I was invited to give a short talk at this year’s Tokyo Writer’s Festival. For anyone interested in the subject of doing research for writing, please feel free to watch the video via the following link.
Category Archives: Observations: Writing, History, Travel and Culture
There have been suggestions that the Covid 19 virus originated in a Chinese laboratory. Though these conspiracy theories have all been debunked as speculative nonsense, notions of the Chinese creating poisons and potions have been around for ages. In the novel JINCAN, I describe how a shaman concocts a venom-based toxin in his laboratory — a poison that mimics a real-life disease, in this case, cholera.
Jincan, sometimes referred to as Gu, was an ancient Chinese poison created by combining the venom of various creatures — placing the animals together in a closed container and having them fight to their deaths, consuming each other, with the final victor retaining the concentrated poison of each combatant.
Here is the description in the book:
The shaman’s heart quickened. Jincan, Golden Silkworm, he thought gleefully; an ancient method of creating a powerful venom. Not a silkworm at all, the name was reputed to have originally come from Kashmir. A funerary decoration made from pure gold.
He slipped off the stool and picked up a large earthenware pot from a corner of the room. Grabbing it by its handles, he struggled back to his workbench and lifted the pot onto it. Incantations were painted across the container’s rough beige surface. Under a glass lid, the pot’s flat base was separated into five compartments like upright walls of a five-pointed star, designed for ease of removal as a single piece.
Wu turned to the jars lining the walls, he ran his gaze over them. Five animals were needed. The task was to combine them, creating a poison that would hold the potency of all five creatures at once. The next step was to select which creatures were to be used to create the Jincan.
It was to be a gladiatorial contest, each of the quintet fighting for survival by using its particular lethality. For it to be a proper battle, it was essential to select creatures that were well-matched in size and potency. His excitement mounted at the thought of watching such a competition. He went to his jars of animals and peered into each one, moving sideways slowly, occasionally pausing to touch a jar and consider the suitability of its inhabitants.
Selection made, he picked up a pair of bamboo tongs and went first to a container that had been fashioned into a terrarium. He removed the dewy enclosure’s glass cover and used the tongs to brush aside thick leaves inside it. Not seeing the animal he wanted, he turned the leaves over one at a time until he spotted a frog hidden at the bottom of the miniature rain forest. The bright blue amphibian with a blackish mottled back was no larger than the upper section of his thumb. It didn’t try to escape when he gripped it with the tongs. The little frog’s back contained a powerful venom that native tribes of China’s mountainous areas used to poison the tips of their arrows. A speck of it was enough to kill a man. He released the frog into a compartment of the the pot and covered it.
Wu chose a wolf spider next. It took more effort to catch the fleet-footed arachnid. But with the aid of a set of smaller tongs, he managed to grab hold one of its legs and tug it from its lair, a small hole in a rock. He examined the feisty warrior before putting it into a compartment next to the frog.
The next two creatures were a centipede with a red back and yellow legs, and a black scorpion. As his final competitor, Wu selected a creature that lived in his garden: a wasp. Wu went out to the hive that was in a tree in the far corner of his garden. He lit an oily rag below the hive, grey smoke drove off most of the hive’s residents; the few left behind were dazed and docile. He grabbed one carefully by its back and returned to his workroom. At his bench, taking great care not to injure the body of the sluggish insect, he carefully snipped off its wings and placed it in the last compartment.
In nature, these animals, each from quite a different habitat were unlikely to come across one another. If they did, their instincts would likely be to avoid each other. Except for the wasp that had woken up and was batting the stubs of its clipped wings about angrily, ready to jab its sting into anything and everything, they had no reason to fight. Wu had to give them one. He hopped off his perch and went to his medicine cabinet. This yaochu had been passed down through several generations of medicine men. It held 42 drawers each marked with what it contained. He hooked his forefinger through a metal loop and pulled open one of the square drawers. Rifling through a stack of neatly arranged paper packets he found one with the character chán 饞, gluttony, written on its front.
Wu uncovered the pot and sprinkled a substance resembling white pepper onto each of his combatants. The powder’s odor made his stomach gurgle. His mind filled with images of his favorite dishes, those of his childhood prepared by his mother and meals shared with intimate friends.
The animals reacted instantaneously, moving about their little cells in search of food. Wu lifted the glass lid and removed the partition before quickly closing it again.
The frog, normally a creature that waited patiently to flick its tongue out at a passing ant or baby cricket, was first on the attack. Oblivious to its own safety, it went for the noisy wasp, clamping its toothless mouth over the head, intent on gobbling it down. The wasp moved its tail around and jabbed repeatedly at the frog. The black scorpion rushed at the fighting duo and grabbed the business end of the wasp with its pincers and began to gnaw at whatever part of the animal it could, striking and injecting venom from its own tail. Locked in combat, the three creatures rolled about. All the while, the frog continued to secrete poison from sacs on its back, smearing the pot’s bottom with a toxic paste. They tumbled into the centipede which wrapped itself round the scorpion and attacked indiscriminately with its poisonous bite. The eight-eyed wolf spider leapt onto the centipede, and now the combatants were a writhing ball, gnashing, stinging and biting — entangled in spider silk, thrashing about in poisonous puddles. They fought until one at a time, each of the animals succumbed to its wounds. Even as they died, so strong was the desire to eat that through their dying breaths, they continued trying to gorge themselves on one another.
In the end, the Pyrrhic victor was the wolf spider. Wu sprinkled more of the powder onto it. Though nearly dead, the spider continued eating, well beyond what it was capable of. This was the important part, for after gorging itself on its foes, the main ingredient of Jincan had to be harvested: the victor’s feces.
… Everyday Is Mine – The Life Of Pedro José Lobo
The title of this book about the story of Pedro José Lobo’s life, born in East Timor in 1892, is the last line of a short poem by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.
Sent to Macau for schooling in 1901, Pedro José Lobo began his work life as a mathematics teacher and then a bank employee, rising to the position of chief of Macau’s economics department from where he guided Macau through some of its most difficult times such as the virtual Japanese occupation during the World War II, the refugee situation and the Border Gate Incident that took place in 1952. He knew that Macau’s survival meant that it had to stay independent and be useful to all parties as an independent entity.
Readers of this book will have a better understanding of Macau as seen through the eyes of those who lived through some of its most important moments.
Here is an interview of Marco talking about the book:
Here is a book review in Portuguese
In JINCAN, Angus Greystone and his partner Shen team up and go in search for an assassin. Their quest takes them to the Sierra Nevada. Here is a passage from the book about the birth of the mountain range as well as a native creation myth.
TEN MILLION YEARS AGO, a massive block of the earth’s crust ripped through the surface as it tilted to the west. Rivers cut deep ravines on both sides of the new mountain range. Lava boiled up and then flowed down into canyons which over millennia, eroded to leave high plains along the ancient river channels. Still, the gods were not done sculpting. Glaciers carved out crescent-shaped gorges throughout the range. Working hand in hand, river and glacier exposed the uppermost portions of the plutons forming the Sierra’s crest. Long before Garcí Ordóñez de Montalvo dreamed of gilded Amazons, or the Franciscan missionary and chronicler Pedro Font, named the serrated peaks ‘Sierra Nevada’, the mountains were home to America’s native peoples.
It was many years later that I heard the story of the birth of the peaks explained in Yokut lore:
|There was once a time in the world when nothing existed but water. At the place where Lake Tulare is now, a pole stood far out of the water. This pole provided a perch for Hawk and Crow. First, Hawk would rest on the pole for a while, then Crow would knock him off and sit on it. Thus, they took turns sitting on the pole above the water for a very long time. At last, they created the birds which prey on fish; Kingfisher, Eagle, Pelican, and others. They also created Duck. Duck was very small, but she dived to the bottom of the water, filled her beak with mud, and then died when trying to return from the depths. Duck floated on the water, lying dead. Then Hawk and Crow took the mud from Duck’s beak and began making the mountains. They began at the place now known as Ta-hi-cha-pa Pass, with Hawk building the eastern range and Crow forming the west one. They tamped the mud down hard into the water and piled it high, working toward the north. Finally, Hawk and Crow met at the place we call Mount Shasta. Their work was done, but when they looked at their mountains, Crow’s range was by far larger than Hawk’s. Hawk said to Crow, “How did this happen, you rascal? You have been stealing earth from my bill. That is why your mountains are biggest.” Crow laughed at Hawk. Then Hawk chewed some Indian tobacco and it made him wise. At once he took hold of the mountains and turned them around almost in a circle, putting his smaller range where Crow’s had been. And that is why the Sierra Nevada Range is larger than the Coastal Range.|
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My new book, JINCAN is available via Amazon and other booksellers.
The story of JINCAN begins in southern China (Macau), introducing Shen and his quest for the perfect poison to carry out a final mission. While Shen sails across the Pacific to San Francisco, with the hope of escaping his past, Greystone attempts to arrive in California before him, taking a route that cuts across Panama.
In my previous post, I described San Francisco: https://lobomarco.com/2019/11/
Here, Greystone arrives in Panama.
A THUNDERBOLT HAD ME JUMPING OUT OF MY SOAKED SKIN. It was close enough to taste — metallic, acidic — and to feel its charge in my fillings. Even more horrifying, the light-burst exposed the ocean. Heaving beneath me, it was viscous and black, conjuring up the images of my darkest fears — tentacles as thick and long as the ship’s mast, curling up, studded with suckers, each ring armed with a beak ready to tear flesh.
A few of us chose to brave the storm up on deck rather than to suffer in the airless hold. Clinging to a pole or rope while being lashed by icy rain was preferable to the misery belowdecks. Down there, men groaned with each roll of the ship, clutching their bellies, squirming in pools of vomit. From time to time one would claw his way up through the hatch. The denizens of the stinking hold would manage only a few shaky steps before again spilling their guts and scurrying back down to the stink. Shivering under my raincoat and hat, I hid from the storm as best I could, pressed into a corner.
At dawn, the downpour softened to a drizzle and with a calmer sea I began to feel safer from the retreating squall. Then, as if in defiance, the storm released a deep, slow rumble — nature telling me with a belch that it had its fill. Another roar shook me to the core before ebbing away.
Under a burst of light, purple welts lined the sky. Panama seemed to wink at me; a weary gesture from her bruised eyelid that said, “So, now you too.”
Hers was a story of turmoil. Thrust off the seabed by its cataclysmic coupling she was smothered in layers of sludge. Driven ever upwards, she eventually broke surface. With first breaths she conjoined the landmasses to either side, cleaving the Earth’s ocean into two.
Coveted as a prize long before she was named, her slenderness was what made her so alluring. Separating Atlantic and Pacific oceans by a mere 50 miles at her narrowest point she so served as a bond between them. For centuries, conquistadores, mercantilists, and pirates fought to have her. Even my former homeland Scotland had tried its luck at setting up a colony on her Atlantic shore in order to establish an overland trade route. The 17th Century Darien Scheme failed miserably after only a few years, resulting in the destruction of the finances of the entire country.
There were several versions as to the origin of the name ‘Panama’. A fellow passenger regaled us one evening saying,
|Some ascribe it to the fact that a species of tree abounds there. Others say that it is because the first settlers arrived in the month of August when butterflies are plentiful, and that the name means ‘many butterflies’ in native tongue. Perhaps the best known story is that a fishing village originally bore the name Panam , named after a nearby beach, and that the name meant ‘many fish’. Yet still another version says that a Kuna chief gave the land the name ‘pannaba’, the Kuna word meaning ‘very far’.|
Whether the name referred to trees, butterflies, a sandy shore or plentiful fish, I had indeed traveled very far, and still had farther to go.
Panama had declared independence from Spain just thirty years earlier and was now part of Colombia. Given the recent interest in California, I wondered what designs America had on her. There was already talk of a railroad straddling her back to link the two great oceans.
And so, yes, now me too, I thought in reply to a final burst of light from the receding storm.
If you enjoyed this post feel free to leave a comment.
My new book, JINCAN is available via Amazon and other booksellers.