Scorpion Soup

Scorpion Soup by Tahir ShahFull Title: Scorpion Soup: A Story in a story
Tahir Shah
Publisher: Secretum Mundi Publishing (2013) [Limited Edition]
Number of Pages: 136
How long it took me to read: 2 weeks
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-0-9572429-1-3

Like a Moth to a Flame

The fifteenth century maps that fold out between the stories are what really drew me in to read this book. Even the cover looks like someone made a book jacket out of an antique atlas—the dizzying lines of rivers crossing mountains dotted with cities, and the occasional mystical creature to fill up the blank space, promises a story of wonder and adventure, of swash-buckling pirates and caravans roaming over burning sands. The book itself is unusually bound, more like a journal than a novel, and even has a bright red book ribbon like a bible. I’m pretty sure that, when I open this book, a djinn is going to pop out and start granting me wishes that will actually ruin my life, and I’ll have to use my last wish to set everything right again. I’m going to open it anyway.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Until then, I was a raw page waiting for a story of its own.” ~Capilongo (p.7)

4. “When Man can discern between Content and Container, he will be wise.” ~The Hermit (p.96)

3. “Sometimes in life the most effective route is not the shortest one.” ~The Unicorn’s Tear (p.131)

2. “I want to know why the people of our kingdom keep an old rusty nail in a box, guarding it day and night, and washing the steps to its shrine with tears.” ~The Tale of the Rusty Nail (p.20)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “In this age, there was nothing that we know of now—none of the trappings of civilization, and no fragments of the natural world. The only exception was a fish. A beautiful rainbow-colored fish. But because there was still no water, the fish floated through the universe, sucking its cheeks in and out, waiting. ” ~The Book of Pure Thoughts (p.51)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I’m not going to be able to read this book like I normally would read a collection of short stories. All the stories are blending together, one story ending with someone, or some thing, telling the beginning of the next. I feel compelled to read all the stories in one sitting, even though I know I can’t. I feel a little irked by the lack of real delineation: each story has its own title, flush right in big letters, but that’s not really the beginning of a story. The real beginning is the beginning of the first story in the book. It’s a bit misleading, but there is something in it that delights me, too. It may be stringing me along in spite of myself, but if I have a goofy grin on my face the whole time, why should I complain? I’m being whisked off to places I’ve never seen before. It feels ungrateful to complain about not knowing where the magic carpet is going when I should focus on the fact that I’m flying on a magic carpet.

“The stories so far have that distant, poetic tone of fairy tale and fable. I like the idea of fairy tales far more than I actually enjoy reading them. I love that they give me a shared literary culture that reaches back for centuries that connects me to many writers and readers before me. I like the symbols they create, and the foundation they offer for further storytelling. But fairy tales, in and of themselves, I’ve always found to be a little flat. I mean, they were mostly stories to scare children into obedience. You don’t need a whole lot of subtle sub-plots about the intricacies of the human condition to make children believe they’ll be stolen away by scaly, ear-tattered goblins and roasted over a fire pit for dinner if they lie to their parents.

“Fairy tales and fables do give a lot of insight into cultural norms, but I’m not sure what culture I’m reading into while reading Scorpion Soup. I don’t know if the style is distinct enough to really tell me anything about something so complex. These stories keep telling me this, though: keep reading, keep going, move forward, press onward. I want to get lost in it, but something in me keeps stopping to look back and asking ‘Why?’ ”

“The book begins with several stories told to help the tellers cope with desperate or difficult situations. One man tells a story to sustain himself and his fellow captives as they rot in chains; the Capilongo, a wild creature somewhere between a boar and a bird, with the hands of a monkey and the intelligence of a human child, tells one last story to the young man that has come to hunt him and kill him for his skin.

“When I was a kid, I often used stories as a means of escape. Who am I kidding? I still do. But in the fifth grade, I was fat, nerdy, asthmatic, and allergic to everything I was tested for except cockroaches and eucalyptus. I was shy, except when it came to answering questions in class and my arm shot up so I wouldn’t miss the chance to impress everyone with my massive intellect. Being a teacher’s pet didn’t score me many friends, either. In stories, though, I could be anything I wanted. This was the age I would start reading a novel in class after a test and wouldn’t notice that the room had emptied out until recess was already half over.

“My parents, teachers, and librarians were always happy to keep me well supplied. It was also the same time when my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Barnett, started encouraging me to write stories in my free time, even taking the time to painstakingly read over what I had and write suggestions in the margins for me outside of normal class hours. I wasn’t very good, of course, but I thought I was. It was the beginning of a very rich inner life that I have carried with me ever since, and it has helped me through many dark moments. Few things will cure my more capricious moods better than a hot mug of something sweet and a good book. I also do a lot of pensive pacing: I put in my earbuds, crank up my music, and literally walk through the scenes of the stories in my head. It’s an odd little coping mechanism, but I’ve been using it as part of my creative/escapist process as long as I’ve been writing and reading.

“Sometimes, stories are the only way we can communicate certain complexities of life, especially when we’re children. I don’t particularly remember trying to express anything about myself when I was that young—I was mostly interested in impressing my peers and my betters rather than creating anything of value—but I do think I was trying to make sense of the world around me, to write my own definitions of good and evil, of heroes and villains. Even then, I could sense how mundane I was, and I wanted to figure out how to be my own protagonist in my own story. Or, barring that, how to be the protagonist in someone else’s.”

“There’s a poetry here that I just can’t lay my finger on. I feel like I’m humming a half-forgotten song to myself. Shah’s imagery has settled into my mind like a stained glass window into the wall of a cathedral: there’s a giant rainbow-colored fish floating through an unformed universe, a skeleton-witch stewing scorpion soup to restore her youth after being stripped of her corrupt flesh, and a clockwork time machine powered by the soul of a djinn. There’s an enchantment here that I can’t shake. It’s like I’m back in high school and walking through the LACMA for the first time. There are all these magnificent paintings, sculptures, objects, things, but they’re all symbols in a language I don’t understand. There’s beauty, but it’s alien beauty. I just want to stand here and absorb it, but I also can’t help but feel a little. I also have the sneaking suspicion that someone is having a go at me.

“I have trouble trusting things I don’t understand. My whole life, I’ve been told to doubt: to doubt other people and to doubt myself. Just the other day, I took my temperature because I was feeling flushed and exhausted. I was running a low grade fever. But rather than deciding I should rest, I decided to do all the work that I still had to do that day because some part of me believed that I might just be lazing out or trying to get attention. And when I finally did rest, I was ridden with guilt the whole time. I’m getting a knot in my stomach just thinking about it.

“Since I can’t trust my own mind, I certainly don’t trust anyone else’s. If there is something—a novel, a story, a poem, a painting—that doesn’t tell me exactly what it is, or if I am unable to decipher what it is, the first thing I think is that the creator is trying to hide something from me, usually his or her own lack of ability. Sometimes I’m wrong, but sometimes I’m right, and you only have to be right some of the time to believe you are right all of the time.”

“I feel like something’s missing as I close the book. The stories come full circle—the final story ends with the beginning of the first. It’s a neat kind of trick, but I don’t know that it’s truly cyclical. The transitions between the stories feel a bit forced. There is no compelling reason that one story should lead into another except that the circle of stories has to continue, and I can’t decide if the technique is creative or hackneyed. I think that our inherent need to perpetuate stories is important, but I think that Shah may have chosen the wrong medium to convey that fact. Or maybe I’m too Western to appreciate the subtleties of Scorpion Soup. I’m captivated by his imagery, but I don’t know that they’ve told me anything about myself or people or the world that I live in. I’m a very self-centered reader, I know.

Scorpion Soup is a book I would keep on my shelf for when I need a bit of inspiration, like an abstract painting I would put on my living room wall. I might even read it to my children one day. It’s a book that can sing to your imagination. I hope that it will encourage in others the same wonder and belief that fairy tales and fables once did in me.”

Rachel Castleberg

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1 Comment

  1. Kat Kiddles says:

    You know, I feel a similar way about Shah’s work. He’s either a genius and this is a masterpiece sitting on my coffee table, or I’ve just walked through a literary smokescreen. I’m either way too simple to understand what I’ve just read, or there really wasn’t much there. I can’t decide, but I’m totally captivated nonetheless. It’s definitely a book I’d read to my son one day, in bits and pieces, perhaps one short story a night. The imagery sweeps you away, spins you round and up and down, and then lets you float somewhere where there’s no gravity or sound or smell, just one vision after another passing by you. It’s kind of the same way I feel when I see contemporary art; I usually don’t get it, but there’s something that often lingers, trails behind me for weeks afterward, making me think, think, think, about…something.

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