Killing the Dogs of Kathmandu, by Jason DeBoer
An excerpt from Annihilation Songs: Three Shakespeare Reintegrations, available now from Stalking Horse Press
Editor’s Note: This is one of the more interesting pieces that’s come across our digital transom in some time. While visiting Kathmandu, the author, under the influence of the anti-malaria drug Mefloquine (side effects include hallucinations, psychotic dreams, confusion, etc.), alcohol and various local products, suffered a bout of insomnia. Feverish, with only a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare to get him through the two weeks of sleepless nights, he finally cracks, realizes he hates Shakespeare and cuts the book to pieces. He then spent the next two years reassembling the pieces, and created three new short stories from, respectively, Hamlet, The Tempest and Two Gentlemen of Verona. As much a performance piece as writing, these three pieces are perhaps the ultimate expression of Burroughs’ cut-up method, while also bringing to mind works such as Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style and Georges Perec’s A Void. The following is the story of how it came to be.
1. The day is ours. / The bloody dog is dead.
—Shakespeare, Richard III
2. The creation of the first of these Shakespeare “reintegrations” began in 1996. I had entered Kathmandu in the midst of thieves. I knew so by the way they watched me and signaled each other. Three of them, a motley team of kids, maybe seventeen at most, had targeted me at the outer bus station. They didn’t make their move then, but they positioned themselves, eyes serious and hungry, as we got on the first city bus.
The harrowing trip from the Indian border had worn on my nerves. A peasant girl unused to travel had sobbed and vomited for four hours, and on the uphill slopes, the liquid crawled back across the bus floor and kissed at my boots. Smoking cigarettes didn’t dispel the stench, and the wall- to-wall passengers and the screaming radio and the aisles clogged with chickens and dusty sacks of grain beat at my senses until I didn’t even care about the ever-present thousand-foot drop outside the window. It wasn’t good to travel scared, and when exhaustion had crushed it out of me, I felt relieved, and as the lurching bus pondered suicide on every mountain curve, I felt no fear.
Getting to the ancient heart of Kathmandu from the outer station required three separate buses. Straining under my pack, I had to run like hell to catch the second bus and so did the thieves. One of them didn’t make it. The bus was no more than a gutted van with plastic handles nailed to the ceiling, grasped desperately by twenty ragged travelers. I stood inches from the grin of one of the thieves. Each of us knew that the other knew, but the cat-and-mouse continued. I kept my backpack tight against the wall of the van, away from both thieves. I couldn’t guess what they imagined I possessed of value. When the van stopped, I feigned relaxation, letting most of the passengers disembark ahead of me. The second thief lit a cigarette outside and was swept away by the crowd, while the smarter thief stuck close. I saw my break when the third van was nearly loaded to the brim. “Excuse me,” I said to the nearest thief and then jumped out and sprinted to the third van as it closed its doors. The smart one stayed right on my ass, but the slower kid was pushed out by the ticket taker because the vehicle was overloaded. That left the one thief, who had stopped grinning.
Outside, I saw a young Nepalese mother in the doorway of her hut, clutching a screaming baby. The most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life, despite her squalor and the strain on her face. The bus unloaded on the Durbar Marg, with the distant red temples of Durbar Square to the west, and the thief got out ahead to wait for me. Rather than let him tail me, I walked right up and shoved him to the ground. “Fuck off, you! Fuck right off!” India had made me mean. Flat on his back, his eyes flashed murder, but the open boulevard and surrounding crowd took away all his options. He swore in Nepali and scurried off. A pair of mangy street mutts began to sniff at my boots. I felt goddamn exhausted, but I was finally in Kathmandu, where I hoped to write and print my first book.
3. Mefloquine, an antimalarial drug often prescribed to travelers to malaria-infested areas such as India and the lowlands of Nepal, has these common side effects: insomnia, hallucinations, hair loss, insomnia, depression, psychotic dreams, unusual thoughts or behaviors, confusion, suicide, fatigue, seizures, insomnia, goddamn insomnia.
4. At one of Kathmandu’s many book stalls, I traded in my copy of Balzac’s Droll Stories, which I had read on the grass in the gardens in front of the Taj Mahal, a tiny oasis of peace and sanity amidst the chaos of India. I chose a collection of Chekhov stories and the complete Shakespeare for my next reads. I took them back to the Hotel Utse, where in the lobby a diverse group of travelers had gathered to drink near the television, which always seemed to be playing the sixties Batman series. In addition to myself, there was: a German philanthropist named Hans, who paid money from his own pocket to send several Nepalese kids to college; a rugged Australian biologist, Marcus, who belonged to a tiger protection group; an obnoxious retired Greek, Christos, who loudly abused and badgered the hotel staff at every opportunity; Christos’s tragic wife, name never divulged, who was the firsthand witness to his hundreds of daily bad behaviors; and Anand and Jagan, two middle-aged owners of a garment factory, who each evening had different call girls on their laps. We bonded each evening and became friends over beer and the local apple brandy and, on rare nights, hot toomba, the fermented millet tea served in tiny barrels with straws.
5. Mefloquine users should avoid drugs, alcohol, and especially toomba.
6. At night, I read the same pages of The Tempest over and over. I was too tired for it to take hold. I hadn’t slept in two weeks. And not in the casual way one might complain of a restless night, a few missed hours, some tossing and turning. No, this was eyes open, humming brain, wanting to die insomnia. Insomnia underlined in red ink. For days and days on end. After two weeks, I actually thought I would die from it. I pondered what faxed message to send my girlfriend and future wife. The weakness, the letting go, crept into my bones. And in those closest moments, when sleep teased me and seemed to draw near, suddenly, the street dogs would explode into barking below my room. The stray dogs that slept all day in the sun, lazy and unafraid, clogging every entryway and nook in the Kathmandu alleys, came alive at night. Shakespeare’s dogs of war. Fighting, fucking, howling, shrieking, but most of all attacking my exhausted brain. “Let me sleep, dogs of war! Cry havoc somewhere else…”
7. I have given a name to pain, and call it “dog.”
—Nietzsche, The Gay Science
8. I bought a knife. A long khukuri knife, the weapon of the famed Ghurka soldiers. They were sold everywhere in the city, and in the streets, hundreds of touts also sold a strange ointment called Tiger Balm. “Tiger bomb! Tiger bomb!” they’d shout in my face. Such a bomb is not very appealing when one is deathly tired. But a knife is to be treasured.
9. Exasperated with The Tempest, I realized I hated Shakespeare and I hated his dogs of war and any other fucking creatures that dared to make noise in the night. The idea came to me of disintegrating and then reintegrating Shakespeare’s text into something new forms, so I took my knife and chopped up my copy of his play. My story “Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision” slowly took shape. And “slowly” is not an exaggeration. It’s not an important fact, but I doubt many stories in the history of literature have been so painstakingly written. Literally constructed (or reintegrated) word by word and then meticulously cross-checked against the play, it took me more than two years to complete the final draft. But in Kathmandu, the process was quicker, more brutal. A blade cutting up a text and rearranging the pieces. Paper substituting for the soft throats of loud dogs. I had always been an animal protector, a dog lover, but the insomnia had made me desperate and insane. For the sake of sleep, I vowed that the dogs below my window had to go. Otherwise, the sleeplessness would bury me.
10. We had an impromptu party on the hotel roof. A weird Indian businessman was reading people’s fortunes from their faces. Mine was positive, even though I felt like a walking corpse already, but he told German Hans that someday he’d die in a car crash, which didn’t help the festive mood. The Greek asshole was louder than the party, more grating than the dogs. My brain wanted him dead. The tiger biologist, Marcus, wasn’t sleeping well either and after six beers each, I coaxed him to tell me why. His assignment as an environmentalist that day was to confront a shop known to deal illegally in tiger teeth and claws. He leaned in to whisper the rest. “We dragged the guy into his basement…” He paused and drank deeply, unsure if he should continue. “And we beat him and beat him until he was just a fucking bloody mess.” I had never heard of animal rights advocates waging thuggish war before. “Was he… alive?” “Sure, we’re not murderers.” His mournful face, his fortune to be read, tried to push the horror back behind the wall of alcohol. I could tell he wanted his statement to be true, but he had doubts. A boisterous man, usually, he now acted as if, in scrubbing the blood from his hands that day, something else had washed away too. We spent the next hour debating how his group could prioritize tiger lives over human ones, and his argument hinged on the rarity and beauty of the cats. “It matters that they survive. It fucking matters,” he said. We smoked cigarettes solemnly and at some point noticed an aberration in the sky. “See that blurry star? It’s in the same spot from hours ago, isn’t it?” “I’ll be damned. Even the stars are disintegrating.” A ghostly comet flew above us and the Himalayas and I could feel my eyes water. The dogs seemed to react to the new object in the sky with even greater fury.
11. Every dog is valiant on his own dunghill.
12. I spent the next morning roaming the streets and shops looking to buy poison. I even asked the tiger bomb salesmen if they knew where I could get some. Instead, I received suspicious glances and looks of pity, as if I were the world’s most awkwardly incompetent murderer. I suppose I was. In the daylight, the street dogs snored peacefully, exhausted from their nightly antics. I went back to my room and finished the final carving of the pages of The Tempest. I wrote out a working concordance of Shakespeare’s words that I most wanted to use in my reintegration. The “Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision” storyline had distilled into that of an abusive marriage with a wife rising up from her oppressor, and where the husband yearns to transcend death through his erotic deeds. It was an expansion on a minor theme of Sade’s that had explored how the “little death” might defer the big death. Insomnia had made death feel very close, too close, so I tried to explore escape plans via writing. The cut-ups reflected my own inner fragmentation.
13. Jacques Lacan named one of his dogs Justine, after Sade’s novel. Lacan also married Georges Bataille’s ex-wife Sylvia, an actress most famous for Jean Renoir’s film Partie de campagne, which has the most ironic cameo in cinema history, with atheist Bataille as a priest. Of course, in reality, most psychoanalytic sessions and days in the country have been ruined by barking dogs. No doubt, Lacan’s most feckless patients were writers on mefloquine.
14. Just as I forced The Tempest through a process of disintegration and ended up with a reintegration called “Here Swims a Most Majestic Vision,” so did my Kathmandu self dissolve from insomnia and morph into something stronger. One morning, the Greek saw me taking my meds and told me, “You do not need it in Kathmandu. No malaria.” Within a few days, I could sleep again. Only then did I realize that my hell had been self-inflicted from the anti-malarials. I had been poisoning myself for no reason.
15. The dogs of war did not grow silent, no, but their nightly noise no longer mattered. Elated, I even scratched their ears during the day and tossed them scraps. I needed pets, companions, even Shakespeare, to join me where I was going. I needed to move beyond the initial blasphemous thrill in taking a knife to the work of a luminary like the Bard. Severed from their contexts, the individual naked words had revealed to me how persistently violent and theoretically rich Shakespeare’s vocabulary was and continues to be. Even the comedies have a darkness and complexity of idea that I never would have imagined before I began this project.
While constructing my stories, it became apparent how readily Shakespearean language assimilated with the ideas of controversial theorists like Friedrich Nietzsche, D.A.F. Sade, and Georges Bataille. The violence of Shakespeare’s language in The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Hamlet seemed to have many affinities with the atheistic, transgressive works of these philosophical thinkers. After Kathmandu, in these three reintegrations, I endeavored to explore themes that wed Shakespeare to more radical intellectual traditions. This work is still ongoing with the fourth reintegration in progress, “A Fallow Heart,” which comes from The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Jason DeBoer’s writing has been featured in The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, The Barcelona Review, Stand, Exquisite Corpse, The Clackamas Literary Review, Rosebud, and many other journals. His feature film, Dead River, a literary drama/thriller, has garnered critical acclaim and awards in Europe and the United States.