“The Golden Fleece” – Stories from the Caucuses


It is in the dark forests of our world where often the stories are born. It was in the great wooded areas of Bavaria where the brothers Grimm discovered and catalogued the ancient tales for their eponymous “fairy tales”. So too in the Caucuses, where the ancient silvan paths produced tales of the interplay between the peasants and the kings and the wicked supernatural Divs. But the stories of the Caucuses are older, long long before the brothers walked the black forests of northern Europe. These are the lands of Jason and his Argonauts, a story which was old even when Homer was penning the Iliad. Are they the first stories? Perhaps.

What struck me about the collection of Caucasian stories in “The Golden Fleece” is how universal they are. The struggles of average man in prehistory against the forces which sought to oppress him and take from him his happiness and prosperity. The wickedness of the kings. Love for a beautiful girl; the bounty of a great harvest; the joy of a celebration when chance or destiny has again delayed destruction. The Divs, magical creatures which might be demons or djinn and exist in all cultures and which were always causing mischief for the poor people of the lands.

Some of the stories had adapted to include Islamic terms and ideas as that religion subsumed what had been before and seized control parts of the Caucuses. Some remained steadfastly animist, without any hint of modern religion. Two of the stories intrigued me, because they appeared to be early versions of Rapunzel and of Snow White – making me wonder if the source for these tales was farther east and they traveled with the movement of peoples. Something for further study.

I recommend reading this book – it is through the ancient legends of people by which we can understand them better and make common cause with their timeless ideas and struggles. That is called wisdom.

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Cakes and Ale

For those who don’t understand #BREXIT, a simple solution would be to immerse themselves in W. Somerset Maugham. In his flowing prose rests the fine nostalgia of an England of yesteryear, an England as things were – for years and years, centuries even. Nostalgia is often given a bad reputation; it is seen especially nowadays as a safe-haven for those to flee who would rest unhindered in their prejudices. Just as the past is told of as a wicked place; longing for it, remembering it fondly, yearning for the way things were is the act of a bent man in denial of the perfect progressiveness unto now.

But, of course, that is not true. Those are the opinions of the young and the foolish. For nostalgia is nothing except that special polish which wipes away the rough edges of the past until it is smooth to the touch, gentle and lovely. Like a diamond, old and formed under tremendous pressure, taken and sanded down and cut until it sparkles timeless and perfect in the imaginations of men – so to W. Somerset Maugham’s stories of England. An England that people are still willing to defend, to fight for – an England who saw its way to two World War victories by men, sons of England all who would not give up on her so easily; and, in that, who do not see going out to vote as too great a sacrifice to again defend what they find good in themselves. Even despite – or perhaps especially – when they are told with such vehemence that it was never so; and worse, by those who themselves did not fight.

“Cakes and Ale”, my latest Maugham, is about that England. It is full of the scandals of the old lands. Illicit affairs; imperfect marriages; bankruptcy and divorce and even violence. And it is full of writers – it is a reminder that old England was created as much by its novelists as by its Lords; that we speak just as often of Tennyson and Shakespeare as we do of Henry VIII and Queen Victoria. Villages, towns with houses made of peat and reverberating with the memories of things that have not changed forever; of people who see just as much suspicion as opportunity in the salesmanship of those preaching progress – who know that behind the golden words of the propagandists lies just as likely chaos as does utopia; and in knowing so strive to preserve an order old and time worn and comfortable to the touch, even if it does at times constrain.

Yes, those who are confused about what has happened to their best laid plans for change might ought to read “Cakes and Ale”, “Human Bondage” and “Painted Veil” before they go and try and burn down something they do not yet understand.

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Different Idealisms and Many Types of Lords

“Joel D. Hirst’s masterpiece is a worthy best-selling novel brimming with poignant lessons about idealism, culture, and religion. It begs us to examine the current state of the world today, a world so divided by different idealisms and misruled by many types of lords. Hirst uses language as flavorful and vibrant as the culture in the Sahara but without giving in to unnecessary theatrics. The result is an extremely satisfying literary experience.” – read the entire review here.

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In Places Like Grenoble


Grenoble: the day after yesterday

Grenoble is quiet.  It reverberates with the muted echoes of a past of great significance; a famous novelist on tiptoes. An ancient soldier whose lance is set aside in a place of honor leaning against the wall in a darkened corner of a once-imposing castle which is now an art gallery for third-best works; ones which still resonate with history, though nobody can remember the artist.

There are no tourists in Grenoble – it is a university town and a research town and a town people pass through quickly on their way to the ski slopes of the French Alps or to Geneva on some business of international import. Tourists in modern times have become the ratification of meaning, of a past of consequence in a world where those things do not matter anymore. Sure they are insufferable, with their Instagram likes and their selfie sticks – but they do ease the silence of now.

Grenoble is utopian, in the way of an old sanatorium hidden away in the cleft of a mountain beside a river. It is safe and old and protected by so great a welfare state as the French have tried to build in response to the millennia of war after war. Crumbling a little bit, gritty and kind of run-down but full of the people and their memories of when things were happening – wars being fought, occupations, trials, discoveries, tribulations; kings and dauphines and plagues. To be sure, nobody wants to repeat the turbulence (except perhaps the young, who never lived the momentous occasions and think perhaps in their heart of hearts that those times would have filled the gaping caverns in their spirits. But there are fewer and fewer of them – the young I’m referring to, not the holes), for it was after all quiet stressful. But the quiet of now is so all-consuming…

Despite all this there is something comforting and nostalgic about walking through the ancient alleyways of Grenoble’s old town. It is as if there, the answer to the question “What next?” has at last been articulated; and while it is not a satisfying one, for it lacks energy and purpose, at least it has the benefit of being tangible and true and really not so bad after all the posturing and peacocking of places that still seek their own significance, that still believe utopias are to be achieved in defiance of the deafening silence of now in places like Grenoble.

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My Author Interview for NF Reads

I recently took part in an interview for an author/reader site. I thought perhaps you might be interested – I have placed a link to the entire piece here.

What are the real-life stories behind your books?

The struggle of humanity for freedom, for meaning, and to create that cushion between oneself and destitution; that is what I write about. Because that is what I have seen in a wide world in the places I work. My two-part series on Venezuela, the San Porfirio series, came from my living there seven years, in the rise and fall of their political experiment – and to watch a country kill itself, that is unusual. Like a lot of Latin American “dictator” novels written by the greats (Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, etc.) these novels have magical realism, they try and capture the special spirit that inspires Latin America and makes it unique and different. Lords of Misrule is about a young Tuareg boy from the Sahara who gets dragged into a world of extremism and Jihad, and why, and how he escapes. I, Charles, From the Camps is about a Ugandan refugee who tries to figure out how to carve out a place for himself in the world and how that is hard and how he turns to darkness when all other options are denied him. They are real stories; not about people I’ve actually met, but more archetypes, characters who represent in their struggles the struggles of so many. My first play Dreams of the Defeated is about a political prisoner who attempts to rise up, and how he fails. I have known many political prisoners in my life – and this play I write for them. I’m working on my 5th novel right now – The Unraveling, which is about the end, not how it happened nor what comes after but that in-between period when everything is creaking to a stop.

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On Hong Kong


The third-most read post on my blog is a simple book review of “In Order To Live”, the auto-biography of Yeonmi Park. More interestingly, most of the hits come from Hong Kong. I didn’t notice this at first; the visits did not arrive in a torrent of virality but in a slow creeping drip, ten one day, twenty the next until my four year old post climbed the list. Yeonmi, that wafer thin little North Korean girl who dared to defy the dictator not only to escape her nation-prison, not only to write about it – but to become the public face of North Korea’s beleaguered hungry oppressed.

The reason this struck a chord in Hong Kong is obvious, or should be. As China goes full totalitarian, the youth of Hong Kong are slowly at first and now faster and with greater courage defying the red giant. How could they not? When it’s too late, its very much too late indeed… As it was for Yeonmi, born into a system where she had to trade herself for food – where she had to watch loved ones die and who only freed herself from the regime’s mind-control when she was well and gone.

The struggle to be free is utopian, which is not to say it is wrong. One would even wonder why we bother, knowing that the human condition is one of limited slivers of light in a sea of darkness. And the sacrifices? Most go unwritten – sure Mandela became president but how many tens, thousands died unsung? Yes, Guaido gets to be tweeted about by world leaders – but what about the 500+ political prisoners rotting and starving in Venezuela’s jails? And to what end – right? After it all, it is to ashes and dust we also go, and “the rains fall on the good and the wicked alike.” But nevertheless we fight on as our hair thins and streaks of grey march resolutely down our chins.

So today we think of Hong Kong – we all saw this coming, of course. “One nation two systems”? – rubbish. Why are they reading Yeonmi? Do they get inspiration from the porcelain dissident? Or do they need to remind themselves of the consequences if they lose? I don’t know. But I am glad there are voices out there which still dare to speak up, in a world that has grown tired and frayed, bored of the contest it would seem – so much so that only those openly powerhungry even bother anymore, mask-less and naked before the madding hoards.

Our dream of Rome, spoken in only a whisper still inspires, for those of us who care. A beleaguered community of rebellious, long after all rebellions have been smothered.

Or have they?

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Powerlessness in a Sea of Prosperity


The dust has settled upon the latest mass-shootings in America. Those seeking political gain from the tragedy of others have wandered off to find another target for their rage, their powerlessness. Powerless to maneuver the course of a country in the direction that they want – yes, I feel it too; we all do. We all think we know better. “Powerlessness in a sea of prosperity” is what Melissa MacKenzie has called it. Powerlessness politically – forget that our systems were built to fortify the powerlessness, because it is the opposite of power; power that ultimately corrupts everything it touches, for power in the hands of a person who wants it is a wicked thing and we are better served by the powerlessness.

Back to the violence. It is ironic that those who lament the powerlessness, who rage against this or that politician also deify another; not realizing in their ignorance that others are engaged in a Newtonian “equal and opposite” way – and what would happen if their foes were also not powerless?

Agency – or powerlessness; meaning or nihilism, perhaps better put. “In fact, these death-eating humans seem to be a product of a culture that is at the same time wealthier, more technologically advanced, and scientifically sophisticated while being morally lost and spiritually empty.” This is what Patrick Deneen writes about in his book “Why Liberalism Failed” – tremendous prosperity, the greatest that the world has ever known – at the service of self-destructive absurdism and the violence product of rage, because “At least rage is something. And rage is powerful. It must seem better than the alternative.”

America is not the only land of massacres – there are others happening, every day. I lived and worked in West Africa for six years, and each morning (almost) I woke up to the news of another massacre (26,000 murdered while I was in Nigeria). Sometimes ethnic, sometimes religious, sometimes about resources – always political, about who sits in front of the trough and how will that benefit me – stoking the violence to affect the balance of power in electoral ‘democracies’ that do not understand the meaning of that sacred word. It’s fascinating that those massacres also are product of powerlessness; people who cannot find a way to break out of the quietness, the silence in which they pass their lives; their great acts of violence not even decorating the pages of local newspapers anymore in a world accustomed to third world mayhem. I once wrote about this, in my novel on jihad, “To pass without a trace. To leave no mark that I was here, no notice to those who come after that I existed, dreamed, and fought – that I lived. My forefathers herded the cows and fished the rivers – they married and birthed children. They watched children grow and then grandchildren – at the end fading away under the stars of the African night. I see that, and it terrifies me. From dust I came and to dust I will go, I know that there is nothing I can do about that. But I will not go quietly. They will know I was here. They will feel my passing, I will make sure of it.”

But we should not feel powerlessness, should we? We who have so great a capacity for productivity; where college dropouts become billionaires, where peanut farmers become presidents, where we have at our command all the wealth of human knowledge – translated into our own language (a language which dominates our ever-shrinking planet) and available at the tap of a button on computers we all can afford through a communication revolution which has made it almost free; just as travel with our blue passport opens the doors to almost every country on the globe paid for by plastic in a world flush with capital, but only if you are one of the prosperous. I have flown above the powerless, trapped on their dusty patch of earth attempting to coax a maize shoot from beside a desiccated over-fished lake – the roaring sound of the bird above them, a vibration they will never experience as we switch on the seat-back screens and complain about the delay in our Champagne glass. We certainly have lost perspective, haven’t we?

So what do we do, to return morality (and subsequently meaning) to our lost land? “How do we solve that problem? How do we help young men, especially, feel like their lives have meaning? That the supposed deep thinkers are blaming their political enemies demonstrates how pathetic our intellectual class really is. (…) It seems we’ve brought up a generation of people who have everything and feel empty at the same time. The solutions are not easy. Maybe that’s why people blame politics. It’s easier.”

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