Question about Cheradenine Zakalwe (Spoilers! Read Use of Weapons First!)

Coolhand

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Right, so I mentioned this in another thread but the more I think about it the more it’s annoying me. At the end of Use Of Weapons, we find out that the dude we thought was Cheradenine Zakalwe is actually Elethomel the Chairmaker, the step brother of Cheradenine who’s hobbies include slaughtering members of his adopted family and fashioning their carcasses into bits of furniture. Kinda like Hannibal Lector meets IKEA.

Anyway, was anyone else utterly unconvinced by this plot twist? It seemed massively inconsistent with the previous behaviour “Cheradenine” had displayed. I actually went back through the book and re-read specifically to try and find something that would legitimise this twist and came up dry, though I did find quite a bit of behaviour which makes this twist even more inconsistent.

Which all in all left me feeling quite irritated that the twist (and the rather nasty event that it’s linked to) were just thrown in for shock value and added nothing to my understanding of the book or the character. (I do get that it’s supposed to be a riff on how “Cheradenine” can make anything into a weapon, but someone that unhinged should really show a few more signs of it than he does. And be a tad less ethically minded than he’s shown to be.)

Anyone else find that or am I totally alone in this?
 

Tillane

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Didn't seem like to big a twist to me, I have to admit. There's a good deal of foreshadowing and hinting at the truth of Zakalwe/Elethiomel's identity in the reverse chapters (those marked XIII to I), most notably in his own dreams and nightmares.

As for Elethiomel's behaviour being contradictory, I think for the most part it makes sense. Elethiomel is a man tortured by his past and his actions, and is attempting to get himself as far from them as possible, assisting Sma in her efforts in part so that he can do some "good" (though its always a little debatable how much good the Culture actually do:p) and also, I suspect, because he's looking for a vaguely noble death to make up for his far from noble past. The only real link to his past that he keeps up - apart from Zakalwe's name, which (I think) he has taken in an attempt to identify himself with or as a better man - is to Livueta, from whom he's looking for forgiveness...which he knows will never come.

That's my take on it. I should probably point out that Use Of Weapons is my favourite of Banks's Culture novels. So I'm a little biased.:p
 

clovis-man

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Anyway, was anyone else utterly unconvinced by this plot twist? It seemed massively inconsistent with the previous behaviour “Cheradenine” had displayed.
I took it to signify the tortured nature of the character's soul. So bad that a grisly secret could be submerged that successfully. I always find that Banks' characters are consistent with the intent of the story and I wasn't disappointed here.

Regards,

Jim
 

Coolhand

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Hey guys, thanks for your feedback, it’s giving me some nice new angles to approach the book with. I’ve mulled hard over your comments but I’m still not convinced by the nature of the change. I’ll try to elaborate, and I’ll start with the point both Tillane and Clovis Man made about the tortured nature of “Cheradenine” and his nightmares.

I agree that he does display all the signs of a tortured soul. But from my reading of it (admittedly not the most definitive or enlightened opinion in the world) the flashbacks and nightmares seem much more consistent with the experiences of the real Cheradenine i.e. the victim of the trauma than with those of Elethomel i.e. the instigator of the trauma. I should have been able to look back at all those flashbacks nightmares and think “oh I see. Yes it does fit Elethomel better.”
But they don’t seem to at all.

I mean yes, the real world and the world of fiction are chock full of tortured souls who have buried terrible deeds in their past, but the problem here is that in the flashbacks Elethomel appears to be something of a Seriously Sick Bastard.

See, at the climax of the book, Elethomel murders a woman he grew up with and apparently had an intimate relationship with (though the book does hint that this sexual relationship was done just to hurt the real Cheradenine, and is actually further proof the Elethomel is a pretty cruel swine and is largely unaffected by the suffering of others), then denudes her bones, fashions them into a chair, makes her skin into a cushion and sends the result to his stepbrother and sister. I mean yes, in pure logical terms it a genius plan that removes the top general from the enemy army, but dude you’d have to be a Seriously Sick Bastard to actually go through with it. Which Elethomel obviously is. But “Cheradenine” is not a Seriously Sick Bastard. At least, there’s nothing in the description of him that makes me think that he is, and we do spend quite a lot of time with him.

So the basic problem is that I can’t see how he got from point A to point B, and in fact point A seems to almost make point B impossible. I think basically to have carried out that last terrible act, Elethomel would have needed to be a sociopathic personality, someone who by definition would not have been affected by his actions to the degree the book shows him to have been. I just cannot see how the man described in the flashbacks as Elethomel could have become the man we meet later as Cheradenine, because the Elethomel persona just simply wouldn’t have cared enough about what he’d done to become the Cheradenine persona.

Perhaps if we’d had more time spent on the actual morphing of personas, or if the pivotal event in the book had been less extreme, or “Cheradenine” a little more evil, I could have bought it. Or maybe some extra plot aspect, such as if we found out that the Culture, unaware of his terrible deeds, had performed surgery on his psychology when they recruited him to correct the “empathy defects” and as a result they accidentally “broke” their operative coz suddenly he couldn’t live with what he’d done.

But as it stands, I just don’t buy it. Though I suspect I’m in a minority of one here, which admittedly is a sign that I’m just too dumb to get the nuances of the book. It wouldn’t be the first time. :D
 

Rane Longfox

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I think what you could be missing here is the basic premise of split-personality disorder. The way I saw it, Elethomel did convince himself, at least to a certain extent, that he was Cheradenine.
 

Coolhand

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Aaah, NOW I see.

So instead of just taking his step brother's name in an attempt to escape the infamy and shame of his previous life (which was the understanding I'd taken away from the text), he's actually supposed to have a full-blown mental illness and has re-imagined himself as his dead step brother.

(Coolhand feels a little sheepish that he didn't realise that before)

I must admit, that does make a lot more sense. I'm still not 100% convinced it's flawlessly integrated into the plot, but it does clear much of the fog. I suspect I'll have to get the book out of the library again and re-read a third time with that new understanding to see if things hang together a bit better now.

Many thanks all. The denizens of the Chron come to the rescue of a befuddled reader once again. :D
 

Rane Longfox

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Well, it might not be right, but he made chairs out of the bones of someone he loved, then murdered. Clearly a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic in my book...
 

RottenZombie

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Has anybody here read the books by Andy Remic? I heard Remic is a big fan of Banks, and wondered if the books were similar?
 

Coolhand

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Yeah, I've read his Spiral trilogy. It's not really that similar to Banks to be honest, though both writers do have lots of tech and science ideas flitting back and forth across thier pages. Remic's work is more a kind of near future Rambo tale with lots of gunfights and gory deaths, which is great for a laugh and the books were good popcorn fun, but he's not as deep or as skilled a writer as Banks. He tends to slightly overdescribe the "gross-out" parts of his books as well, to the point where sometimes it's like reading splatter fiction, whereas Banks is much more subtle and therefore manages to be quite a bit more disturbing IMHO.

Try em. You might like em.

Sorry Mods, I know this was off-topic. I shall offer up an Orc as pennance...;)
 

HiEx

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I think what you could be missing here is the basic premise of split-personality disorder. The way I saw it, Elethomel did convince himself, at least to a certain extent, that he was Cheradenine.
Yup- that's my read of it too.
When he's pretending to be Cheradenine, he can then 'forget' about the monster he really is by performing heroic deeds.

PS- I harboured a theroy for a long time that The Bodyguard in INversions was, in fact, Cheradenine on one of his missions (the one mentioned in UoW briefly as 'the failure at the palace' or something).
So, I eventually got a chance to meet Iain, and presented him with my theory- he regarded me silently for a few seconds and said, 'No.'
 

Rich_SP

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HiEX, nice theory shame it was disproven lol
When i read this book, i never saw the plot twist coming, and it really sickened me (in the best possible way, this is possibly my favourite Iain M Banks theory.) at the time i was too shocked to really think, does this fit the character we've seen so far.
however looking back i agree with the above point. I think Elethomel has convinced himself in parts that he is Cheradenine but as his death apporaches he wants to redeem himslef, and so goes to see Lu to try and gain forgiveness.
 

The Chairmaker

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I will admit that this is only the 2nd m banks novel that i have read.

But i admire the way this whole novel is done, the fractured memories that crop up throughout the whole book made it for me. The chairmaker twist took my breath away like really i have never read anywhere or even thaught of anything quite so beautifully sadistic. as soon as i read this the whole novel clicked and became and instant favourite. none of my friends are into reading as much as i am and it dissapointed me that i could not immediatly discuss in depth the startiling finish to this book.
 

clovis-man

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Welcome to the chrons, Chairmaker. I'm guessing that you have a major Banks orientation. Why not give us more detail in the "Introductions" section.
 

Jorum

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I think we have to take into account the Culture conditioning and training which he has received. This seems to include quite powerful mental aspects that allow things such as intense pain to be abstracted away and some degree of concious control over memory functions.

It seems therefore likely that this extra conditioning has allowed "Zakalwe" to (probably largely unconciously) psychologically protect himself from the horrific memories and self-judgement by mentally seperating from his previous life much more effectively than we could imagine possible.

This however does contradict his continued deliberate use of the names Zakalwe and Staberinde - which he appears to consider as "facing up" to what he has done rather than hiding (maybe the same with his determination to get closure with Livvy) Possibly he really has become quite "split-personality" and doesn't realise he is trying to take two contradictory paths.
Another theory is that by using these names (and maybe by meeting livvy) he can pretend to himself that this is enough to count as "facing up" to his past, whereas in reality he is still detaching himself and avoiding facing it.
 

memebake

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So the basic problem is that I can’t see how he got from point A to point B, and in fact point A seems to almost make point B impossible. I think basically to have carried out that last terrible act, Elethomel would have needed to be a sociopathic personality, someone who by definition would not have been affected by his actions to the degree the book shows him to have been. I just cannot see how the man described in the flashbacks as Elethomel could have become the man we meet later as Cheradenine, because the Elethomel persona just simply wouldn’t have cared enough about what he’d done to become the Cheradenine persona.
The ending of UoW is one of the most powerful endings I've ever read, and even 15 years later I don't think I've read an ending quite like it.

Banks likes to play with identity and the readers assumptions about identity (The Wasp Factory for example). As in, often characters turn out to not be who you thought they were. But in UoW the twist is trying to say something deeper, its not just there as a twist.

One way of reading UoW is that the whole book is about soldiers and wars and the sort of singleminded people who might make very good soldiers. The main character of 'Zakalwe' is presented throughout most of the book as a straightforward hero, someone certain young males might aspire to be, and then revealed at the end to be an anti-hero. It can be read as a sort of critique of the glorification of war.

The first third of the book is subtitled The Good Soldier and makes the point that 'Zakalwe' is very good at what he does. Somewhere in the middle of the book the phrase 'use of weapons' is used, and (from memory) the passage is along the lines of - 'the drive to survive, to grab and use any tool and bend it to that purpose - that use of weapons'. (Its from the chapter with the flood and the hostage tied to a chair). That passage is a big clue to the point that Banks is trying to make. 'Zakalwe's skill is that totally single-minded drive to use whatever is at hand to win whatever battle he is in.

What the chairmaker does is definitely sociopathic, but is not necessarily driven by sadism (as, say, Hannibal Lecter's actions are) - its driven by that singleminded use of weapons, winning the battle above all else. He is so focused on producing an effect in his opponents mind that he blocks out his own, perhaps. Its certainly a very mad act, but its presented as an extreme he reached and then could never forgive himself for.

He lives for a long time and has decades and decades to regret his actions and try to atone for them, and try to distance himself from them by referring to the chairmaker, and adopting names that remind him, and so on. But even 200 years later, he can't sleep in a room that has a chair in it, and the stress of remembering the situation can seriously disable him.

There are ample real-life examples of people who might seem normal in peacetime doing very crazy socipathic evil stuff in a war situation, and 'Zakalwes' profession was to wage war, and he is 'good' at it, and so it comes with the territory. This to me, seems to be the main philosophical point of the book. As many people have observed, War is Hell.
 

zaratzara

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Not (Spilers! Read [[something else]] first!), then? ;)

A burned out character that has abused so many souls needs a persona, a masque, to be able to function as an apparent soul themselves. Especially, as memebake says, if the character in question lives to see a world where any brutally crushing victory is ultimately futile in the grander scheme, and disinterestedly participate in decades of such incidents.

To play that character in true faith would be utter madness — a lesser madness would be that of adopting a more human image; to find some method, however tortured, of being able to live with yourself, and to have some appearance of purpose in the universe.

The persona of Zakalwe Cheradenine provides that vital character to inhabit for the necessarily corrupted mind of an inhuman war machine born human.
 

st33d

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So did no one notice that through out the whole book that the narrative never refers to Zakalwe or whatever name he is going by until someone else addresses him, thus allowing the story to label him?

Somewhat significant, no?
 

firefish

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Zakalwe/Chairmaker did not come across to me as a battle hardened tortured soul at all, through any of the book from his perspective, unfortunately. He was a little too cheery, too sensitive, and too flippant throughout and I never bought him as a "good soldier".

I have to admit that I immediately suspected the author was going to pull the ol' switcheroo as soon as I started reading about the two stepbrothers, even before I learned the horrible things one of the stepbrothers did, but the ending was still a "shock".

Honestly I was expecting him to find out that the Culture was behind hatching operation bone chair plan for victory way back then, and then so Cheradinine (the real one in this version) goes out of his way to throw wrenches in the Culture's plans out of spite, much as he was contemplating after they told him his efforts with the Hegemonarchy would need to be reversed to suit their interests.

Anyway, a clever book that was a just too weak with the characterization with the main "protagonist" is my personal review.

I read it because I liked the title.
 

RodgerYoung

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I think that if you don't want to give any deeper meaning to the novel you can assign Zakalwe/Elethiomel a logical if not shaky reason for the mix up. During the chapter when he is on the ice he loses his memory, it can be presumed that the damage was so thorough with the bullet and almost freezing to death that he truly believed he was Zakalwe. The only problem with that theory is the chapter when the chair is delivered, because Elethiomel couldn't know about that in any detail. Having said that, the state of the character's mind does not preclude him having invented the details after learning the general points of the story.

The book was great, but I would have liked more details about his life. One of my best reads though.
 
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