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Stories on sleeplessness

Perchance to sleep...

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Emily Bronte's HEATHCLIFF

From Marquez to Murakami, literature is full of characters incapable of a restful night in bed.

When you pick up a novel featuring the moody but brilliant Detective Inspector John Rebus you can be sure of one thing. In the book you will encounter devastating crimes and swift punishment;greasy sausage rolls and orange Irn Bru; single malts and the Rolling Stones. But what you will almost never find are fluffy pillows and laundered sheets. 

For Ian Rankin's fictional policeman seems incapable of a restful night in bed. Instead, after days awash with coffee and cantankerous energy, he spends nights trailing suspects, warming a stool at the Oxford Bar or sprawled on his armchair "preparing to let the nighttime take its toll". And on the rare occasion when he manages to get some shut-eye, he's cruelly yanked into bleary wakefulness. For example: "It was two in the morning when the phone woke him. He was lying on the living room floor, next to the hi-fi, CD cases and album sleeves spread around him. He crawled on hands and knees to his chair and picked up the receiver. " Clearly, Rebus belongs to the long procession of famous literary characters that wander sleepless, gritty-eyed and irritable through the realm of fiction. Typically these include pining heroines, haunted war veterans, driven policemen and guilt-riddled wrongdoers. And occasionally ordinary people who suddenly find their nights filled, not with velvety darkness, but with - in the words of Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata -"toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned". In Wuthering Heights Heathcliff roams the moors night after night, seeking the ghost of his beloved Catherine. In the Ernest Hemingway short story, `A Clean, Well-lighted Place', the old waiter hates to lock up his bright little cafê and head into a night filled with lonely nothingness. While in Sleep, a short story by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese housewife - with a dentist husband and a little son - completely loses the desire to sleep and after 17 days of wakefulness starts questioning her hitherto placid life and relationships. "I'm through with sleep!" she decides. "So what if I go mad? So what if I lose my 'ground of being' ? I will not be consumed by my 'drives'. If sleep is nothing more than a periodic repairing of the parts of me that are being worn away, I don't want it anymore. I don't need it anymore. My flesh may have to be consumed, but my mind belongs to me. I'm keeping it for myself. I will not hand it over to anyone. I don't want to be 'repaired'. I will not sleep. " (Indeed, she seems to agree with Edgar Allan Poe who famously described sleep as "little slices of death". )

Unlike this nameless Japanese woman, Shakespeare's tragic characters yearn for their lost repose. For well before neurologists and psychiatrists invaded the area, the Bard seems to have had a keen understanding of sleep deprivation. So when Othello starts suspecting that Desdemona is unfaithful, the devious Iago gleefully predicts the loss of peaceful sleep: "Not poppy, nor mandragora Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, " he gloats. "Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou owedst yesterday. " Similarly, soon after Macbeth murders King Duncan, he hears voices foretelling that he has murdered his own sleep as well. Gradually Macbeth's guilt mutates into insomnia and insanity. "Macbeth does murder sleep, the innocent sleep, " the voices warn. Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, "The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast. " If Macbeth is one of literature's most famous insomniacs, then the "plague of insomnia" that sweeps through Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude is certainly the most unnerving epidemic in fiction. The plague arrives with Rebeca who materialises one day, carrying her parents' bones in a bag. Uncertain about what to do with this strange orphan, the Buendias take her in. "In the meantime, through an oversight that Josê Arcadio Buend a never forgave himself for, the candy animals made in the house were still being sold in the town. Children and adults sucked with delight on the delicious little green roosters of insomnia, the exquisite pink fish of insomnia, and the tender yellow ponies of insomnia, so that dawn on Monday found the whole town awake. "

During five years of sleeplessness, the characters in Gabriel Garca Mrquez's magical world start to lose their memory — so much so that every object and creature has to be labelled. "This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk. "

While this plague is eventually vanquished by a decrepit gypsy, the characters in Jonathan Coe's clever House of Sleep turn to modern medicine. Or rather to the dubious therapies practiced by the creepy Dr Dudden, who runs a sleep clinic in an English seaside town. Sarah suffers from narcolepsy and has "dreams so vivid that she couldn't tell the difference between the things she dreamed and the things that really happened to her". Terry, who was once addicted to his dreams, has not slept for years. And Dudden himself believes that sleep is a disease that swallows half our life. As all these characters grapple with their nighttime demons, a dark and intricate story unfolds.

The House if Sleep gives us a fascinating peek into sleep disorders. But most insomniacs in literature don't really fall into this category. They are more likely to be lovelorn maidens, compelled to obey convention, and turn into hollow-eyed wraiths. In a gentle dig at this literary convenience, Jane Austen passes a tonguein-cheek remark in Northanger Abbey: "And now I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch, which is the true heroine's portion - to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears. And lucky may she think herself, if she get another good night's rest in the course of the next three months. "

Next to the benighted heroine, of course, it is the avenging detective who suffers from chronic dry-eyed exhaustion. Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, John Rebus and David Robicheaux fit the bill. But for every rule there is an exception, and in this case it is Philip Marlowe, the wisecracking Los Angeles sleuth, who blithely remarks, "A white night for me is almost as rare as a fat postman. "

For the rest, however, this bunch of bestseller protagonists, is tormented by nightmares and terrors. For example, Harry Bosch, the obsessive Los Angeles cop and former Vietnam vet, spends his long nights smoking, drinking beer and listening to jazz. "On the table next to the chair were the companions of insomnia: playing cards, magazines, and paperback mystery novels - these only lightly thumbed and then discarded, " writes Michael Connelly about his tormented detective who knows that sleep will only take him back to the dark, mine-filled tunnels of Vietnam

Similarly, Chicago private eye V I Warshawski - much like her creator Sara Paretsky - tosses, turns and worries through the night. When she does tumble into welcome oblivion, she is wakened by horrible nightmares in which, for example, a giant golf cart tries to run her over. Little wonder, she'd rather pass the dark hours trailing bad guys through dangerous alleys.

All of which is lucky for us. After all, compared to Rip Van Winkle and Sleeping Beauty, our sleep-deprived favourites make for much more entertaining reading.

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