Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

I've read some books. And now I'm going to tell you about them.

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, "edited and abridged for today's reader by James S. Bell, Jr."¹
499 pages, 1896 (original publication date; this version was published in 1992), Moody Press

I bought this book at the big book sale in February, so it was a crippling two dollars (just like in Better Off Dead). My dad is a big fan of Sienkiewicz's Polish history trilogy, and I know this is a classic, so I figured I'd read it, even though it's published by a seriously Christian publishing house. Oh well - it's a book about Christians, after all!

For those of you who don't know the story (or missed the 1951 Robert Taylor/Deborah Kerr movie), it's a tale of Nero's Rome (it takes place around A.D. 64 or so) and a centurion named Marcus Vinicius and his overwhelming love for Lygia, a foreigner who was captured in one of Rome's innumerable wars and brought to Rome as a hostage. Vinicius sees her and is overwhelmed with passion for her, but she's a Christian and he's not, so she rejects him, even though he's apparently so dreamy she gets weak in the knees when she talks to him. At one point she thinks he can be the man of her dreams, but he acts boorishly (and almost brutally) at a party and she realizes he is from a different world than she is and she has to run for it. Vinicius can't understand why she does this, and he tries to figure it out. His friend, Petronius, helps him find her, and Vinicius eventually becomes a Christian, much to the chagrin of Petronius. This transformation of Vinicius comes at an awkward time, as Nero decides to burn Rome and blame the Christians, so the lovers' lives are placed in danger. The latter part of the book is given over to how Petronius and Vinicius rescue Lygia and flee Rome before Nero can have them executed. It's grand adventure - Roman style!

This is an extremely entertaining book. It has everything - adventure, romance, politics, murder, torture, orgies, religion, and philosophy. Who could ask for more? The romance between Vinicius and Lygia is at the heart of the book, of course, and it's a very interesting story. Vinicius is a harsh and almost evil man at the beginning of the book - he doesn't do anything truly reprehensible, although at the party where he scares Lygia he comes close. For much of the first half of the book he acts like a typical Roman man - cynical andchauvinisticc, completely misunderstanding why Lygia would reject him. After he is wounded and nursed back to health by Christians, however, he begins to wonder more about their strange religion, and his desire for Lygia leads him to study her faith more seriously, which eventually causes him to embrace. It's a fascinating transformation, because at the beginning, we want to like Vinicius, and when he acts poorly, we reject him utterly. However, we slowly come around to the fact that he has changed completely and is worthy of Lygia's love. Then, by the end, we are bound to him and his wife as they try to escape the insanity that was Nero's Rome.

The Christianity of the book is new and raw, unlike the stultified faith we see today. Peter and Paul are major characters in the book, and Peter, especially, is important, because Vinicius and Petronius come to realize that he must be telling the truth about Jesus because no one could be so convincing a liar. Peter is the one who draws Vinicius toward Christianity, and Paul eventually convinces him to convert. The religion is presented, obviously, as a contrast to Rome's worldly and unbelieving population - the Christians of the book are saints, even the ones we wouldn't expect to be. That's not to say it's a bad thing - they are swept away by this ecstatic and mystical new experience, and throughout the book, Christianity is presented as a very positive and wonderful thing. The one character who scolds non-Christians and tells them are going to hell is himself scolded by Peter and Paul, who tell him that Christians are non-judgmental and accepting - quite a contrast from what we see today in the Christian world. The Christians in the book accept their horrible fate in the arena following Nero's scapegoating of them with grace and dignity, and it is this example that shows many Romans the way to the faith. It is the kind of portrayal Christianity that highlights the glory of coming to Christ, rather than the uppity attitude we see today from many Christians. I'm sure there were plenty of Christians who screamed when the lions sank their teeth into them, because it's human nature, but Sienkiewicz wants to show us that this religion helps people overcome their human nature, so therefore even a jerk like Vinicius can become a good man. Early in the book, Vinicius and Petronius often remark that Christianity is an enemy of life, because it demands that you look to death so much. We see that as Vinicius changes, he comes to realize that Peter and Paul's Christianity makes life more worth living because of the promise of life after death, and that it doesn't diminish it in the least.

Although he spends much of the book praising the Christians and their faith, Sienkiewicz isn't a complete propagandist for the religion. In fact, one could say that Petronius, who remains a pagan, is the book's most interesting and moral character. He refuses to give in to Vinicius's new faith, even after meeting and discussing it extensively with Paul. He refuses, in fact, to believe in any gods, because they demand too much of him. He is devoted completely to the pursuit of beauty and art in this life, and cares nothing for the next one. In Joseph Heller's Picture This (a great and underrated book, by the way), Heller makes the point that all religions except the Jewish and Greek ones think more of us dead than alive. Petronius personifies that ideal - he is interested in living life according to his principles and pursuing an epicurean fantasy as best he can, and no one is going to stop him from that. Sienkiewicz never allows him to become a villain or a betrayer of those principles - even though, as I suspect, Sienkiewicz was a good Christian, he does not look down on Petronius's life, and in fact gives him a death as noble as the Christians'. Petronius has to die, of course, because he is a sane adviser to Nero during a time when every politician in Rome was going insane, but in death he continues to elevate beauty and art above all else. He does not betray his principles, and Sienkiewicz only subtly suggests that we should pity him for not gaining eternal life.

As with many Christian epics (or, indeed, a lot of other kinds of fiction), there's quite a bit of salaciousness in the book. It takes place in Nero's Rome, after all, when lawlessness ran wild and the upper class indulged in every vice. I saw a recent book attempting to rehabilitate Nero, but from everything anyone has ever said about him, he was completely insane and in many ways worse than Caligula. Sienkiewicz goes into great detail when he writes about the parties that turn into orgies, and although the morality of the day constrains him, you still get a very good idea of the depravity of the rich. When he writes about the executions in the arena following the fire of Rome, the book gets even more disturbing. In accounts of martyrdom from back in the day, there's always a weird, ecstatic, sexual feeling about the way Christians die, and Sienkiewicz indulges in that with page after page of gory detail about the animals eating Christians and later, Christians being crucified for Nero's pleasure. It's not exactly perverse, but it is an interesting look into the dark side of Christian martyrdom - yes, it's noble to die for your faith, but there's also something unsettling about people who take an almost sexual delight in dying for their God. It elevates Quo Vadis from a simple tract on early Christianity to a psychological drama about why people religion and martyrdom so willingly.

I recommend this book for a lot of reasons. It's a love story, and a gripping adventure, but it also delves into religion and the nature of faith - all faiths - in ways that most operatic and cinematic (which it is - I'm not surprised it was made into a movie) tales do not. It's a pretty easy read, too, so if you're digging around the library or the used book sale and you see it, pick it up.


In the time I was finding the time to write about Quo Vadis, I finished another book:

Swastika by Michael Slade
416 pages, 2005, Onyx, a division of Penguin

Twenty years ago or so, I was browsing through the local library when I came across a hardcover book with a woman's head on it. The woman's head had a spike through it and it was dripping blood. I was intrigued, because I'm a sadistic little fuck, I guess, and I took the book out. It was excellent. That book was called Headhunter, and it began my shameful and dirty affair with Michael Slade.

Michael Slade is a pseudonym. It used to be two Vancouver, B.C., lawyers writing the books, but one of them left and the other's daughter became the second author. Slade has written 11 books in 20 years, and when you read one, you can be confident that certain things will occur:

1. The novel will be based in Vancouver.
2. The novel will feature members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Special X Division, which deals in weird crimes.
3. The novel will feature horrific crimes described in loving detail.
4. The novel will feature a psychopath(s) whose identity will be difficult to discern - these are, to a certain extent, mysteries, after all.

I love these books. Not everyone will, I understand. They're not particularly well-written, but unlike, say, John Grisham, you actually want to turn each page to see what happens next. If you don't like gore, don't read them. Seriously. These are some of the most blood-drenched novels you ever want to read - Slade takes perverse joy in coming up with murders that up the ante in every book, even chapter by chapter. Yes, it's disgusting and won't make any lists of great art, but I can live with it, because it's fun to see what creepy things they're going to come with next. The books star the same people, usually, although Slade keeps expanding his roster with each book, so that the stars of the early books - Robert DeClercq and Zinc Chandler - aren't the focus as much any more. In this book, Chandler hardly appears at all and DeClercq only plays a key role near the end. I was disappointed when Slade stopped giving us specific dates for the crimes - in the early books, we knew the years in which each crime spree occurred, but as DeClercq and Chandler mysteriously never got any older, the books shifted to a more comic-book universe where everything happens "now." A minor annoyance.

The crown jewel of the series remains the first book, because Headhunter had a true mystery and an excellent twist at the end - all the books have twists, but some succeed better than others, and the first one is still the best - plus it was tragic in a way the others haven't been. This latest book is a typical Slade horror-fest, although it's better than the last few because Slade gets more into other areas of interest rather than just the horror. Sure, there are Nazis and the awful things they did (and do, as the killers are modern-day Nazis), but there's also a lot about quantum mechanics as well. It might all be bullshit, but it's interesting reading, and it places the crimes in a bigger context that Slade usually deals with.

It's a quick read - it took me four or five days to plow through it. It's definitely not for everyone, as I mentioned, but if you're looking for something to pass the time and you like horror, read Slade's novels. Start at the beginning - it's more fun that way.

Look at that - two books for the price of one! Who says I don't take care of you here at the blog?

¹ Seriously, that's what's written on the cover. WTF? Are "today's readers" too stupid to get the whole gist of it? Are our attention spans too short? If I cared, I would call up this James S. Bell, Jr. and ask him just who the hell he thinks he is.


Blogger Ashley said...

I apologize that I am too tired to absorb all of that (I will go back and re-read when I have more energy); however, I just *love* that you referenced the $2 bit from Better Off Dead. I think John Cusack's character in that movie shaped my view on guys and somehow defined the 'type' of guy I have always been attracted to (I was only 12 when the movie came out).

20/12/05 7:47 PM  
Blogger Jim Roeg said...

Hey Greg. Enjoyed the Slade post--and I agree, the twist in the first novel really is the best. In fact, it's nearly untoppable, I would think. Still, I'm glad to hear the new novel is entertaining (I didn't even realize there was a new one out). Is it just me, or is it not a little disturbing that "Slade" is now Jay Clarke writing with his daughter!?

20/12/05 10:25 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Ashley - Better Off Dead is such a classic. I try to quote it whenever I can.

It's a bit disturbing that Slade is Clarke and his daughter, Jim, but at least they're bonding. And I enjoy the novels that have something a little more interesting than just a psychopath slaughtering people. They're okay, but the better Slade books have more to them.

21/12/05 10:23 AM  
Blogger ymelendez said...

When do you have time to read?

21/12/05 6:04 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I read at night, Yazil, after the kids are asleep. This is why it takes me a while to get through a book. You should read, too, you know, Ms. Melendez.

22/12/05 10:06 AM  
Blogger ymelendez said...

I read every day!

22/12/05 3:47 PM  

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