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Cities of the Red Night: A Novel

Cities of the Red Night: A Novel

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Cities of the Red Night: A Novel

3/5 (245 оценки)
364 страницы
5 часов
26 нояб. 2013 г.


While young men wage war against an evil empire of zealous mutants, the population of this modern inferno is afflicted with the epidemic of a radioactive virus. An opium-infused apocalyptic vision from the legendary author of Naked Lunch is the first of the trilogy with The Places of the Dead Roads and his final novel, The Western Plains.

26 нояб. 2013 г.

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Cities of the Red Night - William S. Burroughs


September 13, 1923.

Farnsworth, the District Health Officer, was a man so grudging in what he asked of life that every win was a loss; yet he was not without a certain plodding persistence of effort and effectiveness in his limited area. The current emergency posed by the floods and the attendant cholera epidemic, while it did not spur him to any unusual activity, left him unruffled.

Every morning at sunrise, he bundled his greasy maps—which he studied at breakfast while he licked butter off his fingers—into his battered Land-Rover and set out to inspect his district, stopping here and there to order more sandbags for the levees (knowing his orders would be disregarded, as they generally were unless the Commissioner happened to be with him). He ordered three bystanders, presumably relatives, to transport a cholera case to the district hospital at Waghdas and left three opium pills and instructions for preparing rice water. They nodded, and he drove on, having done what he could.

The emergency hospital at Waghdas was installed in an empty army barracks left over from the war. It was understaffed and overcrowded, mostly by patients who lived near enough and were still strong enough to walk. The treatment for cholera was simple: each patient was assigned to a straw pallet on arrival and given a gallon of rice water and half a gram of opium. If he was still alive twelve hours later, the dose of opium was repeated. The survival rate was about twenty percent. Pallets of the dead were washed in carbolic solution and left in the sun to dry. The attendants were mostly Chinese who had taken the job because they were allowed to smoke the opium and feed the ash to the patients. The smell of cooking rice, opium smoke, excrement, and carbolic permeated the hospital and the area around it for several hundred yards.

At ten o’clock the Health Officer entered the hospital. He requisitioned more carbolic and opium, and sent off another request for a doctor, which he expected and hoped would be ignored. He felt that a doctor fussing around the hospital would only make matters worse; he might even object to the opium dosage as too high, or attempt to interfere with the opium smoking of the attendants. The Health Officer had very little use for doctors. They simply complicated things to make themselves important.

After spending half an hour in the hospital, he drove to Ghadis to see the Commissioner, who invited him to lunch. He accepted without enthusiasm, declining a gin before lunch and a beer with lunch. He picked at the rice and fish, and ate a small plate of stewed fruit. He was trying to persuade the Commissioner to assign some convicts to work on the levees.

Sorry, old boy, not enough soldiers to guard them.

Well, it’s a serious situation.


Farnsworth did not press the point. He simply did what he could and let it go at that. Newcomers to the district wondered what kept him going at all. Old-timers like the Commissioner knew. For the Health Officer had a sustaining vice. Every morning at sunrise, he brewed a pot of strong tea and washed down a gram of opium. When he returned from his rounds in the evening, he repeated the dose and gave it time to take effect before he prepared his evening meal of stewed fruit and wheat bread. He had no permanent houseboy, since he feared a boy might steal his opium. Twice a week he had a boy in to clean the bungalow, and then he locked his opium up in an old rusty safe where he kept his reports. He had been taking opium for five years and had stabilized his dosage after the first year and never increased it, nor gone on to injections of morphine. This was not due to strength of character, but simply to the fact that he felt he owed himself very little, and that was what he allotted himself.

Driving back to find the sandbags not there, the cholera patient dead, and his three relatives droopy-eyed from the opium pills he had left, he felt neither anger nor exasperation, only the slight lack that had increased in the last hour of his drive, so that he stepped harder on the accelerator. Arriving at his bungalow, he washed down an opium pill with bottled water and lit the kerosene stove for his tea. He carried the tea onto the porch and by the time he had finished the second cup, he was feeling the opium wash through the back of his neck and down his withered thighs. He could have passed for fifty; actually he was twenty-eight. He sat there for half an hour looking at the muddy river and the low hills covered with scrub. There was a mutter of thunder, and as he cooked his evening meal the first drops of rain fell on the rusty galvanized iron roof.

He awoke to the unaccustomed sound of lapping water. Hastily he pulled on his pants and stepped onto the porch. Rain was still falling, and the water had risen during the night to a level of twelve inches under the bungalow and a few inches below the hubcaps of his Land-Rover. He washed down an opium pill and put water on the stove for his tea. Then he dusted off an alligator-skin Gladstone bag and started packing, opening drawers and compartments in the safe. He packed clothes, reports, a compass, a sheath knife, a 45 Webley revolver and a box of shells, matches, and a mess kit. He filled his canteen with bottled water and wrapped a loaf of bread in paper. Pouring his tea, the water rising under his feet, he experienced a tension in the groin, a surge of adolescent lust that was stronger for being inexplicable and inappropriate. His medical supplies and opium he packed in a separate bag, and as an added precaution, a slab of opium the size of a cigarette package, wrapped in heavy tinfoil, went into his side coat pocket. By the time he had finished packing, his pants were sticking out at the fly. The opium would soon take care of that.

He stepped from the porch into the Land-Rover. The motor caught, and he headed for high ground above the flood. The route he took was seldom used and several times he had to cut trees out of the road with an ax. Towards sundown, he reached the medical mission of Father Dupré. This was out of his district, and he had met the priest only once before.

Father Dupré, a thin red-faced man with a halo of white hair, greeted him politely but without enthusiasm. He brightened somewhat when Farnsworth brought out his medical supplies and went with him to the dispensary and hospital, which was simply a large hut screened-in at the sides. The Health Officer passed out opium pills to all the patients.

No matter what is wrong with them, they will feel better shortly.

The priest nodded absently as he led the way back to the house. Farnsworth had swallowed his opium pill with water from his canteen, and it was beginning to take effect as he sat down on the porch. The priest was looking at him with a hostility he was trying hard to conceal. Farnsworth wondered what exactly was wrong. The priest fidgeted and cleared his throat. He said abruptly in a strained voice, Would you care for a drink?

Thank you, no. I never touch it.

Relief flooded the priest’s face with a beneficent glow. Something else then?

I’d love some tea.

Of course. I’ll have the boy make it.

The priest came back with a bottle of whiskey, a glass, and a soda siphon. Farnsworth surmised that he kept his whiskey under lock and key somewhere out of the reach of his boys. The priest poured himself a generous four fingers and shot in a dash of soda. He took a long drink and beamed at his guest. Farnsworth decided that the moment was propitious to ask a favor, while the good father was still relieved at not having to share his dwindling supply of whiskey, and before he had overindulged.

I want to get through to Ghadis if possible. I suppose it’s hopeless by road, even if I had enough petrol?

The priest got a map and spread it out on the table. Absolutely out of the question. This whole area is flooded. Only possibility is by boat to here … from there it’s forty miles downriver to Ghadis. I could lend you a boat with a boy and outboard, but there’s no petrol here.…

I think I have enough petrol for that, considering it’s all downstream.

"You’ll run into logjams—may take hours to cut through … figure how long it could take you at the longest, and then double it … my boy only knows the route as far as here. Now this stretch here is very dangerous … the river narrows quite suddenly, no noise you understand, and no warning … advise you to take the canoe out and carry it down to here … take one extra day, but well worth it at this time of year. Of course you might get through—but if anything goes wrong … the current, you understand … even a strong swimmer…"

The following day at dawn, Farnsworth’s belongings and the supplies for the trip were loaded into the dugout canoe. The boy, Ali, was a smoky black with sharp features, clearly a mixture of Arab and Negro stock. He was about eighteen, with beautiful teeth and a quick shy smile. The priest waved from the jetty as the boat swung into midstream. Farnsworth sat back lazily, watching the water and the jungle slide past. There was not much sign of life. A few birds and monkeys. Once three alligators wallowing in a mudbank slid into the water, showing their teeth in depraved smiles. Several times logjams had to be cleared with an ax.

At sundown they made camp on a gravel bank. Farnsworth put water on for tea while Ali walked to the end of the bank and dropped a hook baited with a worm into a deep clear pool. By the time the water was boiling, he was back with an eighteen-inch fish. As Ali cleaned the fish and cut it into sections, Farnsworth washed down his opium pill. He offered one to Ali, who examined it, sniffed at it, smiled, and shook his head.

Chinese boy… He leaned over holding an imaginary opium pipe to a lamp. He drew the smoke in and let his eyes droop. No get— He put his hands on his stomach and rocked back and forth.

By the afternoon of the second day the stream had widened considerably. Towards sundown Farnsworth took an opium pill and dozed off. Suddenly he was wide awake with a start, and he reached for the map. This was the stretch that Father Dupré had warned him about. He turned towards Ali, but Ali knew already. He was steering for shore.

The silent rush of the current swept the boat broadside, and the rudder wire snapped like a bowstring. The boat twisted out of control, swept towards a logjam. A splintering crash, and Farnsworth was underwater, struggling desperately against the current. He felt a stab of pain as a branch ripped through his coat and along his side.

He came to on the bank. Ali was pushing water out of his lungs. He sat up breathing heavily and coughing. His coat was in tatters, oozing blood. He felt for the pocket, and looked at his empty hand. The opium was gone. He had sustained a superficial scratch down the left hip and across the buttock. They had salvaged nothing except the short machete that Ali wore in a sheath at his belt, and Farnsworth’s hunting knife.

Farnsworth drew a map in the sand to approximate their position. He calculated the distance to one of the large tributaries to be about forty miles. Once there, they could fashion a raft and drift downstream to Ghadis, where of course … the words of Father Dupré played back in his mind: Figure the longest time it could take you and then double it.…

Darkness was falling, and they had to stay there for the night, even though he was losing precious travel time. He knew that in seventy-two hours at the outside he would be immobilized for lack of opium. At daybreak they set out heading north. Progress was slow; the undergrowth had to be cut step by step. There were swamps and streams in the way, and from time to time deep gorges that necessitated long detours. The unaccustomed exertion knocked the opium out of his system, and by nightfall he was already feverish and shivering.

By morning he was barely able to walk, but managed to stagger along for a few miles. The next day he was convulsed by stomach cramps and they barely covered a mile. The third day he could not move. Ali massaged his legs, which were knotted with cramps, and brought him water and fruit. He lay there unable to move for four days and four nights.

Occasionally he dozed off and woke up screaming from nightmares. These often took the form of attacks by centipedes and scorpions of strange sizes and shapes, moving with great speed, that would suddenly rush at him. Another recurrent nightmare was set in the market of a Near Eastern city. The place was at first unknown to him but more familiar with each step he took, as if some hideous jigsaw of memory were slowly falling into place: the stalls all empty of food and merchandise, the smell of hunger and death, the greenish glow and a strange smoky sun, sulfurous blazing hate in faces that turned to look at him as he passed. Now they were all pointing at him and shouting a word he could not understand.

On the eighth day he was able to walk again. He was still racked with stomach cramps and diarrhea, but the leg cramps were almost gone. On the tenth day he felt distinctly better and stronger, and was able to eat a fish. On the fourteenth day they reached a sandbank by a wide clear river. This was not the tributary they were looking for, but would certainly lead into it. Ali had saved a piece of carbolic soap in a tin box, and they stripped off their tattered clothes and waded into the cool water. Farnsworth washed off the dirt and sweat and smell of his sickness. Ali was rubbing soap on his back and Farnsworth felt a sudden rush of blood to the crotch. Trying to hide his erection, he waded ashore with his back to Ali, who followed laughing and splashing water to wash the soap

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  • (5/5)
    Cities of the Red Night is a classic. The flow of images is very fluid and gives you the feeling of watching the story unfold in a multidimensional way that all fits together. When I first read this book many years ago, it made a great impression on me, when I read it again, it brings those thoughts to me again. One of the best from the master, I highly recommend this book, and in that spirit I remain.....
  • (3/5)
    Never having read the renowned William Burroughs lo these many years, I was eagerly anticipating "Cities of the Red Night". Yet, I found myself initially confused and then disappointed. The work was doing nothing for me. My best guess is that the work hasn't aged well. What had shock value (sexually explicit content and drug use) in 1980, in 2022 seemed somewhat banal and pointless. The plot, while interesting, also seemed to lack relevance. My alternate interpretation for my disappointment was that I just had no appreciation for his genius. Perhaps he was a genius for his time.
  • (4/5)
    The past decade or two, I've kept up with WSB more through various spoken word, audio collage, or similar projects (viz, Material's Seven Souls album), than from published texts. I recognised several excerpts here, evidently WSB gave readings while the work was in progress, and perhaps afterward, as well. I'm confident this novel is my first encounter with Clem Snide, for example, though this character featured in various recordings I've heard. Notably, these early encounters help me focus on themes I might not have grasped on first reading: Virus-B23 and biowarfare, or the addictive dynamics of consumer capitalism. Other themes I don't recall from audio work: piracy's Articles of Freedom in contrast with democratic republics; time travel and references to extraterrestrials on Earth; personality transplants. "I wonder what tyranny had led him to leave his native planet and take refuge under the Articles." [265]Novel is structured in three Books: the first two feature distinct sets of characters and timelines (modern day, 18th century), though suggestions of characters reappearing in different guises as though time traveling or reincarnating. The third is increasingly episodic, with dream logic and a cut-up grammar predominant. Novel ends without any plot resolution, and in fact it's unclear to me who is narrating in the final chapter.At a couple points WSB alludes to the influence of six cities, armies fighting between them, and the impact of a black hole on Earth (suggesting to me the Black Hole of Calcutta). These Cities of the Red Night are linked to Hassan i Sabbah's notorious words: "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted." Does each city somehow embody a variation of Sabbah's meaning? Were it not for the title drawing attention to these references, it's likely I would not have noted them, fleeting as they were.
  • (5/5)
    Burroughs’ plot may be confusing with characters that morph into each other, but otherwise this book shines with wit and poetry disguised as filthy trash. One has only to imagine him reading the book aloud to get a glimpse of some genius.
  • (1/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Worst book I've ever read. It's the most discombobulated thing ever. I wish people wouldn't think of this crap as art.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)
    Burroughs can introduce himself:"The usual costume is boots and chaps, bare ass and crotch. Some have tight-fitting chamois pants up to midthigh and shirts that come to the navel. Many are naked except for boots, gun belts, and hang-noose scarves. Nooses dangle every ten feet from a beam down the center of the room.""Streaks of phosphorescent shit, a smell like rotten solder, burning shivering sick, he needs the Blue Stuff. Dry blue crystals of snow on the floor stir in an eddy of wind and a crystal spark boy takes shape, naked, radiant, his long needle fingertips dripping the deadly Joy Juice, bright red hair floating about his head, disk eyes flashing erogenous luminescence, his erect phallus smooth as seashell with a tip of pink crystal, he is like some dazzlingly beautiful undersea creature dripping deadly venom.""Cities of the Red Night" is perpetually climaxing. Whereas, for other authors, it might prove a diverting or comical (unwritten) pastime to imagine what it might be like if all of their characters--from every time and space--were to meet over drinks, Burroughs can't seem to resist transporting his entire cast into hallucinatory, ritualistic, gay bacchanals, frequently spiced up with hangings or gun play and always featuring copious technicolor (and sometimes poisonous) ejaculations. During and in between these sensory explosions, his sex-ready, fringe-inhabiting adolescents wage war against the establishments that Burroughs doesn't like, for instance, the church, imperial forces and women.The stories that drive the first two "books" of this novel are both gripping (and comparatively light on the orgies). A detective involves himself more and more deeply in the globe-trotting hunt for a missing rich boy and a trio of young men join a collective of revolutionaries in Central America who are fighting in the name of freedom (sexual and otherwise) to expel Spain and the Catholic church from the hemisphere.Burroughs' prose is totally appropriate to the tough guy detective and the military strategizing of his commundards. But then, in book three, from which the novel takes its name, drugs start writing the book, which shifts into a world of five (entirely fictional) dueling cities. The anchors of the first 243 pages come loose and swirl around with fever victims, imaginary drugs, vendettas, hangings and sodomy. For a Burroughs purist, this might be quite satisfactory, since his dissociative methods and provocative subject matter trump representative story-telling. But, I was let down and disengaged.Still, this was worth the read for the simple fact that Burroughs pulled together more than 200 consecutive pages of relatively logical and linear prose and he is a skillful, imaginative writer with an entirely decadent sense of humor. For anyone who wishes to continue from where this book leaves off, "The Place of Dead Roads" offers a sequel in the same vein that is not at all disappointing.
  • (4/5)
    Burroughs' best. Incendiary. Lunatic. Surreal. Anyone who doubts the man's intrinsic genius or associates him with cut-ups, dissing him as an "experimenter" should read the first thirty or forty pages of COTRN. This is the grand ol' mugwump at the top of his game...