Sunday, 27 December 2015

the barbarian nurseries [hector tobar]

Reading Tobar’s novel, the thought of Zola came to mind. I’ve only read one Zola novel, over thirty years ago, and can’t remember much about it. So it was more of an associative, instinctive thought than anything worthy of a literature PhD. In truth, the word Zola could have been Dickens or Balzac or, any other suitable 19th century novelist who set out to tackle their world in all its verticality. 

Tobar’s protagonist is a gawky Mexican nanny, called Araceli. When the parents of the two kids she’s looking after go AWOL, Araceli takes them on a misguided trip through Los Angeles’ hinterlands in a bid to find their grandfather. This mission doesn’t go to plan and Araceli ends up paying the price for her good intentions. Tobar’s story is not overly complex. It’s a slow burner, which takes its time to let both narrative and world unwind. The characters, principally Araceli and her two charges, Brandon and Keenan and their parents, Scott and Maureen, are not so much formed as assembled, gradually acquiring depth and colour as their story unfolds. It’s a meticulous, detailed investigation of Californian society, which looks not merely at the social divide between the Mexican nanny and her arriviste employers, but also the legal and political structures which underpin this social system.

The Barbarian Nurseries is never the most subtle of novels. It benefits from a clear sense of dramatic tension: we don’t know how, firstly, the children’s fate, and secondly, Araceli’s fate, are going to pan out. However, more than anything else, this is a novel that looks to expose the unspoken inequalities of our contemporary world. These inequalities reside in the space where ‘first’ and ‘third’ world meet. They are present every day in the glorious West, only to be resolutely ignored by the arts, with the occasional honorable exception. Where are the contemporary novelists trying to get to grips with our savage matrix? Perhaps they’re out there and they’ve passed me by, but to my mind Tobar’s novel is remarkable as the exception rather than the rule. 

There’s a rationale to this. Literature generally emerges from a set society. Writers emerge from these societies, knowing their world intimately, but lacking the same depth of understanding of the other parallel worlds which live in suspension, surrounding their primary universe. (The rings of Saturn.) Tobar’s immersion in the dual Anglo-Mexican world of Los Angeles, a city which sits on a contemporary faultline of the globalised world, offers him privileged access. On the whole, the role of a successful novelist works against their ability to analyse the actuality of the world. The successful novelist, in the Western world, enters a bubble of friendly festivals and like-minded literary souls, where they drink fine wine or organic juices, and glory, as they have every right to, in their brilliance. A brilliance which isolates them from the other worlds, which are less brilliant, darker, less accessible. Success, when it comes to the job of depicting the world, is a poisoned chalice. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that there aren’t more novelists out there, probing at the warp and weave of a globalised world, (which, today, is the world, just as much as any localised world, beautifully concocted, might be the world), even though the novel retains its primacy as the most effective artistic medium for this kind of vertical investigation. The hybrid nature of our unjust world is precisely the thing that mitigates against it receiving the imaginative analysis which a Zola, or a Dickens, brought to their worlds. Tobar’s doughy, conscientious novel kicks back against the tide. It’s a welcome attempt to penetrate the myth of Western security, which is perhaps all the more subversive for its gentle, warm-hearted tone.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

under a cruel star; a life in prague 1941-1968 [heda margoilis kovály]

There are several little known second world war texts written by Jewish writers, besides those of Primo Levi. Mihail Sebastian’s tragic diary is one, Piotr Raciz’s novel is another. Heda Margoilis Kovály’s memoir incorporates not merely the horror of the concentration camps but also the subsequent Stalinist purges in her native Czechoslovakia, which lead to the death of her husband. At times it is a terrible document, laced with a survivor’s chutzpah. The book contains three principle sections. The first describes her experiences in the second world war; the second the events surrounding her husband’s murder by the state; and the final section deals with the Prague Spring. The stories from the second world war are unadorned and brutal. They include one astonishing anecdote, when the young and spirited Heda tells a local factory owner exactly what the Nazis were doing. He has either been unaware of feigned unawareness; her account stuns him. It’s impossible to know what people did or didn’t know in wartime Germany about the extremity of the barbarism of Nazi policy. This anecdote is one of the few, coming from a Jewish source, which suggests that the state acted at a level the populace was unaware of. Having escaped, Heda is then subjected to another kind of ignominy, which is the way in which her fellow Czechs are too scared to protect her once she gets to Prague. This prefigures what will happen to her in the fifties, when the local population buys the Communist state’s lies and accords her and her son pariah status following the false imprisonment and execution of her husband, Rudolf. This episode contains a terrible sense of inevitable doom, with Heda unable to change the tide of history. To say it’s a Kafkaesque fable might seem somewhat obvious, but to think that he was another Prague Jew who, but for his early death, might have shared this fate, is unnerving. As though in his novels he is prefiguring what will happen to his countrymen and women over the course of the following decades. The final section, which describes events surrounding the Prague Spring, is revelatory in so far as it shows that, even though Dubcek and the reformers failed, they sowed the seed for the eventual demise of the repressive regime through the way in which the people themselves changed as a result of a taste of freedom. A change what would take another 20 years to bear fruit, but, as Kovály’s memoir shows, the pace of history operates in a way is not always apparent on the surface. Kovály’s book is another testament to the power of literature, or the written word, as an agent of resistance; no matter how crushed the human spirit, the word will always remain as a weapon to counteract the banal cruelties of history. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

the movies of my life [alberto fuguet]

The 50 films of your life. Which 50 movies would you use in order to tell the story of your life? They’d have to fulfil differing roles. On the one hand, there are movies whose narratives had a particular resonance. On the other there are films which you happened to see at key moments, or with key people. Or there are movies which just seemed emblematic of a time and place in your life. In other words, the list isn’t curated on aesthetic grounds alone. There’s something slightly random about it. It could well be that one of your worst cinema experiences was one of the most significant. Sitting through a film with someone who didn’t want to be with you, or on a day when you’d rather have been doing something else, but that something else wasn’t there to be done. Cinema going is a curious pastime; you shut yourself up inside and place yourself in a completely passive mode for a couple of hours or so, staring at a screen, and yet this passivity has a strangely active dimension. When we go to the movies, we feel as though we’re doing something; although in reality we’re doing very little.

This is the quirky premise that Fuguet adopts to narrate if not the life of his protagonist, Beltran Soler, then the early years. As such it’s a Prousitan mission which reaps Proustian rewards. Beltran’s movies start when he’s 2, (Born Free) and end when he’s 16 (An Unmarried Woman). This is a coming of age story, told against the backdrop of Pinochet’s Chile. The first 8 years of Beltran’s life are spent in California, where his family have moved to; thereafter they return to Chile. A slight twist to the tale is that Soler’s family, whilst fundamentally apolitical, is more pro-Pinochet than anti; this is not the classic resistance narrative we have come to expect from dictatorship Latin America. Instead, it’s a gentle tale of growing up, with all the difficulties which go with it, no matter the political conditions. Discovering the opposite sex; trying to find out who your friends are; what you want from life; and, above all, coping with the family which destiny or genetics has donated.

Young Beltran’s childhood is refracted through the mostly Hollywood films of the 70’s and early 80’s he watches at the cinema. Titles like The Towering Inferno or The Deep figure, reflecting the tentacular reach of Hollywood as it infiltrates every child’s life. Beltran’s taste is MOR; there’s nothing arty about it, but at the same time, it also reveals how art, of any kind, can exert a grip. Above all in those films about family which Beltran watches which help him to understand that his dysfunctional family is not the only one out there. The narrator’s observation on watching Spielberg’s Close Encounters is that it “had me believing in UFO’s but not in families. 

In a recent visit to Chile, I had a few conversations about their contemporary literature. Bolano looms large, like an absentee father. The writer who left and became the most famous Chilean writer of modern times. Fuguet’s book has none of Bolano’s prose fireworks and little of his strangeness. Yet it does retain, in both its more detached prologue and its structure something reminiscent of the exiled Chilean. There’s something about the idea of an anthology, or that Borgesian library, that is intrinsic to the book’s structural ambitions. The story and the structure interlock with a seismic neatness. A celebration of youth and cinema at the same time. 

What are the fifty films of your life?

Monday, 30 November 2015

satin island [tom mccarthy]

McCarthy’s Satin Island is a puzzling novel but its also a return to form. Puzzling is what McCarthy does best and its a pleasure to see him back messing around with narrative expectations and throwing signifiers around like confetti. There’s a tendency, which I share, to use the word ‘signifiers’ as something of a catch-all, to denote a writer who appears to be aware of the semiotic weight of the themes (or memes, fuck knows) they introduce into their narratives. In the case of Satin Island, the novel’s protagonist is an anthropologist whose hero is Lévi-Strauss, so the term signifier is not merely apposite, its also necessary for a book where the semiotic significance of the material outweighs the narrative significance.

It might be worth trying to explain or justify that last phrase. McCarthy really doesn’t seem to be all that interested in narrative. Things do happen to the hero, but nothing worth writing home about. He travels a bit, he has a part-time girlfriend, with whom he sleeps, and he works for a mysterious organisation. But if we look at the classical Western narrative model, so beloved by the British, where the protagonist goes on a journey, in the process revealing or discovering things about him or herself, and by extension, the process of being human… forget it. That’s not McCarthy’s bag. Perhaps it’s a matter of minor frustration, because no matter what, narrative does matter in a novel, even in a post-Robbe Grillet anti-narrative novel, but at the same time, it’s not the only thing; and it might be that the British inhabit a literary culture where narrative tends to be prioritised above another key feature of the novel, which is that it is a space of discourse. 

I’d like to put those last three words in italics, but shall resist the impetus. What they suggest is that a novel is a place where a writer assembles various thoughts, and these thoughts are perhaps the thing that makes it distinctive, above and beyond the structure. These thoughts are arranged around themes, or memes, or perhaps, even, signifiers. This is where McCarthy comes into his own. He curates signifiers and arranges them throughout the novel. The fact that this is also, effectively, the job of the novel’s protagonist offers a Borgesian twist. The novel is also the anthropological paper which the protagonist is writing. Skydivers; Turin airport; the Gerona G8 summit; the way cancer cells function; all are part of the meaning and meaninglessness of modern life and all documented as such. At times we want to think this is all building towards something, that an underpinning narrative will reveal itself, but this says as much about our inherent need for an external order to be imposed as anything else. It’s a commentary on the act of reading. The novel’s denouement, where the protagonist doesn’t actually get to where he seems to be headed, would appear to reinforce this point. 

Perhaps it’s even more puzzling that this novel was short-listed for the Booker prize. The idea of the anti-novel, as practiced by the likes of Chejfec, Toussaint and others, infiltrating the British publishing mainstream is a delirious one. McCarthy may well be the only British novelist capable of being both slyly subversive and successful at the same time. 

Friday, 27 November 2015

the best of enemies (w&d. robert gordon & morgan neville)

The Best of Enemies is an intriguing if de rigeur documentary about the TV debates between two intellectuals at the time of the 1968 conventions in the USA, the first in Miami, the second, notoriously, in Chicago. The two men, Gore Vidal and William Buckley share a deep loathing for one another, something which gives the film its strongest suit. There’s no shortage of conflict. The narrative takes us through the sequence of the debates. The simmering antipathy finally boils over when Vidal calls Buckley a crypto-Nazi and he responds by calling Vidal a queer and threatening to smash his face in. It’s a moment of highly theatrical television which broke the civilised etiquette of the time and established the potency of the debate format which is still pervasive in media coverage of politics. 

However, having said all of this, and without denying that the film does what it sets out to do efficiently and at times amusingly, it feels as though The Best of Enemies fails to draw out some of the subtler aspects of its narrative. It briefly comments on the way in which the two men’s upbringing was very similar, but, watching them today, what strikes you is not the ideological divide that existed between them, but everything they had in common. Both patrician servants of a social and political structure which now seems incredibly outdated. This is another America, one which was already in the process of being reconstructed from within. The events of the Democrat Chicago convention could clearly have made a film in their own right. (The doc uses footage from Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, one of the great pioneering doc-dramas). Perhaps its unfair to chastise a film for suggesting another even more interesting film which lurks within its digital rushes, but in comparison to Hunter S Thompson’s incendiary journalism from this period of US history, for example, it can’t help but feel slightly prosaic, as though honing in on two people having an argument about what to have for supper, without realising the restaurant they’re sitting in is on the point of burning down. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

the appointment [herta müller]

A woman gets on a tram to fulfil an appointment with her interrogator, Albu. Albu is a henchman of the Ceausescu regime. He’s brutish, possessed of a savage subtlety, and at the same time both marginal and central to the woman’s life. The narrative is threaded around this tram journey, which will take as long as the novel lasts. In between times, the narrator ducks in and out of her story, explaining how she came to be where she is, taking a tram to visit her interrogator. The fact that this journey seems almost voluntary makes it all the more chilling, because of course, it is not. There’s no escaping Albu. The fact that he permits you to go home after the interrogation ends doesn’t mean to say that it will ever end, that you are ever off the hook. The interrogations will continue for as long as the regime continues. This late 20th century Eastern European world is still resolutely Kafkaesque, after all these years. During the (tram) journey of the novel, the narrator describes her life to the reader. Her alcoholic boyfriend, Paul, her stark upbringing, the neighbours who spy on her and Paul, for one of whom she buys a notebook to assist him in his task. This is a down-at-heel, desolate Morrissey tune of a novel, only one where instead of ennui, the subject is gripped by a necessary and unavoidable paranoia. The noose is slowly closing in and there’s no escaping it. The trick, the narrator tells us, is not go to mad. Her acerbic observations and semi-transgressive friendship with the enigmatic and doomed Lilli help us to understand that she is, so far, succeeding in this aim, of not going mad, but it’s always there, the madness of despair, lurking round the corner, waiting to be thrown out of the window with the bedclothes and the pillows. Müller’s text is not an easy read, but then again, the life her heroine leads is not an easy life. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

portrait of the artist as a young man [joyce]

A long long time ago, as a young man, I first read this curious, radical novel. I have no idea what I made of it then. There remains a shadow memory of a study, which looked onto a courtyard, built in the finest 80s red-brick tradition. Perhaps a mud-green bean-bag. Perhaps not. Another time, another world, Joyce’s text all but forgotten. For some reason a trigger activated in the last fortnight and I decided to return to the text of youth. The first thing that struck me, through the first two chapters, was how readable it was; how funny; how game. Still fresh, the ear for dialogue functioning like a butterfly net. It’s an arresting opening, it grabs you by the wrist and drags you into its world. The tone changes in the third chapter. God intervenes. Another note swims to the surface on the back of other Joycean preoccupations. The novel began to slip away from me. “The world for all its solid substance and complexity no longer existed for his soul save as a theorem of divine power and love and universality”. And indeed, this is the case with the book, which chooses to forego the clod, the earth the solid, resorting instead to the speculative and the ethereal. Here, Joyce and I struggled to stay in touch. Then he returned in the closing chapter, with its rambling searching conversations carved out of walks and wonderings with friends and foes. Politics, literature, art and most dangerously, love, return to fly their flags and it feels as though reader and writer have managed to overcome a theological crisis; ready to take on the world once more. Which is not unlike the sensation of being a young man, or woman, when the moment arrives where the question of why our existence might be worth celebrating becomes one that has none of the simplicity of childhood; when the wrestling must be done in earnest before the course is plotted and there is no turning back. “April 26. Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life, I go to encounter the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Monday, 9 November 2015

el clan (d. pablo trapero, w. trapero, julian loyola, esteban student)

El Clan is a pungent real-life story which has more than a hint of Goodfellas or Animal Kingdom, whilst also being steeped in the political corruption of the Argentinean dictatorship. Over the course of his last few films, it has seemed as though Trapero has been aspiring to a semi-Hollywood aesthetic, seeking to make big-budget thrillers set in his country, discarding his earlier Argentine new-wave aesthetic, in a way that someone like Lucretia Martel has not. In the process he has sacrificed subtlety for effect and his most recent films have tended towards a slightly bombastic, melodramatic tone. In El Clan, it feels like he’s starting to get the Latino-Hollywood blend right, pulling off the political thriller with some verve.

The film is set around the end of the Argentine dictatorship in the early 80s. Arquimedes, a retired naval officer, now owns a grocery store, but runs a tidy kidnapping business on the side. This is done with the tacit knowledge of the military authorities who have taken their skills in disappearing supposed revolutionaries and applied them to more commercial ends, targeting the rich for their money. Arquimedes runs this business from home, not only organising his operations there, but also keeping his victims chained up and blindfolded in the basement, whilst his teenage kids do their homework upstairs. His oldest son, Alejandro, is roped into the action. Alejandro has the perfect cover as a promising rugby player: no one is ever going to suspect he’s involved in kidnapping and ultimately murdering the acquaintances he’s made through his posh pursuit.

Trapero handles the storytelling with vigour. Early on, there’s a distinctive, Scorsese-esque use of The Kinks ‘Sunny Afternoon’, flagging up the director’s intentions to make a film which has a more global perspective. The filmmaker understands that the story depends on capturing the relationships within the family. Guillermo Francella’s inscrutable anti-hero, Arquimedes, is a chilling baddie, who nevertheless takes time to help his daughter with her homework and give his wife a massage. It’s the banality of evil which is captured in his performance, something that emerges from the military-political culture he’s a product of, one which has lost all touch with the notion of a moral order. In this world, to kidnap and to murder is fine; and if the family question this, then they too are flirting with the enemy. His sons, the next generation which is capable of recognising guilt, suffer his tyranny; their guilt in the end absorbs them in a way it never could their father. By tying his mafia-style story into its political context, Trapero succeeds in adding something into the mix Hollywood struggles to achieve: a recognition that a society’s moral codes are tied to its structures of governance. This helps to make El Clan a more profoundly affecting movie, above and beyond its bid to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Scorsese. There are still moments, such as the drawn-out denouement, which feel as though they might have benefitted from a less melodramatic approach of an earlier film like Born and Bred, but its good to see Trapero on form, and continuing to grow as a director. 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

illogic in kassel [vila matas]

Vila Matas’ novel describes a writer’s visit to the Kassel Documenta art-fair of 2012, where he is commissioned to write in a Chinese Restaurant, something he’s not terribly keen on. The writer in question is Vila Matas himself. Which instantly raises the question, is this a work of fiction or is it a factual account. Or is Illogic in Kassel in fact ‘faction’. The artists whose work the book describes in rigorous detail are real enough, as are the works of art themselves.  One assumes, therefore, that Vila Matas’ commission was also real.This is the European nouveau-roman, one that uses the purported real as its point of departure, with a purportedly real author as the protagonist. It reads as much like a journal as a novel, and perhaps it’s the dissonance between what the writer writes and what he has the character of the writer say that lends the book a certain amount of dramatic tension. If the writer and the ‘writer’ are not one and the same person, which one is which and who is leading whom?

Although it has to be said, that dramatic tension is not there in spades. Rather this is another novel which mines the furrow of the writer’s ruminations. Some of which are engaging. Vila Matas is never short of a sideways glance at the world and its wives. However, the book lacks the easy, refreshing charm of Bartleby and Sons. Or perhaps its just that this reader currently has less patience for the meandering rhythm of a novel which sometimes feels like an anti-narrative. It feels as though the author is wallowing in the richest, most fertile of material: the relationship of art to the world; the shape of the avant-garde; the need for immediacy and urgency in art; all of the above and more; tickling the contradictions of conceptualism and the art market itself, which has become nothing more or less than the biggest market out there. The author’s there in the mud and muck of the early 21st century intellectual pretension (for better of for worse) but it’s never clear how this encounter affects him. At the end will he crawl out of the post-cordial slime a changed man? Or is this just cultural tourism dressed up as lamb? 

This, for me, is where the act of storytelling might have been beneficial; whether or not the narrative the writer embellished reflected his views on the subject matter. Because as readers we discern meaning not just through observations and reflections, but also through the way in which the writer shapes these observations and reflections into a vision which is contained within story. Even a post-modern story where the author is protagonist. At times it feels as though Vila Matas hides behind his supposed transparency, and his real, contradictory feelings are stifled as he seeks to honour a commission he never really wanted in the first place. 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

the yacoubian building [alaa-al-aswany]

Alaa-Al-Aswanys novel has a curious timelessness about it. The Egypt it depicts doesn’t seem all that far removed from Albert Cossery’s Splendid Conspiracy. The matrix of heat, poverty and power generates a torpor which suggests an unchanging world, one where none of its three defining elements will ever change. Power, above all, resides in the grasp of a select, military-protected few, whose grubby self-centredness ensures the nation remains in a state of neo-feudalism. What affects the country is not capitalism, communism or Islamism; it’s venality, dressed up as politics. In the face of this monolithic governing principle, for ordinary citizens to aspire to anything better feels hopeless. Against this backdrop, the lives of the novel’s multiple protagonists play themselves out, almost all headed towards a desultory conclusion. 

However, this isn’t the fifties. it’s the nineties, with the US and its allies, including Egypt, on the point of going to war with Iraq for a first time. As a result, this is a Cairo which is both old-hat and new-hat. The events of the past decade are prefigured. Something is stirring, something which will continue to incubate over the course of the next twenty years or so before it erupts in Tahrir Square. Literature has the power to act like a depth sounder, dropped off the side of the boat, fathoming the deep. In the lives of Taha and Busayna, above all, the currents which are dragging Egyptian society towards revolution and conflict are sounded out. The novel’s artistry lies in the way it knits its portrait of its world together, illustrating, through the present tense of its action, Egypt's past and future. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

inherent vice [thomas pynchon]

OK, so this isn’t vintage Pynchon. In amongst the laurels there were quite a few brickbats for the novel when it came out. It’s not hard to understand why. There’s a relentless frothiness to the narrative and prose, something akin to the holy surfer who is one of the dozens of barely-fleshed-out characters who pops up. Like the surfer, Pynchon seems to ride the waves of his prose, waiting for the one that will propel him onto a higher plain. This doesn’t occur all that often in what is a typically lengthy, if not meaty, tome. However, in the decision to riff off Chandler and Hammett, (with even an occasional nod to his contemporary, Elroy), Pynchon doesn’t seem too fussed with the transcendental or the parabola. This is a nostalgic, amiable text, where the hero, Doc Sportello, will not end up propelled into space, where the hero is, in fact, a hero, who tends to the meek and skirmishes with the forces of evil. It’s more Tolkien than Dostoyevsky. The novel doesn’t even have the metaphysical aspect of a similarly secondary text, Vineland. However, who’s to say that every writer should always emulate his or her peaks? If twere all peaks, the land would be flat. Inherent Vice has enough to keep the reader on their toes, trying to keep pace with the manic process of the detective novel, something Pynchon embraces with delight. This is a Maltese Falcon of a novel, ridiculous and charming at the same time. If anything, it would seem to suggest a paean to a youth the author may or may not have known, the beguiling simplicities of a pre-connected world, when personal space still existed; before we were all plugged into the mainframe. For those that remember that time, Inherent Vice is a treat; for those who, increasingly, will not, it is a pseudo-archeological record, as befuddling and vital as a Mayan codex. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

radical cities (justin mcguirk)

What does architecture have to do with politics? Why is Latin America at the vanguard of post-Fukuyama history? What might the future look like? McGuirk addresses all of these issues in a fluent analysis of contemporary architectural practice in various Latin countries. The book would appear to have been assembled from half a dozen essays, occasionally giving it a slightly homespun, bricolage effect, but this is in complete keeping with the subject matter. The beauty of Radical Cities is the way in which the issues it addresses are so much broader than its apparent brief. As the title suggests, this is a book about the structure of cities, but it's also an urgent investigation into how the urbanised human race might continue to co-exist in a far from egalitarian world. The notion that the space you inhabit affects not just your happiness but also your ethical perspective is effectively made. Furthermore, the book incorporates an implicit commentary on the fate of European architecture in the 21st century, where the profession has become an exercise in marshalling glass and steel for the benefit of wealth production. The idea that it is also an art/profession that might have a positive social impact has been marginalised by the pseudo-Egyptian megastars whose banal vision would appear to be homogenising cityscapes around the world, eradicating difference. Although it may be that this opinion is provoked to an extent by the fact that I find myself writing this in a cafe in the shade of London's Liverpool Street, rather than Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo. 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

narcoland [annabel hernandez] & toro negro (d. carlos armella, pedro gonzález rubio)

Narcoland and Toro Negro

Mexico is a bewitching country which also happens to be in a state of disarray. To use British understatement. Annabel Hernandez' book is like reading an account of a messy operation. Surgical, but far from clean. She bravely deconstructs the chaos of her country, tracing links bewteen governments and drugs dealers, laying bare a cynical manipulation of power and wealth. It's a sometimes confusing read, as a blizzard of names from over thirty years are assembled to construct the patchwork quilt which is that same nation carved up by the various cartels and their government allies. The war on drugs is once again shown to be the war for drugs, with the book scratching at the surface of the ties that link events in Mexico to the politics of its Northern neighbour. For those that know about this sort of thing, there's a beguiling reference to Daniel Hopsicker, hinting at those other conspiracies which go hand in hand with the sheer volume of financial gain the drugs industry generates.

Toro Negro is a little-known documentary which has nothing to do with the drugs trade. Instead it tells the tale of a petty bullfighter, whose kamikaze courage outtflanks his skill and whose life is bathed in poverty. His battles with his girlfriend are as fiercely contested as those with the bulls. It's a vivid, hands-on doc, so intimate that at times it seems almost voyeuristic. The director acknowledges his own presence with one revealing shadow shot; there are moments when it seems as though he cannot help but cross the line from being the passive eye to becoming an active participant in the bullfighter's personal dramas. Toro Negro prowls the breeze block houses and shanty bars where its impoverished characters live, in the process lending the documentary the detailed pathos of a novel by Zola or Dickens. It's a great film, and it's also a fine counterpoint to Hernandez' book: the micro to its macro. It documents the desperation that drives young men and women to flirt with violence and death. The bullfighter may have found another way, but his spectacular, foolhardy courage makes him a blood-brother to those who choose to take the narco-path. Many of the leading narcos detailed in Narcoland started off poor, desperate, ready to do anything to get a step up; ready to ride the horns of the bull if that is what it takes. 

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

hawksmoor [peter ackroyd]

It's interesting to note what Ackroyd himself has to say about Hawksmoor. (You can find it on his Wiki page.) This is a messy, half-formed novel, full of strands and ideas which barely hold together. The historical architect, Hawksmoor, is reinvented as Nicholas Dyer, whose alter-ego is Hawksmoor, a 20th Century policeman who never looks like getting close to solving his case. The book increasingly resembles a shaggy dog story, whose captivating elements will never coalesce into a coherent narrative.

Nevertheless...I read it whilst staying down the road from Hawksmoor's grand Spitalfields church. In my lifetime East London has mutated perhaps as much as it did in the gap between the book's 18th century world and the one Ackroyd was writing in, in the 1980s. When I first came to London this was still a zone which maybe belonged to murderers and alchemists. Now it belongs to bankers and ersatz artists. The warehouses are full of designer goods. The streets pine for the days they were desolate, not so long ago. Ackroyd's book helps to take you back to its former anti-glories. Walk down to the churchyard, and even though a new visitor centre is being built there, it manages to retain, in Winter, a down-at-heel feel which is in juxtaposition with the grandeur of the architect's vision. One day, the wheel will turn again and the shiny new world will start to lose its gloss. Meanwhile, Ackroyd's book, flawed as it may be, will be there to act as a bridge, linking the origins of our flawed enlightenment with the seeds of its demonic demise, which, the book suggests, is concealed within the architect's vision, hidden behind its glory.