From the Issue: Camels, Donkeys, Jesus; Parsing the Bulliet Oeuvre
Written by Bwog Staff
Keep your eyes open for the October issue of The Blue & White, which, after a delay from the printers, has finally arrived to campus! In the meantime, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: Knickerbocker Motorsports: a surprisingly gripping history, an examination of Columbia’s updated sexual assault policy, and the festive search for magic on campus. In case you did not know, regarded Columbia history professor Richard Bulliet, outside of his academic career, writes fiction. Of his five novels to date, all seem to give a shocking importance to camels, or other equivalent quadrupeds. Below, staff writer Matthew Schantz and senior editor Brian Wagner approach this myster, with close readings analyses of passages from (in this order) Bulliet’s Kicked to Death by a Camel and The One-Donkey Solution: A Satire.
Kicked to Death by a Camel
“…I told [Gino] that I only studied the history of camels and had no intention of getting to know them that closely. Apparently [Gino] just walks out until he finds someone with a camel and asks them to give him a ride. Personally, I think it’s rather stupid. You get on the damn thing; some guy leads you around for an hour until you have a sore ass; and then you pay him money. Ridiculous.” (27)
Camel-researcher Roger’s complaint delineates the dichotomy between those who act and those who study. If we allow ourselves to view Gino not only as a literal fellow traveler, but a “fellow traveler” as the term is used for a communist sympathizer, Roger’s griping hints at the ramifications of never engaging in an activity that one judges. Gino, like the fellow travelers, enters the fray without subscribing to ideology—he “walks out until he finds someone with a camel,” displaying his unbridled gusto to engage with the situation, without assuming it will end well or poorly ahead of time. Likewise, fellow travelers, though they sympathized with communists, did not join the party, thus refusing to blindly swallow communist dogma.
Gino’s nationality reinforces this reading. During the time-period in which the term “fellow-traveler” was in vogue, the Italian government’s stability fluctuated wildly. Thus, the Italians do not subscribe to predetermined readings of their surroundings.
Gino provides the negative space into which Roger’s prejudices emerge, starkly contrasted. Roger, like many Americans during the Cold War, immediately assumes that the Other (the camel rider, the Communist) is bad, dangerous, unknowable, and conflates multiple social taboos. Roger’s description of Gino’s camel riding practices suggests Gino is soliciting sex: Gino pays money to an anonymous “guy” for an hour that will end with “a sore ass.” By heaping socially pre-established taboos upon each other, Roger demonstrates the extent of his blindness.
As Roger will later have to ride camels himself to unlock the grizzly mystery that haunts the core of Kicked to Death By a Camel, this passage serves to establish the many norms (cultural, ideological, theoretical) that Roger will have to overcome to solve the murder. Roger also serves as the narrator for the mystery—thus, the reader experiences the book’s events through Roger’s tainted vision and must personally try to separate fact from opinion.
In conclusion, Bulliet’s nuanced narrative reveals the web of social strictures that bind Roger and, by narrating the mystery through Roger’s voice, the reader himself, asking the question: aren’t we all reluctant camel riders?
– Matthew Schantz
The One-Donkey Solution: A Satire
“The bloodbath was the last straw for me. I had been willing to stretch my moral standards when he killed the Egyptian children, but these were his own kin. He had told them back in Egypt that God had sent him to save them from slavery, and he had passed a whole slew of miracles to make it happen. But now he was having them slaughtered. They would have been better off if they had stayed in Egypt and continued to make bricks without straw. I was completely disgusted. It even crossed my mind that bloody Ufair might somehow have taken my place in Moses’ mind. However, when I reached out to sense where Ufair was, I found that he was in Crete appearing to people in the persona of a donkey-headed demon and stirring up big trouble in the aftermath of a huge volcano explosion on the island of Thera. Minoan civilization never really recovered. Nor did I back in Sinai. I decided to let the Israelites go their own way, and I headed toward Canaan.” (100)
This truly showcases the strength and courage of the donkey Messiah. Unintimidated by the miracles of God, he is brave enough to pass judgment and question His very actions. This ass is no blind zealot. Furthermore, he is intelligent—a literal smart ass. His use of the phrase “the last straw” evinces mastery even of English idioms, and is perhaps an ironic commentary on human usage of the term. Who, after all, better understands the value of a piece of straw than a barnyard animal? Furthermore, this stunted Equida is so sophisticated as to possess morals, and even boasts an intellect capable of pondering them.
His distaste at the Israelites’ treatment at the hands of God seems to reveal a deep-set distrust of authority, and perhaps even some insecurities about his own identity. Could this have origins in a childhood incident? Or perhaps it is a byproduct of spending one’s entire life compared to more capable horse relatives—an insecurity common to all donkeys? If one thing is certain, it is that this jackass feels betrayed.
He witnessed firsthand the misery of the Jews as they were forced to do hard labor for the Egyptians, and is emotionally invested in their journey. Moses promised salvation to his people at the hands of God, and our asinine hero shared in the Israelites’ excitement and optimism.
Now, however, this predicament seems even more miserable, and a deep shadow of doubt is cast over the Israelites. This doubt feeds on the donkey’s insecurities and expands rapidly: what if he has been usurped by Ufair as Moses‘ favorite ass? The foundations of his pride suddenly begin to shake and crack. But he remains calm and focuses his psychic powers. Yes, he really is gifted. And now he cries that Ufair is tormenting Greeks and Minoans, and he is momentarily appeased. Ufair is a simpleton—a joker and a trickster. He is unworthy of Moses‘ affection. Yes, the prophet’s donkey must be strong and serious, and there is no other as capable as our hero.
Yet for all his wisdom, his bravery, and his ability to carry large amounts of food and supplies, he is still shaken badly by this betrayal. He likens the damage to that of a volcanic explosion: he has been rocked as if by a force of nature, and burning holes have been blasted in his picture of the mountain of the Almighty. And now, this has caused a change in him that will never be reversed. He will never allow a betrayal of this magnitude again. Insecure or not, he knows he has the power to shape his own fate. Just as his God has abandoned him, he strikes out on his own. The Israelites, who were until recently his people, he will leave to their own fate. He needs not their carrots nor their flat bread. Their disingenuous God can burn and scar his “chosen people,” but he will not touch this ass’s hide. This jackass is truly the master of his own affairs.
– Brian Wagner