Friday, 26 December 2014

laughable loves [milan kundera]

Kundera's early work is a collection of eight short stories. They all deal with the pleasures and pitfalls of sexual relationships. It feels like a young man's book, but a young man who has a sly understanding of the way in which the domain of the sexual encounter in the human sphere is far more complex than the mere mating instinct. Tied up in the act of seduction or desire is the will to power, the will to survival or the will to just get by. At the same time, the stories offer a sideways view of the complications of living within a totalitarian state. A portrait which is all the richer because it reveals that this state still permits the simple pleasures of flirtation and debate, but impinges at the edges, constantly marking out the limits of possibility, with a fall from grace forever on the edge of the subject's view. At times the preoccupations and worries of these cold-war Czechs don't seem that far away from those of Updike's suburban Yankees or today's harassed first-world capitalists. For all their intelligence, sexuality and charm, they are still neutered by the demands of the system they inhabit. Something which infiltrates the mechanisms of desire, which are conditioned as much by power as Eros. But no doubt it was ever thus, and it's a reflection of Kundera's nascent mastery that he succeeds in revealing how human instincts, especially of the more romantic kind, are always compromised and complex, no matter the ideological context within which they are framed.

Monday, 22 December 2014

murder city [charles bowden]

Murder City

Bowden's book charts events in and around Ciudad Juarez 2008-2009. He grapples with a violence which escalates, from his point of view, into something which is beyond rational explanation. The book is a fierce, quasi-poetic attempt to go beyond the figures and the standard explanations. In many ways, it is a sister-work to the section of 2666 About the Crimes. Like Bolaño, Bowden makes an attempt to de-render literature speechless in the face of the barbarity of the border zone. Both writers insist on documenting the remorseless appetite of the violence, which seems to become almost an entity in its own right, whilst at the same time insisting on the fact that it is something done by and affecting humans, people who in another life might have lived 'ordinary' lives. 

Unlike 2666, Murder City is a work of non-fiction. Bowden seeks out characters and tells their story, from the born-again assassin to the journalist on the run. This journalistic strain goes hand-in-hand with the writer's agonising attempts to find a kind of sense in these stories. In the end he seems to suggest that he sees Ciudad Juarez as a Hobbesian vision of the future, where the daily concerns of modern capitalism are blown away by the anarchic whirlwind of survival and fear. What's the point of fretting about your future when a random act of violence could destroy it at any moment? Ciudad Juarez comes to represent a model of anti-progress, the antithesis of the American dream.  

The book also cuts to the quick about the way in which Mexico has become a narco-state; at the same time debunking the myth of the war on drugs. As Bowden points out, this isn't a war on drugs, rather, it's a war for the drugs trade and its enormous wealth. The army and the police and the state are just as much players in this war as the narcos themselves. Escalante's film Heli depicted this cruel world where the good guys just don't exist. Events in Ayotzinapa only serve to rubber stamp the depiction of Mexico Bowden's anguished book presents. Murder City should be required reading for anyone who wants to begin to get a grip on the hydra-violence which permits the combined forces of evil to not only perpetrate its grotesque crimes, but also do so with a sense of complete impunity. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

avant (d juan alvarez)

Juan Alvarez’s Avant opens with a shot of the Sodre, a purpose-built concert hall that, like many big projects in this part of the world, opened years late, over-budget, looking like a white elephant. The narrative kicks in with the arrival of Julio Boca as the Sodre Ballet’s new artistic director. Boca is the superstar of Southern Cone ballet. Which means he’s more than just a ballet dancer. In Argentina and Uruguay he is revered. An Argentinean, he agreed to take on the artistic directorship of the Uruguayan company after having retired from dancing himself.

Avant traces the development of the Sodre Ballet as Boca’s management helps to transform both ballet and the building into a flourishing success. But this is just a single strand in what is an increasingly complex and sophisticated narrative, told with a detached eye and a finely-chiselled edit. The film touches on how hard it is to produce work of artistic ambition in the third world; but it also adheres to a democratic vision where the cleaner’s importance is respected just as much as that of the prima ballerina. This is a film conscious of its context, unafraid to allude to the socio-political conditions the ballet operates within.

However, no matter where it takes place, ballet is ballet. Avant is, above all, a film about what it’s like to create ballet. The show that reaches the stage, full of clean bodies in perfect sync, belies the labour that goes into the creation of the art. Alvarez’s film traces the thousand and one elements that go into the creation of a ballet, offering along the way some kind of insight into the stress that Boca and his company contend with as they struggle for perfection. Scenes such as a ballet dancer exiting the stage in tears, or Boca himself contending with the problems of communication from the sound booth, or the simple case of a man trying to pull an office chair up a flight of stairs, offer vivid insights into the difficulties of both creating ballet as well as creating ballet in the third world, without the film ever having to resort to any kind of formal explanation or exposition.

My personal relationship with the Sodre has lead to an understanding of an art which for many years I didn’t get. In Alvarez’s backstage vision we see how ballet dancers are as much like sportsmen as artists, pushing bodies to their limits, constantly challenging themselves. Where Alvarez could have gone for the X-Factor approach, his film instead conveys the dancers’ dramas with an  understated eye, showing how their efforts are part of a greater whole. Alvarez achieves this with an almost metronomic discipline as he builds his portrayal, frame by frame. It is a cliché which, perhaps, he might not object to, to say that the film is a ballet in its own right, prioritising image and music above the spoken word, capturing the essence both of the Sodre and of ballet itself.

Monday, 15 September 2014

don't point that thing at me [kyril bonfiglioli]

This is the first of a trilogy of Mortdecai novels. Mortdecai is a decadent bon viveur who is also a dodgy art dealer trying to get rid of a stolen Goya. This makes for an elaborate, zesty plot which darts around London before nipping over the Atlantic to take in Washington and Texas (road journey incluido) before hopping back, via Eire, for a dénouement in the Lake District.

The plot is ridiculous and a coat-hanger on which to hang the wit and wisdom of Mortdecai himself. He’s a deliciously British figure, second cousin to Bond, whose amoral approach to life doesn’t prevent him from having rigid codes of behaviour and a clear idea of what’s right and wrong. Although what’s wrong might be the way you pour your tea or knot your tie, rather than whether or not you’re prepared to murder or fence stolen goods. Of course, Mortdecai’s amorality is something he shares with the workings of the British state, which has no qualms about murdering or torturing if it feels the need, and in this the book, written in the early seventies, is still timely.

The London section of the book is set in a world of Mayfair art galleries and Gentleman’s clubs. It might be one of the few corners of the capital that has not changed beyond recognition. A vivid description of a visit to the East End shows the lost London of small, artisanal barrios, which reminded me of the London I knew thirty years ago.  

Bonfiglioli, hardly a household name, has been something of a connoisseur’s delight for decades. All this is about to change as, having completed the book, I learned via the interweb that a great big movie starring Johnny Depp is about to be released, based on the Mortdecai adventures. One can’t help feeling that the protagonist of the novels might have felt, or indeed be feeling (do literary characters ever really die?) somewhat dubious about the prospect. Nevertheless, Bonfiglioli deserves the larger public he’s about to get and would no doubt be sanguine about the trade-off between commerce and art which one is sometimes forced to make. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

yalo [elias khoury]

Months which are not turbulent in the Middle East are welcome. This last couple of months have been particularly lacking in this respect. When people look back in twenty years at the Summer of 2014 in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, will they remember the terrible events which have befallen them, or will it just blend into a generalised history of catastrophe and violence?

Khoury’s epic and terrible book is set in the Lebanon, in the nineties. I recently read that a new synagogue is being built in the Lebanon, a sign of its current stability. A whole generation will have grown up which will have no memory of the events in that country, events which destroyed Beirut and made the Lebanon a basket case for over a decade. Every day from my youth seemed to bring a fresh tale of woe, a tale which at the time seemed as though it would have no ending.

Khoury’s novel is set in the aftermath of that civil war. However, that war, just like the ones currently raging in the region, was part of a wider conflict. The anti-hero, Yalo, traces his roots to Aleppo, Damascus and Turkey. He can’t be sure if he’s Arab, Assyrian or Kurdish. His grandfather is a priest from the last Christian sect which speaks the language of Christ, or so he claims. He berates his grandson for not being able to speak the language himself, telling him: “To whom do you think you will talk at your second coming?” The Grandfather’s religious philosophy offers an overbearing Gnosticism, one that Yalo can never get to grips with. “’I am Mar Afram’ the grandfather answered, and he smiled because his grandson was such an idiot that he didn’t know that all the writers of the world are merely copyists and there is only one, hidden book on the face of the earth, a book not written from human inspiration, and that when people write literature or poetry, parts of this book are revealed to them and they copy them down a rearrange them.”

Yalo is born into this confusion and is a product of it. He is not particularly religious, although he believes in the miracle he thinks his mother and grandfather performed when they drank the seawater of the Mediterranean. He is pliable, unsure of his identity, gullible. He fights briefly in the war and then is easily convinced when a fellow fighter suggests they steal from the company safe and run away. That same fighter then leaves him high and dry in Paris. He is brought back by a Lebanese arms dealer as a guard. He discovers that he lives in what would now be called a notorious dogging spot, in the country, and begins a brief career as a rapist and thief, a career which comes to a halt when he falls in love with one of his victims, who will later denounce him.

Yalo has plenty in common with Mersault, Camus’ anti-hero from L’Etranger. Any sympathy we feel for him is grudging and hard-earned. Seen from the outside he’s a miserable character. However, we watch Yalo as he buckles under hideous torture and gradually his whole construction of his self, his identity, starts to fall to pieces and then reassemble itself. So much so that by the final part of the book, the narrator, who is Yalo, has come to see his former self as another man, whom he observes and talks to.

The novel narrates Yalo’s story in a circuitous flashback. Its present tense is the interrogation cell, where Yalo recollects his past and tries to assemble it in a form that will appease his interrogator. Yalo’s is a terrible journey which comes at the end of the terrible journey which has been his pitiable life. It’s the life of any young man who has the misfortune to become caught up in the internecine strife of the region. Whose world view is constructed around the myths of his family, the urges of his masculinity and the peer pressure of the militarised world he inhabits.

The book was intially published in 2002. Twelve years on, its bleak vision appears to be more apposite than ever. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

i was born there, i was born there [mourid bargouti]

Bargouti’s book is a picaresque memoir of his Palestinian life. Bargouti is a poet and the book displays his poet’s eye as it assembles fragments from a life not lived. That life should have been his Palestinian life, but it's a life interrupted by politics, meaning he spent time in Egypt, the Gulf, Eastern Europe, Jordan and other parts of the globe. The only time he goes back to live in Palestine, in the West Bank, he finds himself coming into conflict with the corruption of the Palestine State, something that he believes will always undermine any deals negotiated with the Israelis. (Bargouti is a fierce critic of the Oslo agreement.)

The book offers insight into life in the West Bank as it has been lived over the course of fifty years, charting the attempts of its society to retain its integrity and customs in the face of the Israeli aggression. An aggression which doesn’t merely show its face with the force of its weaponry, but also through the way it insists on interceding on the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians. The problems of the Israeli occupation are more corrosive and insidious than the headlines of war. It’s the removal of normality which Bargouti documents. Any journey becomes an odyssey; any family becomes divided; any life becomes ruptured. (“The Occupation distorts the distances between humans as much as those between places.”)

The book is also studded with apercus about the strange role of the poet within society. Bargouti’s son follows in his father’s footsteps, taking on the Romantic role of the “unacknowledged legislator”. Bargouti is highly conscious of an obligation for his poetry to be representative of its roots, whilst at the same time retain its creative ‘independence’. He notes that “to be a poet you need two contradictory things – a great amount of vitality and a great amount of idleness”. It's a note that suggests the poet liable is always liable to be in conflict with any social system. 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

faces in the crowd [valeria luiselli]

Faces in the Crowd is a sly, engaging short novel. It’s set in at least three timelines, possibly more. In one, the narrator relates how, working for a small NY press, she convinced her editor to publish the poems of obscure Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen. Mainly by deceiving him as to the origin of the translations. In another timeline, the same narrator, writing the book we are reading, offers details of a marriage which appears to be falling apart, in spite of the fact the couple have two young children. In the third timeline, we step into the world of Owen himself, as he hangs out in a New York of speakeasies and deluded foreign poets.

The three timelines snuggle up alongside one another in a neat, poetic fashion. Images flip from one timeline to another (an orange tree in a pot plays an important narrative role in all three strands). The book has a staccato quality, frequently constructed from tiny fragments of life whose potency comes from their juxtaposition with other tiny fragments of another life. There’s a reference to Bolaño at one point, with the narrator’s editor asking her if she knew him. She feigns disinterest, but her novel, with its quest to discover and corporealise a lost Latin poet is eminently Bolañesque, whilst at the same time being all its own thing. Luiselli’s voice rings through, if not loud and clear, then dextrously. This feels like a book which has been woven as much as written, a patchwork quilt which wraps its readers up, sheltering them from their cold, Southern Hemisphere nights. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

the door (w&d istván szabó, w. andrea vészits)

Szabó's film is a curio. It seems to be keeping with Cinemateca's penchant for screening the new films of old masters, preferably with a famous name attached. This may reflect a laudable ethos or it may be slightly cynical. What it does ensure is a succession of strangely off-key offerings which have the faintly tarnished feel of visiting an elderly relation whose best days are clearly behind them. There may be flashes of what once might have been, but on the whole it makes for an unsatisfactory experience, like being offered stale biscuits and weak coffee. 

Szabó's film is constructed around an engaging story, as Hungarian writer, Magda, befriends the curmudgeonly Emerenc, played with full frontal acerbicness by Helen Mirren. Emerenc has secrets. Her waspishness appeals to Magda, and there's the suggestion that it helps the younger woman come to terms with herself, as wife, woman and writer. However, there's no real sense of dramatic tension. The film is set in 60s Budapest but all the characters speak a clearly-dubbed English. The camera work is conservative, straight out of a TV drama. Perhaps most gallingly of all, given the director's former achievements, we don't really get any sense of the world of 60s Budapest. Everything feels so tightly budgeted that it's reduced to relative anonymity. A chamber piece which lacks the intensity required to make a chamber piece feel either relevant or compelling.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

1599 [james shapiro]

Shapiro's text achieves several objectives.

It reveals how the writer's work was shaped by his interaction with society. Thereby revealing a figure fully engaged with the complications, complicities and dangers of his age. A political figure, with a small p. It sets out to demystify the reputation of the writer as a romantic, mysterious figure and to a certain extent succeeds. At the very least it  contextualises him.

It also offers a telling vision of Elizabethan society. Just as in today's Britain, it shows a political body which had few qualms in manipulating its people with scare stories. Apocalypse was always around the corner. The intrigues of power like something out of House of Cards. With Shakespeare participating in the debate through his plays. 

This book, which is not a biography, rather a portrait of an era seen through the lens of four of the writer's plays, is already considered a classic and with good reason. The writer, according to Shapiro's vision, becomes a weather vane or tuning fork, plugged in to the nuances of his society's agenda, an agenda which will always possess its metaphysical or spiritual values, alongside base ambition and earthly glory. 

One finishes the book longing for him to write the sequel, and the sequel that comes after that, and those that would follow. 1066 and all that. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

blue is the warmest colour/ la vie d'adele 1&2 (w&d abdellatif kechiche, w. ghalia lacroix)

Klimt and Schiele

In the party scene, there's a brief, insubstantial discussion of the difference between Klimt and Schiele. Adele, perhaps surprisingly, claims not to know who they are, something that annoys Emma. However, one might say that in this day and age, when the two Austrian artists have been co-opted and cannibalised by a graphic design world, why should you want to know much about them? Fifty years ago, their art might still have retained a transgressive air. Now, it has been absorbed by the mainstream. Which is not to say that someone couldn't come along and liberate them, but Kechiche is not your man for this. Rather, they are located within Emma's banal, bourgeois art world: both the gallery scene she hangs out with and the art itself. It's always a risk portraying "fictional" art in a work of fiction. Because the values of the art represented reflect something or other. In this case the art tells us that Emma is a minor talent making work for what would appear to be a bourgeois market. There's nothing radical about her work and the struggle to define herself she tells Adele about on the park bench (cf Sartre) doesn't appear to have affected her evolution as an artist. One of the clunkiest exchanges happens when Adele is asked her opinion of Emma's art. She mutters some platitudes. It seems as though living with Emma has neither generated any enthusiasm for art nor any discernible capacity to evolve her own opinions. 


The first half of the film has a clear journey and conveys this journey with charm and humour. Adele, still at school, begins to realise she's gay. We follow her journey as she comes to terms with this and begins her affair with the seemingly dangerous, blue-haired Emma. At one point, Emma starts talking to Adele about Sartre. There's a trope throughout the film that Adele doesn't know all that much about anything intellectual. She's Dionysius to Emma's more considered Apollo. (Although her interest in literature at the film's opening seems like a genuine engagement, so much so that the shoe is on the other foot as her would-be lover reads up on Marivaux). Emma tells Adele how reading Sartre helped her to understand who she was as a person, implicitly suggesting that his work assisted her in the process of coming to terms with her sexuality. The exchange is in keeping with much of the film's dialogue: airy conversations which are given space to breathe. There's more than Sartre at play here, but all the same the script succeeds in paying homage to the king of the existentialists whilst developing its narrative at the same time. Later, in the same park, Adele will kiss Emma, initiating the relationship. Adele makes contact with her existentialist soul. For a while she's a kind of stepsister to Sandrine Bonnaire's character in Varda's Vagabonde. Prepared to put everything at stake for the development of that soul. A true Romantic, which is also to say a true conservative, because this is exactly the message young people are repeatedly encouraged to confront now: you have a duty to "find" yourself, to "become" yourself. Do it whilst you are young, before you settle down. Adele accepts the challenge and her life stands on the brink of vast, inspirational change.


Only it doesn't change. Time passes. The two women are living together. They don't know each other's friends or anything much about each other's lives. Adele is Emma's "muse". She cooks and cleans for Emma in Emma's spacious flat. In some ways she's become little more than a drudge. But she doesn't mind. Although Emma does. Unsurprisingly she wants Adele to want more from her life. In short, this is a terrible, flawed relationship, only Adele is young and naive and has no way of knowing. The romantic dream has turned into a mundane bourgeois marking of the days. The jump forward in time takes us almost immediately to the point where the two women break up. We don't see the slow calcification of their relationship. We don't discover how this has affected their sex life. The nitty gritty of the story is not something which interests the filmmaker. Which, given the fact that Blue has made its reputation on the basis of Exarchopoulos's snot and Seydoux's tears might seem like a ridiculous thing to say. But at the end of the day this is the showtime part of the break-up. The fireworks. Which is well enough told, if somewhat deceitful. Because the real pain is elsewhere, hidden, unrevealed. And the real damage caused to Adele is not through the fact she and Emma split up, something they clearly need to do, but through the fact that rather than expanding Adele's horizons, the relationship appears to have curtailed them.


The film opens with a long sequence which discusses Pierre de Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne. Adele's boyfriend also talks about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. As with the discussion of art, there's something almost cheeky about Kechiche's conceit. We know we're in for a three hour movie, which is about as long as cinema can get away with. However, we also know that even the longest movie doesn't offer its creator(s) the space or scope which a novel offers its author to expound on themes and generate a sense of development over time. Kechiche almost seems to be saying: I'm aware of this, but let's give it a bash anyway. Blue is the Warmest Colour could be said to have a lot in common with Madame Bovray, for example. A woman follows her instincts in the face of society's unease, embarking on a journey which ends in tears. The result is constantly fascinating as well as being inevitably flawed. Kechiche's ambition in his storytelling repeatedly comes up against the limitations the medium imposes on the type of story he wants to tell. 

Apollo & Dionysius

In spite of encountering a certain resistance to Kechiche's film, I wouldn't disagree with anyone who suggested it's a terrific piece of filmmaking. You could argue that it's deceitful in its suggestion of being transgressive, when in fact, like Emma's art, it's safe and stoutly bourgeois in its outlook. You could further argue that its use of lesbianism could well be said to be exploitative, not so much for the sex scenes (which reminded me of Andrew Haigh's Weekend) but because the characters' sexuality is presented as being transgressive or dangerous when in fact this is a tale about relatively conservative youth and/or bohemia. The scene in front of the school when Adele is confronted by her schoolmates implies an outsider status for the characters, which the narrative then backs away from. It's a great scene, typical of the way in which Kechiche skilfully inveighs his film with a trenchant naturalism. But having set itself up as an investigation of how an Apollonian world appropriates and subsumes our Dionysian instincts, Blue seems to shy away from the complexity of this set-up, veering towards something more banal, more soapy. 

Bar Room Brawl

No matter the caveats, the chutzpah and flair of Blue, its capacity to capture the fiddly details of life and conversation and turn them into something compelling, is sometimes breathtaking. Kechiche's willingness to let his camera linger, as though it too is part of this relationship, waiting with a lover's anticipation for a secret sign that everything is going to be alright, (either when it will be or when it palpably will not), makes for some of the most vibrant, unconstructed scenes you could come across. His film offers a polished sheen to the guerrilla ethic, appropriating the strengths of low-budget filmmaking (basic set-ups, no stunts, no extravagant camerawork, insistent naturalism) in order to create a film that follows in the footsteps of Zola or Flaubert.

Monday, 14 April 2014

la jaula de oro (d. diego quemada-díez; w. quemada-díez; gibrán portela; lucia carreras)

A few years ago there was a film called Sin Nombre, which did very well for its director Cary Fukunaga. La Jaula is essentially the same film, following the path of three Guatemalan kids as they try to make their way across Mexico towards the promised land. The difference is that, whereas Sin Nombre offered a sentimental variation on the tale, La Jaula de Oro makes no bones about the cruelty and hardship involved in a journey which ultimately leads not to Los Angeles, as Juan, one of the trio hopes, but a desolate job in a snow-ridden corner of a troubled land. 

Guatemala and Mexico are perhaps even further away from Montevideo than Moscow, (say) might be from London. The barbarity revealed in the story feels as distant here as it would in London. There are those at the Montevideo Film Festival, where Jaula screened, who are perhaps sceptical of its vision of the downtrodden 3rd world being presented yet again for the voyeuristic delights of a 1st world audience. (It’s interesting quite how unpopular Ciudade de Dios is here, in spite of the involvement of Charlone). Nevertheless, Jaula possesses an undeniable integrity, refusing to let its audience off the hook. The three child actors whose journey we follow are as beguiling as we might expect, but their fates are not, and there’s no attempt made to sanitise the story.

In contrast to Sin Nombre, the film has a quasi-documentary feel, with the kids' fellow-travellers feeling like real people rather than extras. In addition Jaula mixes moments of great visual beauty with a roughness around the edges which ensures the viewer doesn’t become seduced by the picturesque nature of the journey across country. A paradox of the “immigrant road movie" (see also Winterbottom’s In This World) is that, in spite of the cinematic joys of witnessing landscapes and vistas we will probably never know, when telling the immigrant’s bleak story there’s little scope for the pleasures of aesthetics. Quemada-Díez treads this fine line with care. His movie might occupy familiar territory, but, as the gruelling last scenes emphasise, this is no fairground ride. Rather, it’s a film which seeks to take its place within the great abattoir of our tiny globe’s modernity. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

the past (w&d asghar farhadi)

The Past is such a portentous title that it almost threatens to scupper the titled project before it has got off the ground. The opening of Asghar Farhadi’s film has a laboured feel, as though its straining every sinew to convey everything that’s going on beneath the surface between Bejo’s Marie and Mosaffa’s Ahmad as they make the trip from the airport to Marie’s suburban home. Two people who were in a relationship but have lived apart for many years. It’s a rich sequence, but overly so, the weight of their back story threatening to overwhelm the present moment.

Fortunately, the narrative then abruptly plunges into the problems of the present. In particular, Marie’s relationships with her two girls as well as the son of her new lover, Samir. Elyes Aguis, gives a remarkable performance as Fouad, the confused child whose mother has recently tried to kill herself. His acting is all the more potent as a result of his character being kept on the margin of the narrative, where he acts as a mirror reflecting the anxiety and hurt which the actions of the adults has provoked. The adults are given a lot to deal with. Attempted suicide, separation, unhappy offspring. In the manner of a Hardy novel, the film painstakingly unravels the threads which bind the three protagonists together. This inevitably leads to a flirtation with melodrama, but Farhadi succeeds in steering a course away from the sharks of sentimentalism which circle his narrative.

This might be because, as well as being a relationship film, this is also a story about what it’s like to be an immigrant, first or second generation. Two of his actors are non-natives and the third is second generation French. Each takes on a character which feels in some way disconnected. Both Marie and Samir struggle to offer their children any sense of solidity, leaving them feeling rootless and confused. Ahmad’s arrival only serves to muddle the waters. Where the oldest daughter, Lucie, initially sees him as an ally, his presence ultimately resolves nothing. Whilst there is a potential pain inherent to any relationship, the film seems to suggest that this is exacerbated within a modern world which allows people to cross borders and distances with seeming ease, leaving them feeling isolated and helpless when things start to go wrong.

The Past possesses a dense narrative whose focus shifts from one character to another, concluding appropriately enough with the figure whose presence has been instrumental throughout but upto the very end has never been seen. Farhadi knows his key dramatic moments and plays them out for all they are worth. It is a reminder of what a well-worked screenplay really looks like: nothing flashy, just layer upon layer of subtle revelations, built up to create a compelling portrait of a few people who have been thrown together by fate and have to learn to make do, no matter how unsuited to life and relationships they feel themselves to be. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

open door [iosi havilio]

Iosi Havilio’s curious book is straight out of the enigmatic Argentine post-Borges/ Cortazar school. This school thrives off an air of unresolved mystery, taking the frayed edges of the maestro’s stories and teasing them out as far as they’ll go. The novel as a semiotic playground, full of signifiers and blind alleys. Open Door is narrated by a woman vet who drops out and starts living in a small rural society which is probably populated by lunatics. Unsurprisingly she herself becomes somewhat unhinged, descending, Repulsion-style, into a debauched lifestyle of sex and ketamine, which comes across as oddly cold and unenjoyable. Indeed, the phrase “sex and ketamine” perhaps suggests a text which is delirious and transgressive, but the truth is that Open Door feels slightly tame, the sex scenes having a similar journeyman quality to Houlebecq’s. Similarly, the relentless quest for the unexpected has the effect of becoming somewhat predictable in itself: we never know what’s going to happen next but we know that whatever it is, it’s not going to affect anything to any startling degree. The novel has been lauded extensively, but it has the feel of a sketch, which might be typical of a first novel, and perhaps it would be wiser to judge Havilio on the basis of his subsequent works rather than this cold fish of a book. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

grand budapest hotel (w&d wes anderson)

By the end the desired effect is inverted. Instead of a frothy, innocuous piece of fluff lulling you into a pleasing stupor, which would be appear to be the director’s goal, you find yourself on the point of screaming at the screen. Grand Budapest might kick off as a promisingly leftfield foray into Mitteleuropa (based on the works of Stefan Zweig, we are told) but it ends up becoming a flimsical, whimsical jazz-profaned, Benny Profaned, noodle into Mitteleuropa. This is a Mitteleuropa for people who don’t want to have to think about Freud or Musil or Kafka or even Zweig. It’s a Mitteleuropa for banal Manhattanites who assume a Mitteleuropa is a brand of designer coffee they have yet to come across and will be Pleasantly Surprised to discover it’s actually just a playground for heplish indie-nish US actors to hang out and Do Their Thing. In short, the director succeeds in taking the very thing he claims to be celebrating and bastardising it to such an extent that already execs are drawing up plans to rebuild the Grand Budapest Hotel, supposedly demolished, and turn it into the Must-Go venue for any aspiring uber-tech firm's 2016 bonding weekend. There will be Ustase themed nights, with obligatory schnapps chasers and post-prandial machine gun sessions. There will be the Communist themed nights, muted colours only, where no-one is allowed to laugh and that’s the biggest joke of all. They will invite Zizek to give by-invite-only seminars that will end with naked wrestling sessions in the candlelit mountain snow. 

Which part of the world will be the next to get the Anderson makeover? Where can he parachute in as many feckless, gilt-edged cameos for his mates? The post-war Left Bank? A romcom inspired by the Battle of Algiers? The Cultural Revolution with Phillip Seymour Hoff guesting as Mao? (Note to ed/ Wes - nice idea but the horse has bolted from that particular stable.) Why is this man allowed to splurge so much talent to such little effect? Why is he given such luxurious budgets to churn out this nonsense? Why does anyone ever give him the critical time of day? 

Answers on a postcard. 

The prettiest picture will be forwarded to the appropriate scouting team.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

starred up (d. david mackenzie, w. jonathan asser)

This being London, I found myself having two conversations about the director of the film, David Mackenzie, in a single day. The first, within the hallowed portals of Working Title’s London office, discussed the way he has suddenly become hot property, with Universal flying him out to LA in order to throw projects at him. The second was with someone who has known him, via his brother, for many years. Describing how his first film was shot in Spain and was supposed to have Bardem, before Bardem became famous, but didn't. (I can find no trace of this film in IMDB). In between the two points in Mackenzie’s life related there are a host of other films he has made, including his latest, and most apparently successful, Starred Up.

I say apparently because I’ve never seen another film of his. There have been, one notes, at least 8. In short, although Mackenzie is still relatively young, Starred Up is not the work of wunderkind. It’s the offering of a director who has been around the block and learned the ropes. Something which is evident in the way he pulls off what might have been a hackneyed prison tale and turns into a visceral, roller coaster journey. Above all, this is a film which is well-paced. For all that the lead, O’Connell, delivers a bravura performance, one can’t help thinking that if the editing and the camerawork weren’t in synch with this performance, his acting would appear overblown, and the full extent of the film’s melodramatic premise would reveal itself. This is not the greatest cinema script ever written: the ending feels contrived and the role of the the autobiographical figure, Ol, is underdeveloped. There’s no doubt there’s another film to be made which explores the writer, Jonathan Asser’s methodology in greater depth, where Starred Up only skates over the surface. (This in a week when we learn that books are to be banned in prison.) However, although under-developed, the film employs the Ol scenes to great effect. We are in the room with the prisoners as they grapple with and confront their fear of being ridiculous or losing status, a fear which can easily lead to violence in a testosterone fuelled society. These scenes are brilliantly composed and help to lend the film the sense of visceral energy it requires to convince us that this is what prison is really like. The whole place is a throbbing vein of overheated masculinity, embodied in O’Connell’s splendidly narcissistic performance. No-one can relax in this world and the assured direction means that the audience cannot either.

Where this could become frenetic in the hands of a less assured director, in Starred Up it feels like a convincing depiction of prison life. The highly regulated tone comes from the way in which the direction harmonises the various elements of the filmmaking process, from sound-design to acting, from editing to the muted grade. The film has the hallmark of someone at the helm who knows what they’re doing, reminding us that directors don’t fall out of trees, they are formed.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

under the skin (w&d jonathan glazer, w. walter campbell)

Some points referring to Under The Skin:

Confused Narratives

Films don't have to make sense. They’re often more enjoyable if they don’t. As long as they’re not trying to make sense. The enigmatic can be the best cinema game in town. (cf Kubrick; Resnais; Antonioni) Albeit something that the British are rarely aware of. (Honourable exception Roeg, whose The Man Who Fell to Earth might be the godfather of UTS.)

Is this the most expensive low budget movie ever made?

One of the various clever things Glazer does in his film is appropriate a low-budget sensibility. By which it is meant: low budget filmmaking uses little-known actors or even non-actors. Low budget filmmaking doesn’t have the budget to try and “create” an ‘alternative’ world. So it focuses on the actual world. Which is what frequently gives low-budget filmmaking a sense of immediacy and relevance which a more, arch, “created” world does not. The first half of Under the Skin has the feel of an ob-doc about Glasgow street life. Which a glamorous alien/ hollywood star happens to be passing through. This juxtaposition sets off all kinds of sparks and gives the film a freshness which a more honed product lacks. Kudos to director and star for having the nerve to go down this route.

A little bit of humour goes a long way.

This is a film that’s laced with a mischievous sense of humour. Which helps to buy it space for the more esoteric angles it adopts. Humour gets the audience on board; the moments of humour are like way-stations on the film’s cryptic path. This is what Malick’s po-faced Tree of Life patently lacked, for example.

Is this a feminist movie?

Version 1: Men try to pick up chick thinking (correctly) she looks like a Hollywood star only to find she’s an alien luring them to their oily fate. Moral: men are fools who cannot see under the skin.
Version 2: Men try to pick up chick but in the process reveal their fundamental decency, to such an extent that the alien ends up taking pity on her victims and trying to discover her own humanity. She (it) only meets a truly malicious soul at the very end of the movie whose misguided attempt at rape preempts the finale. 
Whilst Glazer’s film clearly pokes fun at the masculine, there’s a warmth to its tone which belies the probable reading which the film will receive on Cinema & Gender courses in the 2020s.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

only lovers left alive (w&d jim jarmusch)

There’s something sad about watching someone who possessed a winsome flair slowly losing their grip on it. I have yet to see some of Mr Jarmusch’s finest films, including Dead Man and Broken Flowers. However, in those I have seen (Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes, Down by Law) there’s a distinctive aesthetic to be savoured. Part of their charm was the feeling of a creator capable of making a film that was more than the sum of its parts. The ingenuity involved in fooling the machine, which is one part of the great skill of beat-the-budget filmmaking (whether that’s a big budget or a little one). You don’t need to blow up skyscrapers in order to make something watchable. Or sink the Titanic. 

Unfortunately, Only Lovers feels as though if anything, the filmmaker was in possession of more funds than he needed. Locations in Tangiers and Detroit. Reasonably famous actors. Well dressed sets. To tell what is a sparse vampire narrative. There’s something about the vampire narrative that seems to bring out the worst in filmmakers. From Ms Denis to Mr Coppola. Maybe the directors are lured by the notion of cinema as innately vampiric: the immortality celluloid bestows, preserving its stars in the amber of perfect youthfulness. Or they see themselves concealed within the genre's narrative: the director as vampire, appropriating the actors’ blood to realise their own dreams. With the possible of exception of Dreyer, and by default Herzog, it rarely seems to work. Hiddlestone and Swinton’s decadent immortals are supposed to come across as louche and sophisticated but actually come across as an unsophisticated idea of what a louche, sophisticated Englishman or woman might be, a kind of cartoon version. The whole film, with many a ridiculous line, feels as though it might have worked better as a cartoon, which would at least allow the creator’s imagination to take the viewer to places which this stylised naturalism aspires to but never reaches. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

gravity (w&d alfonso cuarón, w. jonás cuarón, clooney)

Something has slipped out of kilter in the three weeks or so since I watched Gravity, the most expensive film ever seen in a cinema. I know, when we walked out into the Leicester Square evening, on our way to somewhere else in another galaxy far far away, I did so with slack jaw and a genuine sense of wonder. Wonder at rediscovering what cinema is capable of. Wonder of truly discovering the power of 3D for the first time. Wonder at the sense of having been closer to being in space than I had ever been before and knowing that this is testament to the skill of the technical team who took me there.

I know I felt all this, but when, sitting on a tube or something, I think back to the film, this is not what I remember. The thing I remember is the hokum lines that Clooney hokums his way through, in that neo-50s. sub-Jimmy Stewart style of his. They don’t come back to me in a specific fashion. I intuit a memory of lines about the Greenpackers and cherry pie and the value of striving, of never giving up, of being a homespun US citizen. I have no idea why this has become my dominant memory of Cuarón’s movie. I know that I read that Clooney himself came up with much of his dialogue. I also know that this diminishes my memories of the film to an unwarranted degree. All of a sudden it has become little more than a banal treatise on American values. All the fireworks have melted into thin air. There are no more flying spanners. There’s just George, bumbling away, taking it all in his stride.

I think that the moral of this story is that, no matter how remarkable the film, it can never supersede the limitations of its characters. Of course, many would say that Clooney’s character is perfect. I even remember at the time of watching it thinking how much better it was that he should have been cast than say, Robert Downey Jnr. (Who was scheduled to play the part until he dropped out.) But I can’t help it. That impression has not lasted and what remains in the memory tract, which should have been the glorious artistry and dazzling effects, is the faintly annoying message of yet more Yankee heroism. Which, in the cold light of day, I just don’t buy. 

But, hell, it’s only a movie. The most expensive movie I ever saw. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

dream of ding village [yan lianke]

My mother pressed this book on me. My mother and I have always had a soft-cell literary side to our relationship. Her taste and mine don't coincide all that much, but as one might expect, the influence is there. In my younger years I would steal books from her shelves: Woolf, Forster, David Garnett and the like. She always wanted the books back. Which for a long time seemed slightly petty to me, but as I got older I began to understand. A book is more than the words written within its pages. It is a tangible memorial of the time, place, reason, mood, cares and concerns adjacent to the reading of it. Which is why, although my reading has now been compelled to come to terms with the digital word, I will always be more fond of the printed one.

Anyhow, my mother belongs to one (or several) book groups in Ipswich. Most of the books they select to read fail to impress her. I gave her Onetti, which she liked, and she passed that on to the group. They hated it. She came across Dream of Ding Village via one of her many groups and as it’s the first book she has recommended via that source, I decided I ought to read it. 

I also wanted to read it because it's written by a Chinese author. For all the changes of the past thirty years, Chinese culture, if not society, still has a remote feel. There are weighty tomes about the impact of the Cultural Revolution, but the literature has yet to permeate. Lianke is credited as being a major Chinese novelist, but I'd never heard of him. 

About a hundred pages into the novel I began to wish my mother hadn't recommended it. Not because it is poorly written. The style is concise, the storytelling engaging. Because the subject matter of the book, the annihilation of a village by the transmission of Aids, is truly galling. This is a visceral, shocking book, in a way that Brett Easton Ellis, for example, could never be. Aids strikes, people fall to bits, and there is no redemption. The great disease which threatened but somehow more or less bypassed Western consciousness, finds more hospitable territory in rural China, and it doesn't let up. 

The book it might perhaps be compared to is The Plague. As in Camus' novel, there's a clear philosophical voice at work, narrating events. Lianke's narrator is a dead child. The world's cruelty has already done all it can, so nothing can surprise him. His even-handed tone as he describes the horrors visited on his village over the course of two years makes the events all that much harder to bear. 

However, above and beyond the description of the decimation of a village, the book turns into a powerful eco-critique of capitalism. The narrator's father is one of the great amoral villains of modern literature, a man for whom the acquisition of wealth vindicates any decision he makes, no matter how inhumane. He sells coffins and dead spouses as though they are apples and pears. His reward is not merely wealth, but also status and respect. Money, or the obvious capacity to exploit others' weaknesses in order to acquire wealth, becomes an almost Kantian 'good'. Ding village is stricken by more than Aids. It is also been stricken by the unconscious stupidity of the capitalist mentality. Lianke's book is a harrowing critique of the changes occurring in his native land. 

And, walking around a mutating London on a sunny Spring afternoon, a London that is cannibalising its own self in the name of commercial development, it's hard not to think that Lianke's dream is relevant to more than just China. It's relevant to everywhere where tomorrow is placed on such a high pedestal that yesterday can be instantly forgotten, its buildings and culture raised, its trees cut down, its soil turned to dust. 

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

bastards (w&d claire denis; w. jean-pol fargeau)

I lost my phone during the screening of Denis' film. I'd arrived that morning in London after flying from Montevideo via Miami. Mr Curry put me on a bus and together we went to watch Denis' latest. When I came out, I realised that after going half way round the world and managing to hold on to everything I needed, I'd left my phone in the cinema. I went back, without much optimism. And there it was. The man on the door was very friendly. Everyone in the cinema seemed friendly. As though they were on a mission to deny the validity of Denis' latest film.

Which took an altogether bleaker view of humanity. It's a few weeks since I saw it so the ins and outs of the plot and chronology have become foggy. In her best films, Denis' tricksiness is a delight. In the ones that don't quite come off, it becomes an irritation. It wasn't helping not knowing when the events were taking place, who arrived when in the elegant Parisian apartment block; who abused whom when; who robbed whom when. The intensity, focussed to such good effect on the character of Huppert in White Material, was diffuse. The warmth which made 35 Shots leap off the screen was absent. Everything felt cold and mechanical, which might have been in keeping with the film's thematic but didn't assist the viewing process.

When Denis is good she does things no other living director achieves. There's a fluidity to the narrative, the camera work, the score, the acting. But when that fluidity doesn't feel rooted in a narrative which can handle it, that same fluidity becomes overly opaque, leaving a film in search of its focus. Sadly, Bastards belongs to the latter camp. Fortunately, my phone retained its narrative focus, (to travel to the ends of the earth [Hackney] and feign loss but eventually be found), with more alacrity than the film. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

the flamethrowers [rachel kushner]

This is a curious novel in so far as there is much to admire, but, for this reader, less to like, within its nearly 400 pages. The scale and ambition of the book are impressive and the research that has gone into it is evident. But Kushner seems to have deliberately chosen to have run with a narrator, Reno, whose shallowness has the effect of undercutting any moral or emotional resonance the novel aspires to. The narrator’s voice feels out of sync with the author’s apparent intellectual intentions. The result is that The Flamethrowers all too often feels like a textbook, a slightly stilted guide to the mores of the New York art scene through the ages. This is the novel as encyclopaedia, which has the effect of nullifying any emotional attachment we might hope to have with Reno, Ronnie, Valera & co. The fictional artists with whom the narrator sleeps and socialises feel as though they have been drawn by Lichtenstein: bold colours and clear lines, but no depth.

The debt to DeLillo’s Underworld is evident, in particular as the narrator embarks on her Nevada motorcycle-sculpture adventure. At times the book has the feel of a cut-out-and-paste Great American novel, assembled according to a take-home kit. Epic Western landscape – tick; deprecating sub-Fitzgeraldian dissection of NY pseudo-sophisticates – tick; adventures in the old continent, (in this instance, Italy) – tick. Coming of age story – tick. Hints of a discarded experimental direction – tick. It has all the ingredients, but they make for a somewhat self-conscious, stodgy cherry pie.

Kushner’s prose mirrors this inconsistency. There are moments where it comes off the page. This reader enjoyed the slightly incidental sections dealing with the Valera back story. At other moments it feels turgid, (“The Colosseum, a great decaying skull whose grassed over arena was all but lost in a strange haze of thereness, unreal because it existed, now, without its former use.”), or downright pretentious: “In any case, death was death: it had its own gravity”, leading to moments where you want to ask – what exactly is that supposed to mean? One suspects that the vacuousness of the narrator’s voice inevitably clashes with the broader perspective of the authorial voice, leaving the book hoisted on its own petard.

The novel has received vast swathes of literary hype. But its brilliance is worn on its sleeve. It’s a novel that sets out to dazzle and has clearly achieved that end, but exactly what lurks behind the sparkle is open to question. Strangely, the book is at its strongest when it allows the listless Sandro Valera his moment, free of Reno, in the penultimate chapter. The writing exhibits both cruelty and insight in its examination of the artist’s vanity and success. For a brief moment we see how the whole art charade functions, why a type like Valera can achieve what he does in spite of his flaws. Koons, Warhol and Hirst are just around the corner. But it feels like the writer can’t bring herself to exercise the same sense of distance when dealing with her narrator Reno, whose  navel-gazing naivety surely deserves the same cold-eyed treatment as her lover’s addled vanity.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

la grande illusion (w&d jean renoir, w. charles spaak)

A meditation on La Illusion

The first world war was one of the last wars fought without being extensively filmed. There are moving images, but the cameras were still primitive, pre-sound, and the footage has more of the feel of a dream than a documentary.

Thus, apart from the obvious historical significance of the war, it also marks a before-and-after in terms of how great events are perceived. Today, we live in a world where if something has not been filmed it is almost as though it never happened. So much more will be known and documented in a quantitative sense from the 20th century onwards than was known and documented in the centuries that came before. Something which permits a mystique to the latter which the former cannot emulate.

Renoir’s film hinges on a changing social code. Von Stroheim’s German commander, von Rauffenstein, believes in the existence of an aristocratic world which exists above and beyond the commonplace one. This belief allows him to befriend his enemy, the Frenchman Boeldieu, (Pierre Fresnay) with whom he feels more kinship than his fellow German soldiers. It’s made clear in Boeldieu’s last scene that he feels the same way as his German counterpart, even if a pragmatic patriotism leads to him betraying this kinship.

The film treats this relationship between von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu sympathetically, in spite of the narrative’s overt support of a more democratic and patriotic approach to life, embodied in Gabin’s earthy heroism. As such, it’s tempting to read the officer’s complicity as a metaphor for something more than mere aristocratic indulgence. The way in which these men are capable of understanding a broader framework, above and beyond the geo-political one in which they are trapped, suggests perhaps the last remnant of the possibility of living beyond the confines of history. We are all caught in the trappings of our surroundings: class, race, religion, nationality, language etc. Renoir appears to posit the existence of a greater freedom, one which the war is seeking to remove. The war, and by implication, modernity too. Beneath its jovial patriotism there lurks an existential treatise, hardly surprising for a film made in France in the thirties.

This greater freedom might perhaps be associated with the privilege of not being filmed or documented. Was it so ridiculous of the apocryphal Red Indian to believe that the photograph was a theft of his soul? The more we are defined as who we are, the more the image of who we are is pinned down, the harder it is to escape the circumstances of that moment of definition. The facebook/ selfie era restricts the possibilities of individuality, rather than enhancing it.

Perhaps this is too much of a leap to extrapolate from Renoir’s movie. But part of what lends it a power above and beyond the classic narrative of a wartime prison escape is the way in which the film captures, twenty years after the events it is documenting, a particular place and time. Showing the ways in which a mutating world seeks to define the individual through notions of race, nationality and creed. A form of definition which blights and limits, rather than liberates.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

the wolf of wall street (d. scorsese, w. terrence winter)

Lets call a spade a spade and a turkey a turkey. Despite generally positive reviews, rest assured that the Wolf of Wall Street is in reality a wolf with no clothes. Befuddled critics have been flummoxed by the Scorsese brand, which is there to full effect. Goodfellas voiceover, Casino narrative switchbacks, Mean Streets soundtrack etc etc. It’s like watching a Scorsese tribute band. The only trouble is that the tribute band has the original on bass, lead guitar and vocals. And goes on for so long you’ve almost forgotten what day it is when you come out. It’s one thing sitting through three hours of this if you’re getting paid for it and another if you’re the one forking out.

As such, before we even touch the subject matter, it’s an increasingly depressing experience. Increasingly, because the film opens with a certain amount of whiplash chutzpah. McConaughey’s cameo is the best bit of (over-) acting in the film. (The whole film is garishly over-acted, which is in keeping with a film which is garish and over-everything.) However, after about 45 minutes it becomes clear that the narrative and the edit have run away with the leash and they’re not going to be coming back in a hurry. Thereafter, as DiCaprio nerds his way around town, seeing the old master stumble through his paces becomes more and more dispiriting. Like watching an old boxer step back into the ring once too often.

Like many films which purport to be decadent and laden with vice, WOWS is a deeply nerdish enterprise. All the characters are borderline sociopaths, people who have the emotional intelligence of a peanut. DiCaprio, Marty et al might argue that that’s the point, that this is a savage indictment of US greed, but when the filmmakers themselves, from top down, are gorging themselves with such obvious delight, it’s hard to take this line in any way seriously. Boiler Room, a low-budget film, addressed the same material with much more punch. The slightly theatrical Margin Call got much closer to the nub of the matter. There’s nothing creative or revelatory about DiCaprio’s fall from grace as a low-rent Bernie Madoff. Indeed, far from critiquing its protagonist and his world, it’s evident that the film relishes and celebrates it.

You have to put this in some kind of context. In what other country or industry would a 71 year old man be put in charge of a budget of $100,000,000 (estimated, IMDB) and allowed to make a film laden with busty young women and drug-taking. If this is Scorsese’s Nero moment, it just goes to show how tedious the fantasies of a geriatric are. That he lives in a society which allows him to indulge these fantasies isn’t his fault. That he allows himself to tarnish his body of work is. Then again, when the dust has settled, no-one’s going to be going back to the Wolf to find out what was special about Marty. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

the planets [sergio chejfec]

To say that The Planets is a dense text would be to do it a disservice. It almost seems to possess a texture all its own, more akin to reading braille than the printed word. There is a temptation to use the word ‘viscous’, but braille is more appropriate. Lurking beneath the stickiness are subterranean meanings which won’t give themselves up lightly.

Kafka is a point of reference. The text includes visits to a Buenos Aires synagogue as Chejfec acknowledges a semetic tradition. It might be unPC to categorise literature according to race, but the influence of the Torah and the interpretative science it demands would appear to have influenced Jewish writers (and filmmakers, cf Aranofsky’s Pi) through the ages. The reading/writing of a book is a quest to discern hidden meaning, a quest shared by reader and author alike.

Chejfecs narrative, in so far as it can be pinned down, deals with the unnamed narrator’s friendship with “M” (another Kafkaesque touch). M vanishes one day from the Buenos Aires streets. The narrator assumes he has been murdered and also tortured. In spite of the narrator’s assertion that M had no political involvement, he appears to be another victim of Argentina’s dirty war against its own people. However, the novel seems less concerned with the political aspects of M’s fate than the metaphysical implications. In the narrator’s hands, the book becomes an evaluation of loss, and therefore history. (For what is history in the end, except the accumulation of endless loss?)

The book consists of seven chapters, with each chapter a diversion containing its own diversions. Random stories are included, told by half-formed characters who we never really get to know, such as M’s father. The net effect is a gradual overwhelming, or seduction, of the reader. The absence of a coherent narrative is compensated for by the reader’s vertiginous journey into the mystery of Chejfec’s prose, a mystery which appears to be constantly revealing itself without ever letting the reader know what exactly is going on.

The remarkable thing about Chejfec’s book is that, despite choosing to veer so radically from the classical Western narrative model, it proves to be such a delirious reading experience. The Planets succeeds in being both an engrossing text, as well as one that challenges received notions of how the novel can, or should, communicate with its reader.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

hypothermia [alvaro enrigue]

Enrigue’s quasi-novel is a smart, cold stab at puncturing the balloon of globalisation. A series of delicately connected short stories range across the Americas, from Peru to Washington DC, related by a succession of first person narrators. Through a process of osmosis the text skips from Lima to North Carolina, from DC to DF. Many of the stories address the issues surrounding the word ‘gringo’, (which might have made for an alternative title), as the narrator, more often than not a Mexican male, adapts to life in the US. How many years, the book seems to ask, does it take for a Mexican living in the States to transform himself into a gringo?

This globalised vision is constructed from small, domestic tales of loss or betrayal. There are stories about affairs, about domestic tragedy, about blue-collar life. Some of the stories are less than a page long, others developed in far greater depth. It’s never made overtly clear when a story will connect with another – there’s a touch of Cortazar’s Hopscotch in the way the book skips, elliptically, between its various narrative threads. Hypothermia is a pot-pourri of modern life. Albeit one that seems, perhaps, more adept at pinpointing the zones of contemporary tension than getting under their skin. Another point of reference might be Iñárritu and Arriaga’s artful global fable, Babel. Both texts suggesting that Mexico, a country on the hinge of first and third worlds, makes for an ideal vantage point from which to observe the contradictions of modernity, where the poor want what the rich have and the rich are never sure what price they have paid in the obtaining of their wealth…or how much it costs to obtain the things the poor still possess which they no longer have.