Posts Tagged ‘Homer’

“Vengeance in Reverse”: exchanging pleasantries instead of punches

Thursday, March 1st, 2018
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I met anthropologist Mark Anspach on the internet a few years ago, when I was looking for someone to offer some online insight into the mind and motives of Anders Behring Breivik, the man who murdered nearly eighty young people in Norway in 2011. I posted about it in “Anders Behring Breivik: The Victim of Nobody” here

Mark and I have been penpals ever since, and have even met on a few occasions, for he has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, and still retains connections here – one of them our mutual regard for René Girard, who has been influential on Mark’s  thinking. He is now affiliated with the Institut Marcel Mauss at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. 

His new book intrigued me: Vengeance in Reverse plays on René’s theories about the inevitability of reciprocity. Although violent mimetic behavior (e.g., I hit you, you hit me) gets a bad name, René points out it is still essentially rooted in an impulse that is positive, because it pulls us out of ourselves and towards others: “It is everything. It can be rivalrous; but it is also the basis of heroism, others, and everything,” he has said, in a quote I include in my imminent Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard“But whether you exchange compliments, niceties, greetings, or insinuations, indifference, meanness, bullets, atom bombs, it’s always an exchange. You always give to the other guy what he’s giving to you, or you try to do so.”

Mark is considered “one of today’s most important figures in French social theory and cultural anthropology,” according to Mark Cladis of Brown University. So, a few questions to Mark about his new book:

Vengeance in reverse.” Provocative title – can you tell us what it means?

The urge to strike back is very basic, but vengeance is only the negative form of a more general phenomenon: reciprocity. In a blood feud, one side takes a life, then the other side takes a life in return. In positive reciprocity, one side gives something of value, then the other side gives in return. Reciprocal giving is the cornerstone of human interaction.

Mark in action.

As Marcel Mauss showed in The Gift, social life in premodern cultures revolves around gift exchange. I argue that gift exchange is like vengeance in reverse. It’s not just that one is the opposite of the other. There is an actual reversal in orientation. When people trade blows, each looks back to a previous event: you hit me because I hit you before that. With giving, each can look forward to what comes next.

That is, if I give you a gift, I can look forward to receiving a return gift. Right?

Right, whereas nobody looks forward to receiving a return blow! In vengeance, people are not looking to get a return – each side views its action as final, conclusive. Yet each action does provoke a return, so that everyone hurtles on in the wrong direction. Making a gift is a way to reverse course. This is a case where seeing into the future is not so difficult. It doesn’t take a crystal ball.

We know there is a tendency for any act, good or bad, to be reciprocated, so why not take advantage of that? Initiating a sequence of positive reciprocity gives everyone something to look forward to.

Revenge: it didn’t do much for Romeo and Juliet.

Who goes first, though? Someone is sending you anthrax — you reply with chocolates? Isn’t it dangerous to go first?

Whoever struck the last blow has to go first. In a blood feud, the murderer must make an offering to the victim’s group. The same principle holds in everyday life. If someone offends you, they’re the ones who need to send chocolates! People can get caught up in petty feuds over trifles. Often a small gesture will turn things around, and there is usually little to lose by showing oneself to be generous. But you are absolutely right that in a violent conflict, taking the initiative to seek peace can be dangerous. Let me tell you a true story from contemporary Albania.

A young man tried to rape a girl. Her brothers saved her just in time, but the family wanted to take revenge — and I don’t mean by shaming the offender with a nasty tweet! They were going to come after him. But he let a friend tie him up and stand him in a field in front of the girl’s assembled relatives. The friend said, “If you want to kill him, kill him. But then his family will come and kill one of you.” The man whose life was on the line had to be nervous, but in this instance going first worked. Both sides knew that once blood is spilled, the ensuing feud can last indefinitely. Post-communist Albania has seen a resurgence of the kind of vendetta described by Ismail Kadare in his historical novel Broken April.

He figured it out.

I’ve just written a review in the New York Times Book Review about Kadare, so naturally I’m pleased that you use Gjorg from Broken April in your first chapter.

Kadare’s novel was a key source of inspiration for me. Gjorg is a tragic figure. He has no taste for killing, but when his brother is murdered, he must avenge the family honor and become a killer himself. The ancient code of the Albanian blood feud leaves him no choice. Yet killing the killer does not bring closure; it merely triggers a new cycle of revenge. Gjorg’s fate is to be killed by his victim’s kin. When, as custom demands, he attends the funeral meal for the man he killed, he cannot stop looking ahead to the next funeral meal — the one that will be held for him. Gjorg knows very well what will happen next, but he is helpless to change course. Kadare’s protagonists cannot escape the framework of negative reciprocity. Moving from violence to peaceful exchange is extremely tricky.

Like Kadare, you also find precedents in the ancient Greeks, for example, in Homer’s Iliad.

Don’t forget!

Homer offers an example where the framework of the interaction changes. Two enemy warriors, Diomedes and Glaukos, meet in the thick of battle to engage in single combat. When they discover that their forebears had exchanged gifts long ago, a new context is born. Not only do the two warriors decide not to fight, they seal their own friendship by trading coats of armor right there on the battlefield!

The role of gift exchange in peacemaking could not be clearer. The speech Diomedes makes is just as interesting. He doesn’t merely invoke the past; he conjures up a peaceful vision of the future by announcing that he and Glaukos will take turns extending hospitality to each other in years to come. In effect, he says they’re going to be exchange partners tomorrow, so they can’t kill each other today! It’s a gambit that works through impeccably circular reasoning.

It’s a tangled loop, then.

Exactly! Negative and positive reciprocity are equally loopy phenomena. Violence is a vicious circle; peaceful exchange is a virtuous one. There’s no getting away from circularity, but we can do our best to shape the circles in which we find ourselves.

Postscript: On the other hand, given human nature, sometimes even positive reciprocity can backfire.

Ismail Kadare: “There is real literature, and then there is the rest.”

Friday, February 23rd, 2018
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My review is online at The New York Times Book Review today here, and in the print edition this weekend.  The book under discussion: the Albanian maestro Ismail Kadare‘s A Girl in Exile. Every year, the Nobel committee seems to look the other way while a matchless collection of novels, plays, essays pours out from Paris and Tirana, his dual homes.

An excerpt from my review:

Kadare is still mapping out the boundaries of Albanian, a relatively recent literary language, where everything is new and newly sayable. He is the first of its writers to achieve an international standing. But how to describe something beyond words? “Better if you don’t know” is a repeated phrase in the book, along with variations of “it’s complicated.”

The two girls, “daughters of socialism, as the phrase went,” resolve their eternal love triangle with a stunning metaphysical selflessness. And they reply to injustice and repression not by resistance or retaliation, but with an utterly new, unconditioned response that leaves the reader lightheaded, transcending even that which we value as “freedom.” In Kadare’s words, they move “beyond the laws of this world.”

Read the whole shebang here.

Are you listening, Stockholm? (Photo: Lars Haefner)

Kadare’s relationship to his mother tongue intrigued me, especially given its affinities with classical Greek. I googled the language. I reached out to a Albanian Facebook group. I tried phoning the consulate. No joy anywhere. Who could tell me more? The most informative source turned out to be … Kadare himself. So I read more about it over at The Paris Review. “For me as a writer, Albanian is simply an extraordinary means of expression—rich, malleable, adaptable,” he explained to his interviewer, Shusha Guppy, in 1997. “As I have said in my latest novel, Spiritus, it has modalities that exist only in classical Greek, which puts one in touch with the mentality of antiquity. For example, there are Albanian verbs that can have both a beneficent or a malevolent meaning, just as in ancient Greek, and this facilitates the translation of Greek tragedies, as well as of Shakespeare, the latter being the closest European author to the Greek tragedians. When Nietzsche says that Greek tragedy committed suicide young because it only lived one hundred years, he is right. But in a global vision it has endured up to Shakespeare and continues to this day. On the other hand, I believe that the era of epic poetry is over. As for the novel, it is still very young. It has hardly begun.” 

He’s just warming up:

“Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything.” It’s a bracing interview because of the unexpected turns the conversation takes. He never takes the predictable position, the weathered road.

Faster than a speeding bullet

“For example, they say that contemporary literature is very dynamic because it is influenced by the cinema, the television, the speed of communication. But the opposite is true! If you compare the texts of the Greek antiquity with today’s literature, you’ll notice that the classics operated in a far larger terrain, painted on a much broader canvas, and had an infinitely greater dimension: a character moves between sky and earth, from a god to a mortal, and back again, in no time at all! The speed of the Iliad is impossible to find in the modern author. The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him. He calls a messenger and tells him to fly to earth, find the Greek general called Agamemnon and put a false dream into his head. The messenger arrives in Troy, finds Agamemnon asleep and pours a false dream into his head like a liquid, and goes back to Zeus. In the morning Agamemnon calls his officers and tells them that he has had a beautiful dream, and that they should attack the Trojans. He suffers a crushing defeat. All that in a page and a half! One passes from Zeus’s brain to Agamemnon’s, from the sky to earth. Which writer today could invent that? Ballistic missiles are not as fast!”

In sum: “All this noise about innovations, new genres, is idle. There is real literature, and then there is the rest.”

After a few paragraphs to lure you in, the Paris Review interview is behind a paywall … well, I’ve effectively done the same, haven’t I? But my review is free. It’s here.

Postscript on 3/2: Guess what new offering made the top seven books of the week over at the New York Times Book Review? That’s right. Kadare’s Girl in Exile. It’s here.

Poet A.E. Stallings in Athens: the children recall school bombings, massacres, and drownings at sea

Monday, November 20th, 2017
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A girl named Aqdas recalls those lost at sea.

Migrants have arrived in Greece since Hesiod’s time. Certainly, tales of treacherous Aegean crossings fill the pages of Homer. The poet A.E. Stallings has been a student of the classics since her Oxford days, but Homer and Hesiod didn’t prepare her for the hands-on experience of volunteering with refugees during the disaster that has engulfed Europe.

An Afghan girl recalls drownings

My article on her heroic work with migrants, “Crossing Borders” is currently the lead story at the Poetry Foundation website. I met the Athens-based Alicia Stallings, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, at last spring’s West Chester Poetry Conference, where we discussed her experience being at ground zero of the immigration crisis.

An excerpt:

She would meet refugees at the disembarking areas and, with her friends, pass out shoes and serve food. Facebook groups spread the news that 2,500 people had arrived at Piraeus, survivors of the dinghies that washed ashore at the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, and were moving on to Athens. Or that 20 families had arrived in the port and needed sleeping bags, clean clothes, food.

“It was quite unreal. Two thousand people walking out of a war zone, with muddy feet, poorly dressed,” Stallings said. “Some with wounds, others in fur coats or rags. If you had anything you would wear it. Some people would be coming out with wheelchairs; some were carried out. Others came with a dog or cat. Some had a taxi waiting to take them to a hotel. Others would be walking to Hungary.”

These were the lucky ones. As Stallings wrote in an epigram with a title almost as long as the poem itself: “From an autopsy report of an unknown drowning victim, Ikaria”:

Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse,
And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse.

Epigrams were often the form she chose to express the horror and humanity of what was happening around her. “I wanted them to be sharp,” she explains. “Something that had distance, irony. The reality was too overwhelming for a sonnet. These are real people. The situation is bad enough that you don’t have to poetify,” she said, stressing the last word with a little self-mockery.

On land, the adults were bored and anxious, and the children more so. “The worst part is being in limbo and waiting. The uncertainty is really unbearable for people,” said Stallings. “This is their life. Instead of finishing their law degrees, they’re wearing ill-fitting shoes.” She remembered, in particular, a Syrian graduate student who felt his youth was being frittered away. From “The City”:

“I want to go to another land. I want to cross the border,”
The young man out of Syria said. “I’m tired of being stuck.
Sure, Greece is nice enough if you can get a job: good luck.”

“The saddest cases are men in their twenties. They don’t want to fight for Assad or ISIS. Their youth is being eaten—and they don’t know what will happen.”

Stallings and her friends brought supplies—crayons, Play-Doh, markers, bubbles, and pipe cleaners—to keep the restless kids busy as they waited day after day to learn their fate. “We’re the artists, we’re the painters, we’re the poets. We can do this,” she said. “I’m a mother; I can yell at kids in four languages.”

The Play-Doh, markers, and crayons ushered in a new era for the children. They may not have been eloquent in their native tongue, but were eloquent on paper. One drew a massacre he had witnessed and more than one drew those who have drowned at sea. Others illustrated bombings, one with the word “Assad” written on the aircraft. They made a case for immigration more heart-rending than any politician’s speeches.

Read the whole article here. Images courtesy A.E. Stallings and the “True Colors” Facebook page.

Children and adults are afraid of the sea now.

A Syrian boy recalls a school bombing.

The same Syrian boy recalls the maiming of a teacher at his school.

A child depicts a Turkish vessel firing a water cannon to try to sink a dinghy

What literature teaches us.

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017
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The meeting of Aeneas and Dido, as portrayed by Sir Nathaniel Dance

I’m always making the case for literature, and readers of the Book Haven know my argument that a great deal of our predicament today follows from our abandonment of great literature in our schools, our public conversations, and our thinking. An excellent column from Scott Esposito makes the same argument, with a new twist, over at Lithub, “How the Oldest Stories Can Give Us the Best Perspective.”  It opens:

An oddly postmodern thing happens right near the beginning of Virgil’s ancient classic the Aeneid. Having fled Troy in defeat from the Greeks, and destined to found the great Roman civilization, a defeated, beleaguered Aeneas and his men wash up on the northern coast of Africa near Carthage. Before long Aeneas locates the bustling port city, eventually stealing into the magnificent temple of Dido the queen. As he is acquainting himself with the surroundings he discovers an elaborate depiction of the very war that he is a refugee from:

Wondering at the good fortune of the city,
And admiring all the things the makers had done,
The workmanship of what was told on the walls,
Suddenly he saw depicted there,
One after another, the scenes of the Trojan War,
Famous through all the world . . .
Aeneas stopped, and weeping at what he saw,
Said, “Is there, Achates, anywhere on earth
That does not know the story of our trouble?”

He started it.

Imagine it: the catastrophic war that has wiped your home off the face of the Earth is now the stuff of legend, famous clear across the entire known world. The beloved comrades you watched die as you struggled to defend your homeland are now wrought exquisitely into the walls of a queen’s temple. You even see your own self, fighting the war you have just fled from. It is a curiously modern moment: Aeneas sees the horrific reality he has just escaped as a story told by foreigners a thousand miles away, not so different from, say, a refugee from Venezuela, or Yemen, or Syria, or Myanmar escapes to a more stable nation, only to see the story of her nation’s escalating tragedy—and maybe even herself—broadcast on CNN.

He describes how the Homeric tale winds its way through Western literature, from Virgil to the works of Dante and beyond (though he misses Derek Walcott’s Omeros), and offers this takeaway:

This column began with a war in the Middle East that storytellers began recounting 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, and we have followed it to North Africa, Rome, Italy, Spain, and Britain—and all the way to Borges clutching his bilingual copy of the Divine Comedy in Argentina in the early 1940s. I find this one of the greatest things about the literary tradition: it works on the longest timescales of human history, and it easily perforates borders. Literature conducts ideas across continents and through time with a startling efficacy: in the case of the Trojan War, it has traveled all throughout the world and back to the dawn of recorded history. Literature is the medium that is most conversant with humanity’s master narratives, the one that has done the most to form them and make them so indispensible and famed.

Practicing what he preaches

He proposes the “Virgil test”:  “if an artisan were carving this story into a palace wall half a world away, which incidents would make the cut? Which developments in this critical American saga would make it into the grand narrative of these years that may one day be passed down through the ages? Which things would we want to see if, like Aeneas, we happened to suddenly discover this story being told far away? And which developments are just noise, things that sap our energy and attention but that ultimately are not worth so much fuss?”

Read the whole thing here.

Ever wonder where Amphimachus was born? Now is your chance to catch up on Homer’s Iliad.

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017
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homer-iliad-map

A map for the questions you never thought you had: Where was Automedon, charioteer of Achilles, born? And where did Chromius, son of Priam, perish?

Making the homerrounds of the social media today is this map of all the characters of Homer‘s Iliad, including the walk-ons and bit-players. We thought we’d join in the fun.

I’m told that some of the locations are wrong – feel free to weigh in with your corrections. Here’s a big omission: where are the wimmen folk? The map comes to us courtesy of Wikimedia.

I note, with some satisfaction, that Delos, part of the Greek Cyclades, is shown – that is the place of Mount Cynthus, birthplace of Artemis, and our namesake.

Antoine Jaccottet’s Le Bruit du Temps: Fresh air for French readers

Monday, February 13th, 2012
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Translation is the poor stepchild of literature – academics get more applause for producing their own books, not for translating the writing of others; for writers, it’s a distraction from their own work and not terribly well remunerated. Hence, a welter of books never appear on the international stage the way they deserve.

So it’s cheering to see a venture like the Paris-based Le Bruit du Temps, a publishing house crowded in one large room in one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in a city that has plenty of them.  Founder and director Antoine Jaccottet has a desk in one corner; his collaborator, Cécile Meissonnier, has a desk on the other side.  Pictures of Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and others are stuffed into the edges of a large mirror – they are the real masters here. The window next to it gives a clear view on a plaque indicates that James Joyce finished Ulysses across the street here, on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter.

Antoine Jaccottet, son of the poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet (who translated Goethe, Hölderlin, Mann, Mandelstam, Góngora, Leopardi, Musil, Rilke,  Ungaretti, and Homer into French), worked for 15 years at the famous French publisher Gallimard, publishing classics, before he broke out on his own for a shoestring enterprise in 2008. The tight-budge endeavor, however, produces elegantly designed, finely crafted volumes.

Masterpieces don’t die, he says, but they can get lost in the noise of time.  It’s the job of publishers to rediscover them for the public, and what better place than the small adventurous publishers who have a freedom and esprit not usually tapped by large publishing houses.

As I gaze over the offices teeming bookshelves, I notice an entire shelf of W.H. Auden in English.  He’s one of the house’s authors.  Le Mer et le Miroir … Auden in French? How does he come across?  It’s difficult, Antoine admits, for the French to “get” Auden’s sensibility.

He’s also published  Zbigniew Herbert in French, Lev Shestov‘s Athens and Jerusalem, the complete works of Isaac Babel, and Henry James‘s The Ambassadors.  Even Shakespeare‘s (cough, cough) Henry VIII.

Mandelstam is, in a sense, the reason for the place.  The title of the publishing house itself – “the noise of time” – is taken from the title of Mandelstam’s prose collection, which includes perhaps his most autobiographical writing.  Antoine had been taken with the Russian poet in the 90s, and the translations and biography by the eminent scholar Clarence Brown.  One of the first books the house published was Le Timbre égyptien (The Egyptian Stamp).  The Ralph Dutli biography will be published this month.  (The house published Dutli’s poems in 2009).

A piece of old France

Le Bruit du Temps’ books by and about Mandelstam illustrate an underlying principle at the house:  Antoine publishes works that develop and deepen recurrent themes like a symphony.  In 2009, he published published Browning’s L’Anneau et le Livre, republished G.K. Chesterton‘s out-of-print 1903 Robert Browning (Chesterton’s first book), Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Henry James‘s Sur Robert Browning. That’s probably more Browning than Elizabeth Barrett ever saw.

Literary journalism, apparently, is as much in a crisis in France as it is here – the media often publishes book blurbs intact, and critics are famous for not reading the books they review.  So how do people hear about books?  Often, they don’t, he says.

As I leave, Antoine gives me a little souvenir of my visit, the publishing house’s brand new Le Bruit du Temps, a slim and elegant volume, fresh from the press.  What could be more fitting?

He also shows me a rarely seen landmark as he shows me the door – at the back of the courtyard, between the buildings, in the soft sunlight of the late afternoon, the ancient Paris city walls of  Philippe Auguste, the oldest surviving city walls, about the time of the poet Marie de France.

Postscript on 3/16:  Nice mention on the University of Rochester’s “Three Percent” blog over here.

 

From Troy to the Caribbean: Homer onstage

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
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Callender and Donnie Hill (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

Last year, during the Stanford Summer Theater’s Electra by Sophocles, one performance stood out remarkably in the mixed bag of university theater. L. Peter Callender played a role that might have been negligible for a less accomplished performer.  The faithful family retainer, in this case a tutor, is a staple in Greek tragedy, but Callender infused it with dignity and distinction.

I’m not the only one who noticed him last year: A San Francisco Chronicle review praised his performance in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, a play that some consider too persistently didactic, although in this production “one dedicated teacher’s tragedy is a fierce reminder of the complexity of trying to right social wrongs.  L. Peter Callender embodies that complexity with every paternalistic utterance and sidelong glance he casts as the prematurely aging black teacher,” Robert Hurwitt wrote.

He’s back.  I sat in on some of the rehearsals for a few weeks ago for the Stanford Summer Theater’s Homeric cycle, which showcases The Wanderings of Odysseus, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, opening Thursday night.  It was the second year of the Greeks, but not for Callender, who has performed Greek tragedy for years, everywhere from his alma mater (Julliard) to Berkeley Rep.

“It’s one of my favorite types of theater when it’s done well,” he told me later by phone, “because of the language, because of the history, the mythology, the depth of character and the depth of passion.”

But he admitted, “I’m finding a lot of this very difficult to memorize.”

With Courtney Walsh (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

No surprise.  His work with Shakespeare (he’s logged in a couple dozen Shakespeare roles in the California Shakespeare Theater alone) has given him a feel for the iambic beat of the Bard’s blank verse — the beat that mimics the rhythms of the heart.  Oliver Taplin’s translation of The Odyssey, which Rehm directed for the Mark Taper Forum in 1992 at the Getty Museum, uses a loose Anglo-Saxon prosody – a quicker four-beat line that’s dependent on a lot of alliteration and a big caesura in the middle of the line (think of Seamus Heaney’s bestselling Beowulf.) It’s a bit of a rhythmic (and therefore psychological) shakeup.

During the rehearsals, Callender joined Rush Rehm in making suggestions for the fine detail work of the challenging production. ”This text is not a play but a poem, it’s a very difficult task. Everyone has to be on the same page at the same time,” he said.

His self-confidence in the director’s chair isn’t a surprise, either:  he’s the founding director of San Francisco’s African American Shakespeare Company, launched in 1994 to “create an opportunity and a venue for actors of color to hone their skills and talent in mastering some of the world’s greatest classical roles; and to unlock the realm of classic theatre to a diverse audience who have been alienated from discovering these time-favored works in a style that reaches, speaks, and embraces their cultural aesthetic and identity.”

The “L.” at the front of his name was a sort of augury for things to come:  It stands for “Lear.”  (In answer the inevitable follow-up question, he replies, “I don’t know what my parents were thinking.”)

Walcott

The Trinidad-born actor will probably excel also at the August 10 and 11 reading of Derek Walcott’s Omeros – which takes place in the poet’s native Saint Lucia.  It will return Callender to blank verse, as well as combining his love of the Greeks and his Caribbean heritage.  I was recently reading Irena Grudzińska Grosss comments on the Nobel poet:

Instead of history, which is degrading and calls for revenge, Walcott proposes a narrative, or a myth, which, because of its continuous present, opens time, making the new world equal to the old one.  His long poem Omeros show that the world of the Caribbean islands is as epic as Greece, because it contains a journey, a return to the native island, the fear of ancestors, gods.