Samsa in Love – Haruki Murakmai

“Samsa in Love” (short story) by Haruki Murakmai

English Publication History: The New Yorker (October 28, 2013); Men Without Women (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017); Desire (Vintage, 2017)

Original: Japanese (恋するザムザ), 2013

Translated by Ted Goossen, 2013

Required Reading: If you haven’t read Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915/1947), please, please, please, not only because it sets a scene of contrast for “Samsa in Love”, but also because it predates and lays the foundation for the Magical Realism movement; in addition, it’s also incredibly yet morbidly beautiful to read Kafka’s lonesomeness and pain while being ensconced in pages-long paragraphs. Kafka’s verbose style, however, is not copied to Murakami’s short story.  My own plot summary of “The Metamorphosis” follows:

Gregor Samsa supports his parents and untalented sister with his mediocre job which he loathes, but he gets along grudgingly until one morning when he wakes to find himself abruptly transformed in an insectoid figure, hideous and loathsome. His family quarantine him to his room and feed him orts and leftovers, a duty his sister fulfills aside from supplanting income lost, as do the parents, by finding their own jobs; but it’s Grete who takes to French, shorthand, and the violin. Soon, Gregor sees himself supplanted. (SF Potpurri, 2013)

Synopsis: Where an insectoid body replaced that of  Gregor’s own, the being that waked upon the bed is now the insectoid personality imprisoned in Gregor’s body and Gregor’s room. He knows one thing, at least: fear birds. Alone, the Gregor now is just as unaccustomed to his human form as he was with the insectile limbs; in addition, while having the ability of speech, his vocabulary is limited as is his understanding of human culture: he scarfs good greedily without utensils, he walks through the house in nakedness, and can’t seem to walk erect on his own two legs. After observing humans outside donning cloth to hide their nakedness, Gregor mimics this with the simplest of forms: a dressing gown. He begins to understand that his grasp of the human state is very limited only when a humpbacked girl comes to repair a lock in the house. He’s easily able to hold a conversational tone but is flummoxed by words such as brassiere, hunchback, fuck, tanks, God, perverted, and pray. Innocence, though, shines through Gregor’s awkwardness as he learns little by little from the girl, who arouses him and intrigues him, the former repelling her, the latter compelling her.

Analysis: Many of Gregor’s mannerisms and reactions can be inferred by the reader, not because they are familiar with Gregor as an insect, but because they are familiar with Gregor as a human. Having the back story to Gregor, however, adds a firmer foundation to understanding him. In contrast, what has no foundation is behind the story, which is a world that isn’t such a placid place as it once had been: foreign tanks are on the streets and checkpoints are in place, which seems to infer German occupation of Prague. Why this is is not given any more detail in the story.

At the center of “The Metamorphosis” is Gregor’s downward spiral from bread-winning, family-oriented, and hard-working man–truly salt of the earth and innocent in his dedication–to that of an upward spiral in rediscovering his humanity, albeit in a rather awkward form. His patience and innocence intrigue the girl who would otherwise be an outcast, and it’s her reciprocal interest that can foster Gregor’s recovery. If there is a take-home message from the girl’s interaction with Gregor, it’s the following:

Everything is blowing up around us, but there are still those who care about a broken lock, and others who are dutiful enough to try to fix it. . . . But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart. (75)

Review: Literature-wise, the story is an interesting counter-piece to Kafka’s work. I would have liked to see Kafka’s verbose style imposed on the story, but that’s superficial; however, the meat of the story isn’t just a sequel: it’s redemption for Samsa, a chance to grow as a human from which he had been deprived after being inflicted with the plight as life as an insect. It’s not often the reader gets to experience the re-building of a destroyed man in only 29 pages; granted, this is because of Murakami’s continuation of Kafka’s Samsa, but the short means has a long, satisfying result.

Soylent Green is People! – Carlos Orsi


“Soylent Green is People!” (novelette) by Carlos Orsi

English Publication History: Solarpunk (World Weaver Press, 2018)

Original: Portuguese (Soylent Green is People!), 2012

Translated by Fábio Fernandes, 2018

Synopsis: A distinguished engineer has been found dead of smoke inhalation in his own garage; his elderly and recently morose mother, whom he lives with, has disappeared. At the heart of solving the mysteries is an investigator who must not only solve the case of disappearance, but also once of suicidal motivation amid the sordid affair of inheritance. Assuming the woman to be dead, it must be found whether she died before or after the son, which has implications on the woman’s assets: If she died before, the assets went to her son before his own passing; If she had died after her son, the assets are likely to go the Church of the Puritans, of which she was a member. Hampering the case is the Church which is keen on obstructing the investigator through sabotage, minced words, and bodily harm. When interviewing people who personally know the deceased engineer, not only is a web of love is soon untangled, but also a promising lead to where his mother may be.

Analysis: Members of the Church of Puritans “refuse to allow technology to interfere with the physical abode that God has thought fit to grant our spirits” (15) and “can be radically against cybernetic implants and recombinant DNA” (13), which sounds like a mix of neo-Luddites and Amish Mennonites. As technology surged forward in the case of mechanization), there were people who viewed such “advances” as not necessarily that; some some current Amish sects in America use various technologies. i.e. propane gas, modern toilets, and motorized washing machines. As the convergence of humanity and science draws closer and more ubiquitously, something like the Church of Puritans is certain to come into existence, first as a social group, then a movement, then eventually incorporating an existing template of technological rebellion.

The “ecological and fantastical” aspect of the story is its use of biofuels. The modern view of biofuel is a fuel that is derived from organic materials such as corn. In the future snapshot provided by Oris, biofuel can be privately produced at home; however, the engineering ingenuity of the deceased engineer takes this biofuel one step further, for better or worse.

Review: The story contains a good balance of futuristic ideas that meet the expectations set by the book’s title and subheading along with a story that progresses quickly in 41 pages with humor, surprise, and intrigue. It’s a good start to the collection, but the title “Soylent Green is People!” already has a firm connotation with Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966), which was made into the movie named Soylent Green. Orsi’s choice for the title gives too much away to the story and feeds the reader the direct connotation. The rehashed title also doesn’t allow the story to stand on its own merit, which is very well can.

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi


Frankenstein in Baghdad (novel) by Ahmed Saadawi

English Publication History: Frankenstein in Baghdad (Penguin, 2018; Oneworld Publications, 2018)

Original: Arabic [Iraq] (فرانكشتاين في بغداد , 2013)

Translated by Jonathan Wright, 2018

Frame of Mind: On 20 March 2003, allied forces invaded Iraq. Nearly forty days later, President Bush held his Mission Accomplished speech. When this novel was written, it was ten years after this so-called Accomplishment. One must ponder: Who was the mission for? What exactly did the mission accomplish? Now fifteen years after the invasion, still, what has been accomplished? Was there ever a clear mission?

Synopsis: Fear is the fuel that keeps the terrorists running; the more the citizens cower in fear, the stronger the hold of power rests in the deluded minds. The weapon of choice: suicide bombs, each with a face, a personality, a family, a history… and afterwards, with victims. Some die by concussion, incineration, shrapnel wounds, sudden impact of collapsing building, in stampedes… “six million ways to die“, so they say; others die by their approximation to the bomb: the force ripping their fragile human limbs apart in ballistic arches of damp fresh death. One second: a man running an errand; the next: bloody debris slapping the pavement.

All too often, Hadi sees the carnage not from afar, but face-to-face. His sympathy lies not only with the country of Iraq and his city of Baghdad, but also with the people of Baghdad, the indirect victims of terror as well as the nameless pieces of flesh strewn across the city. A body with a face or an identity earns a burial, but the hundreds of mutilated bodies, themselves in hundreds of nameless pieces, can be given no burial but of that within the sands of time. Being a city scavenger and hoarder by trade, Hadi easily finds his calling: collect these anonymous pieces of flesh into a singular body in order to give them a proper collective burial, which they deserve as much as a whole body with a singular identity.

This supine stitched body, inert upon the table seeping necrotic purulence, is Hadi’s sympathetic construction, which is also a product of shame that he hides in the back of his dilapidated house. Most recently, he found a detached nose from a blast and sewed it onto the corporate corpse. His smile of pride in completing his macabre work is tarnished by the knowledge that explosions, terror, and death will not end. Later returning home, this mosaic monster seems to have disappeared, much to Hadi’s astonishment and dread.

This volitional corpse is also given a soul of a security guard who had recently been killed by a bomb. Though the soul is singular, its consciousness is collective: it is driven by justice for the victims of which it is composed and it is compelled to continue to fight against injustice. Guided a higher power with knowledge of all things, it begins to stalk the city for the murder offenders in each of the body’s stitched identities. The resulting murder spree further unsettled the community and eventually comes to the attention of the government’s reclusive Tracking and Pursuit Department, the head of which–Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid–has the ambition to capture the now-notorious entity in order to raise himself in civil service.

Even when employing the the portents of the Brigadier’s mystic forecasters, he is unable to locate the murderer; meanwhile, Mahamoud al-Sawadi–a magazine article writer keen on rising through the ranks by emulating his socially-connected boss–catches wind of the journalistic explosiveness of the story, thereby better pursuing the murderer and earning himself a recording of its confessions, its story, its ambition. So successful is the Whatitsname–the so-called Frankenstein–in its mission, it soon begins to run out of offenders to kill as each reciprocal kill causes the offended body part from the corporal corpse to fall off. In order to continue its pursuit of justice, it must kill lesser criminals so that fresh body parts can replace those that had fallen off. This Sisyphean task, however, isn’t without its moral descent: Innocence isn’t a line in the sand.

Analysis: Mahamoud al-Sawadi, the mentioned writer above from the novel, pens of three types of justice: legal justice, divine justice, and street justice; “however long it takes, criminals must face one of them” (173). Justice is a strong theme, the word itself appearing 29 times along with “revenge” 17 times, but then again “kill” appears 102 times. That said, the novel is rather violent, but perhaps not as visceral as my synopsis.

What happens when, from the perspective of the Iraqis, their country is invaded for betterment (ill defined and ambiguous), yet they still live in a reign of terror under another name, but very little progress is made other than having KFC and 4G LTE. Friends and families are killed by faceless organizations, but the murderers themselves are willingly suicidal… legal justice is dead. Divine justice happens behind the closed doors of heaven, so it transcends the human attention span. ‘Lo, there is street justice: swift, illegal, and bloody, usually, and very brief. However, to fulfill the amount of justice needed in Iraq’s bloody recent decade, street justice only can’t satisfy the justice-thirsty hearts of the city’s citizens; instead, it must be combined with divine justice, here interpreted as supernatural justice.

The animated corpse pursues justice with the supernatural knowledge of who did what to whom, who offended whom, who killed whom. Though the city may live in fear of the stalking killer, they also acknowledge its social usefulness as an implicit agent of justice where the usually explicit bodies of justice–strictly legal and strictly divine have their hands tied or take time, respectively.

As the corpse becomes alive, another part of the book has life breathed into it: the city. A city is usually seen as a teeming mass of faceless individuals, a colony of human ants scurrying to exchange money for wants and needs; however, Ahmed Saadawi populated his Baghdad with tangible folk, who earn and capture our attention amid the tribulations laid forth by the author and the protagonists. Its wide scope of influence allows the novel to shift like sand, leaving it neither predictable nor outlandish.

Review: The story alone snares the reader’s interest, especially if your a fan of body horror like I am. Take this in conjunction with the overarching theme of justice warranted and justice served and this novel will impress, satisfy. The metaphysical framing of the story is curious and may have deeper underpinnings between the author Ahmed Saadawi and the writer Mahamoud al-Sawadi.

This is merely one facet of a few that I haven’t been able to polish to a luster, so I’d love to hear what you thought.