Casino Royale in a Flanders Field
The Docks at Ostend, James Ensor (1900)
A note about the fairly obscure Belgian James Ensor (1860-1949) from a 1993 "Art News" article: "Nineteenth-century Belgian artist James Ensor's scatological imageries, evident at the peak of his political activism, symbolize the artist's personal rebellion against the ideals and norms of the Belgian society he lived in, and represent his affiliations with an anarchist philosophy. His anarchist beliefs are embodied in his 'Alimentation doctrinaise,' which represents his most explicit imagery."
Kit, truly bilocated, wobbles off the Fomalhaut where he has been regarded as both a curse (first no fish) and a blessing (followed by too many fish) by his fellow seamen. He takes an electric tram to the Continental Hotel "where for some reason he assumed there'd be a room reserved and waiting." This brings up the question of whether the Stupendica's original destination from New York was Ostend rather than Trieste, and whether Kit actually had reservations at the Continental, but before we can ask too many questions like what happened to his luggage, Kit returns to the docks, has a beer in a small cafe, and is immediately recognized as a fellow-Quaternion by an "unkempt, indeed seedy band of varying ages and nationalities." It turns out that Kit has wandered into a Quaternion convention being held "irregularly" in Ostend.
The Quaternions, rather like the Aetherists earlier in "Against The Day," are a tribe of mathematical thinkers who have been deemed superfluous and heretical by the superseding Vectorists. Leaping forward to page 553:31, an unnamed character makes the analogy explicit: "We are the Jews of mathematics, wandering out here in our diaspora -- some desined for the past, others the future, even a few able to set out at unknown angles from the simple line of Time, upon journeys that no one can predict." They are also an eminently amusing crew to hang out with, and Barry Nebulay invites Kit to crash with them in their rooms at the art nouveau Grand Hotel de la Nouvelle Digue, another odd hostelry in a book filled with them.
Also staying at the hotel are the young and silly Eugenie, Fatou, Denis and Policarpe, two women and two men who form the Belgian nihilist cell "Young Congo," who are of great interest to both the French and Belgian secret services because they want to assassinate the King of Belgium. On page 527:13, Kit has "a moment of intense recognition, almost as if he'd once, somehow, actually belonged to the little phalange" in another space-time axis. Hmmm. On page 528:5 Denis gives a classic self-description of the group: "We are metaphysicians at heart. There is a danger of becoming too logical. At the end of the day one can only consult one’s heart.” As an aside, Kings Leopold I and II of Belgium transformed Ostend from a sleepy Northern Flanders seaside village to an opulent resort during the 19th century through their patronage, and Leopold II who reigned from 1865-1909, used the Congo as his private fiefdom, perpetrating horrifying atrocities on the local population while raping their resources on a scale hitherto unseen in history.
Whitehead, 1875, with a battered test torpedo
Joining forces with Young Congo are a pair of comical "Italian naval renegades, Rocco and Pino, who had stolen from the Whitehead works in Fiume the highly secret plans for a low-speed manned torpedo, which they intended to assemble here in Belgium and go after King Leopold's royal yacht." I assumed this was more fiction, but it turns out the Englishman Robert Whitehead (1823-1905) was real and he did have factories in Trieste and Fiume where the first torpedo was invented. Both Fatou and Eugenie flirt shamelessly with the Italians, which frightens Rocco who is obsessed with "danger from lady spies" (italics in the original).
Kit also finds himself playing with a dangerous woman in the bar of the hotel, the Japanese femme fatale math genius Miss Umekie Tsurigane, which may be a bad pun on "You Make Sure Again." While she hoists boilermakers without any perceivable effect, Kit flirts with her discussing various mathematical terms and professors, and she refers to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 that is currently raging. She then asks Kit to escort her into the Grand Salon, but “two steps into the Grand Salon, she had slipped away, or he had, and it would be days before they saw each other again” (page 533:2). Hmmm again. There is a crazed party of Quarternionnaires from around the globe carrying on in the Salon and their overheard conversations starting at page 533 and continuing through the Quaternion Silly Song Lyrics on page 534 are well worth rereading, particularly for its explication of why Quaternions are Anarchist ijk folk while Vectorists are Bolshevik xyz brutalists.
Kit suddenly runs into his lost friend from the Stupendica, Root Tubsmith, which leads to the following exchange on page 535:9, "Nothing's been rigorously what you'd call 'real' lately [Kit said]. Does seeing you in this condition mean that everything is normal again?" "Of course," handing him a bottle of no-name wine, "next question." Hmmm for a third time. Is Kit weaving in and out of bilocated realities? There follows a game among the assembled throng where mathematicians are compared to their corresponding poet: Oliver Heaviside/Walt Whitman; Clerk Maxwell/Tennyson; William Rowan Hamilton/Swinburn; Hermann Grassman/Wordsworth; Gibbs/Longfellow. What all these 19th century scientists/mathematicians/engineers seem to share was the major incomprehension and outright neglect of most of their peers and the fact that their work, rediscovered in many cases, is all essential to modern math and physics. I presumed the "ijk" Quaternion label was a Pynchon language joke because every other word in Flemish ends in "ijk," but instead it’s referring to Hamilton’s “Eureka!” moment crossing a Dublin bridge where he was struck by the Gods with the following equation which was the beginning of quaternions.
The group decides to go to the Casino where Kit is put off by the non-saloon atmosphere of a "temple to money," and where he meets Pleiade Lafrisee, who calls herself a "consultant" but acts more like one of those "lady spies." Meanwhile, using quaternion math, Root is making a small fortune for everyone, including Pleiade. "Our magic is more ancient, and the big advantage to being so outmoded is that nobody recognizes it when they see it." Pleiade offers to buy the entire group dinner where "hilarity at the table was general and prolonged." This leads to my favorite joke in the book so far, when a Dr. V. Banesh Rao of the Calcutta University, using a modern school of Yoga based on Quaternion disciplines, contortions himself into nothingness and reappears as a blond in the kitchen in a tub of mayonnaise. "It is like reincarnation on a budget, without the element of karma to worry about."
The Caress, 1887, Fernand Khnopff (1855-1921)
Pleiade leaves for a rendezvous with Piet Woevre, who has spent too much time in the Heart of Darkness in the Congo being an enforcer with the Force Publique, and who is having a hard time readjusting to “the need not to offend the King, to remain aware of rival bureaux and their own hidden schemes, to calibrate everything against the mortal mass of Germany, forever towering over the day.” After an s/m sexual encounter, she promises to occupy Kit that evening so Piet can look through his room. Kit, “against his better judgment accompanied Pleiade to her suite” and goes through another weird bilocating moment where Pleiade simply disappears from the room but leaves her chiffon dressing-gown standing erect. Returning to his hotel, the Young Congo informs him that the political police have sacked his room and that Kit is now an honorary nihilist outlaw.
And here we come to the bisected middle of the entire novel, where Policarpe says, "It's a peculiar game we all play. Against what looms in the twilight of the European future, it doesn't make much sense, this pretending to carry on with the day, you know, just waiting. Everyone waiting."
Kit runs into Pleiade again at a a cafe where she tells him the cultural history of Mayonnaise (which starts with a great "La Marseillaise" joke by Kit, page 544:32), and then makes a tryst with him for that evening at the Mayonnaise Works on the edge of town. It turns out to be a set-up for Kit's Murder by Mayonnaise, but in a "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory" scene Kit narrowly escapes from drowning by kicking out a window and being pushed by the force of the mayonnaise into a canal below, where he is rescued by Rocco and Pino who happen to be test-driving their torpedo. End of section.
Battle of the Skeletons, James Ensor (1907)
The next eight pages (548-556) are deeply, beautifully melancholy on all kinds of levels. The Inconvenience has been given ground leave at Ostend, after a dreary trip to Brussels, at the same time as the Quaternion convention. The dark Piet Woevre and his bureaux vaguely manage to notice the Chums and their craft, on account of the electromagnetic messages sent through their Tesla device from private power sources, which the Belgian secret service mistakenly thinks has something to do with a secret Quaternion War Weapon. However, the population at large doesn't seem to see the Chums and their craft anymore, which leads to a sad reflection (page 549:3). "Once," Randolph with a long-accustomed melancholy, "they would have all been stopped in their tracks, rubbernecking up at us in wonder. Nowadays we just grow more and more invisible."
There are a few low Darby weiner jokes along with the news that Pugnax has developed a taste for human blood, and Miles Blundell, the seer/chef, has horrible premonitions looking down upon the lowlands below. He tells Chick Counterfly that he's seen one of the Trespassers (from the scary Dead Zone on the outskirts of town at Candlebrow University, pages 413-418). His name is Ryder Thorn, and he’s been on the Promenade, and Miles has spoken to him. They shared a love of the ukelele at Candlebrow and discussed the instrument's philosophical implications (page 552:1-9) which center on the ukelele only being able to play one chord at a single moment in time while "to play a melody is to introduce the element of time, and hence of mortality. Our perceived reluctance to leave the timelessness of the struck chord has earned ukelele players our reputation as feckless, clownlike children who will not grow up."
Miles goes on solo shore leave to meet with Ryder who greets him with two bicycles. They cycle southward through the lowlands until they hit Ground Zero of A Flanders Field "on a road between Ypres and Menin." Ryder tells Miles that "our people know what will happen here and my assignment is to find out whether, and how much, yours know.” Miles demurs and professes not to be a fortuneteller, and as the Trespasser becomes more agitated, Miles becomes calmer and smoother which only agitates Ryder more, until he spills the beans and tells him exactly what hell is going to be unleashed on these fields in ten short years “and all history after that will belong to Hell.” Miles continues with his nonchalance, “Sure sounds unpleasant.”
This finally tips the Trespasser over the edge and he reveals that they are not really “time-travellers” but something else, characters "blundering upon a shortcut through unknown topographies of Time" (page 555:2). “No more than ghosts may choose what places they haunt…you children drift in a dream, all is smooth, no interruptions, no discontinuities, but imagine the fabric of Time torn open, and yourselves swept through, with no way back, orphans and exiles who find you will do what you must, however shameful, to get from end to end of each corroded day.” This is when Miles realizes “that there had been no miracle, no brilliant technical coup,” in other words, no remaining young forever as promised. He returns with the news to Chick, telling him that it only confirmed his earlier vision when he met Mr. Ace “when I could not stop crying for hours, for I knew then—with no evidence, no reasoned proof, I simply knew, the minute I saw him, that it was all false, the promise was nothing but a cruel confidence game.” And now it’s up to Chick to tell the other Chums.