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.