Archive for April, 2011

Black Colossus, 1933

The Chinese have a word tóudà (头大) which means overwhelmed. Literally it means head-big and the idea is that your head is bursting with concepts too numerous and too difficult to contain.

I was taught this word yesterday on a flight from Shanghai to London by a Chinese woman called Hui. She spoke hardly any English and this was a problem because the plane had been delayed and she’d missed her onward flight to Lyons in France. It was in trying to absorb the information passed on from the non-Chinese speaking British Airways crew about what she needed to do to get another flight that she became overwhelmed.

It first became apparent that she couldn’t speak English when the stewardess asked her what she’d like to drink.

“Café,” she said.

“What?” asked the stewardess, who spoke only English.

“Café,” repeated Hui hopefully.

“I’m sorry,” said the stewardess. “You’d like what?”

I was between Hui and the stewardess so I mediated. “Coffee,” I said.

“Thank you!” gushed Hui in light, breathy English that shimmered softly against my skin.

It was an eleven hour flight, extended by two hours due to a delay just before take-off, so I had two books with me. For the first couple of hours I was immersed in the exhilarating prose of Robert E. Howard.

Conan strode to the altar, lifting Yasmela in his bloodstained arms. She threw her white arms convulsively about his mailed neck, sobbing hysterically, and would not let him go.

“Crom’s devils, girl!” he grunted. “Loose me! Fifty thousand men have perished today and there is work for me to do – ”

“No!” she gasped, clinging with convulsive strength, as barbaric for the instant as he in her fear and passion. “I will not let you go! I am yours, by fire and steel and blood! You are mine! Back there, I belong to others – here I am mine – and yours! You shall not go!”

He hesitated, his own brain reeling with the fierce upsurging of his violent passions. The lurid unearthly glow still hovered in the shadowy chamber, lighting ghostily the dead face of Thugra Khotan, which seemed to grin mirthlessly and cavernously at them. Out on the desert, in the hills among the oceans of dead, men were dying, were howling with wounds and thirst and madness, and kingdoms were staggering. Then all was swept away by the crimson tide that rode madly in Conan’s soul, as he crushed fiercely in his iron arms the slim white body that shimmered like a witchfire of madness before him.

I had not yet learned the word to describe Conan’s emotion: tóudà … overwhelmed.

Robert E. Howard loves adjectives and active verbs. The Chinese textbooks I use have exercises called substitution drills where you take a model sentence and slip in all sorts of alternative words. I had been playing this exercise in English while I read Black Colossus.

Then all was _____ by the _____ that _____in Conan’s soul, as he _____ in his _____ arms the _____ body that _____ before him.

As I looked at the soft contours of the lithe little Chinese body in the seat next to mine, cloaked in a thin British Airways blanket and lit ghostily by the lurid unearthly glow of the shuddering jumbo’s night lights, my subconscious was doing a substitution drill of its own, drawing into the fierce upsurging of its uncontrollable passions that helpless and supple-limbed figure whose attachments, I suspected, could be every bit as strong as Yasmela’s.

I hadn’t quite reached a witchfire of madness but there were still many hours to go.

I put away Conan and reached for my stolid Chinese vocabulary book.

“Oh!” declared the unearthly shape next to me. “You are studying Chinese! How long have you been learning it?”

She said it in Chinese, her pale face almost touching mine, her breath once again cool on my skin. Her lips were stretched wide in an ecstatic smile, showing gleaming white teeth, and her brown eyes glittered with a fierce and infectious curiosity.

I was speechless.

“How long have you been studying it?” she repeated, slowly. Then, “I speak only Chinese and French.”

“I also speak French,” I said in Chinese.

Then she spoke to me in a rapid, soft, perfectly accented French. I replied haltingly and she rewarded me with an increasing torrent of words that revealed more and more about her life and her affections, her passions, her sorrows, her joys.

She and her words were irresistible. Two hours later I realised my head was reeling. I was damp with sweat, worn out by the exertion of trying to communicate in a bewildering combination of two very different foreign languages.

“When I speak French with you,” I told her later in Chinese, “I am overwhelmed.” She laughed prettily, pleased with my use of the word she had taught me. But the better part of what I wanted to say was left unsaid. I was like a speechless child trying to talk to an eloquent adult. All that I felt was unutterable, too deep for words, shimmering like a witchfire of madness beyond the horizon of palpable language.

It is now almost 24 hours since that experience. I have slept and bathed. I have read some sobering texts, done my laundry and brought home my groceries. I have had time to adjust to my home environment once again and the fever in my brain has somewhat subsided. I think I have become wiser – and I have this piece of advice for all writers who value their sanity and craft: steer clear of Conan the Barbarian.


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