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.