Monday, 8 April 2013

river of smoke [amitav ghosh]

River of Smoke is a curious book. At once vast, full of fascinating detail, engaging; but at the same time the storytelling is flawed and the book’s structure means it sags somewhat as it homes in on the finishing line.

In my (perhaps) former job, a script was defined by character, narrative, (dialogue) and ‘world’. The last being the most relevant here and frequently the hardest for a scriptwriter to master. A novelist has more scope to conjure an unknown world, and Ghosh takes full advantage. He appears to know mid c19th Canton like the back of his hand. His prose leads us through the alleyways, across the Maidan, weaving in and out of the 13 factories. It’s a world as brilliantly realised as Dickens’ London and the depth and breath of the author’s scholarship is never in doubt.

However, his fascination with the intricacies of Canton’s geo-political structure is at the expense of his plot. Ghosh treats his characters with the irreverence of a historian, rather than the reverence of a novelist. Paulette and Penrose, two of the principle characters in the book’s opening section are rudely removed from the plot, left to dawdle about in Hong Kong, offstage. Similarly, Bahram’s son, perhaps the most fascinating character in the book, a true product of Canton’s miscegenation, is introduced and then expunged. There are other figures who flicker into life only to fade out before they are allowed to catch fire. Instead, the author’s focus turns to the historical detail of the lead-up to the opium wars and the actions of the British and US merchants as they strive to resist the Chinese emperor’s will. Whilst Modi’s fate remains of interest, the novel increasingly feels as though it’s marking time before it can knit up its plot, with the day-by-day account of the last days of Canton’s foreign enclave overstated.

Having said which, River of Smoke is still an absorbing read. Ghosh displays an authoritative, over-arching take on the way the modern world has been shaped. Furthermore, he does the European the grand favour of removing their continent from the epicentre, shifting history’s focus further Eastwards, revealing the centuries-old mercantile structures that Europe’s military might took advantage of. Furthermore, River of Smoke contains a vigorous commentary on the nature of the drugs trade. It’s a strong critique of European double standards, one with echoes of today’s world, proving there’s little new under the rising sun.


[Some of the characters named above, I realise after a cursory glance at Wikipedia, feature in the first part of the trilogy, Sea of Poppies. Which might mean that I am being unjust in my criticism. Nevertheless, it still feels to me as though the book lacks balance as a result of the way the author manipulates his characters.]

Monday, 1 April 2013

elena (w&d andrei zvyagintsev; w. oleg negin)

Andrei Zvyagintsev manages to pull off the remarkable trick of creating in Elena a film which is both slight and magisterial at the same time. The film has the gravity of a 500 page novel, although the narrative itself is little more than a fable.

This tells us something about the way in which cinema works. Zvyagintsev’s attention to detail is meticulous. We seem to know every inch of the apartment Elena shares with her wealthy but dispassionate husband, Vladimir. The polished surfaces are contrasted with the bleakness of the estate where her son lives with his family. It’s the accumulation of detail which lends the film its power. The opening shot shows Vladimir’s flat through the branches of a tree. Peering more closely at the twilight frame, we notice a bird in the bottom left hand corner. The shot is repeated at the end. The metaphor is clear: this is cinema as ornithology. The filmmaker brings the same attributes of patience and a sheer appetite to watch as the bird-watcher, attributes his audience are obliged to share. There are sporadic moments of action, all the more intense for the way in which they suddenly flicker to life from a canvas which is so passive for so much of the time.

Whilst this runs the risk of sounding dull, it is in fact compelling. In the process Zvyagintsev reminds us that more than mere story-telling, cinema is also an exercise in perception. As such he gets away with the slight narrative, a cuckoo-in-the-nest tale which is tied up with all the neatness of a Chekhov short story in the film’s closing moments. One suspects there is an allegorical power to the story which resonates more in Moscow, perhaps, land of the newly minted super-rich, than it does here.

This is Zvyagintsev’s third film. I saw The Return on tv one night, chez Mr P. We had been channel hopping and came across it and found ourselves hooked, against all expectations. This is a director, in the model of his countryman, Sokurov, who knows the weight of the cinematic hammer he wields. His films have substance; the substance of life observed and related with a painstaking yet exhilarating precision.