Zoe Brooks drops the reader into “Fool’s Paradise” with no preamble. All the reader knows is there are four parts, “A Beginning”, “City and Trial”, “An Ending”, “Hell and Back” plus an epilogue.
The text is laid out as if a script with the speakers in the left hand column and speech in the second, however, blog formats aren’t script-friendly so the layout of quoted sections is not how it appears in the book. There’s no scene setting. It starts,
Where begins the hard road, the long road
the dark road?
Where begins the road of sharp stones
of bare feet, of blood on the stones
and the grass like saw teeth?
Between two rocks at a crossroads,
where the gibbet drips bones
and the sky is grey and heavy
and the curtain is not rent
and the hand of God is indiscernible
and the breath of God is fiery
upon the bare heads of the people
there begins the road.
At that crossroads
they have placed a circle of melted candles,
with photographs made a shrine.
Traveller 1 & 3
We come bearing the stamp of empire,
the drip, drip, drip of power.
They come bearing the ashes of martyrs
dark the stains on the square.
We will walk the road together
a little while, I think.
It’s dusk, the travellers walk and all seem to share a faith. There are also hints of superstition and folklore in the walk beginning at a crossroads that has become a shrine. Death has happened here. The land has been annexed and dissenters crushed. It doesn’t take much work on the part of a reader to recognise a land this could refer to. It also doesn’t matter if two readers picture different lands.
There is a Fool who tells us a bit more about the travellers,
Like a rook I perch on one leg.
I twist my head to one side
so that my ear touches my shoulder.
I close one eye.
Upon the road there are three travellers.
Two wear the clothes of passage,
one the garb of a defrocked priest.
Welcome gentlemen, ladies.
I will gather your shadows
and take them to be cleaned.
I will lay them on the flat stones of the river
and beat the shit out of them.
Forgive my language, but I believe in accuracy.
I’m not sure what the “garb of a defrocked priest” means here. Either the Fool has more knowledge and has met these travellers before (although they do not recognised him) or the priest still wears some sort of vestment and the Fool concludes he has been defrocked because he is travelling. There is discussion amongst the travellers who try to work out who the Fool is. The Fool follows but at a distance and the travellers reach the city which takes readers into the second part, “City and Trial”.
The travellers visit a church. They comment on the flowers and a Woman explains,
The mothers used to come here
when their sons were taken.
They’d come, leave a gift and pray.
when there was nothing left to do,
they’d cross themselves and leave.
Each bunch of flowers is a man’s life.
There isn’t a family in the city
that hasn’t cause to come here.
Only the mothers, not the fathers which suggests the fathers are absent, perhaps having met the same fate as their sons or perhaps prefering to keep a low profile and not pray for their sons’ return. After visiting the church, the travellers attend the trial. A man, who is not given the title of judge or magistrate, reads a list of charges each beginning, “You are falsely accused…” The lack of title suggests a kangeroo court or a court with no natural authority but the imposed authority of a coloniser. To the list of charges, the Fool replies “I am falsely accused.” The man responds “Then you are falsely condemned.” A mock trial then, where the Fool is both falsely accused and falsely found guilty and therefore punished for crimes he didn’t commit. Earlier conversation among the travellers suggest the guilty man will be hanged. If the Fool is hanged, the traveller don’t appear to witness it.
At the start of part 3 “An Ending”, the travellers conclude they must leave but don’t know which road to take:
The Fool must know the way –
he led us here.
Which way is he pointing?
Up, down, what does it matter?
He is dead.
What does it matter which way
the hanged man faces?
He sees nothing.
While debating Traveller 1 observes, “I would take the woman’s part,/ wash him and wrap him in linen,/ in white linen.” He also has a nightmare about seeing his fellow travellers and countless others trapped in an iron cage. Still in the dream the Fool tells him it’s not yet time to free them. It seems the Fool was hanged but is still a guide for the travellers. Traveller 2 dreams of being in a tall room packed tightly with rows of beds. He climbs on one to look out of the windows to see the Fool dancing. He looks down but his fellow sleepers have been reduced to dust.
The travellers walk on into part 4 “Hell and Back”,
It would seem that Hell
is a museum.
Each death a gallery of time
Pitiless the sound of feet
on stone floors.
The Fool’s soft tread,
our boots –
pitiless in the quiet.
The seemingly-revived Fool is back in the guise of guide. The soft double ‘l’ and ‘s’ sounds plus the long vowels suggest mausoleum, a deathly quiet museum. The travellers see lines of statues dressed in mourning clothes.
It is as it should be.
Even if you had never looked at a history book,
your country’s blood would cry out within you.
This is that man who held the world in chains.
At the brush of his pen, millions died.
At the sweep of his arm
The Fool tells them to leave. The travellers are powerless to create change or overturn the tide of history. They are among the millions who would die at the hands of an autocrat. Despite what they’ve witnessed and the Fool’s message, the travellers stop for coffee and a game of jacks. They have become tourists visiting a scene of devastation to record their visit, not to discuss how it affected them or the significance of the deaths they have learnt of.
In the Epilogue Traveller 3 observes:
“Our journey made me an exile in my own country, always apart in some way, able most of the time to talk and to be talked to, able to hold my son in my arms and trace myself in the shape of his eyes. And yet I know myself to be not truly here. It was a fearful journey, but I am sad that I have finished it, and I am aware that I carry it with me now like a child’s blanket.
“You say that you have gone backto the city and all is changed, that the angels are gone,the candles extinguished, that the bridge is lined with trinket vendors and all is turned into pettiness. That there is no dream within the dream, that there is no dream at all. Forgive me if I cannot believe you. Last night I heard the sound of dancing on the roof-tiles.”
Perhaps what the travellers witnessed was too much to take in and it’s only after the emotional distance afforded by time that the travellers are now able to acknowledge how they were affected. Traveller 3 asserts his journey was made with reverence, respect for memorial markers and awareness that lives were lost.
However, now if he were to take the same journey, it would be marked not with candles and reverence but locals after a quick buck selling soveniers. What of those buying the soveniers and taking photos? Are they travelling as a mark of respect or ticking off a wishlist? How do those bringing flowers and lighting candles feel about the tourists? Are the tourists trespassing on grief or do the locals feel the tourists are at least keeping a shameful history alive? It’s a tricky balance, a country that needs tourist income also treads on residents’ bereavement, opening wounds that cannot be left to heal.
By deliberately making the setting indistinct and generic, Zoe Brooks, has created a scenario that the reader can readily place within their own experience/knowledge. “Fool’s Paradise” asks significant questions about the roles of tourists in events that are still within living memory. While Traveller 3 tries to distance himself from the trinket-buyers, is his journey as different as he would like to think?
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.