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?