My cousin Rachel

There is a cosy little cinema tucked away from the main complexes in one of those alleys only locals wold seek. I even like its name – Lighthouse.

From time to time, when a promise of a good story coincides with a session only few people would attend, I treat myself to sitting for couple of hours or so in an almost empty theatre transported into whatever world opens before me.

I judge how good a movie was by the length of time it takes me to return to the world around me.

Which some might call the real world but to me ‘real’ has always been rather fluid notion.

Who is to say that the world we think of as ‘real’ simply because we can touch it –  is any more (or less) ‘real’ than those worlds we cannot touch – but are rather touched by?

It was with those thoughts, or some variation of them, that I went to see ‘My cousin Rachel’.

If I am to summon it in one sentence – I would say that it is a story of possibilities. It has been described as a mystery, a speculation, even a dark thriller … but to me none of those descriptors really fits.

To me the whole story – the one viewer is openly presented with as well as the one hidden and only hinted at, are the tales of possibilities. Probabilities, risks and chances, a woman determined to be a master of her own destiny is prepared to take in order to accomplish that goal.

When a wealthy but rather lonely country gentlemen (Ambrose) leaves his picturesque Cornish estate to travel to Italy to improve his health, leaving behind his young cousin (Phillip) who he has raised alone since the youngster was orphaned as an infant, the lives of them both are set to change forever.

In Italy, Ambrose meets and falls in love with Rachel, a beautiful and mysterious woman with, it is said, a somewhat excessive past. The letters Ambrose sends to his young cousin in England alternate between state of newlywed’s blissful happiness to cruel sufferings inflicted on him by his wife and his tormenter – Rachel. Some of the letters seem written in secret and haste beseeching Philip to come to Ambrose’s rescue as soon as he possibly could.

Confused and angry, Philip travels to Italy resolved to rescue his cousin from whatever evil has befallen him there.

But he is too late.

Ambrose is dead and Rachel is gone to an unknown destination.

Or so an elegant Italian lawyer tells him. He is the only one left behind to sort the dead man’s affairs.

Lawyer’s attempt to explain how very seek Ambrose was and how his illness caused him to hallucinate and even display violence towards his wife, are met with Philip’s deep suspicion and an open dislike.

Bereaved and outraged, Philip returns to England only to learn that despite all the suspicions – legal papers prove that Rachel did not benefit from the death of her husband. Not even a small living allowance had been provided for her as it was customary for a widow.

Philip’s conviction that Rachell caused his cousin’s death to inherit his wealth no longer holds any substance.

Were Ambrose’s frightened letters really just hallucinations of a man dying from a brain tumour?

But it will not be long until news of Rachel’s arrival to Cornwell estate stirs new theories.

Phillip’s determination to meet Rachel with nothing less than open hostility soon melts like a left-over snow under an early spring’s gaze.

Philip, a dewy-eyed youth whose experience with women do not extend further than a comfortable companionship of his wholesome childhood friend, a daughter of his godfather and guardian, who, by everyone’s account, he should one day marry, is bewitched and besotted by Rachel within days of her arrival.

Exotic, secretive, seductive Rachel.

Woman determined to live her own life on her own terms.

Woman who, in the 19th century England, refuses to explain or justify her actions to anyone, least of all a man.

When Phillip arranges for a generous allowance to be provided for Rachel – she is outraged.

When his guardian warns him of a significant overdraft she had rapidly amassed, Philip’s answers is to double the allowance to cover the overdraft.

When he gifts his late mother’s precious pearl neckless to Rachel for their first Christmas together, she returns them to his guardian to assuage his disapproval.

While Philip cannot wait to reach the age when he will be able to make his own decision, which for him means transferring the estate to Rachel who, he believes, should be its rightful owner after Ambrose’s death, not to mention a story of an unsigned will, Rachel describes Phillip as “a glorious puppy, miserable and wet-nosed, looking for its mother.” When she kisses him goodnight and tells him to “go to bed like a good boy” there is no escaping Oedipal reminder.

And still, once they become lovers, Philip is certain that they will marry soon.

It takes his wholesome childhood friend who is suffering silently while watching her beloved felling ever deeper under Rachel’s spell, to explain that Rachel is not likely to marry him since that would mean, by the provisions he made himself while arranging the estate’s transfer, that she will be answerable to him as her husband.

Philip, as any man of his time and no small number of contemporary men wold, found the idea that Rachel would value her freedom more than marriage astounding.

Still he brings her all the jewels he can lay his hands on in a scene that artfully portrays youthful extravagances born from the first passionate love.

It would be some time before Philip found that Rachel returned all the jewels to his lawyer.

Were they not to her liking? Or perhaps not opulent enough?

After all it is said that she is a woman of refine taste and unbridled excesses.

Is she really after the whole estate so to be as wealthy and therefore as independent as any man? So that she can do as she pleases including inviting her Italian lawyer friend to stay on the estate for as long as he wishes. Something, painfully jealous Philip would not allow.

When Philip starts suffering from the symptoms his dead cousin once did, while Rachel continue to brew bitter testing teas for him, it all points to one conclusion – Rachel is plotting Philip’s death in much the same way she did Ambrose’s. Only this time all the necessary legal papers are well in order.

On an early spring morning, as bright as bluebells growing in the nearby woods, Philip arranges for his wholesome friend to visit them and sends Rachel riding towards paths known to be treacherous at that time of year.

As soon as Rachel leaves the house, Philip and the young lady rush to search her room. But they could not find evidence of any wrong-doing.

All they found is the letter from Philip’s lawyer itemizing jewels Rachel returned to his safe-keeping.

And the letter she wrote to her Italian lawyer friend, who turned out to be gay, seeking his advice on whether to bring Philip to Italy with her.

Then there is a commotion in the yard outside and summons to hurry. Rachel has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff thrown off her horse on a path made slippery by the early spring.

Woman who seems to have heartlessly plotted to kill two men only to advance herself – dies while riding along the path suggested by the one of them.

Was it a chance?

Who is to blame?

Was she really poisoning Philip and Ambrose before him?

Or where they both so mesmerised by her unusual beauty, strength and independence, so rare in a woman of her time, that they eventually become ill from their futile attempts to rain her in? To conform to the world they know it as real.

In the last scene of the movie, Philip is seen sitting in his carriage on a bright summer day driving in a company of his wife – yes, his wholesome childhood friend and their two cherubic looking children.

His internal dialogue reveals he is still wondering whether or not Rachel was a poisoner?

And he still suffers from migraines.

Last credits drifted away, music stopped and the small theatre descended in complete darkness before I drag myself into the ‘real’ world – cold and wet winter night in Wellington.

Visitor

It was well past midday when she reached the airport. Taxi drivers stood in batches smoking and chatting in mixture of exotic languages. African, Arabic, Russian. World at your service.

She walked into the bathroom and stood in front of a large mirror. A tiny Vietnamese woman was mopping the floor. She smoothed her dress over and smiled at the Vietnamese woman. The woman did not smile back.

In the arrival lounge people were gathering around the luggage-belts. A toddler was trying to climb on it. She was trying not to look nervous.

She saw his forehead first. He was walking towards her with the long strides of tall-people. And then the eyes. As blue as she imagined them to be. Smiling. He greeted her with the embrace that was friendly rather than longing. But then she could never be sure. The words of the poem she wrote months ago whispered into the air around her lips.  Dust silvered into stars.

Outside, the Indian summer was cradling the day into afternoon. A breeze lifted the skirt of her dress. She quickly apologised and held it down with both hands. She knew she was blushing under the make-up so she kept on chatting.

In the shuttle they sat next to each other and their hands brushed for the first time. Her fingers touched the skin where it brushed against his. She was hoping he would not notice. She kept on chatting and smiling. Talking about the city unfolding outside the shuttle window. Tall houses with ornate verandas dotted along narrow streets. A speck of harbour in the distance.

His brother lived in that city many years ago. Before he went back to Ireland, the original home-land.  Eire. She remembered the name in Irish from a book she was reading. She thought how the country she came from also has the original name used only by its people. But she did not say anything.

They disembarked in the city’s centre and she showed him the tall building where she worked. With its large entrance and marbled corridors it looked important. She wanted him to know that she could keep a job in such a building. In a city she hardly knew.

The sun was high above the streets lulled into a temporary stillness between the lunch-hour walkers and after-work commuters.

They walked towards the waterfront. A couple of students and a young woman pushing a stroller with a sleeping baby passed by. A lone seagull cried over the glistening water and swooped down to snatch scraps of food off the rocks.

Galeb

Her hands were starting to sweat. She was worried about walking too close to him and talking too much. And not finding the popular café with expansive harbour views she has chosen weeks ago. He told her there was a flower with that name.

Foxglove

The place was almost empty. She regretted choosing it at once. It seemed wrong for the time of the day. They ordered drinks and chatted about how lovely the city is on a nice day. She noticed how his face lit up when he smiles. He told her she is beautiful and she felt as shy as a girl of 16.

Along the outside deck a few lounge chairs and coffee tables were arranged in small semi-circles. Young couple sitting in one were laughing and feeding each other French fries.

She wanted to ask him whether he remembered the letters she wrote to him the last summer and the summer before. But she reminded herself that it is getting late and he is probably tired and hungry.

They walked a few blocks to an Italian restaurant where they serve pasta and red wine on the plain wooden tables with a single candle and water decanter placed in the middle. The waitress could not speak a word of Italian.

Their table was beneath a framed map of Italy. The Adriatic Sea behind his eyes. The image of a small, white-stone church hanging from the cliff rising from that same sea entered her vision. She thought she might cry and excused herself to go to the ladies’.

The night was rich and warm when they walked to a late-night cocktail bar with soft leather couches and green card-tables. Before they reached the place he took her hand in his. It was a strong, safe hand. She was hoping her hand would not tremble.

It was almost midnight by the time they reached her place. The full moon was hanging over the wattle tree in her garden. The last train to his destination long gone. She felt embarrassed for not keeping a better watch on the time. And because her place was so small. She opened the bottle of wine thanking God she had saved one.

When he kissed her, tiny particles of her soul started to grow wings. She read somewhere that dreams are unfinished wings of our souls. She dreamt of that kiss for so long that all she could think was whether he now feels compelled to kiss her. In such a small space where limbs practically touch each other. In a city far away from open skies of his home. ‘Back home’ he calls it. She worried whether she somehow tricked him into her dream. Unwittingly.

He touched her hair and thanked her for letting him touch it. She placed her head on his chest and when large, salty tears arrived she said she was very sorry. For exposing him to her crying.

The whole night she listened his heart-beat and slow, steady breath of a man in a deep sleep. Long ago she wrote that it is all she wanted. She slipped away silently to make sure he has enough space.

When morning arrived she worried about his business and how late he was going to be. She made him breakfast of what was there which, she knew, was not much and noticed his shirt needed ironing. She was glad of it. He let her do it. She pressed each part of it for as long as possible. It had been years since she ironed a man’s shirt.

She thought he looks very handsome in his suit and tie.

His taxi was waiting.

She returned to her room and saw it all; breakfast dishes, the still warm iron, unmade bed. Her legs felt like they were made of iron ore. Slowly she slipped into the bed and pulled the covers over her head. The scent of him was bursting her lungs open.

In the days that followed dreams arrived in waves.

Sometimes she dreamed a horse as black as the deepest summer night was galloping over the sun-drenched meadows at the bottom of an island. The horse had a white star on its forehead and was trying to tell her something but she could not understand it.

The other time it was a bride walking into an old wooden church dressed in the palest yellow silk carrying a large bouquet of mimosas and spring snowflakes. Before each step she felt the space before her and flowers slipped from her hands like a floral water-fall. She was blind.

Visibabe

Each morning she touched her face wet from tears and prayed. The morning she found her face covered in tiny crystals the colour of blood, she knew he is not coming back.

Prayer

Earlier today I sat down to write a story.

Or a poem.

Sun was high across cornflower blue sky.

And then I waited for a long time.

But no words came.

Virginally white page offered no relief.

Without familiar flood of words to break her loftiness, it just glared at me stiff and unforgiving.

Ogling the debris of pain and loss and grief, swelling

In me,

Mute,

Unsayable.

mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.

Map of the human heart

There are some nights at the beginning of summer when air is still fresh and crisp, like new footsteps in the first snow. Imprinted, but only for a moment. Until sun melts the snow. Or other footsteps cover them.

It was those images forming in my mind, while sitting quietly under the canopy of an early summer’s night sky that brought me to the last scene in ‘Map of the human heart’; Avik’s body splattered on an ice-sheet floating in the sea, watched from above by the young Avik and Albertine floating across the sky in a hot-air balloon, happy, in love, alive and free. The symbolism is as unmistakable as it is powerful. Map

Map of the human heart’ is New Zealand’s director Vincent Ward visually stunning motion picture produced in 1992.

It has been said that the movie is of race and romance. To me the movie is of signs. Symbols that, when deciphered, open before us a mystical map of human heart … of any race.

No map is the same, and some only tell us that we are lost. But they are always maps, as they are always hearts. Even the lost ones.

In the movie’s opening scene wild and beautiful Arctic landscape opens before us. An old Inuit Eskimo man tells a story about his life to a young, white mapmaker. In exchange for his whisky. And so we learn the story about Avik and Albertine.

In 1930s British cartographer Walter Russell visits the Arctic-Canadian settlement Nunataaq, where Avik lives his care-free childhood as the only grandson to his grandmother who wishes him to become a great hunter, an Eskimo’s man highest achievement. Avik is also half-white. Boy’s curiosity and intelligence prompts Walter to select him for his guide and when Avik insists on exclaiming ‘Holy Boy’ instead of ‘Holy Cow’ it became his trademark.

Avik

When Avik contract’s tuberculosis, Walter convinces his grandmother who reasons that they have their own cures, to let him take Avik to a clinic in Montreal for cure as the boy has ‘white man’s disease that must be cured by white man’s medicine’. While Walter undoubtedly likes the boy, it is the need to assuage his own guilt that prompts him take Avik to Montreal.

In Montreal’s clinic Avik meets Albertine, a mixed-blood French-Canadian Indian girl and two become inseparable friends brought together by their love for adventure and rebellion. Avik is as fascinated with various types of trees that grow in the clinic’s park, as is Albertine with the raw heart Avik stole from the kitchen for her as a precious delicacy.

Albertine dreams of her father who promised her a horse and had left her his hand-made map that shows his and his horse footprints. Albertine sings a beautiful song and tells Avik that one day she will be singing it on the radio. In the magical world they made of clinic’s bed sheets, Avik and Albertine exchange their deepest secrets and she shows him a scar on her chest where they ‘cut her open’.

They fell in love and try to flee the clinic together, all of which spurs Catholic nun who is in charge of the clinic to send Albertine away telling her that if she stops behaving like a half-cast everything would become possible for her. Everything.

Albertine leaves Avik her chest x-ray plate he once found in the clinic’s archives for her. In the years to come Avik will carry the plate with him wherever he went.

Avik spends such a long time in a clinic that when he eventually returns to Nunataaq and his grandmother, he is a young man who had to re-learn his own language and ways of his people. But game does not come to him as it does to other Eskimos and he is shunned by his people as being cursed. He started to believe himself being bearer of a bad luck.

Second World War is in progress and Walter returns to Nunataaq only this time not to make maps but to recover German U-boat that was wrecked off the coast of Nunataaq. Walter’s and Avik’s meeting is emotional for both of them but Avik soon finds out the true meaning of Walter’s mission who now works as a strategic planner for RAF Bomber Command.

When he hears the song transmitted by the field radio, Avik recognizes Albertine’s voice and asks Walter to help him find her again. He also gives Walter long treasured x-ray plate. The only thing he has of Albertine.

But Walter must return right away and Avik is thorn between his desire to go with Walter and his duty to his aging grandmother. When his people pack to leave their settlement where they can no longer find enough game, he is not welcome to come with them. Avik has no place to go.

In one of the movie’s more poignant scenes Avik is left alone watching a canoe taking his grandmother and his people away from him. Before he can lose sight of them his grandmother’s eyes show the decision she has made as he threw herself of the canoe and into the icy waters. Avik is now alone in the world of his youth. He is also free to cross to white-man’s world where Albertine is and where he can enlist in the war effort in Europe.

He manages to board the ship that takes him to Canada and eventually becomes a bombardier, flying Lancaster bombers over Germany. He became known as a ‘Holy Boy’ and his crew of daring young men is looking forward to their last mission.

Albertine works as an aerial reconnaissance analyst for the RAF and arranges their meeting as she understood who the pilot of the ‘Holy Boy’ is.

She invites Avik to dance-hall where he learns that she is married to Walter.

Despite her marriage, Avik and Albertine are drawn together with the same intensity they felt many years ago. Their consummate love for each other is beautifully illustrated by love-making scenes that unfold on top of an English military blimp and inside the hollow ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall where you ‘listen music with your feet.’

blip

It is in those moments that Avik speaks to Albertine of his love for her and his desire for them to remain together forever once his last mission is over.

But Albertine tells him of her childhood dream to become a white-man’s wife and finally has all those things she always wanted, above all place in white-man’s world. World where she can ‘pass for white’ and erase all traces of her half-cast heritage and life of an outcast. Albertine can no longer run barefoot. Still, she urges Avik to live as he alone knows who she really is.

While Avik and his crew celebrate successful end of their last mission, Walter finds out about Avik and Albertine’s affair and arranges for Avik and his crew a suicide mission – a firebombing of Dresden. It is revenge by a man whose underlying sociopathic tendencies are hidden behind his dashing exterior. When Avik asks Walter why he must firebomb Dresden; a city of no strategic value, Walter admits that the real reason for the raid is to strike back at a girl in Dresden who once spurned his romantic advances.

Dresden

Avik alone survives the raid by para-shooting from the burning plane. He lands in the midst of horrific human sufferings and for the first time becomes fully aware of the war’s horrors. Despondent with war, he flees to Canada where he works in Arctic’s oil-fields and eventually becomes an alcoholic.

While trying to tell yet another war story to an oil worker in a local pub, who dismisses him as a member of ‘lazy race’, Avik notices a beautiful young woman at the pool table and starts talking to her. Her name is Rainee and she explains that she has come to find her father and his native settlement in Nunataaq. She offers him money to take her there. When she hums the same song he remembers Albertine singing all those years ago, he knows that she is his daughter.

Still he discourages her to look for Nunataaq as there is no longer anything there. Eventually he takes her to place where Nunataaq of his childhood once stood and she understood  that he is her father.

Rainee tells Avik about the love her mother always had for him and about great stories she told her about him. She also tells him that she is getting married and wishes for him to come. But Avik is once again agonizing between his heart’s desire to go and his fear of bringing a bad luck to all who come near him.

Movie then takes us back to present as the young mapmaker Avik is telling the story to, asks him why he never searched for Albertine after the war. Because he was not sure he could live again amongst the white-people. And Albertine could no longer run barefoot. She is better off without him.

In the movie’s last scenes, Avik is killed in an accident on the way to his daughter’s wedding; his body washes up on the beach at Nunataaq, a wedding gift still clutched in his hands.

Avik and Albertine

Flapping of night-bird’s wings cutting the indigo coloured sky shook me from my reverie.

I noticed how stiff and cold my limbs are and how silence stretches all around me like a sea of pewter.

When there is no longer a living soul that remembers us for who we really are; the name of the village we grew up in, what colour was our hair, shape of our dimples when we laughed, smudges our tears left on our grubby faces, smells our bodies filled tents made of sheets with, stories we told and fantasies we made ourselves believe … it is then that our annihilation is complete.

Red Overcoat

‘Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love’ ― Gabriel Garcí­a Marquez

They were standing next to each other waiting for her bus to arrive. The terminal’s timetable displayed the name of her suburb and the time left until the correct bus arrives. Only nine minutes. We are in luck she said, not long to wait. That’s good he said. No, not really she thought.

She wanted him to say something like how time is always too short when he is with her, or how he would not mind waiting much longer if it meant they would be together a few more minutes, or some such sugary nonsense she picked up from romantic novels or fantasized of being told. Even whispered.

The wind picked up from the harbour spreading spring scents across the night. She shuddered slightly.

He stepped towards her and pulled the collar of her red overcoat closer around her, tucking it tightly around her neck. They did not look at each other. She saw blinking lights of her bus approaching over his shoulder. My bus is coming she said.

red overcoatHe shifted his feet and kissed her hastily on the lips. His kiss was warm and tender and almost embarrassed. She hugged him and brushed her face next to his. It felt safe.

She smiled and waved to him from the bus. Her overcoat collar was still tucked tightly around her neck.

The next day she received a letter from him. It was a very polite and well-written letter. He explained how he is afraid she might be seeing in him what is not there; kindness and generosity and love and care. Humanity. While really; he is not that kind or generous. Or loving. None of it.

She read the letter few times and cried a little like kids do when they discover for the first time that, all along, it was their parents who put all the presents under the Christmas tree. So that all the long letters they carefully wrote and kept hidden in especially chosen places never really went anywhere. Despite the stamps they licked and pressed on envelopes.

Later she picked up a low-cut dress and applied make-up skilfully. Her reflection in the mirror pleased her. Her skin was still glowing with golden undertones and her eyes sparkled when she smiled. She liked how her dress hugged her figure. She applied scarlet lipstick and practiced smiling in front of the mirror few times.

Out of habit she reached for the red overcoat and noticed the collar still turned in. She stroked it gently and left it hanging over the edge of the couch.

Then she called the taxi and gave the name of the down-town cocktail bar.

It was swinging with late night blues and gypsy jazz. A few reluctant dancers swayed towards each other. Spectators nursed their drinks in the corners, scanning the crowed, prowling.

She took her shoes off and danced barefoot; it made her look wild and untamed. Daring. Musicians noticed her and sped the beat. Her feet moved faster, her body melting with the rhythm. They watched her and she knew it. Their eyes burrowing small holes in the folds of her skin.

A man took both her hands and started dancing with her. He had a boyish look and a practiced, seductive stare. His hands were strong and dry. Music slowed down to longing melodies of faraway lands with exotically named mountains. He told her his name and she thought it sounded similar.

They danced the rest of the night slowly; bending into each other’s body, testing each other’s skin. She felt his erection against her thigh.

She let him take her home and undress her in that slow motion that makes the skin want to peel from the inside. Like an orange hot from summer sun. Moist and open.

While he was entering her, she could still see the sleeve of her red overcoat hanging from the edge of the couch.

‘Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love’Gabriel Garcí­a Marquez

Passion

We all have it.

Even if it sleeps deeply buried inside us, we know it is there. It stirs us. It whispers to us in our darkest and our finest hours. As without it we would not know love, or grief, or hatred, or sorrow, or jealousy. Without it no art would be made, nor wars waged, nor gaols broken, or built.

Passion has imprisoned just as many as it has freed. Liberators are filled with just as much burning passion as are conquerors.

I could not think of anything sadder, more removed from the essence of humanity than not to care about anything or anyone deeply. Not to feel anything strongly.

There are those who seek self-preservation through avoidance of strong feelings. They strive for lives of light and purity and sacredness. I could never help feeling that such aspirations are fuelled by conviction of one’s superiority to the rest of us whose daily toil is amongst all the guts and all the gore of human existence. To attain purity and sacredness one must be either dead or, if still alive, removed from living. Set aside, perhaps as an observer, rather than a participant. In this way, an observer is freed from having to make any of the life’s choices. Instead, passing judgments (however packaged) on choices made by fallible participants becomes their sacrosanct duty.

Then there are those who speak of passion as belonging to youth only. They tell about great peace, and sometimes great wisdom, they attained with the onset of old age (that being any age they deem appropriate). They believe themselves liberated from the chains of passion, no longer enslaved by their desires of either flesh or soul. They tend to observe any affairs of heart with superior indifference. They have ‘seen it all before.’

I never subscribed to either camp. On the contrary, I maintain that it is nothing but an ordinary cowardice that really lies at the heart of it all. However masqueraded, it remains a  fear of surrounding to the richness of human heart … to that which Pablo Neruda described so beautifully – ‘As if you were on fire from within. The moon lives in the lining of your skin.’

However big our fear might be, it is nothing compared to the emptiness we would know if we let it stop us from surrounding to our human heart, with all its fickleness and all its frivolities.

And all the risks that ensue from it … so it seems that when comes to passion – surrender is an act of unprecedented bravery.

Being of such disposition, it is a little wonder I found myself rather vindicated after listening to Isabel Allende speaking so candidly about living passionately no matter your age!

Not only is Isabel as witty and as charming at 71 as she always was, but if you listen till the very end, your views on guacamole are likely to change for ever! I know mine have -:)!

 

 

Forsaking all others … or perhaps not!

There are few topics capable of generating debate as passionate as the one arising from the question of fidelity and human monogamy.

Life

From tabloids to credible research articles, the question whether or not humans are hard-wired for monogamy is certain to attract large audience with very different and often opposing views.

Despite, or because of, the world overloaded with temptations, the topic has seen some renewed interest recently. On top of the over-supply of readily available sex in every form imaginable or sometimes even unimaginable, as the human life expectancy continuous to extend, vowing to stay true’ till death us do part’, seems like an impossibly long-term pledge; which may account for the upward trend of later life – ‘silver splitter’ divorce.

French, who are famously accommodating to all matters of heart, took rather dim view of their presidents widely publicized l’affaire de coeur. The rest of Europe seems to agree even though the concept of high-power men keeping mistresses and often having a second family alongside their official marriages has long been part of European milieu.

Keeping in step with the rest of the world; New Zealanders recently discovered home-grown variety of not-officially-sanctioned love, (some more romantic souls like to call it ‘forbidden love’). The major of our biggest city suffered all manners of public lashing for having an affair with much younger woman.

In the same time South African president Jacob Zuma has four wives and 20 children, while one Nigerian preacher is said to have 86 wives. Clearly, preaching does not seem to be as demanding as one might think -:)! Chinese emperors however use to complain of their relentless sexual duties!

So, why such vast differences?  Is human monogamy really an enduring puzzle?

Serious scientists tell us that, while we share the same evolutionary tree as chimps that are notoriously promiscuous, it is our instinctive drive to bond in pairs that may be at the very heart of what makes us human. In his book, ‘The Red Queen; Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature’, scientist Matt Ridley describes the human mating system as ‘monogamy plagued by adultery’.

Figures show that 89 per cent of the world’s people married before the age of 49 and, even in polygamous societies, most stick to a single spouse. ‘It is our usual monogamy, not our occasional polygamy, that sets us apart from other mammals’, says Ridley.

In order to answer long standing question -why do some species mate for life rather than cluster-bombing multiple partners to more effectively spread their DNA – theories of the evolution of monogamy have been systematically tested by tracing social behaviour through time. The results are rather interesting.

UK based research team concluded that species with high levels of infanticide were much more likely to make a shift to pair bonding, which meant dads were more inclined to stick around home and protect their young from being killed by rival males. Researches in USA however concluded that monogamy evolved when females spread out over a wider territory, making it hard for males to guard more than one mate.

What both research teams agree is that the emergence of pair bonding was a major transition that dramatically altered the evolutionary trajectory of our species.  Without monogamy as a centrepiece for a family unit humans could not have developed the way we have.

Still there is also agreement that if a short-term sex is available, men in particular will be inclined to be tempted. Which is just as part of human nature as are desires and drives to find lifelong partner and soul mate.

And this is where the whole issue of human monogamy becomes little bit more complex. Because, unlike most other species, human mating systems are highly variable, and highly culturally determined. Another unusual aspect of human behaviour compared to other species is that we are constantly re-evaluating our partners and whether they make us happy.

Venetian

Still, even when we leave one unsatisfactory relationship, it is often to partner up long-term with someone else. All of which suggests that most of us are looking for romantic love, which by its very nature is a commitment device that pushes us towards monogamy rather than towards having multiple partners. Conclusion that renders pop-psychology books such as ‘Sex at Dawn’ rather implausible in its claim that monogamy is an artificial construct that’s crushed our natural urges.

However, apart from polygamous societies, ever since the term ‘polyamory’ has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary some seven or so years ago, polyamory has been described as an alternative model for ordinary couples who don’t want to break up their families to have more than one intimate, loving relationship at a time. In 2009 it was described as a ‘thriving phenomenon’ as it was estimated that more half a million relationship in the USA were openly polyamorous.

Modern couples are no longer forced to marry or stay married for either economic, dynastic, religious, or any other reason, as it was the case for centuries, or even to raise children, have sex, or co-habit. As a result they are free to negotiate their own terms and definitions of ‘fidelity’.

For some that means polyamory which comes in various constellations; the trio might be in ‘triad’, and there are also ‘quads’ or ‘pods’ which are often based on ‘polyfidelity’ (no sex with outsiders). All of which indicates that polyamory requires absolute honesty and clear agreements around physical contact, acceptable boundaries and how couples share their time so that the ‘primary partner’ and ‘other significant other’ or OSO get along and don’t get hurt. Which of course raises a question of jealousy, in itself very powerful emotion. People who consider themselves poly say that they learned to overcome it. To that end Esther Perel in ‘Mating in Captivity’ explains that the ‘presence of the third’ can help ‘reconcile the domestic with the erotic’, since ‘in monogamy, you have to negotiate monotony. In polyamory, you have to negotiate jealousy, Pick you evil.’

Be that as it may, the fact remains that polyamory, just like monogamy, is based on the mutual love and respect for all involved, with the obvious difference that those in polyamory constellations adopted and agreed on modus operandi that involves as many people as they can fit into their hearts. The bigger the heart the more considerations is required to maintain those delicate balances.

All of which is quite different from what is commonly known as ‘affairs’ of which secrecy is the first and the most important ingredient.

secret

Although secret extramarital affairs are most certainly not a new phenomenon, advent of internet has given it the whole new life. Never before have we seen proliferation of internet dating sites specifically designed for those seeking affairs. Ashely Madison’s marketing pitch – ‘Life is short. Have an affair!’ has seen explosion of some 15 million members across 25 countries, including New Zealand, making it a highly profitable enterprise!

Catching on this very lucrative trade in betrayal, ‘Have An Affair’ site has sprung up from Auckland couple of years ago attracting up to a thousand sign –ups a day. Almost all members looking for ‘something casual’ or NSA (no strings attached sex). Since then number of copy-cat sites have been created, some targeting more isolated rural communities of South Island, or even attempting to create hybrid service whereby ordinary women alongside usually retired call girls offer ‘companionship/sex’ services for a set fee in complete discretion.

As always – there is no shortage of takers when money is to be made from any form of human misery, be it loneliness due to isolation, illness, age, or from those who simply seek thrill that accompanies clandestine liaisons!

So where does all this leaves us some seven million years after hominids branched off from our common ancestor?

After all has been said and done, the hard facts and figures clearly indicate that even in Western countries with easy divorce cultures, most people stay married for life because our evolutionary ‘software’ continue to encourage us to settle down and develop long-term intimate relationships because this is what we have evolved to do.

The fact that some of us prefer more than one loving, committed partnership at the time within the full knowledge of all concerned, while others seek thrill and excitement of discreet affairs or NSA, simply confirms those findings.