows that the public can overcome its apathy and people who had never voted before can become motivated to go out and vote for a candidate or issue that they feel strongly about. Democracies are not perfect, but I believe that voting is important, and feeling helplessness and apathy about the running of your country is counterproductive. If you live in a democracy, it is worth using your right to vote.

3. The risk of assassination. As Israel marks the 13th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, we are reminded that there have been several assassinations of US presidents and politicians. While I don't like to raise negative ideas, I can imagine that there could be people considering such an attempt. I really hope that the security team in charge of protecting President-elect Obama is doing a good job.

Although I am not a US citizen, I would like to wish the new president and his administration good luck. As the world's only superpower and largest economy, the US has great responsibilities for the whole world. It seems that Obama is currently more popular among non-US citizens than Bush ever was, and I hope his policies live up to the world's expectations, as far as possible.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Impressions of Nazareth

Last week we visited Nazareth. Apart from seeing the main touristic sites in the old city (churches, the mosque, the market), we took an interest in the local population.

The town is an interesting mixture of old and new, and it seems to be in process of transition. In some ways it was reminiscent of the more old-fashioned towns we have visited in Greece, with modernization superimposed on top of a slightly backward social attitude. For example, many people there still smoke, something that is, fortunately, becoming increasingly rare in my usual social circles. The traffic seemed chaotic, with some young people driving dangerously and disregarding the law. The shops were displaying a wide range of goods, and clothing seemed to range from modest and drab to rather gaudy.

The new government building, containing the courts and various offices, located on the hilltop between Nazareth and Nazareth Illit towers over the city. The old city is dominated by the Church of the Annunciation, outside which is a small mosque with a large prayer plaza (which created great controversy when it was built in 1999-2002). The streets are narrow and difficult to navigate. We visited two guest houses in the old city that have recently opened and are trying to attract tourists to stay overnight rather than just visiting the town and going to stay elsewhere. They have restored the old houses, one with high, painted ceilings, the other with the original Syrian floor tiles. Both have antique furniture along with modern amenities. We also saw a rather amateurish museum of heritage or folklore, a one-man operation that collects and displays objects and photos from Nazareth's past.

Our guide was a history teacher who has completed her Masters degree on the history of Nazareth, and is starting a PhD. She took us to the school where she teaches, to the offices of the Municipality, and drove us around various parts of the town. She explained where different social groups live, and this was also indicated by the flags and posters of the two parties competing in the municipal elections next week - the red of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality party (communist), from which all Mayors of Nazareth since the 1970s have come, versus the green of the Islamic movement. Apart from the usual problems between Israeli Arabs and the Jewish majority, Nazareth suffers from continuing tension between Christian and Moslem Arabs, and between various sub-groups or denominations within each religion. This creates a very complicated society in which the process of modernization encounters resistance on various levels.

We could see the mingling of the traditional populations, both Moslem and Christian, in their headcoverings and traditional clothing, with the modern, westernized, educated residents. Our guide and her family stressed the importance of education in creating progress, and also in liberating women from their restrictive traditional roles.

It remains to be seen whether the majority in Nazareth chooses to embrace progress, seek education, promote tolerance and co-existence, and become more integrated into mainstream Israeli society (like the Arab population of Haifa, for example), or to return to the traditional ways promoted by religious leaders, which could worsen the internal conflicts between the various groups within the town.