Skip to main content

Reading Response to “The Colonel”


Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not Hannah Arendt was correct when she described the “banality of evil,” let’s use the phrase while meditating upon Carolyn Forché’s excellent prose poem, “The Colonel.” That, essentially, is what Forché is attempting to describe in her visit to an unnamed leader of a country presumably in Latin America. The Colonel is not a fanged monster dwelling in a dank cave. The Colonel lives with his family in a comfortable estate, capable of enjoying the finer things in life, good wine, conversation, and even poetry. His family behaves as families do, the son going out for the night, the daughter casually listening in.

When The Colonel finally reveals his methods for ruling a country difficult govern, we are shocked by the ordinary, dismayed by the normality of what is going on. What spills from a “sack used to bring groceries home,” is described as being dried apricot halves. Lured in by the ordinary, we the readers read the rest very closely, conscious that we are in a suddenly perilous space. The Colonel shakes an ear in their faces. Some of the ears are still catching The Colonel’s words, others have flipped to listening to what’s beneath the surface. An incredible image left in pristine ambiguity. Despite the mutilations, the Colonel still commands an audience. The poet is in this audience, so are the ears, and so are we, the readers. We are all right there in a perfectly normal dining room surrounded by an atrocity. But are some of the ears listening for the approach of something else?

I chose this story to respond to because I love its use of language. An entire world exists within its narrow bounds. The words are common place, soothing. “There is no other way to say this…” Well, with all apologies to Forché, of course there are. There are always others ways to describe the incomprehensible -- Forché chose her language very carefully to paint a brutal series of images. While the events at dinner are appalling they kept at a conversational tone. Her casual approach is not just meant to surprise. It is meant to suggest, as Arendt did, that evil is not extraordinary. It is not something exotic and distant but as close as the dinner table.


2 comments

Popular posts from this blog

Review of I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski

Even 23 years later, I remember 1994 and Kurt Cobain's death. I experienced that moment as a kind of inside out personal crisis. I felt ashamed by his death. As though his exit in someway indicted my own teenage miseries. "I wish I was like you," goes the verse in 'All Apologies,' "Easily amused." I felt as though a check I hadn't remembered writing had just been cashed. 


SP Miskowski's book, named after the first half of that line, is in the words of another reviewer, a novel that shouldn't work. The narrator is unlikeable, unreliable, and dead. The plot is almost entirely told as a flashback and long sections of the novel concern the inner processes of the writer. The daily grind to summon up enough self-esteem to carry a sentence to its logical conclusion is a real struggle, people, but it ain't exactly riveting.

But the thing is, this novel works. It is one of the best things I've read all year and a real achievement in weird ficti…

What I Read in 2017

The third in my series of year-end lists is literature. As in past years, I've divided this post into two categories: Novels and short stories. Each of these stories made 2017 just a bit brighter for me and I hope this list includes at least a writer or two new to you.


Novels:
I Wish I was You by SP Miskowski: This was the subject of a review earlier this year. The way I feel about this novel, the tragedy of a talented person crippled by anger and regret, transformed into a monstrous avatar of wrath, has not really left me. Beyond the perfection of its prose and its preternatural subject matter, I feel like this is one of the best evocations of the mid-nineties I've seen published. There's something about this book that lingers with me long past the concerns of its plot and characters. I guess what I'm trying to say is this work moved me. 2017 would have been a lot dimmer if I hadn't read this work.New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson: Robinson writes next-level sp…

Review of "Pretty Marys All in a Row" by Gwendolyn Kiste

Part of the reason American Gods works is that it offers a kind of reward to folk lore mavens and religious study majors. Do you have a working familiarity with obscure Northern European mythologies? Are you able to describe what Neil Gaiman got right and what he fudged a bit in terms of the Egyptian religion? Then the guessing games of that novel - just which Middle Eastern Goddess is this? - magnify its other charms. 
"Pretty Marys All in a Row" by Gwendolyn Kiste (released by Broken Eye Books), is a novella for people, like me, who are waiting impatiently for the next season of Bryan Fuller's show. It's not set in that universe, certainly, but approaches the question of folklore from a similar perspective. Namely, that myths have a definite, physical explanation and your knowledge of such things will expand your enjoyment of the work. In the case of Pretty Marys, the stories are urban legends and nursery rhymes about young women. The main character, Rhee, is named…