Introduction to “Quickwit the Camel”
Mend-Oyoo’s writing is generally hard to categorize, difficult to interpret, and impossible to resist. This latest collection is a case in point. Each piece herein straddles the invisible fence dividing the world of poetry from the world of story. I will limit my introduction to the title story, and leave you, reader, to discover on your own the beauty and wisdom of the other pieces.
The very title of Quickwit alerts us to the fact that something challenging is (pun intended) afoot. MendOyoo’s protagonist is an extraordinary camel. We in the West are not used to having camels as protagonists; we are not used to thinking of camels at all. The tales we think of as titled with the name of an animal are for children—e.g., Winnie the Pooh or Bessie the Cow. But children’s authors offer us friendly, funny, transparent names. “Quickwit the Camel” is rather like calling a story “Winnie the Philosopher” or “Bessie the Ambivalent.” We are embroiled in an inner dialogue concerning the mind of a beast of burden. We ask ourselves: how can a beast of burden have “wit” at all?
The paragraphs that follow do not help us. In the first sentence, we are told that a single huge blue stone fell out of the sky. But the second sentence unwinds, contradicts, corrects the first to say it was not at all a stone, “but only a camel lying down.”
I know this is an introduction. I am not going to proceed sentence by sentence through MendOyoo’s work. I think it best, however, to call attention to the number of surprising twists and turns a reader has encountered by the end of the second sentence. There is something essentially MendOyoo at work here: we are presented with a series of almost paradoxical yokings. We are prodded into thinking from the very outset of this poetic fable.
And barely has our protagonist, a camel with a name, whom we noticed as it fell out of the sky, but wrongly assumed was a blue stone, taken to his feet then we are in his head. “The sky stretched a deep blue to its furthest edges and there rose a pale blue mountain, which seemed to him to be in the way.”
No sooner does he notice this obstacle than he is beyond it: “Behind this mountain ran a great red-colored pass.” No sooner is he beyond it than he is bogged down in it: “he crept forward, meter after meter.” No sooner are we comfortable in the mind of Quickwit than we are propelled into another mentality altogether: “The water dribbled down and splashed the flies on his humps, terrifying them.”
Lest my introduction be accused of similarly bogging down in sand, let me summarize and skip forward: one of the underlying stylistic characteristics of MendOyoo’s compelling writing is his ability to change both perspective and narrative speed at the snap of a finger. The reader finds herself disconcerted, uncomfortable, off balance and, as MendOyoo well knows, an uncomfortable reader tends to be a more observant reader.
The heart of this collection is to be found in its paradoxical wisdom or wise paradoxicality. One is continually stumbling across gems of understanding. One of my favorites comes at the end of the first section: “His body longed for dampness, he wondered from where it might come, and the tears dropped from his black eyes in watery cascades.”
Nor is it possible to categorize MendOyoo as a surrealist and rest happy in that labeling. MendOyoo has a naturalist’s eye for detail: in a few pages of Quickwit, the reader discovers the red calidum flowers of the Gobi, saltmarshes, feathergrass, the carigana tree, the scent of wormwood, wild cotoneaster: MendOyoo moves through the wild landscape as one who belongs there: naturalistic details sometimes appear as themselves, and sometimes figure in lovely metaphors and telling similes: “The curvature of the full moon, like a new three-play bowstring….” And lest we get too comfortable with these, the author moves from natural realism to mythic heraldry in a bound: “The more he [Quickwit] galloped, the more he was like a mighty dragon….” And not just a mighty dragon, either, but “a mighty dragon, twisting through clouds.”
Though Quickwit is the focus throughout, we discover a rider early on, a rider who had “filled three wooden troughs to the brim, each one to the depth of a meter.” Lest we think too fondly and sentimentally of this rider, we learn in Section Two that he “would occasionally lash out” at Quickwit’s rump.
It is not until section 4 that the central theme of the story is sounded: “a man came up from the pastures and… placed a load of weapons evenly on his back,” and in section 6, this theme comes into full effect: “The yellow Gobi, covered in tamarisk, was a perfect land of Shambhala to which the Enshoo clan had become accustomed.” No sooner have we met the Enshoo, than we meet their nemesis: “robbers entered a hole opened by darkness in the clouds and, snatching their booty… they ran away.”
After a great battle, a wounded Quickwit alone remains behind in a ravine. The sounds of fighting grow faint and he is “overwhelmed by a terrifying silence. But of course, all silences that come after a great commotion are terrifying.”
It is clear by the end that Quickwit is dying and that the Enshoo have won. But in a sentence that captures the Pyrrhic essence of such a victory, MendOyoo says (italics mine), “A few men of the Endshoo clan were returning from war; they had chased the robbers and had retrieved the stolen booty, their women and their girls.”
I cannot close this introduction without noting that these powerful, original works come to us out of a Buddhist and nomadic tradition. In speaking of his nomadic ancestors in his epilogue, “My Gentle Lyric,” MendOyoo says their melody “is the nature of my poetry” and there are many passages which confirm this. The pale blue mountain of his homeland is as domestic as a cloth tent, but seems to tower overhead; it is an eternal mountain, and finally “the absolute power.”
I don’t wish to write “a spoiler,” ruining the close of the story of Quickwit. Let me just say that a startling shift in point of view intensifies the power of this unusual narrative and makes clear its depth and relevance.
-- September 2010