Friday, October 24, 2014

Ray Bradbury: The Kilimanjaro Device

Ray Bradbury's "The Kilimanjaro Device"
a short story found in the collection  I Sing the Body Electric


Did the title jog your memory a bit?  Perhaps remind you of another story by an American writer?  Who does the following quotation from the story suggest?

     "Oh, he had readers all right, all kinds of readers.  Even me.  I don't touch books from one autumn to the next.  But I touched his.  I think I liked the Michigan stories best.  About the fishing. I think the  stories about the fishing are good.  I don't think anybody ever wrote about fishing that way and maybe won't ever again.  Of course, the bullfight stuff is good, too.   But that's a little far off.  Some of the cowpokes like them;  they been around the animals all their life.  A  bull here or a bull there, I guess it's the same.  I know one cowpoke has read just the bull stuff in the Spanish stories of the old man's forty times.  He could go over there and fight, I swear."

One last clue:  The narrator refers to "the old man" as "Papa."  Of course, the style Bradbury adopts in this story is also a clue:  short declarative sentences, usually the straightforward subject-verb-object form.  Everything is concrete and definite.

But the point of the story is rather unusual, which isn't surprising since it's a tale by Ray Bradbury.  The narrator is on a mission, which is why he has come to this small town where the "old man" is buried.  He reveals his mission to a local hunter, the one who was quoted above.



     "'You  been up to the grave yet?'  asked; the hunter, as if he knew I would answer yes.
     'No,' I said.
     'Why not?'
     ' Because it's the wrong grave.,' I said.
     'All graves are wrong graves when you come down to it,' he said.
     'No,' I said. 'There are right graves and wrong ones, just as there are good times to die and bad times.'
     He nodded at this.  I had come back to something he knew, or at least smelled was right.
     'Sure, I knew men.' he said, 'died just perfect.  You always felt, yes, that was good.  One man I knew, sitting at the table waiting for supper, his wife in the kitchen, when she came in with a big bowl of soup, there he was sitting dead and neat at the table.  Bad for her, but, I mean, wasn't that a good way for him?  No sickness. No nothing but sitting there waiting for supper to come and never knowing if it came or not.'"



As you can see, the story is going in a strange direction.  What does this have to do with the grave on the hill that is the wrong grave?  The grave is that of Ernest Hemingway, although it is never stated.  However, the clues given above clearly suggest it is Papa Hemingway, who committed suicide in 1961 and was buried in Ketchum, Idaho.  There's also  a time machine involved, sort of a "psychic time machine" that is.

Time machine stories generally fall into two broad categories.  There's type in which the time travelers go solely as observers, fearing to do something, anything  which would change history and perhaps eliminate them.  Frequently though, they end up doing exactly what they feared.  Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of  Thunder" is a variation of that type of story.  The travelers go back, intending to hunt dinosaurs, but they kill only those dinosaurs that will die within a few minutes anyway, thereby reducing the risk of changing the future.  But.  .  .

The second type of time traveler is the one who goes back intending to change history.  There generally two types of these.  One type involves those who go back to kill someone who had a major and deleterious effect (in their minds anyway) on history--I have read several stories in which someone goes back in order to kill Adolf Hitler, thereby reducing the possibility of WWII and the holocaust.   A second type depicts the efforts of those who attempt to save someone from being killed--Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, for example.

But, neither of these is exactly what the narrator has in mind.




SPOILER:  The following reveals the story and the narrator's mission.  











The focus in the story is on dying at the right time.  As I mentioned above,  Hemingway committed suicide after living several years in pain and ill health, the result of an hereditary disease that affected several members of his family, some of whom either died from the disease or committed suicide.  Another contributing factor was the injuries he suffered in two plane crashes.  He and his wife had flown to Africa, but the plane crashed on landing.   He and his wife survived, but with some broken bones and tissue damage.  They attempted to fly out to get medical treatment on the next day, but that plane's engine exploded at takeoff.  Again they survived.  Eventually they did get the needed medical help, but Hemingway suffered health problems after that.

The narrator has a time machine, but he doesn't intend to use it to stop Hemingway from killing himself, nor does he intend to prevent the two plane crashes.  Instead, he goes back in time and meets "the old man." 

The narrator explains that the truck can possibly go back to 1954 (the date of the two plane crashes) and possibly can turn into plane.   The old man then asks him if he could land the plane a little bit differently, a little bit harder and that he "be thrown out but the rest of you okay?"
The narrator answers, "I'll see what I can do."

The old man "gazed back down the road at the mountains and the sea that could not be seen beyond the mountains and a continent beyond the sea. 'That's a good day you're talking about.' 
      'The best.'
      ' And a good hour and a good second.'
      'Really, nothing better.'"

Death is inevitable, but there are good deaths and bad deaths.

37 comments:

  1. Have you watched "Midnight in Paris"?

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  2. Di,

    No, in fact I hadn't heard of it, but after reading comments about it, I can see that it does have a bit of the flavor of Bradbury's short story. I will add it to my queue. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

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  3. No problemo.
    Also, "I have read several stories in which someone goes back in order to kill Adolf Hitler, thereby reducing the possibility of WWII and the holocaust." Have you watched "Inglourious Basterds"?

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    1. Di,

      Would you classifyl Inglorious Basterds as an alternate history film? No time machine, but definitely not the same history.

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    2. Ah, yes. No time machine in this one, I was only thinking of the killing of Hitler.

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  4. Di,

    No, I haven't. I had seen some promos for it and thought it was just another "Dirty Dozen" sort of film. I just read some comments by viewers on Netflix, and it gets some high reviews. I will check it out. Thanks again for the pointer.

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    1. OK, let me know your thoughts when you've seen it.
      But usually, based on those I've watched, Quentin Tarantino's not the type of director that wants to say something, so you shouldn't expect that.

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    2. Di,

      OK, I have seen a few of his, and they're heavy on violence, if I remember correctly.

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    3. "Kill Bill"? "Pulp Fiction"? "Reservoir Dogs"? "Django Unchained"?
      There's some of that in "Inglourious Basterds" too. I can't call myself a fan, but the violence in his films is not haunting- you see it, and then forget it, unlike, say, East Asian revenge films.

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    4. Di,

      All except for "Django Unchained." I thought "Pulp Fiction" was the best one.

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    5. I like that one more than the others too, just prefer "Inglourious Basterds", but probably because of my interest in languages and accents.

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    6. Di,

      Pulp Fiction had an interesting tale and wasn't just violent for the sake of being violent.

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    7. Agree.
      How about "Kill Bill"?

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    8. Di,

      A revenge tragedy--lots of violence--very predictable.

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    9. Personally I find American revenge films rather boring. Always the same, more or less.
      Japanese and South Korean revenge films are more creative, but then they can be quite unpleasant to watch.

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  5. Di,

    Revenge films are mostly predictable. American ones end in shootouts. Asian ones generally follow the pattern that a survivor finds a martial arts teacher, becomes an expert, and then goes off and slaughters the perpetrators of the crime, as well as thousands of others.

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    1. Nah. That sounds more like Chinese ones.
      Revenge in South Korean and Japanese films often involves a very complex plan and is a lot more cruel and painful- the characters don't simply kill, they make their enemies lose everything and suffer.
      E.g:
      Japanese: "Audition", "Kokuhaku", etc. I think "Ran" also fits.
      South Korean: "Oldboy", "Pietà", "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance", etc. (probably also "Lady Vengeance", "I Saw the Devil"...)
      There are more, but these are some well-known revenge films.

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  6. Di,

    Is "Ran" the Japanese version of "King Lear" directed by Kurosawa? If so, then I saw that one.

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    1. Yeah, that one. Unlike "King Lear", it does have the theme of revenge, or maybe my perception was influenced by the revenge films I'd watched. Haha.

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  7. Di,

    It's been a while, so I can't really say whether revenge was part of the story.

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    1. I think it is.
      Remember the wife of the 1st son? The lord, unlike King Lear, used to be a bad lord- before, he killed all of her family, forced her to marry the 1st son, and claimed the house as his own. When the lord abdicates, that woman urges her husband to take control of the whole clan, push the lord away and wage war; after he dies, she starts seducing the 2nd son...
      Calling it a revenge film, as I thought at the beginning, may be a bit too much, but there's revenge in it. 2 of the 3 sons are greedy and ambitious, and there's the theme of karma, but that woman also plays quite an important role, in my opinion.

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  8. Di,

    OK, I had forgotten about her. She definitely seemed motivated by revenge.

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  9. I will definitely be reading Ray Bradbury in the coming year, Fred. I do love the sound of this story and oh by the way, I love the whole idea of time travel. Speaking of going back to kill Hitler, have you read LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson? Not really a time travel trope but in a way, yes it is. I think you'd love this book.

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  10. Yvette,

    No, I haven't read her LIFE AFTER LIFE. It sounds interesting.

    I did read her mystery novel, CASE HISTORIES, and watched the TV dramatization of it.

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  11. Di

    Just watched INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I would call it an alternative history film since the ending never happened.

    Dialects and accents certainly played a significant role in the film.

    I found the pacing to be horrific. Every time the action started to heat up, we get a long drawn out session with the "Jew Hunter" which dissipated the tension level.

    Cat-and-mouse games can raise the tension but only in themselves when the result belongs to the session itself and if they don't go on too long, but when they interrupt the flow of an event for a long time, they are disastrous. Or, so I thought.

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    1. Oh I didn't really feel that way, but okay.

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    2. Di,

      You didn't feel what way?

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    3. OK, I'm not sure I grasped what you meant.
      "Every time the action started to heat up, we get a long drawn out session with the "Jew Hunter" which dissipated the tension level."
      Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

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    4. Di,

      The cat-and-mouse games he loved to play went on far too long, allowing the tension to change into irritation, or so I thought anyway.

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    5. I think I know what you mean- that could be disastrous. Didn't feel that way about "Inglourious Basterds", but then I watched it the 1st time with Norwegian subtitles and the 2nd time already knew what was going to happen. Haha.

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  12. Di,

    Well, the film got a lot of nominations for various awards, and I think Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for best supporting actor, so I'm probably in the minority here.

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    1. Well, that's like me and "Django Unchained". That one also got lots of nominations but I don't like it at all (except the music). Christoph Waltz got his 2nd Oscar for his performance in that film, which I think should have gone to Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master") instead.

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    2. Di,

      I haven't seen any of the Django films, of which there apparently are many.

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    3. There are. I haven't seen the others, but I think this one is not related- it's just a homage to "Django".

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  13. Di,

    Could be. I know nothing about the Django films except that there are many, and I just found this out in the past day or so. They really don't interest me.

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  14. I just listened to the story on audiobook. I found fascinating, but didn't really understand it. I listened again, still didn't get it. I searched the internet for an explanation, and ended up here. After reading your post, I' m amazed at what a great story this is!
    Thanks for the explanation

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    1. Anonymous,

      Yes, it is a great story, but of course, I'm prejudiced. I think Bradbury is one of the great American short story writers of this or any century.

      I'm glad I was able to help out.

      Thanks for your comment and hope you stop by again some time.

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