Tuesday, 14 August 2018

deception [phillip roth]

“Betrayal is an overwhelming charge, don’t you think? There was no contract drawn up stating that in matters pertaining to you I would forswear my profession. I am a thief and a thief is not to be trusted.” “Not even by his moll?” “However visible you may be feeling, you weren’t identified in that book or made overly identifiable. However much you may have served as a model, the great British public happens to be ignorant of it and you only have to not tell them for them to remain ignorant.” 

Cursory background reading leads one to discover that this novel was written when Roth spent time living in London, where he was married to the actress, Claire Bloom, best known to my generation for her role in Brideshead Revisited, a TV series which helped to set a nostalgic vision of what Britain might have been, whose shadow still seems to hang over the country. Whilst in London, Roth slotted into its literary circles, hanging out with, among others, Hare and Pinter. Deception includes one section where the narrator, a Jewish US writer, tells of how he has to suffer at dinner parties as British intellectuals chastise him for both US and Israeli foreign policy, and it’s not hard to imagine Roth and Pinter battling it out over the port in some grandiose Notting Hill dining salon. Deception would also appear to be written in the shadow of Pinter’s masterpiece, Betrayal. Both Pinter’s play and Roth’s novel are constructed around the notion of affairs in literary London. Curiously, Deception is also written for the most part in dialogue, so that it reads like a play, with the occasional stage direction thrown in.

The two works differ in ways that are far more than political. Roth seems to rebel against what he perceives as a British instinct towards hypocrisy and niceties, whereas Pinter’s text positively glories in the joys of hypocrisy. Roth’s narrator doesn’t want any truck with guilt or hang-ups. He’s having an affair and he doesn’t care who knows. Having said which, there’s a telling final section towards the end where the narrator’s wife finds his notebooks, which are, effectively the novel we have just read, and the novelist defends his honour, saying that the affair(s) postulated in the notebooks are purely fictional, they’re an exercise of the imagination. Which is then undercut by a subsequent brief passage where the narrator, having returned to New York, is contacted by his former lover. On the one hand, the author is indulging in metaphysical game-playing; on the other he seems to want to pull the rug from under the reader’s feet, and say, ‘in fact it was all true’. Or could this even be a dig at Pinter, who used his affair with Bakewell to create the content of his play, whilst never acknowledging, at least in public, the existence of the affair. 

Which perhaps takes us to the nub and the issue with Deception, the novel: who the fuck cares about these well paid literary types hanging out in their Notting Hill parlours, finding a room for illicit sex in the afternoons, and then bickering with their wives; or sitting around the dinner table putting the world to rights. It’s a precious, navel-gazing world which only feathers the reader’s emotional or intellectual engagement. It may be a roman a clef, but unlike Betrayal, a play which somehow reaches for the essence of what it means to be in love and/or married, Deception feels strangely passionless. If you renounce the value of romantic love, its hypocrisy and its foolishness, there’s nothing at stake. Although Roth’s narrator says many times that he was in love with his mistress, it ends up feeling as though, as the narrator himself observes in a discussion with his wife, he was only ever in love with the idea of his mistress. When things break apart, there’s no sense of loss. Pinter’s text takes us to the heart of an issue: the way in which we define our notion of self through the act of sleeping with another; Roth’s text seems to suggest that in fact this act of sleeping with another is nothing more than a moveable feast, a dangerous liaison to while away those rainy London afternoons. 

Friday, 10 August 2018

theatre of war / teatro de guerra (d. lola arias)

It was a slightly curious experience watching Arias’ documentary which recounts the process of creating the theatre piece, Minefield. Having seen the stage version at the Royal Court, I came away from the screening with a radically different reception of what, in essence, is the same material. Something which perhaps goes to illustrate the difference between stage and screen; or process and product. Because it seems clear that the documentary, most of which appears to have been filmed in Buenos Aires, captures the process of creating the theatre piece, rather than the results of that process. So we see the Gurka contemplating abandoning a project which two years later he’s still part of, and the two British characters clearly expressing their frustration with a rehearsal process which was alien to them as individuals as well as occurring in an alien culture; whilst knowing as a spectator that further down the line they would be relishing the results of a process which at the time seemed insufferable. (Welcome to the world of theatre rehearsals.) 

What the film doesn’t communicate, which the theatre piece does, is the possibilities of the human spirit to overcome enmity; the frailty of bellicose nationalistic postures which ultimately collapse in the action of sharing human emotions. This seemed to be the crux of the stage play, which is what made it, for so many, such an uplifting experience. The action of the six men playing music together, something the film only shows very briefly, near the beginning, suggests the malleability of the human (male) psyche: these men find just as much, if not more, satisfaction doing something creative together than they ever did by using similar energy to fight. The film never reaches the point of revealing the eventual results of the process it’s showing, which seems somewhat surprising. Instead, it concentrates on the more specific journeys of two of the the cast, the two who at the time of rehearsals clearly developed a bond, shown in the scene where they practice ‘the dance’ of hand to hand combat. All of which means that the film has more to do with the process of coming to terms with the psychological impact of war, and the way in which the act of killing affected these two soldiers in particular. 

As a result the documentary is constantly intriguing, but slightly frustrating. It never quite coalesces. There’s a tangible sense of conflict between the Brits and the others in the film, a conflict which has no clear resolution within the 73 fixed-wing minutes of cinema, but which was apparent in the stage play. Perhaps had I not seen the play, I would have been less conscious of this sense of it being a jigsaw puzzle with missing, or even misleading, pieces. 

Monday, 6 August 2018

super-cannes [j g ballard]

Despite not having read much Ballard, his transgressive British literary voice is so pervasive that it’s hard not to feel as though you know his work intimately. In part, one imagines, his success is down to the fact that, whilst transgressive, he’s also a consummate (and structurally conservative) storyteller. The narrative of Super-Cannes rattles along at a steady pace, even if it never really feels as though it’s close to hitting top gear. As a result, the concept behind the novel feels far more dangerous than the novel itself. 

This concept is beguiling; an exploration of a summarily twenty-first century world where corporate entities possess their own space, which they police themselves, a post-political space where you can invent your own morality. Super-Cannes is a large industrial/ residential park, near Cannes, where high-level execs get to do their thing. Which mostly involves working, but whose resident shrink has devised a novel way of letting off steam: organised petty crime. High-end execs don’t do squash or affairs; they go out into the streets and participate in some minor league brown shirt action, beating up immigrants, stealing valuables or sleeping with child prostitutes. Which in a Trumpian world doesn’t sound all that far-fetched. The narrator, a level-headed English pilot, Paul Sinclair, married to one of the site’s new doctors, gradually pieces together the truth of what is happening, before deciding to take radical action to bring down this neo-fascist enclave. The level-headed Englishman is one of the few prophetic notes that jars, but in so many other ways Ballard seems to be putting his finger on the brutal new realities of a world run by corporations. 

Having said which, the novel itself, which is framed as a detective story, with Sinclair investigating why his wife’s predecessor went on an insane shooting spree, feels somewhat prosaic. The twists and turns really do sometimes feel as though they’re going round in circles. The writer’s research is worn on the sleeve, and one imagines Ballard hanging out on the Cote D’Azur for months, suffering terribly as he made notes for his latest masterpiece. There’s something of a conjurer’s trick about it all: a story which claims to rent asunder the shroud of contemporary society, dressed up in the bows and ribbons of a highly consumable literary approach. 

Friday, 3 August 2018

nosotros las piedras (we the stones) (d. álvaro torres crespo)

Crespo’s doc is a relatively brief, immersive journey into the lives of gold-panners living a destitute life in the jungles of Costa Rica. Exiled out of the national park where they formerly looked for gold, they get by on tiny fragments of gold dust. The quantities they manage to extract from the rivers are minimal. The panners, as a result, live a life of abejct poverty, clinging to a dream which seems completely illusory - a kind of fool’s gold. The narrative and visual style are determinably poetic, even whimsical. Over the course of a little less than an hour we glide through these marginalised people’s lives, the camera spying on them. There were times when it felt as though the film might have excavated these lives in more detail; all the same the film serves the purpose of classic documentary, taking the viewer into a world we will never know, revealing the harshness and cudged fortitude of people who exist beyond the mainframe of modernity. 

Sunday, 29 July 2018

el proceso (d. maria augusta ramos)

El Proceso follows, over the course of 140 minutes, the events surrounding Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and ultimate removal from the presidency of Brazil. Using news footage and fly-on-the-wall footage from Dilma’s legal team, the documentary meticulously charts the process leading to what many have described as a coup. 

How should art deal with the great affairs of state? There have been a variety of approaches in recent years, from the West Wing, a US approach which turns politics into a melodrama (an attitude which US politics has subsequently decided works effectively and has chosen to adopt as a methodology); to Hare’s stageplays about the Labour party; to Santiago Mitre’s parallelism in El Estudiante. There has also been in British theatre, a wave of “verbatim” theatre, which seeks to recreate events surrounding, for example, the Chilcott Enquiry. TV has since gone further, with the likes of Peter Morgan doing the Deal between Blair and Brown, and so on, an approach which has been hijacked by Netflix, which has recently screened a drama about Lula. There will be a host more. Within many societies, drama is a more effective means of communicating events than documentary, because the cameras aren’t often present when the events of history are being thrashed out. Those who make history prefer to do so in the shadows.

Which is where Ramos’ documentary is all the more remarkable, because, having obtained access to Rousseff’s legal team, she offers an insight which normally only drama might afford. The characters around which the narrative is built are never fleshed out: they don’t need to be. We get to know the dogged defence lawyer, Senator Limbergh and Gleisi Hoffmann who front Dilma’s campaign, observing them both behind-the-scenes and as they make their case with dignity, in spite of the fact they know they’re leading a doomed charge. The votes against Dilma were never going to be altered; once the mechanism of impeachment has trundled into gear, there’s no reversing the process. Something the team grasp, but which they never let defeat them; they still have a role to play within the historical terms of events, to defend their President as honourably as possible, and in so doing, show up the dishonour of those who condemn her.

Ramos’ subjects ensure there’s no issue about which side she’s on; there’s no pretence at objectivity, something which political drama tends to aspire to. If your sympathies aren’t with Rousseff, you’re not going to enjoy this film. But if you’re intrigued by the machinations of history, by the mechanics of a neo-democratic coup, then this is an absorbing and terrifying account, brilliantly rendered with a minimum of hyperbole and a maximum of detail. It’s also a cautionary tale for the 21st century: liberal democracies are just as vulnerable today as they were in the sixties and the seventies. Only, scarily, the opponents of these democracies have decided to employ subtler tools to undermine them.  When the mechanisms of state have become overwhelmingly corrupt, how does anyone stop the gravy train? 

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

the garden of secrets [juan goytisolo, tr. peter bush]

As the title suggests, and the script makes clear, this short novel is a Borgesian endeavour, which uses multiple narrators to construct a picture of the life of Eusebio, a poet who fled Spain in the wake of the Civil War, ending up in Marrakesh. The conceit is that a group of readers/ writers assemble in a garden and each one relates a brief chapter in the poet’s life. Some of these chapters are purely tangential. It’s up to the reader to assemble and construct a viable biography from the fragments on offer. 

The novel reminds us of the barbarity of the Spanish Civil War, as well as reflecting both the closeness and distance of North Africa from Europe, a connection which centuries of distance have kept at illusory bay. Culturally and geographically there’s no reason that the Iberian peninsula, or Southern Italy, should feel themselves to be closer to Sweden or the UK or Hungary, than North Africa, even if, politically, that has been the case for several centuries. This is the kind of false historical narrative that Enard’s Zone also alluded to.

Goytisolo’s playfulness, (up to and including speculating about the author’s own name at the conclusion of the book), almost demands a personal response from the reader. Given the multiple voices and strands employed, it’s easy to drift in and out of the tenuous narrative, but all the same, the book ended up beguiling. It’s indicative of a kind of informal, slightly anarchic, playful approach to literature, whose echoes are found in the work of Vila-Matas and, por supuesto, Bolaño. (Not to mention Cortazar and his ilk). The way in which the Hispanic world creates a self-aware inter-textuality adds a constant fascination to the process of discovering this culture. Goytisolo reaffirms this with a list of little-known writers under the rubric “Appropriations and Borrowings by Co-readers”, a list which includes the name of my friend’s grandfather, the poet, Rafael Duyos. 

Saturday, 21 July 2018

october [china miéville]

China Miéville’s book is an account of the events that lead to the Russian revolution of 1917. The writer offers a detailed month by month picture of the year, leading to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October. What’s fascinating about this is that one tends to interpret “the Russian revolution” as a homogenous event, one that appears to have a clear endgame, and therefore, one assumes, should possess a reasonably clear starting point and middle. The facts of the matter as presented by Miéville are very different. Lenin’s Bolshevik party emerged triumphant from a scrum of competing factions and political possibilities. In fact, the author makes it clear that it wasn’t even ‘Lenin’s Bolshevik party’ until very late in the day. Seemingly inevitable dialectical outcomes, are, the author’s scholarship appears to suggest, anything but. History might be written by the victors, but that in itself implies that the process of creating history is one that has multiple sub-authors, whose versions failed to predominate as a result of a myriad of causes and conditions.

All of which makes October a sometimes dense, even bewildering read, as Miéville takes the reader through the political shenanigans, introducing figures onto the political stage whose significance rapidly wanes thereafter. There are moments when the book seems to cry out for a more humanistic account (something offered by Marina Tsvetaeva’s memoirs, for example). Perhaps ironically, the ordinary Russian citizen, red or white, feels relegated to the background in Miéville’s take, and the human cost and scale of events flickers, mainly supplied through first-hand accounts from foreign journalists. The author is very good on the politicians’ intentions, errors and false dawns, less so on what these meant to the people who were living through these tumultuous events.

Nevertheless, this feels like a comprehensive version of a year of living politically dangerously, a year which had, as the book’s epilogue makes clear, consequences which were far from positive, neither for the classical notion of communism, nor for the Soviet Union itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the chaos out of which the revolution was born. In that sense, it has felt instructive to read the book at the same time as witnessing a similar period of hyper-political activity in the UK where some kind of a revolution is playing itself out. One hopes (and everyone assumes) that the consequences will be less severe than they were for citizens of the state called Russia, later the USSR. However, it is telling to see from this account how extremism fills a vacuum; how the appeal of political ideologues escalates in times of crisis. Perhaps the most important aspect of Miéville’s book is the way in which he re-vindicates the existence of a more moderate, conciliatory path, one which Lenin and the Bolsheviks and, he seems to argue at the end, even the moderates themselves, turned away from. A kinder vision of the revolution existed, Miéville seems to suggest, one which was snuffed out before it had a chance to govern. Which may be wishful thinking, but might also be a lesson that the contemporary British, not just the Russians of a hundred years ago, might do well to heed. 

Thursday, 19 July 2018

averno (w&d marcos loayza)

Obviously you want to like a film made in Bolivia that’s won a prize at BAFICI for best Latin American Film, that’s reached Montevideo, that sounds enticing. A reworking of the Theseus myth, set in the La Paz underworld. With larger-than-life characters, amazing locations, set against the backdrop of the Andes. If Averno does one thing, it affirms the photogenic possibilities of the Bolivian capital. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much more, and ends up being a slightly tame, sub-Potter offering which isn’t nearly as bizarre as it perhaps likes to think it is. You can see Loayza’s intentions, to make a snappy, commercial film, something which is never easy to pull off. Perhaps it’s aimed at a younger demographic than mine, but Averno never lived up to its beguiling premise and I came out of the cinema feeling none the wiser about Bolivian society. Plenty of colour and an excess of Andino tropes, but a narrative that didn’t go anywhere left me longing for the Minatour to put Theseus out of his misery. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

frost (w&d sharunas bartas, w anna cohen-yanay)

I’d never heard of Bartas. My friend, Flamia, who knows a thing or two, when we met with him in 36 after the screening, said that he’d seen four or five films of the Lithuanian director. It’s curious the way that even prominent European directors with powerful international reputations remain ‘undiscovered’ in the UK. In a week that has seen a homicide, presumably the result of Russian military aggression, on British shores, Bartas’ film ought to be compulsory viewing. That it isn’t is no less surprising than to see the pictures of the House of Commons where a handful of MPs were present to listen to a statement on the murder of Dawn Sturgess. The insularity of the UK has only deepened with the advent of Brexit, and will continue to do so, both politically and culturally. 

The narrative of Frost is straightforward. Two young Lithuanians, Inga and Roka, agree to drive a truck containing humanitarian aid to Ukraine. They have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. It’s a road movie to the furthest edges of Europe, to a bloody, fatal frontier where Putin’s wars are being waged. The set-up is perfunctory, even simplistic, as Roka is persuaded to take on the trip, and he persuades Inga to go with him. We don’t really know what their relationship is; they would appear to be a couple but they might just be friends. There’s a growing realisation that they’re out of their depth. They reach the Ukraine and hang out with some journalists. The war is out there, but for the time being they’re using the trip to work out their own personal psycho-drama. Then, as they approach the Crimean border, things start to become more and more edgy. 

Bartas glories in the road movie. Each step of the journey is a step closer to the characters’ destiny. There’s no need to rush: the pace is stately. They’re not driving a BMW, they’re driving a transit van. The scenery, increasingly wintery, goes by in a succession of blurred images. The viewer is on the journey with the characters, going further and further towards some kind of edge. The tension is gradually ratcheted up until they arrive at the desolate border, where the buildings have been hollowed out and death lurks on the other side of the street. The film maintains an understated tone. At one point a convoy of armoured vehicles drive past, followed by a slightly ragged military column. Nothing terrible happens, there’s no shooting, no fighting, just the unmistakable evidence of the latent threat, which, the film makes clear, is a threat not merely to the protagonists, but to all of Europe. The possible implications are made clear. After Crimea, Lithuania could be next. And then who knows. This could seem like doom-mongering, were it not for the fact that the film so clearly captures the reality of what’s happening right now, at the edges of the European project. 

Not for the first time, the aesthetic power of a film is amplified by the urgency of its political content. Frost takes the viewer far further towards a kind of Euro-Apocalypse Now than any news report.  

Friday, 13 July 2018

bhava [w. u r ananthamurthy, tr. judith kroll]

Every now and again you pick up a book and as you read it you’re aware that a fair amount is going over your head. This was Bhava for me. It’s a deceptively complex read, telling the story of a man who thinks he’s killed his wife in a jealous fit, only to discover (or think he’s discovered) many years later that he hadn’t, and therefore he has been living with a misplaced guilt all along. Albeit a guilt that hasn’t stopped him having numerous affairs. I have to confess, whilst preferring not see relationship stories in black and white, I found it hard to engage with the subject’s back story. Furthermore, I found it hard to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. The afterword, written by the translator, Judith Kroll, threw some light on what I’d been reading, but it’s always disconcerting to find that a novel requires elucidation. As such, I feel that this is more a record of the novel having been read than any kind of critical reaction; rarely have I come across a book quite as baffling Bhava and I couldn’t for the life of me tell you if that’s to do with my failings as a reader, problems with the translation, or something that’s fundamental to the novel itself.