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Teaching Notes - Orpheus Lost

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HarperCollinsPublishers Teaching Notes

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ORPHEUS LOST

by Janette Turner Hospital

Teaching Notes - Orpheus Lost

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Fourth Estate

An imprint HarperCollinsPublishers Australia These teachers' notes are not to be sold Prepared for HarperCollinsPublishers by John Allen. Typeset by Helen Beard, ECJ Australia Pty Limited Orpheus Lost first published in Australia in 2007 by HarperCollinsPublishers Australia Pty Limited ABN 36 009 913 517 www.harpercollins.com.au Orpheus Lost © Janette Turner Hospital 2007 HarperCollinsPublishers 25 Ryde Road, Pymble, Sydney, NSW 2073, Australia 31 View Road, Glenfield, Auckland 10, New Zealand

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Contents

Orpheus Lost . . . · 5 Structure · 8 The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice · 9 Themes · 11 Characters · 14 Style of Writing · 17 About the Author · 18 Questions for Discussion · 19 Essay Topics · 21

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Orpheus Lost . . .

Orpheus Lost is a rich and complex story exploring what drives people to behave the way they do, as they search to give meaning to their lives. Janette Turner Hospital examines the comfort of living in the privacy and security of one's isolated world, yet with the realisation that such `cocoons' are illusory once we acknowledge our connection with other people, especially those we love. Taking on a theme that has continued to preoccupy writers ­ not least of all William Shakespeare ­ the novelist is fascinated by the way people are rarely what they seem. Indeed, it is only when the characters come to know one another that they arrive at a glimmer of understanding of what drives them, even when the persons themselves are unsure as to the reason for their preoccupation. Turner Hospital lets us know how, under these circumstances, people can change remarkably for the better or the worse. Primarily, the author is concerned with the redemptive quality and the pain of loving in a world where, so often, power in the hands of both institutions and individuals comes to be a brutal force of destruction, not least of all the terrifying power of religious fanaticism and political activity for which no one will take responsibility. Orpheus Lost maps the youth and early childhood of three characters: the Orpheus figure, Mishka Bartok (aka Mikael Abukir); his Eurydice, Leela Moore; and her childhood friend, and the couple's nemesis, Cobb Slaughter. Mesmerised by the power of Mishka's violin playing in a Boston underground station, Leela falls in love with the

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Jewish Australian. He is completing advanced studies in music at Harvard; she, a post-doctorate in mathematical equations pertaining to musical composition, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Cobb, a retired officer with the Unites States army, now working as an independent military advisor, is involved in the surveillance of Mishka, who is associating with a radical Islamic group in Boston, in an attempt to make a connection with his father, whom he thought was dead. Cobb's `watching' focuses intensely on Leela, his `blood sister', with whom he has always been obsessed and dementedly jealous of any male she may favour ahead of him. The novel is a fascinating study of obsession. All three characters are driven by their passions, and experience the ecstasy and anguish that result from such drive, for, as the sign above Leela's desk says, `Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell.' Suicide bombers attack American cities. Radical Islam devotees pronounce their own manic vision of the world while Leela's father lives in the little town of Promised Land, Southern Carolina, where his repair business is titled `Sword of the Lord and of Gideon', and he attends the `Church Triumphant of Tongues of Fire'! Cobb's alcoholic father still acknowledges the Confederate flag that continues to be flown in Charleston, and, wracked by brutal memories of his service in Vietnam, pours vitriol upon the world. Thus, the characters are not `normal', in the sense that they do not accord with the usual parameters of society: each is driven, in one way or another, by their predicament, and each is immeasurarably human. They have to make decisions and live with the consequences of their actions ­ and all of this takes place in a riveting tale, exploring moral dilemmas in a world of pain and loss. Critic Peter Craven writes of the novel that Turner Hospital `bridges the gap between highbrow and popular fiction', commenting that `she is writing literary fiction that has the readability and the page-turning

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suspense normally associated with popular or trash writing'. Her notable literary qualities lie in the intriguing structure of the text and the sophisticated point of view from which that story is told; the richness of the character delineation and the mythic sub-strata of the tale; the complex moral issues the text explores, and the superb command of language that appears to be so effortlessly employed.

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Structure

From the opening sentence, `Afterwards, Leela realized, everything could have been predicted from the beginning,' the retrospective nature of the narration is apparent. The story is told by shifting back and forth between past and present, and the significance of the past to the present situation is revealed. At the end of the novel, Leela's future actions are suggested: `She knew she would...' Each title of the nine chapters, or books, as they are called, is the name of one of the three main characters; the home town of Leela and Cobb, Promised Land; or other dimensions, Underworld and Unheard Music. While the point of view remains omniscient, so that the characters and their world are seen from a God-given perspective, the personal focus of each book allows the reader to gain an intimate perspective of each of the characters' thoughts and feelings. Much of this results from subtle shifts in tone. One can compare the perspective of Leela in Book I, which is personal, passionate and questioning, to that of Cobb in Book II, where the tone is cold, clinical and objective ­ `Slaughter had the woman taken directly to the interview room.' Such a kaleidoscopic point of view and complex structure are in no way a burden, as the narrative unity is never lost, and the reader is drawn into the lives of these complex and fascinating characters.

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The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Turner Hospital's novel is a re-imagining of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was the sweetest singer and most accomplished musician the world had ever seen. His lyre, said the ancient Greeks, was presented by Apollo himself. When he played and sang, wild animals gathered and even trees swayed in harmony. When his bride, Eurydice, is bitten by an adder and goes to the land of the dead, Orpheus can not be consoled. Taking his lyre, he follows her spirit. In the underworld, he begs Hades and Persephone to restore his wife to him and to the sweet sunshine. Charmed by his music, they agree, but one condition is laid down: on their way up from the valley of the dead, neither Orpheus nor Eurydice is to look back. Up and up through the darkened ways they go, Orpheus leading, never looking behind. As they near the place where the land of light and living opens up, a white-winged bird flies by, and Orpheus turns in ecstasy to Eurydice, exclaiming, `O, Eurydice, look upon the world I have returned you to.' As he speaks, he turns to Eurydice, and, in that instant, she slips back into the darkest depths of the valley. All he hears is one word, `Farewell.' Not only is Mishka called Orpheus for much of the text, his personality and actions parallel that of the mythic character. His lyre is the heritage of the revered Uncle Otto; the animals he charms may not be wild, but the travellers in the Boston underground are mesmerised by the young man's music. Then the myth is subverted; the identities are reversed. It is not Eurydice but Orpheus who is bitten by

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the fang of international terrorism, brutal interrogation and torture. While Orpheus's music had charmed Cerberus at the gates of Hades, on this occasion, Mishka's music brings nothing other than scorn. Nevertheless, the devoted female follows the spirit of her lover through dream, psychic connection and determined action. The novel concludes with a positive vision. The battered Orpheus is not left to eternal darkness, but is eventually freed by Cobb, to return to the sanctuary of the Daintree and the love of his Eurydice.

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Themes

Finding Sanctuary

Most people wish to feel safe and secure in their world, and create microcosms so that they can peacefully pursue their interests and live out their lives. Turner Hospital suggests that such `cocoons' are fragile indeed, even illusory. Mishka lives in the `haunting cocoon of his music', but that offers little protection from brutality. Chateau Daintree, the promised land, which represents safety, belonging and connectedness, is a little `cocoon' in which Grandpa Mordecai and Grandma Malika are suspended, cut off from the world, yet, living with the legacy of Hitler's death-camps, they have to `unmake the past' in order to find meaning in the world. Leela comes to realise that her obsession with mathematics was `an addiction. It was my beautiful cocoon,' which she leaves behind as she pursues her lover. In studying the text, one ought to consider how effectively the various characters pursue independent interests yet still manage to function in the world.

Descent into the Underworld

Turner Hospital has stated: `I have always been intensely interested in people without political agendas who get caught up in political events and have to negotiate their way through them ... That's been the subject of all my novels, and specifically this one.' Set in the immediate present, Orpheus Lost taps into public fears about terrorism, war and

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torture in the Iraq context. Along the way, Turner Hospital probes the secrecy surrounding `extraordinary rendition', `ghost detainees' and Abu Ghraib, to examine what can happen to individuals when errors are made in the name of national security. `Rendition' is a process whereby political prisoners are taken to countries where torture is not illegal, in order to inflict it upon them without consequence. The term `ghost detainees' refers to people who are arrested or kidnapped and imprisoned of whom no record of arrest or imprisonment is kept. In terms of military and prison records, these people don't exist and nothing was ever done to them. Mishka's search for his father becomes a journey spiralling out of control, resulting in his brutal torture in Iraq. He is a victim of rendition. Searching for her love, Leela visits Camp Noir, a detention centre in Australia, where the `ghost detainee' who is suffering from `post-interrogation disorder', proves not to be Mishka. The inhumanity of the treatment of those who are politically suspect is the didactic focus of the novel. Another dimension of the underground are figures such as Cobb, ex-military personnel who carry out clandestine activities in order to serve governments and companies, or simply pursue their own personal vendettas. They hold frightening power in the community and are accountable to no one.

A Sense of Place

Orpheus Lost examines the private lives of individuals ­ their inner lives, the particular places in which they live ­ and all of this is seen within the context of global concerns. Leela and Mishka are studying in Boston, a diverse and complex modern city where there is tension in Muslim­Christian relations. In the wake of 9/11, of the Bali bombings, and the London and Madrid railway bombings, the novel

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imagines a possible near future in America where random terrorist attacks are occurring. Two of the nine chapters are titled `Promised Land' after that remarkably named place in South Carolina where Leela-May Magnolia Moore and Cobb Slaughter grew up and where their families still reside. Promised Land seems lost in time: the Civil War seems as though it was fought only a decade earlier and its legacy is ever present ­ think of Cobb's tattoo! A Mason-Dixon Line is still perceived, and Leela is distrusted for going to the North. This is a fundamentalist community, inhabited by many eccentrics, but ultimately a place of kindness. Leela's sister, Maggie, wants to keep living there to serve the community. Whilst racial tensions have lessened, the figure of Benedict Boykin, an African-American, represents the disproportionate number of black and impoverished Americans in the regular army fighting in the Iraq war. Also called `Promised Land', at one point, is the home of Mishka's grandparents in the Daintree. The focus here is less on the area than it is on the house itself, and `Bartok's Belfry', which Mishka describes as `paradise'. The enchantment of Europe is transplanted to this fabulously colourful and peaceful home, the very antitheses of the underworld and the place of repose to which, literally and symbolically, Mishka returns at the end of the novel for the healing to take place.

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Characters

Akin to Orpheus, his mythic self, Mishka is a recluse who `live[s] inside [his] music'. As he declares upon first meeting Leela, `I listen to music, I play music, I compose it. I don't do anything else ... I'm just no good at anything normal'. Mishka's creative endeavour involves reconciling Western and Islamic culture, composing music set to the work of Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian mystic, and as with the mystics, the young musician appreciates that understanding comes not only from analytical thinking but also by attending to one's intuitive self and one's dreams. He implores Leela to place her ear against his heart so that she may hear his sonatine before he has written it down. After his awkward initiation to primary schooling the five-year-old seeks escape through art: `I do not belong on this page, he concluded. He wanted his mother to paint him somewhere else.' His intuitive self is apparent when, before meeting his father, he tells Leela, `I have a feeling of dread'. Leela also comes to realise that humans co-exist in multiple dimensions. The couple live much of their time in music and mathematics, which, as Berg says to Leela, `constructs an ideal world where everything is perfect but true'. However, she too comes to listen to her inner self, realising that `dreams can mean something ... that we don't have equations for', as she comes to make a psychic connection with her lover, now in a different country to her. In many ways, Leela is the hero of the novel. Perhaps she inherited a `fearless gene' from her father. She has a `rapacious curiosity', fierce determination,

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together with an acerbic wit. Threatened by the drunken Calhoun Slaughter, she asserts, `if you lay a hand on me, you know my Daddy and the elders will come and pray for you on your own front porch. They'll pray the Holy Spirit down and you'll get Jesused.' Yet her finest quality is her love for, and devotion to Mishka. Whilst she certainly doesn't understand his actions for much of the time, she never loses faith in her lover, pursing him with hope against hope, when, like Orpheus, he is lost in his underworld. In many ways the most fascinating character in the novel is Cobb Slaughter. His `skittish intensity' and the `need for totemic power' can well be understood when one considers how he was beaten as a child by his tortured father who had been given a Dishonourable Discharge in the Vietnam war. With the death of his mother, there is no nurturing figure in his life, but a consoling figure for him is Leela. The youngsters come to realise that `they both lived in crackbrained families; they both lived without benefit of mothers; they both navigated, daily, around highly unpredictable dads.' Bonded by blood, Cobb, when separated from Leela, is like an `amputated limb'. In many ways Cobb is an obnoxious character. He makes a frightening imposition upon the privacy of others; is brutally offensive to Leela, whom he calls `the slut of Promised Land'; and is sexually kinky. Yet he comes to be the moral hero of the novel, and, as with his crass father, he is seen to have redeeming qualities. As Leela says to him when they are searching for Mishka, `you're decent, Cobb, and he's innocent'. He attempts to redress the situation, recognising that things were not as he had planned, and he searches for `atonement'. Mishka's nemesis eventually becomes his saviour, at the cost of his own life. While the three main figures are rich and fascinating characters, one of the intriguing qualities of Turner Hospital's novel is the minor characters. Such creations are necessary to serve the plot, to move the

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action along, but, in the hands of this writer, all are distinct individuals with their own personalities. Indeed, the reader's perception of these figures can change dramatically, as is the case with Calhoun Slaughter. Students should examine the details of the text to consider what we learn of the following characters and how the writer brings them to life: Devorah Bartok Calhoun Slaughter Berg Jamil Haddad Maggie Ali Hassan Benedict Boylan Mr Hajj Marwan Abukir Grandma Malika Grandfather Mordecai Gideon Moore

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Style of Writing

It has been said that, for the writer, style should be a feather in one's arrow rather than a feather in one's cap. The wonderfully evocative prose of Turner Hospital's novel is never simply employed for effect; rather it is crafted to capture place, character and incident. Consider the fusion of people and place in this description of Bartok's Belfry: `Grandma Malika would light the candles, and Mishka thought of himself and the three people he loved as figures inside a music box, leaning toward each other over the white linen cloth. They were inside the light, inside the golden circle, and just beyond the table, on all sides, were the heavy drapes of rain, folds of water flashing white and silver like roped silk.' The descriptions of the Daintree provide moments of transcendent beauty for Mishka: `His grandfather drove him down when the morning lay like gold leaf on ocean and on cane fields and on the steep forested slopes. Last night's rain was always steaming up from the road so that Mishka saw hundreds of wraith-cobras performing for the snake-charmer sun.' Consider also the way in which the writer employs a mythic dimension throughout the tale. In `searching for nuggets of his father' Mishka `could not speak of the precious but ominous thing he had found: his father's existence. It was like one of those double-edged treasures in Scheherazade's tales: a jewel that brings death to the finder'. Consider the prescience of that image within the context of the novel.

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About the Author

Janette Turner Hospital was born in Melbourne in 1942, but grew up in Brisbane and then began her teaching career in northern Queensland. She completed her post-graduate studies in Canada and has lived in India, England, France and the USA, where she currently holds the endowed chair as Carolina Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of South Carolina. Her first novel, The Ivory Swing, was published when she was forty, and won Canada's Seal Award. The Last Magician, her fifth novel, was listed by Publishers Weekly as one of the twelve best novels published in the US in 1992, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, as was Oyster, her sixth novel. Due Preparations for the Plague won the Queensland Premier's Literary Award in 2003, the Davitt Award for best crime novel of the year by an Australian woman, and was shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize in the 2000 NSW Premier's Literary Awards. In 2003 Janette Turner Hospital received the Patrick White Award for lifetime literary achievement. Her inspiration for Orpheus Lost came whilst standing on the subway station in Harvard Square, listening to buskers from the nearby Julliard and Harvard schools of music. She became so enamoured of the music that she missed trains, `listening to this glorious music in the bowels of the earth.' For all this, Orpheus Lost remains an intensely political novel.

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Questions for Discussion

1. The impact of religion is obvious throughout the novel: Leela's family's fundamentalism; Islam; Berg's Judaism; the Diaspora and the Bartoks.

What is Turner Hospital's final verdict on religion? Does she make any judgments? To what extent does the novel suggest that redemption will be found other than in religion, i.e. through the intensity of one's love?

2. The author's interconnected narrative does require energy to follow the plot.

Does such a structure enhance or inhibit the novel's progress?

3. Through the media, readers have been extensively exposed to news stories about turmoil and terrorism.

To what extent is Turner Hospital's novel different?

4. `Leela is self-centred, impulsive, rebellious; Maggie, her sister, is a much more pleasant person.'

Do you agree with the above judgment? Can Leela be considered the `hero' of the novel?

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5. Music in all its forms is seen as the dominant leit motif of the novel: the violin and the Persian oud; Uncle Otto; the two universities; the epigraph itself.

Discuss the importance of music in the novel.

6. In what ways do the Slaughters ­ Calhoun and Cobb ­ come to mirror one another?

Consider your initial impressions of both men, and how and why they change.

7. Turner Hospital has stated that she was always interested in people without any political agenda who get caught up in political events.

In Orpheus Lost, how do the characters manage to cope with this experience?

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Essay Topics

1. In what way is the text structured to engage the reader's curiosity and present the story in an engaging manner? 2. `Turner Hospital's characters are flawed individuals, but ultimately good.' Do you agree? 3. `Despite the black horror of the subject matter, the novel is not pessimistic.' Do you agree? 4. `Ultimately, the true hero of the novel is Cobb Slaughter.' Do you agree? 5. `Sport of the gods,' Mishka Bartok said. `That's what we are.' Does Turner Hospital's novel endorse this point of view?

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