Sunday, 29 May 2011

fire in babylon (d stevan riley)

The Summer of 1976 was hot. I was ten years old. My family lived in Northwood. I lived there for the three months when I wasn't at boarding school. There was a large garden with a small wooded area at the back. An ample lawn, with flowerbeds on either side. At the bottom of the garden, in front of the house, there was a rosebed. The garden sloped downwards. At certain points in our lives, times when there was a lot of rain, my father would dig channels across the lawn. I presume this was to channel the rainwater away from running down towards the house, but I can't be sure. The sitting room had French windows which opened out onto the garden.

I spent a lot of that Summer playing cricket. I imagine I played mostly with my friend Nick and my oldest sister. The ball would get lost in the flowerbed on a regular basis. The great fear was that it would be hit down the garden and break a window, something which happened at least once. Days were long and hot. In between bouts of playing cricket, we'd go inside and watch it on the television. The old men of England were being terrorised by the West Indians. This is a key part of the film, Fire in Babylon, which tells the story of the rise of the West Indian cricket team in the seventies. The film accentuates to a certain extent the racial overtones of the cricketing conflict between the West Indians and an English team lead by a South African. However, from a child's perspective the issue of race was non-existent. The only thing that was clear was that the West Indians had fiercer bowlers who were too much for the likes of Close and Edrich, men who looked like the most boring of school teachers.

The film made me think about what a peculiar but enrichening slant a following of cricket generates in a youngster. Cricket is a global game, albeit one played by only about ten countries at the highest levels. India, Pakistan, the West Indies: as a youngster I never saw these places in terms of race; merely in terms of cricketing prowess. It's interesting to note that several of the cricketers who feature in this film have expressed reservations about the way in which their comments have been used: the issue of race might have been bubbling under but it was not the priority the film suggests.

All the same, Fire In Babylon looks like belonging to a series of films which seek to elevate sport, placing it within its socio-political context. (The soon to be released Senna will be another). Given the enormous industry that modern sport has become, this seems like both a canny and a justifiable approach. Sport can play a part in the collective consciousness in a way in which art can only look on in jealousy. Art can reclaim its role by seeking to contextualise those moments or feats which are extolled in the day only to be forgotten. Apparently when several of the current West Indian team saw the film, (a team that has reverted to being "calypso cricketers", a tag which Clive Lloyd's team hoped to leave behind forever), they had no idea of the full history of the West Indian team.

Sport is part of the lives of so many of us. On one level it's just commercialised froth; on another its part of the warp and woof of the world we inhabit.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

the tunnel [ernesto sabato]

Snr Sabato died recently. His is a name, like Bioy Cesares or Saer, that seems to live in the shadow of Borges. Consequently it was interesting to note that The Tunnel, originally published in Sur magazine, was championed by Camus and presumably was reasonably well known in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

The book has some of the playful internal machinations of a Borges story. It describes an artist's obsessive and ultimately catastrophic love for a woman whom he spies looking at one of his paintings in a way that leads him to believe she alone has grasped its significance, and hence the significance of his art and his self. Intriguingly, it's not the whole picture that Maria is looking at: it's 'a remote scene framed in a tiny window' in a corner of the picture's canvas. What does she see though this window? On the one hand she sees a vista of the sea, but on the other the artist decides she's seeing into his soul. Sabato's text is delightfully cryptic. Maria and the artist begin an affair, one which is plagued by his jealousy, but details remain sketchy and the 'truth' of her position is never revealed.

This deconstructed, playful approach to narrative, taking Kafka or Dostoyevsky's unreliable narrators a stage further, might be seen as pure modernism, in the vein of Borges's mindgames and Calvino's fractured narratives. But there are two aspects to the book which help to shift it onto another, less cerebral plane. Firstly, it is extremely funny. Castel, the book's anti-hero, has a raw, sardonic sense of humour. The author indulges his frequent asides as he muses on the role of the critic, for example, with scathing vindictiveness. His humour reflects his intelligence as an outsider and it's not hard to see how this voice seduced the likes of Camus.

Secondly, the book deals as tellingly with the subject of love and its lunacy as almost anything you could come across. Castel shifts from anxious passion to deluded paranoia. The way in which the book traces the stages of his ferocious and ultimately misguided love for Maria is masterly. It's not hard for love to become a disease rather than a life-force: the lover's unrealised obsession has more to do with themself, the subject, than the other, the object, even when the lover has convinced him or herself that the other is the one calling the shots. Sabato's occasionally incoherent narrative helps to illustrate the perils of the delusions of love, a world where clouds can look like bears, and the temptation (or dramatic need) to interpret information supersedes any rational appraisal of what's actually occuring. This way, Sabato, seems to suggest, madness lies, no matter how brilliant the lover might be (and perhaps the more brilliant they consider themslves, the more dangerous they become.)

With its humour and meditation on love, The Tunnel comes across as a brief, understated masterpiece. Whilst short, Sabato's text acts as a fascinating counterpart to Borges: the work of someone who shares the maestro's intellectual talents, but seeks to locate these within a more tragic, humane literary context.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

i am the wind (w fosse, d chereau)

This review might be subtitled:

Starkness & Stagecraft

Starkness is for Fosse's enigmatic, idiot-savant text. Two unnamed men talk about how terrible the world is, and then go out to sea on a boat. Where they discover the world is not so terrible, but nevertheless suicide has its attractions. This is the second Fosse text I've come across. He is a beguiling writer, if only because you can't quite believe that anyone can get away with dialogue that seems so devoid of subtext. People say exactly what they think. Or do they? It's intriguing to see in this well-acted production that whenever the actors allow a note of humour to enter into their apparently po-faced exchanges, the drama shifts to another, more playful level. It felt as though there were more laughs latent in this piece than the production realised. Tom Brooke, one of the two actors, captured this cheeky ambivalence beautifully. In his mouth every statement became a potential question, and any suggestion of hyperbole or melodrama was undercut by the character's sense of self-awareness. The comparisons with Beckett are there to be made; and like Beckett, Fosse seems to benefit from not being drowned in seriousness.

Drowning being a strong possibility as a result of Chereau's aqueous stagecraft. As you walk in, the large open stage is turned into a puddle. Out of which later will emerge a boat, which could sink at any time. The moment the boat surges out of the deep is arresting, and the swaying, eddying boat which appears complements the meandering dialogue of the piece's middle section. Chereau and his designer's mechanics might have seemed out of keeping with the simplicity of the play, but in the event they work. The play requires a boat on the sea and Chereau delivers this, nothing more nor less. The lights bouncing off the water and water refracting off the theatre walls help lend an ethereal beauty to the space. This is high-tech simplicity, and in its paradoxical way the stagecraft is stunningly effective.

There remains the feeling that this is a brittle piece, one which requires the most delicate of touches to pull off. There are moments when it teetered on the brink of folding in on itself in a miasma of forced poeticism. However, the production skirted the isle of indulgence and came out the other side, into the wide open waters of spectacle and a theatre steeped in the physicality of things.

Monday, 2 May 2011

hotel iris [yoko ogawa]

Ogawa's short novel is set in a Japanese coastal resort town. Which coast it is set on I don't know, but the notion that all those fictional characters who participate in the novel, and the fictional town itself, might no longer exist, adds piquancy to a slight but finely written story of depravity and delinquency. One of the comments in the blurb, by Hilary Mantel, says - "I admire any writer who dares to work on this uneasy territory". This territory being the sexuality of a seventeen year old girl who enjoys, that being the operative word, a fraught and to-most-people's eyes abusive sexual relationship with a man three times her age.

There's much here that seems to resonate with foreign notions of the Japanese psyche. The use of sex as both a complex outlet for power games and a means to excavate the subject's confused interior landscape. Mari, the protagonist, desires the humiliation that her lover, the Russian translator subjects her to. Here is the pertinence of Mantel's comment. It is the kind of book which it might be said could only be published by a female writer, in this day and age. If a man were to suggest that Mari wanted this 'abusive' relationship, exploring it from her point of view, it is hard to think he would be taken seriously and would in all likelihood be read as exploitative. However, in Ogawa's hands, the story is strangely convincing. Mari is never a victim: she remains a level-headed appraiser of her situation, no matter how dangerous. We are in similar territory to the recent film of Norwegian Wood: just because you're going through something difficult and complex doesn't make for an inevitably tragic narrative. The resilience of youth enables people seeking experience to embrace strangeness; a strangeness which society, (in Hotel Iris denoted by the townspeople and Mari's family), cannot contemplate as anything but alien and reprehensible.

The book's effectiveness is not founded on its more salacious material, but on the way it gets under its protagonist's skin. The whole world is coming alive for Mari, and the translator is but one part of that world. At times the book's town feels reminiscent of Prout's Normandy seaside holiday resort; the seaside, with its unique rhythms, is a great place to grow up, to realise the possibilities of the adult world. Ogawa's prose offers precise descriptions and is unafraid of surreal detail (a plague of fishes, a lunch of multi-coloured soups). Hotel Iris is a book that succeeds in exploring the most provocative of worlds without really being provocative at all. By reducing the salacious to the mundane, she seems to suggest that we shouldn't over-emphasise deviance or sexuality; normality abounds in even the most rarified of situations.