Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Inner Europe - Running Review

Here we go with another review of a new book from Tartarus Press. It's a good way to start the new year, I think. And what could be more timely than a book of stories about Europe, the continent we Brits are allegedly 'leaving'? John Howard and Mark Valentine have collaborated before, and here again we have two very gifted and erudite authors' offering various takes on a big subject.

Image result for inner europe howard

First up is Mark Valentine's 'The Roses of Ravenna'. This is a tale of decadence, complete with lavish descriptions of the late Roman capital, its many places of worship, its Byzantine art, and the marshes in which it lies. The unnamed narrator is a scholar who, judging by internal evidence (such as his wearing a cloak) is living in the late 19th century. He is fascinated by Ravenna, and the roses that grow out of the decay that seems to prevail everywhere. As always, Valentine's descriptions are precise and evocative. This story is also a time machine.

In Ravenna the narrator comes to know two other pieces of human flotsam who have washed up in the lost city. One, Casimir, is a beautiful youth who claims to be a worshipper of Nero, who was supposedly reborn as the boy emperor Heliogabalus. The second acquaintance of the narrator, a debauched Englishman called Lastinghham, is quick to point out that the Heliogabalus took his name from a deity who was identified with Baal. Human sacrifice is therefore on the table.

Casimir insists on searching for evidence of a surviving Nero cult. The beautiful boy vanishes, and the two men set off to search the marshes for him. With the air of a local guide they find Casimir face down in the mire. The narrator sees his face as hideously disfigured, and seems to believe the boy's beauty has been sacrificed to Baal. However, we know this narrator is unreliable.

Well, I did say it was decadent. It's a marvellously condensed depiction of the curious combination of energy and ennui that marked the late 19th century in much of Europe. Ravenna is a the gateway to Europe in this collection, I suspect - an ancient and fascinating city, apparently exhausted, a relic, but in fact a place where mysterious powers may still endure.

With luck I will have read the second story by tomorrow. Stay tuned for more of my opinions on Inner Europe.

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