Friday, 29 November 2013

broken glass [alain mabanckou]

How does a writer come to prominence? Why is one selected and another not? The issue of ambition is one that underpins the history of literature, whether we like or not. There is, of course, a romantic notion that the cream always rises to the top. That greatness will out. However, the history of “great” literature is littered with figures whose worth was never appreciated in their day, from Clare to Kafka. On the other hand, it is also riddled with figures who convinced their contemporaries of their worth, only to find their stocks diminishing year by year with the passing of history.

That this issue should be raised in the context of  Mabanckou’s novel might seem unlikely. The novel adopts tropes associated with the African novel (episodic/ stream of consciousness) to weave a circuitous narrative around the figure of the book’s fictional author, the eponymous Broken Glass. The novel is in fact his notebook, as he documents the figures who people a downtown Congolese bar, Credit Gone West. These portraits are unsympathetic, even crude, composed in a relentless prose laden with scatological imagery. In the second part of the book, the narrator turns the spotlight on himself, revealing his own sorry story and descent into an alcoholic stupor.

Much of this, for anyone who has read any twentieth/ twenty first century African literature is rudimentary. In interviews, the author acknowledges a debt to Amos Tutuola, Ngũgĩ' and others. However, the author adopts a particular device of his own for his protagonist. His narrator is a disgraced teacher, an educated man. This education peppers the text, with direct and ongoing references to the history of literature, from Marquez to Zola. At times the novel becomes almost an intra-textual crossword, an act of bricollage, if one wanted to push the academic context further.

Which is where we come back to the theme of ambition. Mabanckou’s extravagant use of textual references, (as well as the somewhat self-conscious decision to dispense with the full stop), seems redolent of a writer proclaiming his presence upon the stage. There are various ways this could be interpreted. Firstly: the work of African literature sits within a context of the history of the novel which is all too often negated. Secondly: you might fail to take me seriously because of my origins (a justifiable complaint) but my erudition will demand your respect. Thirdly: mine is an African voice which the “western” reader can connect with.

Whichever is the right interpretation, this intertexuality would also seem to reveal the author’s ambition, an ambition that has propelled him to the forefront of the contemporary African literary scene. As the reader might have gleaned, the reviewer is unsure exactly what to make of Broken Glass, a novel which perhaps flatters to deceive, which at times seems to be more concerned with positioning itself than going about the business of being a novel. But at the same time, this is a writer with a serious intent, and it will be intriguing to see how Mabanckou’s literary career evolves.  

Friday, 15 November 2013

a splendid conspiracy [albert cossery]

A small town in Egypt. A group of disaffected young hedonists. All of them male. The suggestion that the police chief might arrest them on the basis that they are involved in a conspiracy to abduct or murder esteemed citizens. These are the ostensible ingredients of Cossery’s patchy novel, which has hints of The Secret Agent in its tone and content.

However, where Conrad pushed the absurdity towards a political/ tragic end, Cossery’s novel ends up dawdling towards nowhere in particular. Perhaps this is exactly what he sought to capture. The listlessness of youth. The self-indulgence of young males. Perpetuating the sleepy aimlessness of the country they inhabit.

Except that history has caught up with Egypt. Even, one suspects, the town of no-great-significance the novel describes. Perhaps, as much as anything religious or political, it is this very torpor which has come under attack. An impatience with a sense of pointlessness. Although one cannot help but suspect that the young men from A Splendid Conspiracy would not have been at the forefront of recent events. It’s a curious novel, which at once feels out of time, stuck in a by-way of the mid twentieth century, unaware that it’s describing a world on the brink of something else. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

la paz (w&d santiago loza)

Loza’s film oozes a lo-fi, 5D sensibility. It might be that it wasn’t filmed with the ubiquitous game-changing camera, but it shares the woozy, cinema verité style which the affordable technology permits. There’s hints of Rick Alvarez, not just in the camera style but also in La Paz’s episodic structure, with chapters introduced by terse headings: “moto” or “rio”.

The film also occupies the ground zero of Argentine filmmaking: the dysfunctional middle-class family. Visible in the work of Martel, earlier Trapero, and Mariano Cohn’s El Hombre de al Lado, to name a few. The protagonist is a disturbed young man, Liso, recovering from a nervous breakdown, living at home with his gun-toting businessman father and Oedipal mother. Liso doesn’t know what he wants and he doesn’t know how to get what he doesn’t want. His dad gives him money to sleep with a hooker who tells him he’s good-looking and he should get himself a proper girl. But an earlier scene with a former girlfriend hints at a darker side, something repeated when he sleeps with another ex, who he wakes up in dramatic fashion, in the grip of a deranged panic attack. The only thing which seems to offer Liso any kind of fresh air is the world of the Bolivian housemaid. The idea of ‘the other’ Latin America, latent within his own, gradually exerts a stronger and stronger pull. The film’s final sequence suggests that his recognition of this will prove to be his redemption.

The drama is always understated, with the story constructed out of moments observed as much as the joining of narrative dots. La Paz is essentially a character study, with Liso possessed by a Chekhovian listlessness which his own country cannot assuage. (There are hints of Veronese’s adaptations of Chekhov). It’s easy to drift with the film’s mellifluous rhythms, although there are moments when one cannot help thinking that the dreamy sensibility might have benefited from a slightly more rigorous approach within its scenic structure. The ending, for example, seems to come too easily, as Liso’s confusion and ambiguity is discarded in a brief scene in La Paz. As though the Bolivian poor’s raison d’etre is solely to provide Liso with the solution to his psychological problems. 

Monday, 4 November 2013

sister (d. ursula meier, w meier, antoine jaccoud, gilles taurand)

Ursula Meier’s first film was the high/low concept movie Home, about a family living beside a motorway, a curious blend of the cerebral and the emotional. On the one hand it appears to reference Godard’s Weekend or the work of Ballard. On the other it’s a study of the modern family and the extraordinary pressures it faces. It’s also one of those films where the conceit controls the narrative. A where-can-this-go-next kind of film.

Sister, her follow-up, has a different kind of feel. We’re in more traditional European art movie territory. It has been compared to the work of Dardennes brothers but this is also the neo-realist territory of Bicycle Thieves and its ilk. Meier locates her story (interestingly her credit is for ‘scenario’, thereafter working with other writers to flesh out the story and dialogue) within the world of the Swiss winter ski season. A brother and a sister live in a high rise block, below the gleaming peaks, and struggle to make ends meet. Simon, 12, has turned to petty theft. He steals anything from skis to goggles and sells them on at discount prices. Meanwhile his sister, Louise, who is in her early 20s, is something of a waster, going with random guys and unable to look after herself. It’s Simon’s criminal enterprise which keeps them afloat.

This premise immediately sets the film up for moments of exquisite tension, with the pint-sized Simon constantly on the point of getting caught. This strand is balanced by the development of his relationship with Louise, one that becomes ever more complex. At one point, he resorts to paying her for affection. In an uncomfortable scene, the 12 year old curls up in bed with her. These are characters for whom the distinction between maturity and immaturity barely exists: survival in their strange isolated world is all that matters. Until the final scenes, when Louise finally starts to take responsibility for both her own life and Simon’s.

All of this is told with an economy which ensures the narrative, surprises and all, moves along briskly. A couple of showy cameos are more or less seamlessly integrated and the acting of the two leads, Kacey Mottet Klein & Léa Seydoux is impeccable. Klein gives on of those astonishing performances which only children can, one which seems to almost transcend ‘acting’.The cinematography makes the most of the peaks and troughs of the mountain landscape, suggesting the way in which its geography maps on to human geology: those who bask in the white glory of the summit, where the cold is another luxury, are opposed to those condemned to the muddy trenches of the valleys.

Meier’s vision is perhaps reminiscent of the work of Jelinek, observing the way that those who inhabit the uplands, whilst ready to condemn Simon as a thief, have no scruples buying their bargains from him. Everyone is complicit in an amoral system. Beneath this observation lurks, perhaps, an icier critique. Why should some be granted the financial freedom to roam the beautiful peaks whilst others have to steal to get by. The moment when Simon seeks a hug from the idealised mother figure, Gillian Anderson, is the moment where the worlds collide. Here the social critique is fully rounded, as the audience roots for the thief and hopes that her victim can find it in her heart, and perhaps redeem herself, by forgiving him. It’s an affecting narrative moment in a impressively constructed film. 

Thursday, 31 October 2013

gebo and the shadow (w&d manoel de oliveira, w. raul brandão)

The writing credits for this film by the 104 year old Portuguese director feature de Oliviera himself and Raul Brandão, whose play the film adapts. In a manner not dissimilar from another veteran’s recent offering, Killer Joe, (although Friedkin is a stripling at the age of 78), this is an unadorned cinematic adaptation of a stageplay. The play tells the relatively simple story of an elderly man whose son returns after eight years, only to steal from him and leave. The action takes place over the course of 24 hours. Although ‘action’ is a somewhat misleading term.

The opening image is a beguiling, near-cubist framing of a boat at a jetty, in low light. From there, the camera takes us to a small, enclosed house, located within a network of alleys. We will only leave the house on a couple of occasions, and get no further than the corner of the street. The son, upon his return, observes his parents’ house populated by the grand old dames of European cinema, (Cardinale and Moreau, who has a scene-stealing cameo), and says it feels like a cemetery, or words to this effect. It’s hard to disagree with him: no-one under the age of 60 could hold out for too long here, and indeed half the audience of  a half-dozen walked out of the Cinemateca before the film had finished. The theft of his father’s savings offers a Dostoyevskian twist. It’s more or less warranted. Why should the elderly hang on by their bootstraps whilst the young have living to get on with? The son’s actions are shown to be immoral by his wife’s reaction, (she has lived with his parents during his absence and tries to stop him stealing), but if there is a parable at work within Gebo and the Shadow, then it would be the way in which Europe’s elderly generation has stockpiled wealth whilst much of its youth now flounders on the brink of poverty.

It’s hard to say if this subtext is something Oliviera and Brandao are seeking to express. If they were, then the retort might be that the oldsters should make way and free up resources for a younger cinematic generation. (According to IMDB the budget for the film was over 1.5 million euros.) There’s something staggeringly impressive in the way the filmmaker continues to work beyond the age of a hundred, but Gebo and the Shadow is not doing much to redefine the medium. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

C [tom mccarthy]

McCarthy's first novel dazzled. It took the nouveau roman, transposed it to Brixton, adorned it with a British sensibility and kicked some much needed life into the Anglo-Saxon novel. This is his follow-up. Where Remainder appeared to use Robbe Grillet as a model, here the predominant inspiration would appear to be Pynchon. So much so that C sometimes feels like a homage, to the similarly named V, or Gravity's Rainbow. Both in it's account of an unlikely hero traipsing across wartorn Europe and its relentless present tense.

There are worse writers to whom one might choose to pay homage. But C feels as though it is so self-consciously stepping into another’s footsteps that it never quite acquires an identity of its own. Instead, this feels like a book self-consciously in search of its raison d’etre.

There are frequent passages where the research is evident (into the life of a WW1 pilot, or post-war Egypt, for example), but all the research in the world cannot make C run. Whilst apparently a fractured narrative, skipping across the first decades of the 20th C in a series of precise chapters, its shape is clearly defined, tied as it is to the life of the book's protagonist, Serge Carrefax. Carrefax is something of an emotional vacuum, for reasons the reader understands, (his odd upbringing, his sister's suicide), but the fact that we understand doesn't help to make him interesting. Serge is a nerd whom the novel sometimes likes to suggest is on a covert mission through the semiotic warren of modern consciousness. He further he goes, the less interesting this becomes. Which might mean that his mission is a failure, or it might mean that the modern consciousness is fundamentally tedious.

As a result, C flatters to deceive, constantly hinting at hidden depths which are never plumbed. The same has probably been said of Gravity's Rainbow, only... one cannot say it with complete conviction. The Rainbow is so sprawling, so all-encompassing, that it might just contain the secret of the universe lodged within it. Which cannot be said for C. There are no hidden secrets. Serge listens to the airwaves in expectation but nothing arrives. The book has the feel of a shaggy dog story which gives itself away far too early.

Remainder suggested that McCarthy might be capable of redeeming the British novel, endowing it with what might be termed a European sensibility, welding playfulness to the prosaic glories of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. A detour via Pynchon is not such a bad way to go. But C feels like a staging post rather than a destination. It's a book which seems to be constantly searching for a reason to exist. The punchline, that it doesn't have one, does not quite convince. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

day of the oprichnik [vladimir sorokin]

When in Red Square, you notice that there are still copious quantities of Soviet stars adorning the walls and the turrets of buildings. The presence of the symbol seems as ubiquitous now as it must have been in the Soviet era. This is momentarily perplexing, until you learn that the Soviet Star has now been adopted by the military as their symbol. Thereby converting at a stroke what were multitudinous tributes to the Soviet state into multitudinous tributes to the Russian army.

This semiotic facility helps to explain the deceptive fluidity of Russian history, where one repressive system can be rapidly moulded into another, using the same techniques, personnel and symbols. Sorokin’s satirical novel, set in the future, engages with the way Russian political structures engage in eternal recurrence. This dystopian Russia is still repressive, still run by autocratic, corrupt apparatchiks. They are now subservient to a king and his royal family, rather than a President. The novel follows a day in the life of one of the elite ‘oprichniks’ as he gallivants around Moscow and the country indulging in dubious moral practices and a life of luxury. The contrast with Ivan Denisovich could not be much greater.

There’s nothing subtle about Sorokin’s writing. This is a most Swiftian of authors. He addresses the same territory as Pelevin, without the intellectual playfulness. Where reading Pelevin feels like participating in a fencing match, reading Sorokin feels like taking part in a Greco-Roman wrestling bout. It’s nasty, physical, sweaty and lacking any sense of emotional involvement. At the same time, his writing is frequently gripping and always enjoyably warped.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

a visit from the goon squad [jennifer egan]

Goon Squad is a dazzling novel, which flips around in time like a dolphin, with a similar degree of grace and look-at-me chutzpah. After having read it, I later discovered that its reputation is already well established. It won its author the Pulitzer Prize and HBO are in talks to turn it into a mini-series.

From Egan’s point of view that’s undoubtedly a good thing. All the same, I’m glad I discovered it without the hype. (Still not all that big in Montevideo, so far as I can tell.) When it came out it was compared directly with Franzen’s Freedom, a book she says, in an interview, she has yet to read; she’ll wait until the hype has died down. Hype compels the reader into taking a standpoint not merely with regard to the novel but also the novel’s reception. (Or the film’s or the song’s etc). For anyone wary of the literary establishment, its approval is a double edged sword. In that context it’s worth knowing that Egan claims to have yomped through years of rejection, that this is no overnight success.

You can see why the book has been struck a chord. It manages to capture an urban overview of the years 1980-2010. The novel is set in New York; San Francisco; a safari in Africa, Naples. But predominantly New York. The fractured narrative (natch) leaps backwards and forwards, riffing like a jazz tune, as it follows first one character then another as they dance through time. Part of the fun of the book is never knowing where you’re going next, whose journey you’re going to be dipping into. The presence or absence of the twin towers is dealt with more effectively and elliptically than in any other work of post-911 literature I’ve come across. These New Yorkers have a frame of reference which is not so very different to a Londoner’s. The music they listen to, the dreams they carry around with them, the disappointments and satisfactions of age. The characters reminded me of people I have known, feelings I have had, none more so than when a group of young New Yorkers find themselves out all night, pushing through to the tragic dawn.

As such, Goon Squad has the feeling of being a touchstone for a generation. It has hints of Pynchon in its sometimes euphoric prose and the name of one of the lead characters, but perhaps more than anything it is reminiscent of another New York novel, albeit one which is on some levels very different, James Baldwin’s Another Country. This comparison perhaps also suggests the book’s Achilles Heel. Where Baldwin’s novel was posited within a radical discourse, Egan’s feels thematically weightless. There is no ‘political’ anchor. (Small P). The final two chapters of the book, both situated in a future where climate change appears to have become an even more dominant issue than it is now, are the first where the novel’s episodic approach starts to feel hollow. These excursions into the what-might-be feel weak in comparison to Egan’s insight into the what-has-been. The resonances of objects; of personal effect and affect as we span the years; this is where the writing feels most vital. The decisions made in adolescence which will shape the span of one’s life for decades.

Monday, 23 September 2013

the briefcase/ strange weather in tokyo [hiromi kawakami]

So, I’m going to pitch you the latest. It’s about a woman who is in her late thirties. She likes a drink. She’s not an alcoholic, but she likes a drink. She’s lonely. We don’t know much about why. She hangs out in bars. Drinks beer on her own. One day she runs into her old teacher. He’s in his sixties. They have a drink together. His wife ran off and left him. He’s lonely too. They have this friendship. And she starts seeing another guy. But then she realises she’s falling for the professor. They have this “in-sync” relationship. I know you’re thinking it’s kind of creepy. He’s almost old enough to be her granddad. I know you’re thinking all that. But it’s not like that. It’s quirky. It’s irreverent. It’s engaging. They’re engaging characters. You’re just being politically correct. And anyway. Wait for it. They’re Japanese. That makes a difference. You’re already subtly altering your cultural framework, I can see that. You’re thinking, if I decide that this narrative, this story, this mise-en-scene, is a bit creepy, then am I being, even ever so mildly, am I being racist? Is my political correctness not so politically correct? And I’m going to give you something else. This book, Strange Weather in Tokyo – yeah, they changed the title, it’s written by a woman. Not just any woman. One of the major writers in contemporary Japanese culture. So now you’re doing a swift 180. I can see that. I can understand. The original title? The Briefcase. Yeah, that is creepy. I mean, that’s a creepy title. It’s all he leaves her. There’s nothing in it. He’s not a creep. No. No way. They like beer and saki and food and it’s healthy. You need to switch that mindset. That Hoboken, Harrods Food Hall, Hanif Kureshi mindset. Stranger things have happened. Yeah the cover photo is a bit of a soft-sell. Pretty girl floating in space. No. Really. It’s a very subtle piece of writing. About interiority. I don’t know. I made it up. I don’t know if it’s a real word. It probably is in Japanese. No I don’t speak the language. Change your mindset. Get with the program. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

the gentle art of tramping [stephen graham]

This 1927 tome is a softly spoken meditation on the joys of ‘tramping’. It comes from the epoch of Chaplin and Ragged Trousered Philanphropist, as well as having rural echoes of Benjamin’s urban flaneur. Other points of reference are the Wandering Jew, the hobo, On The Road, the shwami. The tramp is a man whose material possessions, though enumerated and valued, are few. What he has he carries with him. Graham outlines the significance of the book, the coffee pot, the blanket and the other accoutrements of the road. But none of these should impede which is the tramp’s most valuable possession, his liberty.

There’s something fascinating about the tone of Graham’s book. It has a knowing, urban air. There’s a conscious romanticism at work. His tramp is not some skin-and-bone figure desperate for his next meal. As much as this tramp might be said to hark back to a pre-industrial landscape, s/he might also be linked to the modern backpacker. Graham’s walking took him to the US, Russia, Mexico and large swathes of Europe. He was a bounty hunter searching for experience. There’s the assumption of a surplus wealth which allows the tramp to select his adventures, to dip in and out.

Graham’s book tallies with a new, contemporary interest in man’s relationship with the natural world, apparent in the writing of the likes of Macfarlane but also the ‘living-with-nature’ television of Mears or Grills. Modernity is clinging on to the very notion of nature, scared it will be swept away forever by our treasured ‘digital revolution’. We don’t seem to need nature much anymore. Yet we can’t help suspecting that we’re missing out on something through its gradual annihilation. Which could go hand in hand with a terrible revenge, caused by our neglect and disrespect. Graham’s tome prefigures this crisis, but does so in a jaunty way, at a time when melting icecaps and global warming were not even conceived. Nature is still bountiful, the fruits and berries there to be plucked. So this is a book which sings of another age, whilst hinting at our own.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

the golden scales [parker bilal]

Parker Bilal's novel is a detective story, set in contemporary Egypt. The book's Sudanese hero, Makana, has been thrown out of his own country and seeks to get by in Cairo as a private detective. His Chandleresque lineage is evident. Bilal depicts Cairo as a kind of LA of the East, a nexus which drags in not merely Egyptians and Sudanese, but also Brits, Russians, Italians. Egyptian society operates on a pivot between Islamic extremism and hedonistic European capitalism, both of which compete for position and influence. Perhaps this conflict is the one balanced in the scales of the book's title. A key event is the bombing of a Red Sea resort by Jihadists. Only, Bilal astutely locates this supposed act of geo-political war within the context of personal vendetta and misplaced egos. The implication is that of history as cock-up rather than conspiracy, something the world-weary Makana adroitly understands.

The detective novel is a fine surgical tool for getting under the skin of a society. The Golden Scales takes us into the Jihadi's den and the capitalist's penthouse. Along the way we are offered an insight into Egyptian society that the media, for all the coverage the country has received in the past few years, cannot hope to emulate. In addition, in the tradition of the best detective novels, it provides a riveting read as the reader roots for Makana in his quest to discover the whereabouts of the wonderfully monickered Adil Romario, a playboy footballer who has vanished without trace. 

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

a month in the country [j l carr]

Carr’s book deceived me. It’s a title that lurks in a somewhat unspecified fashion as a minor classic of c20th British literature. I came across a reference to it in an academic history of the British countryside in the 20th Century. The book deals with the immediate aftermath of the Great War, as its protagonist, Birkin, recovering from shellshock and a marriage broken by the war, heads to North Yorkshire to work on restoring a medieval fresco in a village church.

The story is slight, at a mere 100 pages or so, and atmospheric, rather than driven by plot. In the isolated village, under an August sun, Birkin gradually recuperates. He strikes up a friendship with an archaeologist, falls for the vicar’s wife, and discovers a centuries-old mystery snared in the images the church fresco reveals. All of this is told in an understated, nostalgic prose. The events which Birkin experiences are less significant than the way in which they contribute to his recovery. The book is an artful paean, which makes reference to Houseman and Elgar. There is a pleasantly multi-cultural surprise in the revelation of the fresco’s mystery. But above all it is a homage to a lost time and place, an England where villages still had the feel of a hobbit’s shire, where it was possible to feel oneself lost in its bounty.

Carr’s deceit, I learnt upon concluding the book, is that it is a text written in the latter half of the twentieth century, by a man who was born during the course of the 1st World War. A Month in the Country is unembroidered fiction. Any documentary pretensions are merely that. Nevertheless, it succeeds in convincing, perhaps because of its slightly ad hoc approach, that the author or narrator indeed lived during that time in that England, a time when the rupture of the future was on the cusp of being finalised, destroying a way of life which had subsisted for centuries, not quite ended yet, the past clinging on by its fingernails.

Monday, 2 September 2013

just between us (w&d rajko grlic, w ante tomic)

Just Between Us is a dry comedy which owes a lot to Schnitzler’s matchless La Ronde, as it follows the fortunes of a group of people all of whom are, according to their respective degrees of seperation, romantically involved with one another. At the script’s heart is the character of Nikola, played by the charismatic Predrag Manojlovic. He is a wealthy married man who leads a double life, with a long-term lover and child living in the same city. He visits her when he is supposed to be abroad on business trips, and their shared joke is that they are in Munich or Oslo or Dubai, or wherever it is he has claimed to be.

There’s something slightly tenuous about this and the narrative often has the feeling of having been fleshed out with the use of Venn Diagrams or an Excel Spreadsheet. Of greater interest, perhaps, is the way in which the film offers a sideways and warm-hearted look at life in the Croatian capital. The angst of the nineties is hinted at, when Nikola mentions how he had to flee to the States, but now these characters are thoroughly integrated into a modern (pre-crash) Europe. The apolitical nature of the film seems almost a declaration of intent: we too can make fuzzy romantic comedies, along the lines of Hollywood or Richard Curtis.

Manojlovic played the father in Kustirica’s When Father Was Away On Business, before the nation state of Croatia even existed. His doleful face seems to carry the wear and tear of history, but it’s all below the surface, hidden away in a locked drawer in his character’s designer apartment. Now that history is done and dusted, serious time can be dedicated to frolicking and romantic escapades; the eternal wheel of duplicitous shenanigans can resume its remorseless grind. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

the return [bolaño]

Another volume from the posthumous pen of. What to make of this collection, ripped from two volumes published in Spanish, Putas Asesinas and Llamadas Telefonicas?

I have no idea when these stories were written within the timeframe of the Bolano oeuvre. My hazard-a-guess would be they come from towards the end, rather than the beginning. The author starts to show a fascination with more colourful “characters”. Porn stars, footballers, a Parisian playboy, fashion designers. It might be that these stories, which seem dependent to a certain extent on the exoticism of their characters’ professions, do not work as effectively as those which adopt either a more neutral protagonist, or, the classical Bolanian trope, either a writer or the writer’s alter-ego. Belano or Bolaño appears in several of the stories. When he does it reminds us of what a skill it is to construct a self-referential protagonist without this seeming whimsical or self-indulgent. All too often, this device will lead (pace Amis) to something clunky and unconvincing. But when Bolaño makes an appearance in one of his own stories the voice, the turn of phrase, feels completely authentic. Of course, it is a voice from beyond the grave, but it almost feels as though the text was indeed written from that vantage point, the high peaks of death. One of the stories, The Return, is told by a dead man, but oddly the dead man’s voice here is less compelling than the dead voice of the author. Even though this is also the author’s voice and even though in the moment of writing the author was not, we imagine, actually dead.

Writing is by definition a self-indulgent process. The wife of a writer friend of mine once turned on him, telling him it was all masturbation. It’s a regular attack and, when the writer isn’t getting paid for their troubles, one that is not ungrounded. The writer plunges into the morass of their own mind, hoping to emerge with gems which, for some unknown reason, might be of interest to others. This is as much an urge as a skill, more an addiction than a virtue. What’s so beguiling about Bolaño is that the reader knows this is not a man who wrote for money  or even for fame. He wrote because he obeyed the compulsion to write, something that is detached from the industry of writing, an industry which includes the whole paraphernalia of criticism. That compulsion, shaped and honed through both practice and the act of reading, lead to the unlikely event of his books sitting in your hand, or your digital device. There might be thousands of Bolaños out there, unread, undiscovered, drowned under the weight of their unrecognised words. It is worth bearing in mind that, although his success is not entirely posthumous, it is largely so. Right up until the beginning of the end, this is someone who wrote into the void, unafraid, refusing to be silenced by the absence of an echo that might have marked the point which defined the writing’s raison d’etre.

The last story here is an account of a dream, a dream wherein he meets the poet Enrique Lihn. The story states that the dream took place in ’99. Lihn died in ’98. Lihn is therefore a ghost, although ghosts are allowed to roam free in our dreams, whilst real life ordains they remain on the other side of the crepuscular surface of ‘reality’. The story doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s just an account of a dream. It mentions the fate of another five authors who Lihn once nominated as the future voices of Chilean literature, once upon a time, all of whom have either died or seen their stars fade. What is the point of this story, this dream? It doesn’t possess the classical virtues of a well-rounded story. Yet it marks a completely satisfying conclusion to the collection of short stories. Because this is a ghost writing about a ghost. Who was also a writer. Literature, for all its masturbatory tendencies, is a death defyer. The writer, from the cocoon of his absence, maintains a presence. The universe of literature, just like the literature of dreams, resists the supposed laws of physics. The writers egotistical I triumphs. Bolaño, one feels in his writing, had a grasp of this, much as Homer or whoever else one wants to name did. Those writers who are not so much charging over the precipice of their society, as most do, for fame or fortune, but charging over the precipice of mortality. An altogether more audacious, Quixotian endeavour.

Monday, 12 August 2013

the last cowboys at the end of the world [nick reding]

The travel book is a strange beast. Of late I’ve enjoyed Stasiuk’s poeticised wanderings around the Eastern European hinterland. However, all too often, travel writing allows for someone connected enough to the publishing industry to fly in, sample a culture, offer their opinion, however well educated, and move on. Travel writing as an extension of the Sunday supplement. This tends to lead to an account which says more about the writer’s own culture than it does about the cultures he or she have chosen to visit.

Reding’s book is nothing like this. It would be harsh to even describe it as travel writing, although it recounts his journeys to Chilean Patagonia in the nineties. It reads more like a novel. Both on account of the engrossing narrative and also for the way in which this narrative succeeds in encapsulating the arresting, harsh changes which “progress” brings in its wake. Which is another way of saying that it touches on the grand themes of history post the industrial revolution, an ongoing revolution whose reach grows ever more pervasive as the world shrinks.

The book recounts Reding’s stays with a Chilean Gaucho, Duck (or Pato) and his wife, Edith, and their three children. Pato and his family live an isolated life which is not much different to the one lead for hundreds of years by gauchos in the Southern cone of South America. It’s a harsh life which Reding does his best not to sentimentalise. For all the beauty of the relationship with nature and the dignity of an existence which does not depend on possessions, it is also a life beset by boredom, superstition and alcohol. Duck possesses the kind of cowboy charisma which Hollywood stars aspire to. He can ride a herd through mountain passes, butcher a ewe in the flash of an eye and cope with anything mother nature wants to throw at him.

Only things are not quite what they seem. Were this the standard fare of travel writing we would be given a homily to gaucho life and its nobility and the writer would move on. Reding stays. He witnesses Pato’s alcoholic binges and the slow decline of his relationship with Edith. But even more heartbreakingly, he documents the way in which both tire of their rural idyll, with dreams of moving to the nearest town, Coihaique, a town which has been transformed by the arrival of Pinochet’s road. The hardship of living on the land proves too much and they leave. Knowing, in their heart of hearts, that the town is liable to destroy them. Just as the arrival of paved roads and later the internet, (the book hints, even if it was written before the digital revolution really took off), will end up destroying the itinerant gaucho existence. The gauchos, Reding seems to suggest, have become anachronistic. Modernity will change farming methods and destroy the very isolation that has helped to preserve their way of life. A way of life that Reding seeks to document, aware that it is ebbing away.

Hence the decision of Pato and his family to move to the town mirrors the societal changes that are occurring in Southern Chile. Although Reding has noted the downsides of their rural life, there is still something desperate about seeing humans stripped of their savage independence by the onset of progress. It may be a choice that Duck and Edith make themselves, but it is also clear they cannot fight history. The last line of the book, one that is self-consciously understated, comes like a hammer blow, a terrible vengeance on the part of modernity, that devil, for anyone who seeks to stand in the way of the road it is driving through nature.

Reding does the job of a historian and a novelist. He captures the dying of a light which few cared about in the first place. It is a beautiful, terrible story, one which succeeds in telling us as much about the shape the world has chosen to take as it does about the gauchos, their myths and their fading, compromised glory. The only question the book cannot answer is to what degree his own arrival, like the bearded white men of yore,  contributed to the changes in the perspectives of Duck and Edith. There is a hint of guilt, which is only to writer’s credit. He too is part of the destructive wave of change coming to Patagonia. As the tale unwinds you can smell the melancholy that cloaks the writer’s words.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

television [jean-philippe toussaint]

Television is another novel which inhabits the curious novella/ journal territory which seems increasingly popular at the edge of the latest modernist universe.

You, the reader, will accompany me as I take you on a stroll through my curiously disinteresting life. Which is nevertheless full of interesting details. In this instance, I am going to tell you about the monograph on Titian for which I have received a grant which permits me to spend the Summer in Berlin whilst my wife and kids are away but which I cannot motivate myself to write so instead I write about not writing it. Whilst also detailing my solitary adventures as a nudist bather, killing my neighbours' plants and generally not doing what I know I ought to be doing.

You might find it droll. You might find my observations on the role of television in contemporary life incisive. You might not. It doesn’t matter all that much. It’s only a novel after all. I don’t know if I am either droll or incisive. I might be. Sooner or later my wife will return and life will get back to normal and the time of this novel, called television, will have expired. A bit like a television program, in fact. Although I didn’t say that. You did.

I, the writer, not of the novel but of this review of the novel, if indeed it is a review of what can only barely be called a novel, have to confess that in this instance, I did find Toussaint and his meandering prose droll. At times I would even go so far as to say that it was even very funny. However, I would also say that Toussaint could be said to have succeeded in his ambition to create a commentary on the disposable role of television within a disposable society, because when I concluded the book, when I turned it off, it vanished from my mind almost as rapidly as, in the words of Mr Jagger, yesterday’s papers. Though not quite as rapidly. So perhaps it’s not like television after all. Perhaps the additional nano seconds are what make it literature. Entertaining literature, albeit disposable literature. But wasn’t literature once the equivalent of television? Before they had television? Maybe television is only literature in disguise. Or vice versa. And what about Titian? 

Thursday, 25 July 2013

pies en la tierra (w&d mario roberto pedernera)

The disability film has always been ripe for exploitation. There is little an actor likes more than to don the cloak of the handicapped. Knowing that he or she has already stolen a march on the public's emotions. All too often this results in a pornography of the disabled. The audience adopts the position of the voyeur.

So it is with trepidation that we watched the opening sequence of the Pedernera’s Pies En La Tierra, showing the mumbling, wheelchair-bound Juancho as he goes about his daily struggle. He gets by looking after a roadside shack which primarily sells fish, caught by a young acolyte. To return to the home he shares with his aged mother, he has to go cross country and then downriver by boat. The shack they share is rundown and as basic as basic gets. Juancho mumbles a lot about what a lovely day it's going to be tomorrow. Then his mother dies and he sets out on a trip, just him and his wheelchair, heading off into the unknown, in search of a distant cousin.

The moment it became clear that this was a film which might truly get under the skin of its central character, rather than exploiting him, was when the camera captures Juancho’s purely instinctual decision to leave. In the moment, once the decision has been taken, we can see there’s no turning back. Thereafter, the film is on effortlessly strong ground. Juancho, his wheelchair and a dog that decides to accompany him, are all alone in the middle of nowhere, Argentina. Anything could happen, and the film is not afraid to play on this tension, notably in a sequence where he loses his wheelchair. His progress is painstaking and perilous and utterly compelling.

This is a road movie and there are clear echoes of several similar films. The Straight Story; Las Acacias, Sorin's Camino de Dan Diego, even Sallas’ The Motorcycle Diaries. In common with Sallas’ Che tale, it is unafraid to examine the more spiritual aspects of the narrative. But where Sallas sought to create a hagiography of Che as he moved through an indigent Latin American landscape, Pedernera emphasises his protagonist’s weakness, and the strength of those he meets. When Juancho hooks up with a charismatic Christian folk singer who encourages him to come out of his shell, (a terrific performance from Carlos Belloso), the film’s spiritual element becomes even more overt. The film rises to the challenge, creating a moment of astonishing lyricism which manages to fuse Belloso’s Christian rock with an outdoor cinema screening and Juancho’s gradually perceived need to finally come to terms with his disability.

The mumbling incoherence of the beautifully acted Juancho (Francisco Cataldi) inverts the tradition of the eloquent disabled outsider, thereby placing at the heart of the film a completely believable portrait of a man who knows he has to overcome, but who isn’t sure what he has to overcome or how he’s supposed to do it.

Pies en La Tierra is now on release in Argentina. It was by pure chance that I caught the film. But one can only hope it achieves the recognition it deserves. It’s rare to stumble upon a film and find yourself captivated, but first-time director Pedernera has pulled off something remarkable.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

a tomb for boris davidovich [danilo kis]

I was first introduced to the joys of what is probably termed “world” literature within the UK when I used to go into the bookshop at Winchester as a teenage schoolboy. I had an account there, for some reason, and I was able, if I did so responsibly, to spend my grandfather’s money on books. The books which caught my attention, which got me really reading, were the Picadors. With their perfect spines. Calvino, Brautigan, Pynchon, Marquez. Picador were, at that time, the publisher which opened the doorway to an international library. I still have many of those books, stashed away in boxes at my parents’ home. One day they will come out and strut their stuff again, perhaps.

I thought about Picador, reading Kis’ fractured novel/ short story collection. The more you read, the more you start to wonder about the editorial choices of publishing houses. This is not necessarily a criticism of Picador who did and still do a good job, but Kis is one of those authors whose work seems to have been crying out to be published and be better known, not just now but thirty years ago. This book was originally published in 1976. Solzhenitsyn garnered the prizes, justifiably so, for his immense works about the Soviet empire. But Kis’ book offers a drier, more measured corrective. Here he presents seven characters, from varied backgrounds, all of whom will founder on the rock of Stalinism. The seven characters all have their flaws as well as their virtues. All are stout adherents to the political philosophy which will ultimately destroy them. This fact lends an instant level of pathos to their stories. Furthermore, it means that Kis surgically unmasks the realities of Stalinism, something which in his native Serbia, like much of the rest of the world, was a truth people were still reluctant to face.

The absence of rancour in Kis’ prose and the obvious pleasure he takes in writing, ensure that this never feels like a judgmental book. It is a scalpel, rather than a hammer (or a sickle), making sly incisions in its subject’s flesh. Coming from a Communist state himself, the clarity of his thought would seem to suggest, (as perhaps in the early work of another Yugoslav, Kustirica), that Communism is a system which should not be entirely damned, if it can produce minds like this. The elegance of the links which hold the book together, the stories criss-crossing, implying a novel which is barely there, matches the beauty of the writing. It feels worthwhile quoting from the titular story, as this passage both sums up the premise of Kis’ book and also shows off his remarkable talent:

“The ancient Greeks had an admirable custom: for anyone who perished by fire, was swallowed by a volcano, buried by lava, torn to bits by beasts, devoured by sharks, or whose corpse was scattered by vultures in the desert, they built so-called cenotaphs, or empty tombs, in their homelands; for the body is only fire, water or earth, whereas the soul is the Alpha and Omega, to which a shrine should be erected.”

It is a mystery to me why this writer is not more widely known. Perhaps there is something ephemeral about his work. He lacks the great lumpen-novel to which greatness is so frequenly ascribed. But Kis demonstrates a subtlety and a rigour which denotes him as one of the finest chroniclers of that historical footnote, Eastern European Communism, as well as belonging to a vanguard, alongside the likes of Cortazar, for a new literature which is both more personal and more oblique. One where the voice of the author bristles, but whose stories resist the grand narrative arcs so frequently demanded by the Western literary tradition. 

Monday, 22 July 2013

io sono li (w&d andrea segre, w. marco pettenello)

Immigration is and will remain a hot topic. Where once the treatment of this theme on Europe was radical, it has now become tepid and somewhat conservative, a favourite of funders on the euro film circuit. There is little that is innovative, stylistically or from a narrative point of view, in Segre's film; it's not breaking down any aesthetic boundaries. Nevertheless, it exhibits the virtues of a simple story well told.

Recounting the history of Li, a Chinese immigrant in Italy, the film centres on her relationship with Bepi, a fisherman/poet who is getting on in years and is himself an immigrant, from Yugoslavia, albeit he is now so integrated within the community you would never guess. Their friendship creates problems for both of them. Conservative Italian society struggles to accept a man in his sixties enjoying a platonic relationship with the younger Chinese woman; whilst the Chinese community believes that Li is causing trouble and threatens to annul the savings she has made which will eventually allow her son to join her. In the end she is forced to sacrifice her friendship with Bepi in order to ensure her son can come, something he can do nothing about. 

All of this is told in a cinematic language which is efficient and constrained. The filmmaker makes good use of location. Most takes place in quayside bar which Li is sent to run. When the quay floods, so does the bar. On her first and apparently only day off, Li takes a trip to nearby Venice, filmed with a suitable absence of panache. This is not Europe experienced through the tourist's eye, but through the worker's. Segre's film lacks the visceral power of the work of Fatih Akin, for example. Nevertheless, within its own terms it is a quietly effective tale of inter-continental friendship, with charismatic performances from the film's twin leads, Tao Zhao and Rade Serbedzija. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

the setting sun [osamu dazai]

Donald Keene’s excellent introduction to Dazai’s book offers some insight into the nature of the enfant terrible author, who drowned himself at the age of 39, his books scandalising his society and marking the moment  of a shift in the cultural paradigm as Japan began to embrace what might retrospectively be termed ‘modernity’.

Like many a ground-breaking text, The Setting Sun is somewhat schematic. Kazuko, the daughter of impoverished aristocrats, joins her elderly mother as they relocate to a poor house in the countryside. Her brother Naoji returns from war in the South Pacific to renew his dissipated life, recklessly spending any money the family has left. Most of the novel is narrated from Kazuko’s perspective. She is a fascinating character, in so far as she appears to embrace her change in circumstances and the debasement of her nobility. This permits her to enter into a near-fantasy world where she offers herself to her brother’s even more dissolute and cynical friend as his lover, in spite of the fact their relationship has been tangential, to say the least.

Dazai captures a world not so far removed from that of Sebastian Flyte, where the removal of the security of wealth contributes to an existential crisis of morality. Kazuko is a great reader of French and other European literature. At one point she reads Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Introduction to Economics’. The economics leaves her cold but, she writes, “as I read this book I felt a strange excitement… the sheer courage the writer demonstrated in tearing apart without any hesitation all manner of conventional ideas”. Dazai places Kazuko on the brink of existentialism: these characters could easily have come out of a novel by Camus.

The term ‘globabalisation’ has been bandied around a great deal since the emergence of the internet. It’s sometimes easy to forget that literature has been playing the same role, perhaps with more profundity, since the invention of the printing presses and before. Dazai’s novel is testament to the way in which the changes in Japanese society were not caused by the events of World War 2 and its aftermath. The war merely consolidated developments which had already been unleashed, with the whole structure of society, moral, hierarchical and financial, already in flux.

Monday, 15 July 2013

lola (w&d fassbinder, w. peter märthesheimer, pea fröhlich)

We were ten minutes late for the start of the movie. Caught up in the exaggerated emotional morass that every creature, from newt to orang utang, occasionally finds itself stuck in. Fassbinder's colours, as a result, were perfect. Lit with deep melodramatic shades, suggesting a land where everything is overblown and heightened. The pacing of the storytelling was similar, a kind of hop-skip-and-a-jump approach, breathy scenes accumulating like cumulonimbus, the narrative a set of dominoes lined up and falling over, one after another.

All of which created a cinematic tone which did not feel entirely comfortable, pitched somewhere between soap opera and social realism. However, this slight awkwardness or discomfort was perfect for our state of mind, which might not have been able to cope with anything too measured. The film billowed along like a schooner, its more laconic social critique occasionally peeping through like the moon on a scuddy, clouded night. It never felt close to being unimpeachably brilliant filmmaking, but the director's spicy palate always had sufficient to keep the viewer along for the ride, wanting to learn Lola's ultimate fate, wanting the hypocritical mask to be ripped off post-war Germany's complacent face.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

my two worlds [sergio chejfec]

Chejfec's novel is a simple steam of consciousness tale.  It is narrated by someone who might well be the author himself. A man approaching 50 who is a writer, visiting a literary festival in a southern Brazilian town. He goes for a walk in a park in that town, a town he does not know, and the novel is the story of that walk. In reality, very little happens on this walk: it is in effect a coat-hanger, a literary device which allows him to present his observations and aperçus on this thing called life.  

There is nothing ground breaking about this.  The author's fluid prose follows in the footsteps of Bernhard, Robbe-Grillet or, more recently, Sebald or Teju Cole. The narrative consists of a sequence of underwhelming events, with no surprises. What this style of writing does achieve is that it takes the reader inside the writer's brain. Chejfec's brain, which I occupied whilst flying South from New York to Montevideo over the course of what seemed like a thousand years, was not an unpleasant to be, but at the same time, in spite of Vila-Matas' eulogistic preface, I cannot say that it was a particularly revelatory space either. 

Saturday, 13 July 2013

blood from the sky [piotr rawicz]

Piotr Rawicz committed suicide at the age of 60. Suicide is often seen as a desperate, tragic event, but to those who survived the Holocaust, such as Levi, Borowski  and more, perhaps it felt like a blessing to be able to have dominion over the moment of your death, unlike so many others. Blood From the Sky does not deal with Rawicz’s time in the camps. Rather it follows the misadventures of his alter-ego, Boris, as he seeks to escape the Nazi net as Jews were rounded up in his native Ukraine.

Boris is atypical. He’s blond. He doesn’t look Jewish and has few problems passing himself of as a native Ukrainian. He is a descendant of aristocratic stock and has reserves of cash. As the whole of his town is rounded up, he escapes with a girlfriend. It’s made clear that Boris is not a one-woman man, something that gives his relationship with the understandably jealous Naomi even more pathos.  Together they drift around the country, getting by, constantly moving on, before Boris is finally picked up and identified as a Jew through the absence of a foreskin.

The book is split into three parts. The first takes place in Boris’ hometown, where the horrors are a blend of Artaud and Kafka, the flip side of Litttel’s The Kindly Ones. There, we are also offered an insight into the world which is in the process of being annihilated, with flashbacks to Boris’ louche youth. It’s an unromantic account. Boris spares no-one as he describes how people were happy to deceive themselves as they scrambled for the right to survive, only later finding out the worthlessness of money or influence. The second section of the book deals with his peregrinations through the country, and the last is the account of his arrest.

One wonders why this work of Holocaust literature is not better known. There must be reasons why Rawicz’s novel has not been praised in the same way as the work of Levi, remaining obscure. It may well have something to do with the unsettling, semi-cynical tone of the book. At times Blood from the Sky truly reads like a horror movie. It has moments which are grotesque, blood-curdling. The nobility the reader might hope to find in order to lend a retrospectively life-affirming slant to events is more or less absent. Instead, the author delights in subverting his anti-hero, Boris, a subversion he himself joins in with. The irony that his whole fate depends on the presence or absence of a foreskin is not lost on him, with two of the chapters being titled “The Tool and the Art of the Comparison” and “The Tool and the Thwarting of Comparison”. There’s a grittiness to Rawicz’s prose which refutes sentimentality and refuses to let the reader settle. The author appears to be fully conscious of the degree to which his experiences have damaged him, and wants the reader to sense this through his complex prose and unyielding capacity to look the horror straight in the eye.

The further it recedes into history, the more the Holocaust emerges as a sign, or a symbol, one which can be appropriated at will be storytellers (see Scorsese, Benigni etc). All to often, this leads to a dissolution of the reality of what happened. (Something Littel’s novel was clearly seeking to counteract). Rawicz’s neglected novel shakes the reader out of their comfort zone. It feels as though it is almost written in spite of itself. At one point, early in the book, Boris is told by his community leader that he has a duty to act as a witness to events, and the book honours that call to duty. However, this is a writer who also seems conscious of the absurdity of trying to write about what he has witnessed. There is a paradox in that, in the act of documenting, the storyteller inevitably reduces events, converting them from the real to signs on a piece of paper, signs which can never do justice to that which has been lived. Hence, Rawicz both accepts and reacts against the role of witness. He guards his right to cynicism in order to retain his individuality in the face of the machine which sought to annihilate it. Perhaps the choice of a suicide, exercised by so many survivors, was a similar act of paradoxical self-affirmation. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

dukla [stasiuk]

Dukla has a lot in common with The Road to Babadag. There is an underlying theme which is the writer's repeated visits over the years to the same small town, Dukla, observing how it and himself have changed as the years pass by. But it is also a discursive, rambling treatise, that examines the nature of light, the relationship of light to place, the relationship of perceiving light to being human.

The book ends with a series of cameos about the  village which are almost Carveresque. But these also show why Stasiuk's writing is more effective when unfettered, free to roam. The shorter format appears to curb his instincts. It's the very process of getting lost with him, in his prose, which makes the experience of reading Stasiuk so rich. In comparison to Road to Babadag, Dukla is like a starter, an entree.

the king of marvin gardens (w&d bob rafelson, w. jack brackman)

The opening is so masterly, establishing such a potent link between its star and its audience, that perhaps it comes as no surprise that the film which then follows fails to live up to it. The opening is Nicholson telling a dark, unlikely story about his grandfather. He's speaking on the radio, something we do not initially realise, and the bond between actor and public is mesmeric. The film then opens up to reveal his down-at-heel life, shared with the same grandfather. Nicholson is charismatic and damned by his unknown demons. It looks as though the movie will be a follow-up to 5 Easy Pieces, another gripping character study. 

But then it takes a jagged turn, switching to Atlantic City, where Nicholson's brother, Bruce Dern, is just getting out of prison. Dern is a freewheeling, on-the-make hustler, with dreams of setting up his own enterprise in Hawaii. He's involved with the local crime syndicate and also has a curious ménage a trois with his unhinged girlfriend and her kooky little sister. The plot thickens, to such an extent that it soon curdles. The problem soon becomes apparent: the filmmaker was attempting to create a character who was even more charismatic than Nicholson. As a result, Nicholson's story becomes marginal, a lost canon never given the chance to detonate. The narrative becomes more and more episodic, leading to its melodramatic finale. 

This might be a metaphor for the fate of Rafelson himself. An enormous talent who made one masterpiece and was involved in the making of many more, but also someone who began to believe the story was about him, rather than the tales he had to tell. His film is riddled with hubris: the masterpiece that might have been. As Raging Bulls Easy Riders recounts, his own life became the drama. Perhaps Nicholson's own later career reflects Rafelson's, as the implication of the actor's persona alone became the basis of his character, superseding anything the script might have to say. Jack became 'Jack', a comic book version of the profound, sensitive actor he once was. The ego at times appearing to overpower his innate talent. 

Ironically, this film fails through being one of the few to ever underplay Nicholson's potency. Opening the door to speculation about the curious male dynamics that must have existed between director and his star. Did Rafelson set out to emasculate Jack? It seems perverse to have an actor of his power and then consciously not only seek to contain that power but even trump it through the older brother figure of Dern. In short, The King of Marvin Gardens ends up being a more interesting film as a result of the sub-narratives and back story than it does as a film in its own right. 

Friday, 31 May 2013

caché (w&d haneke)

Don’t trust what your eyes are telling you. Look beneath the surface. The title tells us this. The opening sequence spells it out. And the closing sequence repeats the message with a dose of painstaking subtlety.

Auteuil’s Georges and Binoche’s Anne inhabit a strange, attractive Parisian property. Most of their life seems to take place in the sitting room/ diner downstairs. This contains hundreds of books, a mighty television set, the desk at which Auteuil works and some comfy sofas. This is the vortex of the family home, although the family rarely congregate here. Instead, it becomes the space of anxiety where Georges and Anne watch the mysterious videos which document their lives. Then there’s upstairs, the bedrooms. Their son’s bedroom is normal. Posters for Eminem. A computer with a games console attached. But his parent’s bedroom is like a cave. Dark, bare, sparse. It’s a space dedicated to sleep. No hint of pleasure. The seeming normality of their lives is not sustained in the bedroom. Instead, the room reveals the emptiness of their marriage.

When Caché came out the world and his wife revelled in the film’s blend of Hitchcockian mystery and rigorous austerity. Overlooking the way the filmmaker offers moments where he foregoes subtlety in favour of a broader satirical tone. As Georges edits his TV discussion about Rimbaud, he urges the editor to skip the conceptual stuff and get to the bit about his homosexuality. His colleagues are congenial media types who tell outlandish stories and exude a breezy self-confidence. These are the taste-makers, the very people who are no doubt lauding Haneke’s work to the skies, praising his rarefied critique of modern morals. At the same time, the TV shows Italian troops in Iraq, as though to emphasise the way in which the real barbarities of Western ‘Civilisation’ continue to occur under our noses. Will history judge the intervention in Iraq any differently from the French misadventures in Algeria? The ironies lurk beneath the surface in a world where the comfort of those-who-have shrouds the suffering of those-who-do-not.

Watching the film a second time, nearly ten years later, the shock effect of Majid’s suicide is no longer present. Instead, perhaps, it becomes easier to dwell on the curious intimacy of his relationship with Georges. A friendship formed at the age of 5 retains more power than any created in adulthood. The two men have already learnt almost all the lessons that life will have to teach them when still in childhood. The cliff that divides people from different social and political backgrounds as well as, one assumes, the pain of loss. Perhaps it’s because he’s sought to repress so much of his childhood that Georges cannot relate to his own child. Georges emerges as a pathetic figure, metropolitan man stripped bare. For all his intelligence he has no idea how to cope when the going gets tough, he’s soon out of his league. Which puts him in the same category as the father in Funny Games and the other in Time of the Wolf, whose good natured intentions are blown away before he can even start the negotiations. There’s something Nietzchean about Haneke’s critique of modern masculinity (which recurs again with the White Ribbon’s narrator). Apart from its commentary on the value he places on life, Majid’s suicide is the kind of carnal act of which Georges would be incapable. Modern Europeans might wear black but beneath the pseudo-existential veneer there’s pastel-coloured underwear. They don’t know how to kill goats and their primary response to any kind of threat is to get stressed out and discuss it with their partners.

The irony in all this is that Haneke is a man who makes intellectually provocative films. He values the intellect as a weapon with which he seeks to skewer the society he inhabits. And he does so successfully. The neurotic chattering classes lap up their medicine. March against the war or the dictaduras. Meanwhile, the men and women of action launch wars and dismiss art as a symptom of weakness. They would walk out of Caché before they had had the time to realise the director was subverting the artform with his opening shot. Which is why Haneke’s cinema is one of the the most definitive examplars of the crisis of Western society, intellectual or otherwise. Post-existentialism, we don’t know whether we should be reading Zizek, watching football, speculating on the stock exchange or the property market, or fighting for a cause we don’t believe in. Going to the cinema and watching a film by Haneke allows us to both indulge our Western decadence and suffer barbed criticisms for our indulgences at the same time. It’s a modern church, where our souls are allowed to engage in the struggle for meaning for a couple of hours before we head back towards our humdrum, DIY normality. Where risk is something that occurs on television, in a land far removed from our own.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

the lute and the scars [daniel kis]

So then. A Serbian writer whose father died in Auschwitz, who lived in exile in Paris, who namechecks Calvino, Cortazar and Koestler among a host of other little known Central European writers, who is an admirer of Borges and who, to this reader’s mind, is the missing link between the Argentine and Bolano.

Bolano again. He recurs with nagging regularity. Bolano’s short stories, the ones that helped garner him attention, blend the cotidian, the personal, the everyday, with the global. They are also obliquely autobiographical. Lo and behold, here is the avowed Serbian Borghesian who, somewhat before Bolano’s time, is writing in exactly the same vein. With the same off-the-cuff, anecdotal brilliance. Converting the world and his life into a compendium of stories, with all the rag-tag connections of history interwoven.

There are only seven stories in this collection. But that’s enough. Two at least are minor masterpieces. The title-piece effortlessly manages to encompass fifty years of Soviet tragedy in a few, seemingly throwaway pages. Jurij Golec is a more Borghesian meditation on death, framed within a Bolano-esque context. The Stateless One tells the life of Von Horvarth in 26 brief chapters. The other brief tales conjure the life of post-War Europe, the frontiers collapsing and retrenching, Russia, Serbia and France all over-lapping. Kis’ genius lies in his capacity to make something transcendental out of a seeming nothing, to turn water into wine.

The joy of reading is to stumble across a voice which comes out of nowhere and somehow speaks across time and geography. There’s no time for theory in the world anymore, at least not the kind of theory that makes any sense, but if there were I’d try and pin down the secret donation of late 20th C literature: as the scale of the global seemed to become evermore immense, all-encompassing, overwhelming, the writers realised that it was only by using the micro of their own experiences as a prism that the world of the macro (the death camps, the wars, the torture chambers) could begin to be discussed. That these subjects might be removed from the discursive terrain of political rhetoric and re-positioned within a context where their real effects could begin to be grasped. Real being defined as something that can be phenomenologically experienced, as opposed to being intellectually contemplated. This, more than Borges, is what binds Kis with Bolano, and their fellows. In essence, they are writers who seek to reclaim history through the existence of the everyday, which is after all, all that history is. Reclaiming it from the preachers and the politicians and the theoreticians who have annexed language in a bid to sever the common Brechtian from his or her own experiences.

There’s no time for theory. Which might be just as well. On an overcast Montevidean morning. There is time for that failsafe of modernity, a google search (Kis Bolano) which reveals that I am not the only one to have made the association. Three others, in fact, including Vila-Matas, who lists Kis alongside his friend Bolano, Koetzee, Pynchon, Antunes and Perec in order to refute Vargas Llosa’s argument that literature has become too “leve, ligera, fácil”. Which puts Daniel Kis in some fine company and also suggests that there is indeed a possibility that the Chilean Borghesian was aware of the work of the Serbian Borghesian.