The Borromean Cycle

by S. Decoteaux Bates

On its debut performance a century past, Undrius N. Ravel’s tragic cycle of operas was hailed for its rarified synthesis of unity and incoherence: “a disjointed but homogenous masterpiece,” the Hive Geist posited, “suffused with a mechanistic quality that can satisfy plebeians as well as bushwhacking snobs.”

Scholars will note the historic significance of a lesser-known transmission, broadcast by the Geist thirty-three nanoseconds later and leading directly to the carnage of the First Classified War, namely: “Please excuse Our error: Amend that last bit about the snobs to ‘honored Planetary-plutocrats’. (COPY?)”

Within a decade, the Ministries had adapted The Borromean Cycle into a serial holofilm that cast Victor Otan into the role of Planetary System Enforcer Bruno “Falstaff” Krupp, the System’s accident-prone agent in pursuit of the anarchist Vitaly Snoldelev. Rendering the character more neurotic than usual, and infecting a figure of vaunted prowess with some detestable inadequacies — including a susceptibility to scurvy and the tendency to spontaneously defenestrate — Otan claimed the year’s Thespian Seat for finest portrayal.

Still, the Cycle had its share of detractors from its inception, as well as people who assumed it was an advertisement for transistors, albeit with a bloated budget, and now, though the work is armored in a cloak of autumnal majesty that deters most criticism, Ravel’s magnum opus may be reconsidered in a new light and found wanting.

Drawing on a plethora of Fracturist plot devices, the libretto is sporadic at best and at worst vaguely patronizing; yet this is the least of the work’s faults. Ravel intended the three operas of the Cycle to be performed, as he put it, in the round, and this within opera houses built according to the now-obsolete “Valknut” style. Thus any sequential viewing is bound to lead to frustration and nail-biting.

For example, the opera The Ring of Green climaxes when the three-dimensional Parcheesi match between Falstaff, Snoldelev, and the schizoid Titan King degenerates into a psychic food-fight outside the VIP booth at the Royal Steakhouse. In the original performance, the cellos attempt to humiliate the upstart trumpets with a motif symbolizing the Titan’s abrupt digestion disorders, while an atonal fanfare of brass from across the hall — sounded by the orchestra of deaf-mutes requisite to Circle Blue — announces Falstaff’s sudden resolution to depart without leaving a decent tip. This external intrusion is meant to convey the disorientation Falstaff experiences whenever the Mercurians attempt to seize control of his implants via the satellite intelligence named MARV, a nuance lost in the sequential showing.

Worse is the intermission of the operas, when the three Falstaffs dress as mimes and leave their stages to heckle the audience from the center of the opera house in a scene allegorizing the multiple-worlds theory — a scene many felt most successful when presented in the “Valknut” holofilm, as the Falstaffs were able to physically overlap, and so reduced the miming factor by two.

A focal leitmotif of the Cycle, the unified field, adds to the dated feel of the operas. Yes, we know the thousand and one characters represent the willy-nilly silliness of the various incarnations of Ultimate Godhead, or Godhead as sought by Falstaff’s transsexual grandfather, but the tonal indeterminacy generated by this host of bit players and their relationships to one another seems to outweigh the value of any leitmotif, if not the totality of human art and endeavor.

Consider: Is it necessary to know whether the prostitute/nail-stylist/Hive-Matron redeemed by Snoldelev on Venus Platform is really Falstaff’s mother or step-sister-in-law? When the three rogue Enforcers corner Diana near the gastric mines of New Poitiers, is the resonance increased if one has guessed that either Falstaff or his doppelganger Shakestaff designed these conjoined android triplets? Does it really matter whether the men of Luna are cloned from Terran stock or just mutant bush babies?

The answer appears to be “no,” a fact that even Falstaff comes to accept as he completes his orbit of the Nether Rim and realizes he is still an unborn fetus awaiting “berth” besides his stillborn twin.

Painted in broad strokes, the political sensitivities of the Cycle fare the worst. Though he had never bothered to read the work, Ravel claimed to be a huge admirer of the “Negentropic Manifesto,” a work the Academia now considers as so much malarkey, its tenets largely bowdlerized from the subtexts of the archaic telefilm Steamboat Willie.

Hence Ravel’s efforts to show that if one element is withdrawn, all will collapse and go to pot. The régisseur thrusts his theme at the viewer ad nauseam: a vessel coupling erupts into disaster when MARV devolves into an abacus, consortiums of toiletry lobbyists brings down the government of Ceres, and the Trinity Towers are demolished by Snoldelev’s “Hairy Harriers” after the Trinity CFO cuts down on outsourcing.

A gratuitous instance of Negentropic iconography appears in the grimmest of the operas, A Crimson Diadem, when, after Diana’s armada is decimated off Aegaeon, the muse Thyssa appears crowned in stars to weave a braid from the entrails of the casualties, the organs conscientiously color-coded to the flags of the Planetary Systems.

Ever since the Ravel family’s execution, rumors have flown that the composer had written a second cycle of operas in secret, the apocryphal Borborygmean Maze, whose events occur some centuries prior to the those of The Borromean Cycle and yet determine and explicate the extant work, especially all those references to transistors. If so, then obviously it is impossible to judge the continuity, the content, and the clarity of a narrative thus truncated, but most scholars agree that Ravel was never one to explain anything anyway, and so the whole thing was probably the idea of his third wife, the infamous insomniac.

As the Cycle stands, a phrase from one of Falstaff’s recitatives may offer the definitive summation of this botched work. While he waits before the import/export desk in Mars Station, eying the floor-length skirts of the transvestites in the terminal as Olympus Mons burns in the background, the exiled agent poses a question that might have sprung full-formed from the creased brow of the viewer: “Oy vey ist mir, how did it all go wrong?”

Length: 3-9 hours
Classification: Approved for all castes


The central theme of the text is the mathematical construction known as the “Borromean Rings,” the tricolor symbol where:

removing any ring results in two unlinked rings. In other words, no two of the three rings are linked with each other, but nonetheless all three are linked.

Borromean rings

Thus the three operas of the cycle are Ring of Green, Circle Blue, and The Crimson Diadem. The mathematical rings form a “Brunnian Link.” The symbol of the rings was used both by the industrial giant Thyssen/Krupp and Ballantine Beer, which is now brewed by the Falstaff Brewing Corporation, hence the protagonist’s handle: Bruno “Falstaff” Krupp. So also the muse “Thyssa,” who forms another common representation of the rings: the tricolor braid.

The Valknut is a triangular form of the rings dedicated to Odin/Otan; partial rings can be found on the ancient Snoldelev Stone in Denmark; they are also a symbol for the Trinity. These references lead to the bizarre shape of Ravel’s opera-house, Vitaly Snoldelev, and the Trinity Towers.

The rings exist in the three overlapping mimes, the conjoined android triplets, and the three-way, three-dimensional Parcheesi match. Even “U.N. Ravel,” our familiar composer, challenges his audience to “unravel” the Borromean Rings — an impossibility.

Copyright © 2013 by S. Decoteaux Bates

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