Reviews: Sing Your Life – Mal on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman
THIS IS WHAT WE LIVE FOR! DAYS LIKE THIS! SO COME ON!
This is what the Shaman Thorn tells the main character Loon at a moment when all reason to hope seems futile. His words are a rallying cry. A spur when second wind is spent and a desperate third wind required. It comes at a point of tense excitement following pages of a cruel accumulation of pains, a frantic pursuit across a snowy unforgiving landscape. It sounds like a Boys Own Adventure moment and on one level I suppose that is how it reads. On another it works so well because of how the readers perception of what this particular character is like has been layered in the preceding chapters. It is as though Thorn’s determination breaks through the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader YOU SEE NOW! YOU SEE WHAT WE ARE ABOUT!
It may not have been Robinson’s intention to affect the reader this way of course. It may just have been this reader who got so swept up in the moment depicted I felt engaged by its urgency. It is entirely illustrative of the many surprises within the narrative. I found it continually so, given what I thought it was going to be about and what my own perceptions of the historical period are. During the Paleolithic period small groups of human beings began to gather together and form rudimentary societal structures amongst themselves. In environments and landscapes where the odds of survival were hopelessly stacked against them these fledgling clans became increasingly structured to buck the odds. It required a mixture of hardiness and cunning that set our species on a path it continues to elaborate on to this day.
The learned experiences of the tribe ,the hard won history of survival , is passed on through the wisdom and songs of the shaman. More spoken word than musical theatre. Mostly stories about staying alive, the acquisition and quest for food. The pursuit of the next meal is all. The tribe, the clans, pursue the next meal with the greatest of intents and respect. They revere everything they kill to eat, before and after death. Right up to the moment they bash some creature’s brains out with a rock, or shove a spear through its heart. Everything is eaten, nothing is wasted and gratitude to mother Earth for providing is never withheld. Yet in all the novel is about so much more than the chronicle of some pretty dirty savages scrambling about in the entrails of anything they can eat. These are complex and driven characters. Whose only advantage on the animals they hunt for survival is a growing intelligence and a dexterity evolved by necessity. Yet always remaining in the shadow of final extinction and at the non-existent mercy of mercurial weather systems. It’s a hard life. And prescient. Long hard winters are on their way back. My own old bones tell me they are here already.
Thorn the shaman is a grumpy cantankerous and unpleasant old sod who seems to take delight in tormenting his only pupil, Loon. His teaching methods include mental and physical abuse against the naïve and increasingly bewildered Loon. Whom like all young people since then to the present day really just wants to focus on the here and now, and not worry or suffer the constant ear flicks of his teacher. Yet this is an age when an extended cold spell might signal the extinction of an entire tribe by starvation, a protracted and torturous end. As it was those thousands of years ago and as it is still to this day, our unpredictable weather systems and their devastating fallout they can have on our environment which we all rely on. Some of our modern shamans are electronic and orbit the Earth above the clouds. A weather satellite might well tell us what is coming weather-wise but it cannot tell us how to survive it. That is the knowledge which Thorn is urgently attempting to pass on to Loon. The survival of their tribe the Wolf clan will depend on it.
Yet there is depth to the characters as Robinson interprets them. Thorn knows that even if he manages to pass on his accumulated knowledge there is the certainty that so much will still be lost. Without a written record even the spoken and learned wisdom will acquire cadences of its own, changing in turn the full message passed, little by little over generations. The Druidic past when guessed at became invested with romantic ideals it most likely never possessed. Wisely Robinson puts at the heart of the shaman’s lore a savage logic that could in actuality serve the needs of the clan. He creates very complex and personal conflicts within the clan. There is so much going on beneath the rags of animal hides. When the tribe members are not thinking about food they are thinking about sex. It also preoccupies what passes for their artistic cultural expressions. In the form of their cave art which although primitive and child-like also reflects in the most honest of forms all their necessary and life-affirming vital impulses (or cave-comics a I interpreted them in my boobbie-babble fashion. Thrilling adventures detailing the events of a hunt with the kind of obscene doodles you usually found in the margins of old school books detailed by rascals with things they barely understood on their minds. All lit by the flickering light of a cave fire giving the impression of pages turning in a breeze, almost an elementary animation).
(cave painting from the famous Lascaux caverns in France)
This tribe spoke in a language dead to us now, and how many other languages, or simple proto languages were spoken by those long-ago early humans, forever silenced to the ears of their descendants, forgotten and gone beyond even the reach of the most tenacious archaeologists to discern today (and a language is an important part of a culture, to lose one robs the world of much of the other). What Robinson gives us in the form of dialogue is wonderfully juxtaposed by what we as the reader are privy to in the form of what he says they are thinking. We live in a world swamped with wordplay. Loon and his people favour brevity of speech. If you have nothing to say do not speak. They consider to do so coarse and even bad manners. One lesson I had never considered being imparted by our prehistoric ancestors. Another lovely surprise buried in the narrative. Paleolithic wisdom. Or if you live in America, Palaeolithic wisdom.
It is another example of what we lose when a life passes away without the continuity of wisdom being passed. If a human chain of communication is broken then life preserving knowledge is lost with it. The details that make up a lifetime, impossible to record. Lost in the groves we leave behind.
The songs of our times.
Postscript; Joe, upon receiving my attempt to review Shaman asked me if I had ever seen a film called Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. I had not, but was intrigued by what he said about it. Enough to seek it out. And what an embarrassment of riches it proved to be with the ink-stains of Robinson’s words still drying in my memory. The film is a documentary written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, about the Chauvet Caves in southern France. The cave contains cave paintings thought to be approximately 30,000 years old. It lay hidden and perhaps protected , by a landslide until its discovery in 1994. This curious and wonderful documentary will literally illuminate certain aspects of Robinson’s equally wonderful book in a way I would not have thought possible. In the shadow gallery of my own imagination I had attempted to animate and recreate the cave paintings as described in the text, but my brain is too Hanna-Barbera. Film and book share ancestral attributes. Cousins by design or no, ask Robinson.
If you can absorb both, do. I did and I felt enriched.