Wednesday, 30 August 2017

woes of the true policeman [bolaño]

According to the notes, Bolaño spent many years working on the Woes of the True Policeman, a novel which is clearly unfinished. How many writers have stuff lying around, which was in reality part of another project, a project which gradually took over. There might be novels that spring from nowhere, fully formed, but it seems more likely that every novel is the distillation of years of thought, notes, unfinished scraps. As a narrative, overall, Woes of the True Policeman is frustratingly incomplete: a host of parts which don’t add up and aren’t fully formed enough to stand on their own two feet.  There’s clearly a reason for this. An alternative title for the book might be Notes towards the Creation of 2666. Because this is a book which acts as an escort for another book which is now regarded as a masterpiece. The central character, Amalfitano,  is one of the protagonists of 2666. The book is steeped in the fictional history of the novelist Archimboldi, another key figure in 2666. The book touches on the issue of the femicides in a Mexican border town which also constitute a major element of 2666. 

It would appear that Woes of the True Policeman is made up of material which Bolaño chose, in the end, not to include in 2666. Or perhaps, if he hadn't been dying whilst he was completing that work, this would have been material which he would have found a way to have included had he had more time to work over the text. Certainly the section on Archimboldi, which includes synopses of his novels, accounts of his friendships and enemies, etcetera feels as though it might have slotted into 2666 fairly seamlessly. 

All of which is to say that the novel is of more interest to the Bolaño aficionado than it might be to the casual reader. The narrative has too many loose ends, the novel is too bitty. Having said all of that, the one thing which that any reader can take from this novel is the unadulterated pleasure of reading Bolaño's prose. There might have been greater stylists in twentieth century literature, but they will be few and far between. No-one picks up an idea and plays with it with quite such kittenish pleasure as Bolano, and that pleasure is something the reader basks in. For a partial, frustrating, unfinished novel, there’s still a hell of a lot to enjoy.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

aquellos dos (compañía luna lunera)

Four men come on stage and start to warm up. They stop and talk to the audience. The house lights stay on. Has the play started? Has it not? Will it ever? What's it about? The men move about the stage. There's a fluidity to everything. A story starts to emerge. Two men work in a Kafkaesque office. One day they start to talk about films over coffee. They will become friends. They might become lovers. They might not. They are sacked. They are released. 

This is an exercise in loose-limbed storytelling, even though the story is little more than a Macguffin for the company’s stagecraft. The stage is cut to ribbons by the four bodies, then it's reconstructed and cut to ribbons again. Life is captured in all its repetitive glory. Days become weeks become months become a story. We remember what it's like to work somewhere, how long it takes to make a friendship, how complex a friendship can be. The show, adapted from a novel by Caio Fernando Abreu, is part narrative, part dance. It restructures reality in its own image and makes us wonder how we would tell the story of our lives. Not the show of the highlights, but the show of the mundane in-between bits. How all those ephemeral moments might be captured, documented, celebrated. All the moments we have lived and already forgotten. 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

typewriters, bombs and jellyfish (tom mccarthy)

In this collection essays, McCarthy dips into his bag of stuff and comes out with his thoughts on Ulysses, Acker, Toussaint, Richter, Sterne, Lynch, Kafka among others. As we know and love, McCarthy likes to promenade in the more esoteric cultural corners. He has none of the Englishman’s fear of the pretentious, which sometimes works in his favour and sometimes works against him. Perhaps the key motif which connects the essays is his fascination with Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, which depicts a shattered typewriter, thrown from the window of a speeding Buick. This image celebrates the semiotic liberation of language, free to run wild, letters disassociated from their seemingly obligatory epistemological roots. (It’s an image which could have leapt out of Mallo’s Nocilla Dream.) McCarthy relishes the possibilities of language when it’s released from its tedious representational duties. His gods are Joyce and Mallarmé, both seers and pranksters at the same time. The longest. most sprawling of the essays is titled Nothing Will Have Taken Place Except the Place. It’s a wonderful splurge of thought, taking on Ruscha, Auden, Henry Blofeld, DeLillo, Mallarmé and Gordon’s remarkable film Zidane. When McCarthy goes full tilt at his material, allowing his mind to run riot, setting up threads which seem unlikely, implausible or irrelevant, is when it feels as though he’s at his strongest. When he postulates a more microscopic approach, it sometimes feels as though he’s in danger of drowning in a fog of whimsy or detail. His imagination needs the open road, just as much as Ruscha did. At times it feels as though McCarthy is the lone high-wire artist, steering his way between the twin towers of Anglo-Saxon culture and the European tradition. It’s no wonder that sometimes he wobbles. But when he gets it right, it doesn’t feel as though he’s tip-toeing across the wire. It feels as though he’s flying. 

Saturday, 12 August 2017

dunkirk (w&d nolan)

We went to watch Dunkirk in a cinema on Ejido, which was nearly full. People here don’t know much about the Second World War; the film has no major stars; but the grinding wheels of the publicity machine had worked and Montevideans had come out in force to see Nolan’s curious change of direction. Dunkirk is a visceral film. If the ending of Inception is one long action sequence which somewhat undermines the (relative) subtlety of that which has gone before, this film announces itself from the very first as an action picture, designed to bludgeon the spectator into submission. It’s loud. It’s in your face. It’s heart is more interested in the sound of its own beat than reaching out to find another. 

On some levels, at the time, it succeeded. For example: my grandfather was a fighter pilot who was shot down, so the story goes. On the Eastern Front, fighting for the Luftwaffe, but all the same, his fate had much in common with Tom Hardy’s journey through the sky to the coast of France. Or, at least I can imagine that it did. I don’t know how many war films I’ve watched in my life, but none has made me associate so readily with his, my grandfather’s, fate. Again, it was the sheer viscerality of the film which achieved this. It didn’t give me time to reflect. The connection occurred and it stuck. Not that I particularly cared what happened to Hardy’s character. Or any of the characters, come to that. They were figures on a battlefield, statistics. Any attempt to personalise these figures felt half-hearted. The sentimental twist of the boy who died getting his moment of glory in the local paper seemed tacked-on. As, indeed, did the whole last 10 minutes, as the troops returned home. Because it’s fairly clear that Nolan isn’t interested in the history; he’s interested in the dynamics and the logistics. He wants you to have some idea of how it feels to be stuck on a beach knowing that the sands of time are running out. The short-termism of war, the way you live for the next ten minutes, or hour, or, at most, day. In which regard, of all his films, this one has more in common with Memento than any other. 

Which is also how it ties into his wider oeuvre. Above all, Nolan is interested in time. What it means to live within edited time, when the value of a second, a minute, an hour, becomes radically heightened. Cinema narrative is about all kinds of things, love, peace, war, betrayal, you name it. But it is always, no matter what, about time. Nolan relishes this. The great attraction for the filmmaker of Dunkirk wasn’t that it was a valiant moment in British history. It was that there was a fixed time permitted to get the troops off the beach. The enemy wasn’t just the Nazis. It was time. 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

the end of the affair [graham greene]

The End of the Affair is a multi-faceted novel. It is all of the following: a dissertation on love and its limitations; an investigation of the catholic faith, and the notion of faith in general; a subversive portrayal of Second World War Britain; and a meditation on what it means to be British. The book’s spine is the affair between Bendrix and Sarah, who is presented as something of a femme fatale. Their affair takes place during the course of the war and is terminated by the arrival of the V-1 missiles. (A kind of anti-Slothropian trope). Neither Bendrix not Sarah’s husband, Henry, are serving in the army. They live nearby in Clapham, (the influence of the novel on McEwan’s Atonement is an interesting aside), Bendrix on the unfashionable South Side, Sarah and Henry on the smarter North. Not so close that there’s much danger of them running into one another, but close enough for Sarah to visit Bendrix’s flat without difficulty. 

The fact that Greene frames his narrative around men who didn’t fight in the war immediately suggests an anti-heroic stance. The author isn’t interested in strength, but weakness. Henry is a weak husband, who fails to satisfy Sarah on any level. Bendrix is revealed to be a fool, opening the novel talking about his hatred for Sarah, who he presumed had dumped him for another man, and Henry, before gradually realising the idiocy of this hatred as the novel unfurls. And Sarah, who seems to be the strongest of the three, dies prematurely young after contracting a bout of flu. However, within this seemingly critical narrative set-up, the characters emerge as increasingly sympathetic. Just as Bendrix’s misplaced assumptions begin to fall away, so do the reader’s. 

In addition, it’s also worth noting that Bendrix is a novelist. Greene offers plenty of details regarding his working practice. 500 words a day, without fail. The way in which the unconscious shapes the novelist’s work at all times. The duty to render those unconscious thoughts/ impulses into a coherent text. These details are fascinating and instructive. It’s hard for the reader to separate the novelist himself from his novelist character. In which case, what is the End of the Affair? A work which is the product of an exculpatory urge? An act of self-flagellation? Does Greene identify with the insipid intellectual who never got his hands dirty in the war? And if not, why pick such an unsympathetic figure as a guide to love and faith? 

These are too many questions which in a sense only serve to illustrate the complexity of Greene’s text. A complexity which is echoed in the structure, as the novel flits back and forth across the timeframe of the affair in a non-linear fashion. Firstly, the novel picks up two years after the affair has ended. Then it doubles back to recount how the affair began. There’s a crucial account of the affair’s final moments, when the doodlebug struck. Then, audaciously, the author allows himself the contrivance of the discovery of Sarah’s diary, which means we revisit the narrative all over again from a second perspective. Thereafter, the novel jumps forward towards a kind of present, wound up in the days that follow Sarah’s untimely and slightly convenient death. 

This structural inquietude, along with the meditations on Catholicism, do not appear, at first sight, particularly British. It’s almost as though, just as the narrative of Britain’s glorious victory in the war is being burnished, (a narrative which is far easier to sell for the second than the first world war), Greene sets out to make a counter-narrative.  The dominant narrative still resonates, politically and culturally: Britain’s greatness and heroism, a narrative for internal consumption, which helped to gloss over the crimes of colonialism, helped to fuel the endless identity crisis with regard to Europe and could be said to have found its latest instalment in the go-it-along bravura of Brexit, should one choose to see it that way. But Greene chooses to focus on a few underwhelming metropolitan types. And, it seems to this reader, revels in their messiness, their awkwardness, their anti-heroism. This is Hamlet Britain, not the Henry the Fifth version. And I would argue that these values: awkwardness, anti-heroism, a reluctance to fight, an understanding of the messiness of life which means that, after Sarah’s death, Bendrix actually ends up living with Henry in a morbid menage a trois, (minus one), which are the attributes that distinguish the British. Not for nothing did we used to be masters of the slightly sordid art of diplomacy, an art which involves recognising the unfeasibility of an unambiguous standpoint. As Hamlet gleaned, life is far too complex for absolutes. Bendrix tries to arm himself with a shield of hatred, but as the book goes on he realises how foolish he has been to do so. 

Greene adds the great irony that the only surefire winner in life is a god that might not exist. That’s where he and Beckett perhaps overlap. The Catholicism almost seems to railroad the last part of the novel,  which goes to far as suggest, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, that Sarah attained some kind of sainthood. It’s of course possible to view the issue of religion as fundamental to the novel, but it seems to me that it’s a red herring. The real substance of the novel is tied up in the title. The contemplation of God occurs after the contemplation of love has been forcibly abandoned.