Jeffrey Howe & Narmin Ismiyeva sit down with Ryan Madej to talk about his novel Assassin, forthcoming with Equus Press in September 2021.
EP: The text is a textually genetic and metatextual mystery. Is there a definitive answer to the mystery? Are the various esoteric references and clues distributed throughout the text something that would paint a different picture to someone well-read in those topics?
RM: Yes, there is certainly a deeper textual element at the core of the book. I’ve been interested in the concept of Twilight Language for many years and the encoding of esoteric knowledge. Many, if not all, of the major religions and traditions have an allegorical or esoteric level to their texts. Assassin is a sort of pseudo-grimoire, an initiatory passage that when looked at more closely gives the reader a glimpse into a different world, and hopefully enriches the reader’s experience in the process.
EP: The text seems to be a bricolage of various forms of mysticism: John Dee, Manly P. Hall, sacred geometry, numerology, Aghori mysticism, and Buddhism. Is there a real-world, extant framework that combines these elements?
RM: There is no practice that I know of that incorporates all these elements, so this is an assemblage on my part. In a broader sense, it’s a reflection of my many years of study into the esoteric, as I’m a long-time meditator and practitioner of various disciplines that are mentioned throughout the book.
EP: In Assassin, text functions both as an abstract concept (the association of writing/reading with time and culture) and as a material – even physical one (placing books and scrolls side by side with deadly weapons, tying together the acts of reading and murder). Could you elaborate on your ideas in respect of the materiality / spectrality of text?
RM: I’ve always been drawn to complexity. Textual Labyrinths, literal and figurative, set my imagination in motion when I sit down to write. From that starting point the labyrinth takes shape and worlds open up. Though I appreciate literature that is linear, I’ve never had much of an inclination to write that way, as intertexuality, experiment etc falls more in line with my thought processes. Being obsessed with the concept of time like I am, using metatextual or transtextual techniques are a perfect vehicle. Assassin, at least from my own limited perspective as the author, accomplishes this, I think.
EP: You reference the inefficacy of scholarship in the event of an apocalypse. This is reminiscent of Hobbes and Rousseau, who were extremely sceptical of scholarship and advocated for people learning to think for themselves rather than relying on the words of others. Is there any “message” your obsession with education and referencing aims to convey?
RM: I suppose my obsession with the scholarship idea comes from a great deal of time spent thinking about how knowledge is lost over time. Esoteric knowledge has suffered greatly from this throughout the centuries due to censorship, burning, political upheavals etc., but it still endures and I find that fascinating. In the context of an apocalyptic future, I wondered if a commentator would feel that it was a useless endeavour to preserve knowledge, in the same way I wondered if murder and torture would flourish in a lawless world.
EP: One needs to ask about the ellipses that adorn your text. Ellipses are most commonly used to identify gaps in information or pauses in thought. Which most accurately describes your usage of them in the text? Or is this an overt node to the cyclical nature of the story itself?
RM: The ellipses play both parts, though perhaps on a very subconscious level. When I began writing seriously in my teens and reading Céline, who used them in abundance, it seemed to reflect my obsession with fragmentary and elusive writing and it inevitably found its way into my style. A nod to circular time is interesting and not something I considered, so I’m going to say that was purely an act of divine inspiration.
EP: Are the lost cities of P, Z, B Prague, Zagreb, and Budapest? (They do form a triangle on the map of Europe, after all…)
RM: Yes, the P,Z, B was based on those cities. In my esoteric researches I stumbled across some interesting stories regarding the more “occult” cities of Europe, particularly Turin, which apocryphally is said to be a part of a white magic triangle that includes Prague and Lyon in France. Conversely, the black magic triangle includes London, Turin and San Francisco, so the idea of placing the other cities in a mysterious triangle was too tempting to pass up!
EP: Can you elaborate on the recurrence of 3, 5, & 7. I know you detail this somewhat in the footnotes, but can you explain a little bit more for those of us who have not made a study of esoteric maths?
RM: The ideas of of the 3, 5, and 7 come from esoteric Masonry. 3 is representative of strength, beauty and wisdom. 5 is significant because it relates to the orders of architecture, a theme that I get into at various parts of the book, as I’ve always been intrigued by the precision and mathematics of the Pyramids of Egypt, Mexico and other locations. 7 is a number that is often associated with perfection, outside of Masonry and other traditions, and even in the secular world we see 7 as a “lucky” number. There is also a connection to the 7 classical planets as well: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.
EP: Does Plato figure into this schema? I find myself thinking of his metaphor of the cave and his notion of Ideal Forms.
RM: I would say Pythagoras more so than Plato, but the concept of Ideal Forms is a compelling one considering the trajectory the book takes by the end and the idea of spiritual perfection. Pythagoras, of course, being the mathematician who was also the head of one of the most influential mystery schools of his time, from which a lot of this esoteric math comes from. Though we really do come full circle as much of Pythagoras’s knowledge likely came from Egypt, bridging the ancient world and the modern with not only the math, but other esoteric disciplines like alchemy which had a huge influence in Europe and the Arabic world.
EP: A recurrent theme of the text seems to be transcendence by overcoming taboos. Each of the characters acquires knowledge through the overcoming of the most fundamental taboo (murder), yet the text states that there is another path to enlightenment. What is the text trying to say about the nature of knowledge and the pursuit of it?
RM: I’m reminded of the Nietzsche quote “You have your way. I have mine. As for the right way, the correct way, the only way, it does not exist.” Personally, I have always felt that at the utmost extremes of action and thought do we come to personal realizations about ourselves, and the characters in Assassin I think are attempting to do that to varying degrees of success.
EP: The text hints at destruction brought on by excessive technology and its blending with mysticism. Is this a statement about the non-sustainability of the technological world, currently barrelling towards complete societal collapse? Or am I reading too much into what is just meant to be a fun metaphysical, apocalyptic thriller?
RM: I think you’re not reading into it too much at all. Our dependence on these new technologies is taking us away from what has sustained life on this planet for millions of years. The arrogance of the human race lies in the fact that through science we think we can do better than nature. What I find interesting is that many of the arcane/esoteric traditions talk about high technology that seemed to incorporate a holistic approach to energy etc. Again, much of this knowledge is lost to time, but a chosen few have managed to preserve this important information. Though on the surface of things my story comes off somewhat pessimistic, ultimately I’m an optimist at heart.
EP: The quote, “The future echoes the past”, is eye-catching as it perfectly describes the world that is portrayed in the novel and brings forth the question of time. The world of Assassin, instead of advancing technologically, stops at some point and begins a backward movement, with nature reclaiming itself to a certain degree. Technology seems obscure and archaic. Objects of the past – books, swords, scrolls – survive. What was your inspiration in such a futuro-anachronistic world?
RM: My heritage, which is a mixture of Metis Indigenous blood and Polish European, played a definite role in how I perceived the landscape of Assassin. Both my parents grew up in rural settings and passed on a lot of appreciation of nature and the elemental forces that guide it. I feel that pull to a simpler way of life the older I get after spending my whole life in the city. My previous works dealt specifically with the intrigues of the city, and the further I move away from those works the more I wanted future works to reflect a different environment. I feel that the technological world has much to give us, but at the same time takes us away from the source that has sustained us since the beginning. The title Assassin is symbolic in that I wanted to “assassinate” as much as I could from my own literary past, and that applies to how I see the current world situation as well. We need a major evaluation of what we deem important going forward as a species.
EP: “Third time’s the charm”: Of the three characters, only the third completes his quest. Jade Palace “failed beautifully”. The itinerant archivist seems gives up his quest by destroying the last of Jade’s extant documents. What made the third person so different though? All three were willing to walk a destructive path to reach their goal. Why did he succeed where they failed?
RM: There are a number of secrets in this text, many of which I’m not willing to reveal as that spoils the fun. However, I feel that with the third character we see everything come full circle: text, spiritual completion, etc. and how only in a particular set of circumstances, cut off from the rest of the world, can someone attain this goal. The works of Hermann Hesse had a big impact on my writing when I was younger, and what I was drawn to in his novels—in particular, Glass Bead Game—was his characters’ constant struggle with spiritual insight and the material world and what sacrifices one has to make in order to inhabit either side.
EP: Returning to the idea of adolescent development in the third section, what was the significance of the lack of mirrors in the acolyte’s upbringing? This made the think specifically of the mirror phase in Lacan and Piaget.
RM: The mirrors, or lack thereof, are a nod to Borges and his obsession with them, but also his short story “Covered Mirrors”, which is one of my absolute favourites at less than two pages. The Jewish Shiva also came to mind and the tradition of mirrors being covered during the time of mourning. I’ve never read Lacan and only know of some his ideas in passing, but in the construction of that part of the narrative I was definitely concerned with how one’s identity is formed through how we physically see ourselves, but more importantly how in mystical traditions the elimination of the I or Ego is imperative to attaining higher levels of consciousness. I find that often when I’m writing that certain aspects of the story are not entirely created consciously, and only after the fact do I discover that what I chose fits exactly the way I wanted. This is one of those instances.
EP: Your text mentions Eros and Thanatos. And throughout the text sex and death combine as a means of psychic potency. Freud and Marcuse write about these two drives as the primary motivators in life stemming and bifurcating from a neutral energy that seeks to achieve recombination and quiescence. Was this something you had in mind?
RM: On some level, yes. I also thought a lot about how in yogic practices the calming and storing of sexual energies is what inevitably gives the aspirant the stability and insight to transcend death and achieve enlightenment. From all the literature I’ve read and studied, overcoming the sexual impulse is one of the most difficult tasks as we have such a strong biological drive to continue the species. My fascination with these concepts does extend into the realm of alchemy and magic as well, but I’m choosing to remain silent on this and let the text reveal these secrets.
EP: Connected with that is the issue of the gender of the characters of Assassin. Jade Palace seems to be the only female character – at least the only female character whose gender is clearly stated (e.g., not much info is given about the gender of the attendants from the final part). Is there a particular significance to this?
RM: With so much discussion on gender and identity, I began to think more about how I perceive these questions in the context of Assassin when I read Anne Garreta’s marvelous “Sphinx”, which was written in a genderless format. In writing Assassin I hoped to achieve a sort of disintegration of gender by the time I got to the third section, and I did achieve that with the acolyte’s story. There is a conscious moving away from older ideas and influences, and in regard to gender I see more of a shift from the mind to the body beyond the pages of Assassin.
EP: The Wolf Solvent is the most fantastical and least dealt with facet of the story. You introduce a fantastic weapon of unimaginable power that more or less disappears with Jade only to be obliquely referenced throughout the text. Why is this? Does the Wolf Solvent represent the fruit of Jade’s efforts or is this a holdover from the high-technological dystopia of the old world?
RM: The Wolf Solvent is a holdover from my previous tetralogy and taken originally from another source. To me, all of literature is an open multiverse, letting any writer use what they need to tell their story and create even newer worlds. A little detective work on the reader’s part will reveal the significance of that weapon that at one time went by another name. I also have a fascination/fetish with ancient weapons of power and how these items continue to be a part of our collective imagination and what role they play in the stories we tell.
EP: Returning to the idea of metatextuality, there are enough differences between the three characters to be reasonably certain that they are three distinct personas. But there are enough similarities to make me wonder if at least two of them are the same. Did you plant this ambiguity deliberately as a way to tease the reader’s mind?
RM: There is no question I’m a literary trickster, and I’m always out to tease the reader’s mind. I love books that don’t give me easy answers and challenge my perceptions, all the while taking me down blind alleys and dead ends. I’m the mischievous goblin holding the skeleton key that unlocks all doors and the reader is going to have to catch me and hold a knife to my throat to get the answers they seek.
© Ryan Madej, Jeffrey Howe, & Narmin Ismiyeva