Sunday, 28 October 2012

warriors of tibet: the story of aten and the khampas' fight for the freedom of their country [jamyang norbu]

What happens when exiled, bereaved, your family killed, your home purloined, your life is brought to a premature conclusion?

Jamyan Norbu’s account of the life of Aten, a native of Tibet displaced by the Chinese in the early sixties, does not provide us with the answer to that question, because it is at exactly that point that the book ends. Aten finally crosses the Himalayas, arriving in Dharamsala in India, his life as he knew it now no more than a memory. It is these memories that the book vividly conveys. Life on the high Tibetan plain. The day to day domestic problems. The importance of religion and pilgrimage. As well as the presence of the Chinese, whose occupation is cruel yet benign until Mao finally turns to the task of subjugating the ancient culture, beginning a process of destruction which continues to this day.

The book brings to mind Pinter’s Mountain Language. The Chinese are even attempting to destroy the words the Tibetans employ. At first Aten tries to work with the Chinese, his journey mirroring that of the Dalai Lama, spending a year in China being trained to become a figure they will use to govern the country. Here are fascinating insights into the way in which China’s seemingly sudden emergence as an economic superpower is actually part of a process and a way of thinking that has been in development for far longer than anyone realised. The subjugation of Tibet and other indigenous peoples within and on the edges of its borders marked the start of a process which continues apace. Aten notes the way in which the occupation became more and more savage, until it reaches the point where he has no option but to join the catastrophic resistance campaign, with devastating personal results.

This is a book written in memory about a lost world. The miracle is that the narrator, as conveyed by the author, seems to have retained through his affection for what he has lost, his sense of humour and humanity. Where one might expect fierce anger, the reader encounters equanimity. For anyone with an interest in the fate of Tibet, or displaced peoples anywhere in the world, this book represents a compelling read.  

Monday, 15 October 2012

marx in soho (w. howard zinn, d. juan tocchi)

Zinn's text is a curio. He wasn't primarily a playwright. He was a political historian. As such, what the audience watches when they see his play is the work of someone whose ambition is less to create drama than to convey to his audience a didactic understanding of a historical subject. In this case, Karl Marx. The result is a play which is part biography, part philosophical/ historical treatise and part, because the premise of the play is that Marx is far from dead, commentary on our contemporary existence.

It's perhaps this last aspect which is the most powerful. When the bearded Troncoso talks to the Verdi's audience of how, in spite of capitalism's gizmos, there are still people sleeping on the streets, the inference is crystal clear. Society might be a changing, but too many things remain the same. And, according to the writer's interpretation of Marx, shall continue to do so, so long as we inhabit a capitalist universe. There's so much Zizek in Zinn's Marx that it's almost as though he was conceived by this play, originally written in 1999. For a Londoner abroad, the text also offered a convincing description of that city in its mid nineteenth century guise, when notions of third world and first had yet to be developed.

The play is also an intriguing examination of the dramatic medium. Zinn's Marx tells us that his wife, Jenny, criticised him for not writing in a language the workers could necessarily understand. This past week I've discovered the cinema of the Bolivian filmmaker Sanjines. Who might describe himself as a Marxist, something which Marx in Soho has the philosopher reject as a concept. Sanjines' film, The Courage of The People employs a pared down narrative style, which some might accuse of being overly simplistic. However, he adopted this structure in order to ensure that the people about whom he was making cinema, (the miners and indigenous people of the Bolivian altiplano), felt included as spectators. Interestingly, his 1989 film, La Nacion Clandestina, made largely in Aymarac, employs a narrative structure which is so rooted in the Aymarac philosophy that it overlaps with the outer reaches of innovative modern narrative theory (time becomes non-linear; the past and the present co-exist). The screenplay might have been written by Nolan. At the same time the film still has a highly 'accessible' feel, as it takes the viewer into indigenous Bolivian culture in a way no other film I've seen even begins to.

Zinn's mission was to de-Marxify Marx, to shed him of the historical baggage which Marxism has appended to his work and his name. Whether Marx in Soho entirely succeeds in doing this depends to a large extent on how the play transcends its own origins in order to engage with the audience which Jenny championed, for example. With this in mind, it's a play which seems to come up against the buffers which insulate Western culture. Within the division between high and low culture which helps to consolidate the (capitalist) status quo, Marx in Soho quite clearly pertains to the high end of the spectrum. Quite how the dramatic artist/ writer breaks out of this straightjacket is hard to say, but perhaps the work of Sanjines offers some clues.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

ashes of the amazon [milton hatoum]

Hatoum’s novel falls between two stools. On the one hand it would appear to aspire towards the epic. The narrative is set primarily in Manaus, and the book charts the gradual transformation of the town through the latter part of the twentieth century from sleepy backwater towards tawdry metropolis. The more colourful waterfront barrios are torn down and replaced with anodyne housing estates. At the same time, the book’s anti-hero, Mundo, leaves Manaus, venturing first to Rio and then onto Berlin and finally, Brixton, in London.

However, alongside this overarching perspective, the writer seeks to create an intimate, off-key portrait of an artist. Mundo’s story is narrated by his friend, Lavo, to whom he might or might not be related. Born into wealth, Mundo is an innate rebel, who turns against his conservative father as he seeks to become an artist. (Intriguing the way in which the dissonant artist features so regularly as a figure in contemporary Latin American writing, Mundo taking his place alongside Alan Pauls’ maverick, amongst others.) Hatoum’s portrayal locates the roots of Mundo’s artistic urge in the desire to confront and reclaim something of the Amazon. His mother, Alicia, apparently emerged from the jungle alongside her mad sister, fully formed. His father has made his money from exploiting jute. Mundo aspires towards a connection with that which is being wiped out by modernity. His final demise occurs after he executes a piece of performance art in Rio, dressed as an Indian, carrying a canoe oar he’s kept hold of after being given it by an Indian boatman in the jungle, years before.

Mundo’s portrayal is intriguing, all the more so for being presented through the eyes of his poor friend who himself is gradually working his way up the social system by becoming a lawyer, a journey that will be the inverse of Mundo’s. However, the book’s intent to fulfil this duel role means that it sometimes feels that it’s neither fish nor foul. Mundo’s wanderings in Europe, for instance, are dealt with in a somewhat cursory fashion. In a way his story might be the obverse of Flyte’s in Brideshead. The wealthy heir who ends up slumming it in the first world, rather than the third. Perhaps because I might have known people like this, falling through the cracks in Europe, I hoped for more, but in spite of the book’s geographical detail (Atlantic Road/ Brixton Road etc), these passages feel skittish. Likewise the final post-dictatorship stages in the re-development of Manaus feel as though they are alluded to rather than fully conveyed. The book is much stronger at describing the world which has been lost, when Manaus still represented the hinge between the jungle and the immigrant.

Although this is perhaps ultimately a frustrating book, shining a light on a city which remains one of the great frontiers of modern man, as urbanity confronts the immemorial swathe of the Amazon, it still offers a fascinating insight into what Manaus used to be and what it has since become.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

velada metafísica de fernando gonzález (d. cristóbal peláez)

The Sala Verdi brings a season of Latin America theatre to Montevideo. First up is Teatro Matacandelas, from Medellin in Colombia. Theirs is a defiantly Brechtian theatre with a Victorian Gothic twinge. I can’t follow all of it. The story deals with a presumably fictional philosopher, Fernando Gonzalez. He stands for mayor and is rejected. He lives on the finca that will later belong to Pablo Escobar. He has a curious affair with a Frenchwoman when he spends time in Marseilles as a counsel.

Above and beyond the quixotic narrative, there’s a makeshift theatre practice at work. In much the same way as last night’s Henry 4/5 in the Solis, a chorus appears at the start urging the audience to use their imagination to convert the empty space into the valleys of Antioquia or a Mediterranean port. Harsh lights isolate spaces on the stage for the performers to inhabit. The acting has a heightened, declaratory hue. The philosopher barks out his thoughts, as do many of those he meets along the way. Scenes shift rapidly. Music starts to punctuate proceedings. About an hour in, things become more and more gothic. A version of the devil appears, bathed in red light, emanating a powdery glow. Later the whole of the Catholic church takes over. The theatre is bathed in incense and smoke. There’s so much smoke that the alarm goes off. But the philosopher’s oratory style drowns it out. There’s a deliberate sense of ramshackle chaos on stage. Jesus makes an appearance and you’ve got no idea what’s going to happen next. 

Teatro Matacandelas create a rough theatre out of nothing which appears to be influenced by Brecht, would be admired by Brook and yet also emanates out of the rhythms and customs of Medellin. It’s vibrant, non-naturalistic and full of the unexpected, even if to the non-native speaker there are moments which are plain baffling. The final words of Fernando González are read out by the whole cast in a hyped up final scene, books being ripped to pieces, like something out of a lost work by Blaise Cendras.