Saturday, 30 January 2016

the revenant (d. iñárritu; w. iñárritu & mark l smith)

What a curiously hollow film, from Iñárritu. Spectacular, wrapped up with the most gorgeous wrapping paper ever made, but inside, nothing more than a bauble. There’s a moment towards the beginning when you think that there might something going on in the use of subtitled Pawnee and its depiction of the native American Indians. The Rhee chief delivers a forceful speech to the French militiaman about theft and colonialism which hints at a subtext. Perhaps the Mexican will break through the stereotypes and succeed in inveighing the indigenous population with the protagonism they deserve. But the mute, affected Native Indians remain bit-part players who fulfil their expected roles. Glass’ widow speaks words of pantheistic wisdom; the witchdoctor Indian saves his brutalised body with the use of an effective sauna technique, whilst not being smart enough to outwit the drunken French militia; the Rhee plod along towards their destiny with implacable expressions and an iridescent violence. This review is already giving them more focus than the movie. Had it been made fifty or over twenty five years ago, perhaps the “authenticity” might have impressed, a trick Costner pulled off with Dances With Wolves, but in the end this is no more than another gringo Western, with a lame revenge narrative as its motor. The simplicity plays to the market; you don’t have to think too much whilst watching this movie; it’s a visceral ride. Macho film-making at its least subtle, a point consolidated by the cliched sub-Malick flashback scenes of the dreamy moments when Glass and his bride lived an idyllic life full of arcadian beauty. Like the Native population, women are a marginalised element whose presence in the narrative would only get in the way of men doing their thing. All of this is redeemed to a certain extent by the wonder of Lubezki’s camera. Iñárritu’s erstwhile partner, Arriaga, who wrote a much more complex, intriguing Western, must be smiling ironically to himself, like Moctezuma, at the way the gods distribute their favours. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

do something do something do something [joseph riippi]

Riippi’s terse, brutal novel is recounted by three different narrators whose idiosyncratic voices dovetail. A pair of siblings and a disenchanted playwright. The novel is set largely on the East Coast (New York) and the West, (Seattle), with both cities casting their shadow over proceedings. It’s a deliberately fragmentary book, assembled from a clutch of interconnected anecdotes and memories, which get shared around by the three characters. There’s considerable skill in the way the writing will throw out a reference which the reader can’t quite pin down; where did it occur previously, who owned this image before? Into this lattice-work effect the writer stitches scenes of cruelty; a man loses his infant child; a woman recovers from a brutal rape; her brother is in hospital because he cannot control his violent urges. This is dog-end America, a country you probably don’t want to know, where the legacy of 911 generates racism and suspicion. It’s a slender, desperate text which, in spite of its erudition, never has that smug tone which too many US writers cannot avoid. The voices it grants space to feel genuinely on edge, carved out of nightmares which contain no redemption. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

white masks [elias khoury]

Khoury’s novel is a patchwork quilt of a book; a murder mystery with the mystery stripped back as far as possible and the murder itself reduced to the role of an accomplice. Because this isn’t a novel about a murder; it’s a novel about a society, the society within which the murder occurred. Khoury, going against all the rules of the genre, isn’t really interested in the murder; he’s interested in what war and sectarianism can achieve, how they can tear the social fabric asunder. Each of White Mask’s 7 chapters, apart from the first, narrated by the victim’s widow, offers a tangential take on the life and death of Khalil Ahmad Jaber, a civil servant who starts to lose his mind after his favourite son is killed fighting. An architect, a blinded soldier; a doctor; a widowed mother, among others, all are granted their opportunity to tell us what they know about Khalil, but more than that, to tell us about themselves and the way their lives have been transformed by the civil war. Thus, voice by voice, chapter by chapter, the writer constructs his quilt, revealing the values and the desperation of his Beirut. 

After reading Khoury’s Yalo, I realised it was one of the few books I’ve come across that offered some kind of insight into what’s occurring now in Syria. You can glean all you want from non-fiction; you can watch documentaries; you can feel informed. But you can’t know what it is to live there, how daily life functions, the compromises that have been forced upon people merely in order to survive. Only literature can begin to achieve that.

Neither Yalo nor White Masks deal with Syria: both are novels that address the dreadful, seemingly endless Lebanese civil war which was part of the backdrop of my own youth. However, without going into the political history of the region, to find parallels between Syrian and Lebanese society is not that much of a stretch. These books might have been written about a war which ended over thirty years ago, but the societies are similar, as is the gruesome nature of the civil wars which both countries have endured. Khoury’s writing retains its immediacy and importance; there are few sources as valuable as his novels for understanding the decades of strife and conflict which continue to afflict the Middle East.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

my documents [alejandro zambra]

My Documents is a collection of 15 short stories which are elliptically connected. A character charts the process of giving up cigarettes in one story and then in another another character with a different name talks about the time he used to smoke. This is just one of many latticed connections that hold the book together, lending the text a buoyancy as it unfolds. All the stories are “cotidiano” - low key, domestic, almost Carveresque tales about various individuals finding their way in the curious world of modern Chile. The spectre of Pinochet and the dictatorship hangs over the early part of the book. There’s a great description of an anti-Pinochet slogan mysteriously appearing on a school blackboard, and the teacher’s response to this. However, as in Fuguet’s text, The Movies of my Life, politics lurks below the surface, rather than on it. Much of the book deals with characters who appear subtly but almost invisibly damaged, like the child who repeats his year in school again and again, or the Walter Mitty cousin who’s house-sitting turns into a spiralling series of lies and minor deceptions. These tales are told both dispassionately and compassionately at the same time, if that’s possible; there’s no apparent sentimentality but we end up rooting for the characters the writer focuses on, largely because they are the underdogs and you always root for an underdog, even if their goal is nothing more grandiose than to give up smoking. When I started reading My Documents, it almost felt like an extension of Fuguet’s book; the opening pair of stories appear to be autobiographical and I began to wonder if all Chilean novelists weren’t secretly engaged on writing the same book. But as the stories roll out, the writer’s palette becomes more diverse, the self-referentiality less apparent. As it does so, the book starts to gather steam, taking the reader further and further into its complex Chilean world, until it gets to the final story which is genuinely nightmarish; whilst at the same time redemptive. By the time you finish the book, you feel as though you’ve been in the hands of a skilled operator, who has surgically dissected his society without appearing to have made any cuts at all. 

Friday, 15 January 2016

1606 [james shapiro]

This is Shapiro’s sequel to 1599. Same idea, different year, in the life of the Shake-speare. Once again, Shapiro offers a comprehensive historical resume of the year in question, shaped by plague, the travails of the new king and the Gunpowder Plot, an axis point in British history. 1606 is the year of Lear, Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra, so there’s no shortage of material for Shapiro to wrestle with. And wrestle with it he does, tracking down every available reference, exercising a prodigious use of contemporary accounts of witchcraft trials, court masques and much more besides. This is where the writer really earns his corn, wading through obscure texts so that you don’t have to in order to construct his portrayal of a precarious time, one where civil war was only a few decades away. The seeds of that war were present in James 1’s reign and Shapiro observes Shakespeare engaging with these conflicts within his texts. As a book, this reader found 1606 slightly less engaging that 1599, which represents a more accessible starting point, (as well as the chronological logic), with the author’s investigations becoming so immersed in the Jacobean world that Shakespeare himself sometimes seemed to slide out of focus. Nevertheless, for anyone with an interest in the three featured plays, or an advanced curiosity in the bard, Shapiro’s scholarship is an essential point of reference. 

Thursday, 14 January 2016

in patagonia [bruce chatwin]

I read In Patagonia in Patagonia. The reading of it was more accidental than that phrase might suggest. A few days before travelling, we went for supper with my old friend Mr Jorge Suarez, who said he had some books in English he was throwing out and asked if I wanted to have a look to see if there was any I was interested in. In Patagonia appeared with the kind of serendipity that occurs with a frequency to make you question whether more time and trouble shouldn’t be dedicated to the understanding of the term ‘serendipity’. 

The book has received a certain amount of revisionist criticism of late. Michael Jacobs, in his tome The Andes, suggests that Chatwin went around making things up. Jorge’s notes in the margin are not exactly complementary. It’s not hard to view Chatwin as a slightly over-educated dilettante who’s strolling through a landscape of which he has less understanding than he claims. HIs observations sometimes verge on the trite, and Jorge didn’t like his rude comments about Buenos Aires, which have a patronising British condescension to them.

Having said this, once Chatwin gets going on his mission to explore the region, In Patagonia becomes a wonderful piece of travel writing. Chatwin peppers his narrative with anecdotes and observations. He searches out and talks to all kinds of people, lifting the lid on the hybrid immigration which helped to define a remarkable, secluded part of the world. Plenty of doughty elderly British ladies, along with Scots, Germans, Persians and who knows what. There’s always an edge to Chatwin’s descriptions, but that just makes them all the more entertaining. Travel writing is an inevitably selective exercise. The writer picks out the things that grab their attention, missing all the other everyday material that doesn’t. Chatwin is constantly on the look-out for the offbeat, for the curious tale. Maybe it makes for a distorted picture, but any picture painted by the traveller is liable to be distorted. 

I’d hazard a guess that the Patagonia that Chatwin got to know, 40 years ago, has changed dramatically. National identities have been cemented in that time, and communication has changed beyond recognition. Chatwin doesn’t seem to have much interest in the original inhabitants of this land and one suspects this matches the opinions of that generation of Patagonians. Now, there’s a clearer consciousness of the lost world of the Selk’nam and the Yanhgan, the indigenous tribes who understood this land far better than the settlers. There’s also an Antarctic identity which has evolved, with the province seeing itself as much an extension of the great white continent as part of the Americas. The Patagonia that Chatwin portrays is one that was tied to the earliest settlers, who arrived at the turn of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. New stories have emerged in the forty years since the book the book was published; the speed of change across the globe affects everyone, even the end of the world. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating record of a time and a place, and acts as a marker for a quixotic, self-sconsicouly subjective style of travel writing that has since been much imitated; a suitable flattery for a restless, peculiarly British mind.


Another thought  upon returning: when Chatwin visited Patagonia, one imagines that, as a tourist, he was a rare beast. However, the tourist has now become a common species. The novelty factor of being an Englishman abroad has long gone in this part of the world, where goretexed folk with limited or no Spanish are ten a penny. This is clearly not just true for Patagonia, but all kinds of remote corners of the world which have recently opened up. Just as the explorers began to run out of new territory, now the travel writers’ framework has altered. He or she is no longer an emissary from a remote, exotic land; they have become commentators on cultural interchange. The anthropological aspect of travel writing recedes as every new internet connection shrink-wraps the an increasingly homogenous, globalised world. In few ways is this more apparent than in the clothing people wear; from Kashmir to Moscow to Lima, in my experience, a kind of neutralised, jeans and sweatshirt combination has become a norm. This doesn’t mean there aren’t stories to be told, (or that there’s aren’t exceptions to the rule to be hunted down), just that, from a travel writer’s point of view, the context and content of those stories have altered markedly since Chatwin’s time as a result of the abrupt rise in globalised tourism.