Words that resonate

  • Living
  • Saturday, 20 Dec 2014

When war is waged on city streets, our bookish columnist turns to books for comfort, of course.

As the world knows, Sydney was under siege last week. On Monday, just as the city awoke to a brand new festive week, a gunman stormed into a café in the middle of the bustling Central Business District and held 50 people hostage. I was on the way into the city like many people, and I had plans to shop for Christmas.

As it turned out, some innocent souls died, and the gunman was shot down after a nearly 15-hour standoff. Those who got out alive will no doubt live and relive the terror. As Australia mourned, and flags were lowered to half-mast, Neil Gaiman came to my mind, as I remembered a line from his novel American Gods (2001): “There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.” 

But, of course, in this case, only one set was fighting – the gunman – while the other was going about doing the things they always do – having a cup of coffee on a blue Monday, grabbing a bite to eat – before going to work.

In the midst and aftermath of this event, racial and religious tensions arose. There was an outburst of anti-Islamic sentiment. The city had never felt so tense, and religious tolerance felt threatened. As I walked about, taking in the unprecedentedly tense ambience, I had an immense desire to re-read American Gods.

The novel’s central premise is that gods and mythological creatures exist only because we believe in them. As immigrants swarmed to the United States over the last 100 years, they took with them the spirits and gods of their homelands. However, in the new world, the power of these mythological beings waned due to the influx of new gods – of media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, to name a few. Yet those who cling to old myths remain relentless. They seek out weak souls, those who are confused and troubled, and preach their old ideology. They promise supernatural power, and people believe; they join and rally – so new and old gods fight, and everyone else suffers.

Doesn’t it all sound familiar? I wondered to myself. The self-reflection, as well as the mood, was right for the book.

I had to get a new copy, but the streets were closed. Everyone was asked to remain inside a building. But the troubled mind of a bookworm could only be eased by a book. In the end, shortly after lunch time, the streets came back to life. But when I got to the nearest bookstore, the book was out of stock.

As I combed the shelves, trying to get hold of a similar book, fiction or not, that could shed light on the lunacy that took place in the city, I came to the History section. Frank Welsh’s The History Of The World: From Dawn Of Humanity To The Modern Age (2013) was on sale but its Modern Age is one that does not partake in some of the extreme theologies we are experiencing in this first quarter of the 21st century. The next quarter of this century could be worse.... My fingers kept searching out books, my eyes kept squinting, but I failed to find one that suited my mood. Or the bookstore failed me.

So I hurriedly left the city, just as many did, just as many friends had asked me to, just as my husband had (he had been stuck in his office). At home, as we sat glued to the television for updates, sleepiness inconsiderately came to lull me. I searched for a book to read before bedtime, as usual, but all I had was Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983). It added more bleakness and poignancy because it brings a new participant to war – animals. In the book, as animals rise from their graves in the pet cemetery, humans are left to fight and die. How helplessly vexing.

In the wee hours of the night, when we woke up to check for updates on the situation in the city, we found ourselves mourning the deaths of two innocent people. Whether the gunman, who was shot dead when police stormed the café, really did this in the name of religion or frustration is not at all important. 

What is important is the fact that an older man waged war, and young people died, just the way it has been on battlefields – wherever they are, in actual fields or on city streets now – through the centuries. Whose war was he waging if he did not even have the flag he claimed he represented. He raged, maybe, at the new obsessions surrounding us all – wealth, technology, material needs, relationships, and whatever fear resided in him.

Yes, I have got to reread Gaiman’s American Gods. The similarities are resounding.

For five years, Abby Wong has been imploring people to read.

This being her last article for Book Nook, she hopes you will sit down in your own book nook and enjoy the immense joy of books. She wishes all readers a merry Christmas and a new year filled with reading!

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