domingo, 27 de abril de 2008

Kingdom Come by J. G. Ballard

Kingdom Come by J. G. Ballard is not a successful book. Richard Brown is an advertising executive who has been estranged from his father for some time. Whilst the son has been in sophisticated London, the father has lived in Brooklands, an M25 town whose occupants, though bored to the core, know what they like. Above all, they like consumerism and, because of that, they like their Metro-Centre, a vast shopping mall that people actually worship. They also despise the stuck up sophisticates who live in London. And so J. G. Ballard begins by constructing a model of contemporary British society, whose addiction to mass market products now borders on denying any alternative a right to exist, especially anything with intellectual content.

But there has been a problem. An apparently random shooting in the Metro-Centre has left Richard Pearson’s father dead. Richard has thus arrived from the nearby metropolis that might as well be a different planet, to find out what has happened. He finds a town divided, where gangs of sports fans wear St. George cross shirts and divide their time between drinking, shopping and beating up members of ethnic minorities. They like contact sports.

What ensues is a riot, of sorts, a political revolt, of sorts, and a conspiracy, of sorts. What J. G. Ballard appears to be trying to do is make comments on the nature of consumer Britain, its lack of values, its non-entity identity, its apparent praise of brainlessness, its resentment of anything that is non-mass market, its latent, incipient fascism. But the book fails.

The characterisation is weak throughout. The only person to make an impression is David Cruise, a presenter who fronts the Metro-Centre television channel, who becomes something of a fascist leader, midway between Big Brother and a Sky newsreader. But even his character is tame where it could be surreal, lapdog where it might be threatening. Coincidence upon coincidence casts Richard Pearson as his former adman, a status that gets Richard into the inside, a position he hopes will reveal who killed his father.

But the book’s most serious weakness, apart from an empty and thoroughly confused plot, is its complete lack of a character inside the mob. The reader is constantly reminded of the hordes of sports fans who riot and fight in defence of their beloved retail park, but we never meet one. We do have an analyst who describes their collective destruction obsession as elective psycopathy. We have Asian neighbours who get set alight, but we never really get inside the mobs, never understand their motives. Perhaps they don’t have a motive. Perhaps that’s the point, but, if it is, it fails to register.

And so the occupation of the shopping mall continues. We have riots, hostages, killings, shootings, attacks. We have mass hysteria, boredom, rampant consumerism and ice hockey. But in the end the experience is as vacuous as the Metro-Centre’s dome. The police officers, the headmaster, the Metro-Centre administrators, in fact everyone in the book, even Julia the doctor who seems occasionally to do something human, they all reveal themselves as duplicitous, confused, scheming, disloyal and, worst of all, flat. Meanwhile the mob just continues its collective anonymity. A charitable review might suggest that this was Kingdom Come’s point, but it would be taking charity too far.

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Kingdom Come

martes, 22 de abril de 2008

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa, novelist, Peruvian, is a word painter, an artist of consummate skill, capable of simultaneous intimate ecstasy and detached observation, skill that constantly surprises, titillates and intensifies. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a novel that details how an eighteen year old writer of hack news stories develops relationships with his aunt and, yes, a scriptwriter, both of whom happen to be Bolivian. Auth Julia is an aunt by definable and identifiable, but non-bloodline association. At least there is still some decency! She is a divorcee, not a Peruvian – what would you expect, then? - and attractive to boot. She is also conquerable. She is a passionate older woman – old enough to be his mother! – who succumbs to the young man’s ardent if naive charms a little too easily for her own good or, it must be said, for the keeping of face in an interested, gossiping community.

Pedro Camacho is a stunted, bald, pocket battleship of a radio scriptwriter. He is also Bolivian – an epidemic? – and specialises in sitcoms, melees of melange, several of which he can keep on the boil at the same time. He is employed by our young hero’s radio station to sex-up the regular offerings, to enliven their action with his peculiar brand of obsessive work ethic, an approach that is occasionally method-school in its execution. So when his character needs an operation, he will sit at his ancient typewriter dressed as a surgeon. He is a great success, even when his lateral thinking approach to plot is fully realised, a trait that develops into a need to introduce characters from one soap opera into another almost at random – certainly at random! – in order to test – or not! – the listeners´collaboration of listening habit and attentiveness at the same time. And thus Dirty Den arrives unnoticed in Coronation Street, armed with his original identity and a plot that no-one registers.

Our hero inhabits a shack on the roof of Radio Panamericana, where he and an accomplice in an ill-equipped office change the occasional word in other people’s reports to create broadcastable news, pieces that often serve for days because the operatives cannot be bothered to write anything new. This spirit of professionalism is host to Pedro Camacho, who claims he invented such treatment of fact in order to create soap operas. Meanwhile, our hero seduces his aunt. He is eighteen. She is in her thirties.

And interspersed with romance and radio, sex and sitcom, we have stories from Peru, surreal snippets of lives that get unnaturally intertwined, where Camacho-like characters cross over from one story to another only because they interact. (Is there another way?) Reality is always present, but it can never be trusted to be real enough, for the real thing often approaches from behind and raps us on the head when we least expect it. And so for our hero and Aunt Julia. When confronted with a reality that stands between them and their desires, they relocate, invent a new reality that suits them and thus live in it. For a while, at least, before someone else’s reality reinvents them again.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a highly complex, surreal pastiche, a masterpiece from a word painter whose virtuoso imagination sometimes generates just too much colour and surprise, thus amplifying the unreal into fantasy, thus shifting a moving reality into irreverent fairy tale. Overall, Mario Vargas Llosa stops just on the right side of this boundary, making Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter a true joy to read, a book whose process is always going to be more significant, more interesting than its product. It’s a book to enjoy impressionistically. Where it goes is where it takes you. The reader hitches the ride. The journey is the end.

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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

Short story: Assessors

Subject: Application for re-assessment

I hereby humbly present my case and hope, that in your enduring collective wisdom, you will accede to my request. I am sure that you will agree that my record of service has been excellent, my disciplinary record exemplary and my performance statistics at worst acceptable, sometimes outstanding. I acknowledge the extent of the cost associated with my request, but firmly believe I have ample years of active service before me, offering me the opportunity to repay whatever new investment might be needed. In any case, costs incurred can also be at least partially offset by my recovery, should that come earlier than I predict. In my present state, I am nothing but a burden.

As you know, my name is Dale, my descriptor 42. I have over thirty years of service and have regularly retrained and re-skilled. I was built up to type 36 over seven years ago, though I have not had a new hardware fitted for more than twenty years. When I researched the products on offer with my managers, we repeatedly came to the conclusion that the more recent advances in the capabilities of mindset chips had all been aimed at those requiring access to and processing of images, sound and other multi-media information. Since my role has always been technical, meaning that I process information rather than present it, and also access text and numerical sources rather than multi-media, we decided, rightly, that the extra cost, re-build and training time were not worth the marginal benefit that upgraded hardware would provide. If those decisions have led, inadvertently and unintentionally, to an obsolete flag being raised on my capabilities, I would like to take this opportunity to request a reassessment of the advice and decisions of my line managers over the last two decades. This request should be considered as separate from and in addition to the assessment request I detail below. Throughout I was acting in good faith. It was never my intention to seek less responsibility and lower workloads on the basis of my possession of only older access and processing capabilities. I should therefore not be held personally accountable for the consequences of those decisions, which were not mine alone.

After completion of my training, all of the pre-loadings were a complete success and I have always installed downloadable updates as soon as they have become available. The only exception to this was last year’s three dimensional production unit module, since the older version of my mindset chips did not completely support the interface with thought assumed by the software. Since I am not involved with innovative design and, for at least ten years, have not once been called upon to specify a part for manufacture in real time, neither I nor my manager saw this as limiting.

I have served in several domes, the current being 283East. For five years I was Chief Engineer in 527West, the largest dome on earth. All of my service has been on earth, but neither I nor my managers have ever felt that this represented anything other than the essential nature of my work. As above, if these decisions are now interpreted as evidence of inflexibility or unwillingness to accommodate change, then this would be an invalid conclusion. My transfer from that highly responsible position came about only as a result of the need for a highly experienced and heavily loaded operator to oversee the commissioning of 283East, then a start-up project, the first for several decades and the first on earth to apply the now universal dome standards agreed towards the end of the last century. Though 283East has not been a fault-free project, records from each year of its existence show that it has now become established as a fully functioning facility. Though it still houses predominantly types 5 to 16, its year-on-year profile has shown improvement for the last six years, showing that it is becoming steadily more attractive as a location for skilled operators. It also illustrates that developers, who always have a choice as to where they place their plants, are increasingly choosing 283East. I therefore consider it justified to claim part of the credit for creating those steadily improving conditions within the dome.

I have travelled in and out of 283East regularly during my service here and have never before experienced a difficulty of any kind. It was on the occasion of my last return to 23East that my problem arose, a problem that took all concerned completely by surprise. It is this difficulty which now forms the basis of my formal request for assessment.

I was called to Central for a meeting. Though most of our communication is electronic, it has been the practice of dome engineers to convene every few years. The face-to-face nature of these meetings has often provided insights and ideas that have been repeatedly overlooked in one-to-one electronic links, even threaded discussions. The latter provide a perfectly sound method of exchanging factual information, providing feedback or communicating the technical performance of our systems. But it has always been during the face-to-face symposia that new ideas have surfaced. It seems that the dynamic of a larger, paradoxically less structured gathering encourages and promotes the exchange and development of ideas that a purely line individual would not have the confidence or conviction to air. I know there is research material to back this up, but I am unable to offer references, since my newly acquired type 16 mindset does not provide access to the relevant archives.

Obviously the cost of moving people from all over the world into Central, not to mention providing for them during their stay, is nothing less than immense. But each symposium has produced new initiatives and several of these have led to significant and ongoing efficiency savings everywhere.

At this last symposium I offered a paper on energy re-processing and recovery systems, facilities to ensure that almost every joule of extracted energy can be directed towards its intended use, thus achieving minimum wastage. I had, of course, pre-loaded the text and all relevant associated documentation into all delegates’ mindsets some weeks before the conference, a process that would normally signify completion of the project and publication of its findings.

But as usual the face-to-face presentation required me to provide the extra detail that identified precisely how the system could be best applied and where the greatest benefits would accrue. Discussion therefore prompted some redefinition and reformulation of minor aspects of the paper’s content. Though I accept my bias, I remain firmly of the opinion that the system would have operated as originally described and that my presentation of it was competent. The changes that were incorporated into the specification as a result of discussion merely had the effect of honing my work to a perfection that is often not possible for an individual to achieve, especially an individual working largely alone in a relatively remote posting.

I accept that one or two influential delegates asked penetrating questions about my claims for the system, and I also accept that some of my findings were modified. But the changes were minimal and did not undermine the validity of my findings. If the recreation I suffered on returning to 283Rast came about as a result of reports from the symposium that questioned my performance, then I would like to claim that these criticisms have been both overstated and misinterpreted. I refer assessors to the record of proceedings which by now will be generally available. Again, I apologise for not being able to quote a reference, since my type 16 status now blocks my access to the relevant material.

I took the transport as requested at 11am on the morning after the conference ended. Obviously the ports were all busy and their bandwidth fully occupied. It is not my intention to point accusing fingers at the operators, but I did feel on entering the terminal that operations seemed generally rather fraught. Many of those present, myself included, commented on the brusque and impatient manner of several staff. I was not one of those who openly blamed this on inborn characteristics of the human types represented. I have never allied myself, my thoughts or my mindset with such attitudes, though I must admit that here in 283East there is a general and prevalent tendency to undervalue the contributions, capabilities and potential of certain identifiable human types. I have operated in 283East for several years, and I cannot guarantee that some of these attitudes might not have rubbed off onto my own mindset. Assessors will be able to judge for themselves whether the associated motivation coefficients indicate that these are my own thoughts. I remain confident that they will not rise above mere association, and association at very low level.

Not only were there several thousand delegates taking pre-arranged slots, but there were also many thousands of short-term mindsets on their way to recreation. Again, I accuse no-one of incompetence, but in such a busy period it would only have taken a stray thought to mingle two streams, thus causing my problem. I mention this now because, if that was the case, then somewhere there is a menial with a newly acquired type 36 mindset, and that could be dangerous.

I still have sufficient access to material to be able to do some research. As a type 15, my access is limited, of course, to historical material, documents that long ago were assessed as containing no contentious or current content. So I took the opportunity of a few minutes down-time yesterday to experiences similar to my own in the past. In the early twenty-first century, soon after the beginning of the First Information Age, there was a much lauded opening of a new travel terminal. Then, of course, travel technology was at a very early stage of development, so much so that it still generally involved physically moving objects around the globe in real time. People used to stand in line to file onto metal aircraft which had to take off from and land at specially designed ports, vast fields that had to be large enough for the craft to accelerate under friction through its wheels in order to generate a lifting force which would eventually take it into the air. These ports were apt to become so congested that the experience of travel was anticipated with nothing less than dread. And, it goes without saying, the air in which the craft flew was not toxic in those days.

Travellers at the onset of the First Information Age even took things with them, physical objects packed in boxes that also had to be loaded onto the aircraft. I was surprised to learn that tourism was already common, though it was a tourism that we would not recognise. It seems that tourists at the start of the first Information Age actually took their bodies with them. For centuries, we have regarded tourism as synonymous with experience, pure experience, a mental, intellectual stimulus. Centuries ago, people physically transferred themselves to different destinations. This was seen as part of the experience. Since that era was well before the creation of dome standards, one can only presume that these destinations were actually sufficiently physically different to justify both the cost and the risk. It goes without saying, of course, that the era in question pre-dated the necessity of habitable dome technology.

What happened when this particular new terminal opened was that for several weeks the systems designed to keep the travellers and their possessions together simply broke down. In that era, systems still relied on a physical connection between information nodes and, almost unbelievably, on the mechanical operation of human limbs to initiate movement. Quite obviously, such systems could not cope and people arrived at destinations to find that their bags had never left the embarkation airport, or worse, they had been flown to somewhere quite different.

It is ironic that in the same week that the opening of the new airport terminal was such big news that a professor of physics, an individual whose name has since become synonymous with a particular brand of electronic transit technology, a name I will not repeat to ensure this message is not spam directed as an advertisement, gave an interview to the media. In that interview he claimed that it was already – in the early twenty-first century! – within expectation that protein molecules might soon be transmitted electronically as information packets so that they might be moved from one place to another, effectively being recreated at their destination. This, of course, became the basis for the mass transit systems of the Second Information Age.

Even quite well into that age, at least two hundred years after the first successful transportation of multi-cell life forms via data packet transmission, it was still fairly common for reconstruction to fail. In the days of aircraft, there used to be crashes, though of course nowhere near as many as popular perception claimed. They were actually quite rare. But early reconstruction difficulties were often likened to the historical phenomenon of the air crash.

Packet transmission glitches were much rarer than aircraft crashes, however, even in those early days. Fewer than one reconstruction in twenty trillion went wrong, perhaps no more than a single cell in a human. But if that single cell was in a critical part of the anatomy, it could result in non-feasance. Statistics from the era record a one in twelve point five million chance that non-feasance might occur. But, given that several billion transits were being made every year, this resulted in several thousand occurrences of non-feasance and was the cause of the still prevalent neuroses we now call transfer apoplexy. I have never suffered from this condition, and thus reject the possibility that my recreation was self-inflicted. Nevertheless, thank goodness that our transit systems are now more reliable.

But since the mindset system is only two hundred and fifty years old, we have, if anything, suffered something of a drop in quality compared to those early days. Non-feasance of the physical being is now so rare that it is impossible to gather data on it. There have only been two cases of faulty physical recreation on transmission in the last hundred years.

But problems relating to the faulty recreation of mindsets have been consistently and naggingly common. I read reports – albeit unofficial - yesterday that one transmission in two hundred thousand results in some loss of data. Minor losses, of course, are identified immediately when the systems re-boot. Missing data is simply copied afresh when the re-booting checks for updates. It is a different story if the extent of the data loss results in an effective recreation. The resulting mismatch between the scanned reality and the individual’s recorded and expected identity is too great for the automated system to sanction, so all such cases are automatically referred to assessment. The default reboot, of course, has to be the lower status. This, I believe, is possibly what might have happened in my case, though there is still room for other possibilities.

I took my designated slot at the transmission office in Central and was sedated an hour after check-in. I took only twenty minutes to achieve rest and was transported immediately. As I explained earlier, the office was inundated and its bandwidth fully occupied. So the transfer took over half an hour. I was fully mobile only ten minutes after the stimulus was administered and I got up to leave reception in 283East feeling quite normal, apart that is from immediate nagging doubts about my memory since I knew I had presented a successful paper, but found that I could not recall any detail of my speech.

You will appreciate that these doubts were momentary, hardly formed or considered in the few seconds it took me to get up and head for the exit scans. It was, of course, when I entered the scan that the recreation registered and the barrier dropped. My identity tag had registered correctly, Dale, 283East, type 36, but the scan had mapped my mindset to reveal type 15.

Now I accept that we all age. I also accept the possibility that performance assessments can be in process and that they have registered and become live between departure and the time we retransmit. I also accept that criticisms of current work could have been lodged following my presentation. But in my experience ageing or short-term regrading has only ever resulted in a two or three point downgrade. In my case I found myself twenty-one points down.

The transmission staff were apologetic, but they could do nothing since they lacked the authority to examine the transport log. My mindset reboot then took effect and I was recreated as a type 15. I had left 283East just days before as the dome’s Chief Engineer and now I had returned qualified and loaded only as a panel fixer. Though I accept it is highly unlikely that our systems have made an error, I hereby formally request a manual check of my recreation. My mindset is now limited to archives at level one only, a status I have never before had to endure. I cannot even access the works of literature I read for recreation, since level one archives only allow individuals to experience popular culture. I certainly cannot get into the technical areas I used to browse every day, though I have not found this too distressing since my recreated lower level activities do not demand that kind of material.

It is my belief that the addresses on several packets of data were wrongly assigned during my transmission. I can only think that one of the migrant menial workers was occupying the same channel as myself and by some corruption or thought initiation error packets belonging to that subject became attached to my stream and vice-versa.

This could have serious consequences if the menial in question transited to a port without automatic type scan recreation. Many places where such menials operate are served by such obsolete ports. Many of the outlying mines or production units, for instance, still use this equipment, despite its specific exclusion in dome standards for almost a century. If that is the case, there is currently, somewhere in our sphere, perhaps even in a power generation dome, an archive level one individual with a newly recreated type 36 mindset. If that individual is also fitted with an enhanced memory like mine, then he not only has access to technical, managerial and political data at archive level three, he also has the ability to store and process it without the personal assessment rating that ensures he has the mental facility to handle its complexity, its significance or its potential to harm.

It is therefore in the spirit of community and concern that I formally request a reassessment of my recreation. If as a result of age or performance reports I merited such a severe downgrading, then so be it. All I can offer as comment is that effecting such a change on transit seems a rather cowardly way to announce such a drastic downgrading. If, on the other hand, my level three archive access has been transferred in error to a level one mindset, then I urgently encourage the rectification of the mistake. As a type 36, I had access to very sensitive material and my mindset was equipped with some powerful retrieval and processing tools. In the wrong person, such facilities could be extremely dangerous. I therefore request a formal reassessment and I look forward to receiving your reply.

Dale42, 283East, type 15 (recently recreated from type 36, Chief Engineer)

I hereby certify that that the above text was created by the above operator in my presence at a single sitting within a screened environment and thus without access to external input. It can therefore be presented for assessment.

Certified and witnessed by Wayne82, 283East, type 21 (283East Local Assessor)

domingo, 13 de abril de 2008

Cultured Tangos

It may be that in musical retrospect, from a luxury of twenty-twenty critical hindsight, that Astor Piazzolla will be seen as having done in the twentieth century for the tango what Frederick Chopin did in the nineteenth for the waltz. It is perhaps already an accepted position. With the waltz, Chopin took an established popular form and stretched its boundaries so that what an audience might have expected to be a little ditty was recast to express heroism, sensuality, pride or even occasional doubt. The little dance tune then, in Chopin’s slender hands, became an elegant art form, highly expressive, utterly Romantic in its ability to convey human emotion.

The tango represents an apparently different proposition. Already sensuous by definition, there are elements of the romantic towards which the tango need not aspire. If Romanticism placed individual emotional responses upon the pedestal of artistic expression, by the time the tango aspired to truly international currency in the twentieth century, there was no longer any need to worry about an artist’s right to make a personal statement.

With the rise of serialism, neo-classicism and, later, minimalism, artistic mores were already, perhaps, heading in the opposite direction, towards a new espousal of rigour and structure. Emotion worn on the cuffs, like concepts plucked from the back of a matchbox, seemed to dominate cultural activities in the latter part of the century whilst, at the same time, Althusser and Derrida, allied with the populism of mass culture, seemed to suggest that there were no new statements, let alone discoveries, to be made. A spectral free-for-all ruled, where distinctions of quality were suddenly both particularistic and individual to the point of exclusion. (This, of course, is necessarily a paradox for people promoting a populist pop culture, since they aspire to mass consumption of a single artistic vision, a statement that by definition cannot be worth more than any other – even randomly selected statement. As a result, those who tend to deny a critic’s right to make value judgments must themselves assume that such judgments are perfectly valid in the marketplace. It’s a contradictory position, but an essential one for purveyors of pop, since they must continue to describe the form as popular, despite the fact that the vast majority of its products prove themselves to be anything but.) Post-modernists thus hailed the soap opera alongside Shakespeare, a logic that renders a Coca Cola advertisement the greatest film ever made by virtue of its viewer numbers. And then there was Piazzolla, an enigma par excellence.

On the one hand Astor Piazzolla is the quintessential mid-twentieth century composer. Classically trained, a pupil of Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, and inspired by the commercial and folk music of his own country, he could have slotted alongside Villa Lobos, Ponce, or even Martinu or Copeland as a contributor to the century’s neo-classical-folk music paradigm. But what he did was quite different.

He devoted his compositional energies to recreating and reinventing a popular idiom that was thoroughly specific to his own country, Argentina. The form, of course, was the tango. What is more, Astor Piazzolla concentrated on performance via his own ensembles and he achieved considerable success, albeit local until near the end of his life, over a career that spanned fifty years. But he expressed himself on the bandoneon, a squeezebox that lends itself to staccato, slapping attack, an instrument not peculiar to Argentina, but perhaps only well known to Argentinians. He died in 1992, his Romantic heroism national at best.

It was in the early 1990s that arrangements of Piazzolla’s music began to appear on “classical” programmes. By the time a figure as august as Daniel Barenboim recorded his Tangos Among Friends, Mi Buenos Aires Querido, in 1995, they were already becoming established in the repertoire. I personally have heard performances of Piazzolla’s music for full orchestra, string orchestra, chamber orchestra, various formats of chamber ensemble, piano trio, solo piano, solo harp, flute and guitar, guitar solo, violin and piano, string quartet, string trio and, of course, bandoneon. But it is surely the chamber group that best fits this music. There is always a toughness to its apparent sensuality that tends to be overstated by the large numbers of a full orchestra. Lack of volume, on the other hand, tends to stress the saccharine.

And if you want to find an exquisite match between the music’s toughness and sensuality, its durability versus its novelty, there is surely no better experience than that provided by Camerata Virtuosi, a septet led by violinist Joaquin Palomares and featuring saxophonist Claude Delangle. Their recording of Piazzolla’s music features Joaquin Palomares’ superb arrangements that capture the music’s directness and beauty while preserving its toughness.

A Camerata Virtuosi performance in the Auditori de la Mediterrània, La Nucia in February 2008 featured all the pieces included in their recording of Piazzolla’s music. The group performed all four of the Seasons as a sextet with two violins, viola, cello, bass and piano. These pieces offer Joaquin Palomares a perfect vehicle to display his virtuoso violin playing which communicates the music’s line whilst at the same time decorates with highly effective jazz-like riffs. The rest of the pieces were performed by a septet in which Claude Delangle’s perfect soprano saxophone bent and teased its way through lambent legato lines. It was playing of the highest quality.

As on the recording, particularly successful were Oblivion and Milonga del Angel. Oblivion is the quintessential Piazzolla, a popular sing-along for the manic depressive perhaps, and not therefore a rarity. But the simplicity and understatement of the piece always works beautifully, even when played twice in the same concert, as in La Nucia. Milonga del Angel is a different kind of piece. Though superficially similar to Oblivion, it manages in its six minutes to develop through its binary form, so that different movements create different moods within the same material. A true highlight.

Joaquin Palomares’ violin playing was, as always, more than elegant throughout and by the end the audience had experienced again the genius of Piazzolla courtesy of Palomares’ superb arrangements. Great music needs great interpreters, and Piazzolla’s has surely found one in Joaquin Palomares.

miércoles, 9 de abril de 2008

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

Henry Pulling is a recently retired bank manager. He was offered an arrangement after many years of devoted service when his bank was taken over by another. He is looking forward to spending more time with the dahlias that are his pride and joy, and also rubbing shoulders with his former customers in Southwood, an unremarkable London suburb that seems to be populated entirely by retired officers from the armed forces. He mentions Omo quite a lot and is vaguely embarrassed by the fact that he shares initials with a well known brand of sauce. And then he meets his long lost aunt, Agatha Bertram.

Henry’s mother has just died. His father died forty years before. He never really knew the father and his relationship with his mother was perennially tense. After the funeral, Augusta takes him on one side and calmly informs him that his father was something of a rogue and that his “mother” was really his step-mother, his true biological mother being one of his father’s bits on the side. Henry Pulling finds himself attracted to his aunt, not because she is something of an eccentric, unpredictable old bird, but also because she retains, somewhere, the secret of his own origins. When she suggests they travel together, he eagerly accompanies, despite the fact that he has never been one for straying far from the nest.

Graham Greene has Henry and Aunt Augusta travel as far afield as Brighton, Istanbul and South America. Together, via stories from Aunt Agatha’s past, they relive the first half of the twentieth century, from late Victorian roots to 1960s drug culture, from fascism to dictators, from war to peace. Throughout, Henry Pulling comes across as a genial, predictable gent in his late fifties, whilst Aunt Agatha seems to be a confirmed member of Hell’s Grannies. Europe – the world even – seems to be littered with her conquests, with hardly a country passing by without some faded memory of hers coming back to life.

As it unfolds, Travels With My Aunt reveals itself as a true masterpiece of twentieth century fiction. The characters really do live through the century’s history, but the events are never pressed onto the surface of their lives. On the contrary, they are entwined within the fabric of Aunt Augusta’s being, a character whose complexity unfolds as the story progresses.

Throughout Henry Pulling is a truly comic character. He seems out of his depth, naïve, a product of an over-protected suburban existence, over-burdened with the assumptions of his upbringing. But he comes into his own and eventually it is no surprise when he describes his new life, which is almost as far removed from a suburban bank manager’s office as it is possible to get. And, of course, the story’s denouement, when it arrives, is also no surprise. And is not less because of that.

There are many laughs along the way, not least as a result of Henry’s being constantly taken aback by his aunt’s bluntness and lust for life. Particularly memorable, however, were scenes where Henry put his personal foot in it. On Paraguay’s national day, he carries a red scarf on his aunt’s advice so he can show allegiance to the ruling party and the dictator. He just happens to be outside the military and political headquarters when he sneezes and uses the scarf as a hankie. A nearby soldier records the snotting into the national emblem as deeply insulting and irreverent, duly beats him up and slaps him in jail. Situation comedy at its best.

Travels With My Aunt is quite simply a must read and must re-read book. Graham Greene’s immense skill provides a simplicity of style and construction to communicate a complex plot alongside powerful characterisation, and all this accomplished with true but elegant economy. It is a beautifully crafted book, expertly written, full of surprises and humour, all set against a deadly serious plot: surely a masterpiece.

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Travels with My Aunt (Vintage Classics)

The Hired Hand by Melvyn Bragg

The Hired Hand by Melvyn Bragg is the story of John Tallentire, his wife, Emily, and their families. The novel is set in Cumbria in the north-west of England, starting in the 1890s and following the characters’ fortunes until the 1920s.

John Tallentire is the hired man. He is a farm labourer who does as he is asked but is rewarded with mere subsistence. He accepts his lot. But then, in an attempt to improve his life, he becomes a coal miner in pits where the workings stretch out under the sea. The First World War comes, and goes, but not without wreaking its own dose of havoc on the family. John lives through attempts at trade union formation. And there is an accident in the coal mine that traps several miners.

And so John’s life unfolds, working its way towards a goal one feels that he never chose. He is a hired man, a seller of labour in a market that, by definition, undervalues what he does. It is his lot to respond to the demands and commands of others. His own preferences, his own motivation must always be kept firmly of secondary importance because, as a hired man, he has no resources to apply to his own ends until he has satisfied the demands of others. And, inevitably, those demands are as great as his willingness to fulfil them. Consequently, the rewards of his labours are never enough to raise his life above satisfying the needs of today.

Emily, his wife, lives a dutiful life alongside him. They marry with their lives ahead of them and Emily makes do, happily, with her lot. The children come – and go, since not all of them survive. Neither do the surviving children seem to have much of a chance of their own to break out of the dependency that is their life. The subtlety of The Hired Man, however, is that this continued dependency is cast in a society that is subject to constant change. It is not tradition, or shackles of rigid social systems that perpetuate poverty. It is the social relationships between different groups that endure, even when social, political and economic structures change.

And it is a life that finally exhausts Emily, leaves her but a ghost of her former self. It has been said that working class life in England was nasty, brutish and short. In the Tallentire’s household, there is much dignity, only occasional nastiness and little of the brute. But brevity is always a threat.

Attempts to form unions, attempts thus at creating some stability and security, are described with great effect. It would perhaps seem self-evident that poor people with little security would embrace those who promised improvement. But Melvyn Bragg’s portrayal of the process is subtle, and identifies how the workers’ very insecurity can be manipulated to convince them to act against their own interests.

There was one aspect of the book that was less than successful. This was the author’s attempt to write dialogue in local dialect. Spellings are changed to suggest different intonation and words are invented to capture local usage. Too often, however, this got in the way of meaning, thus detracting from the bigger picture. How to deal with accented English always presents a writer with a dilemma. Conveying local flavour is the goal, but this cannot be achieved if the readability of the text is affected. It is, however, a minor point.

The Hired Man, overall, is a novel about change. The workers’ role within that change is insecure throughout. It is not change, itself, that brings about the insecurity, which is the way things are often portrayed. At one point, when the characters consider on whose behalf they are fighting a war, they see clearly that they themselves can never benefit. But neither can they conceive of not fighting. They are hired to do as they are told.

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The Hired Man (Tallentire Trilogy 1)

viernes, 4 de abril de 2008

Protesters - a short story

A sharp closing of the door left the two men together yet alone, strangers, introduced merely seconds before. The older, taller of the two seemed to scrutinise the stockier new arrival for a few moments, his penetrating gaze noting the military dress that remained less than a uniform alongside the almost apologetic manner he projected. They had fallen silent after their mutual acknowledgement, the elderly man’s gripped handshake accompanied by a stentorian, lengthened “Hello”, the younger man’s hesitant nod, plus a hand quickly withdrawn. During an extension of that same silence, shared at the room’s edge by its only window, they surveyed the line of protesters below. The quiet that filled the room, a quiet left after the noisy departure of the usher who had just led the younger man up from the street, soon began to fade. Sounds of chanting, angry sloganising, hardly rhythmic from this admixture of universally blue-suited, tone-deaf Englishmen, filtered through the draught cracks around the quartered frame. There were no discernible words, the shouted slogans becoming a mere murmur of unrest from their distance.

Almost in unison, their joint gaze lifted from the side street below the high window, a side street that they had both needed to lean into the recess to view, so that now they looked across the great square, great not in size, but perhaps in claimed significance. Ahead was the mother of parliaments, a mock-Gothic imitation of the grandiose, a pretender to an assumed aesthetic, re-invented as fashion demanded. Before it, almost insignificant, set down below pavement level, they could both visualize from memory the statue of the great protector, stolid in defiance, solid in his defence of the right to speak within those walls, a right too often challenged by those who lay as corpses in the opulence opposite. For there, to the right of the two observers lay the confessor’s church, the abbey of royalty that a true perpetrator of terror adorned with a fan vault to decorate his own death, a chapel that seemed to thrust threateningly towards the palace of speech it faced, an older palace of speech, long destroyed, long superseded.

“In its present, history is always a lie,” said the older, taller of the two men.

The other maintained his silence for a while. He turned to face his companion, to look him up and down, to note the establishment feel of his blue three-piece suit with its pronounced watch-chain presenting almost a seal of office across the midriff. He was tall, this writer, stately, even dignified, his eighty years now generating a slight stoop when he moved, just a hint of roundness in the spine, whose imagined rigidity suggested the stance of a once proud young man. The smaller man seemed uncomfortable in the writer’s presence, as if he knew what to say, but not where to start. There was a sense of both deference and discomfort, a respect tinged with something less trusting. The older man’s reputation and achievement preceded him and, in later years, he had learned how to inhabit the respected space this inevitably generated.

“I would guess that you have brought no written speech,” said the younger man, the non-sequitur not itself worthy of remark. “But then I would have expected that. After all, you are a writer.”

The old man smiled a little, without averting his gaze, which still apparently concentrated on the beauty of the abbey’s spires, the grandeur of its tower, the power of its glory. “No,” he said, pausing again, as if wishing to perpetuate an ambiguity as to whether he had no speech or whether he was denying that he was ever a writer. For several seconds the older man rocked gently from side to side, transferred his weight from one foot to the other in the manner that a recently consulted nurse had suggested as a means of keeping his aging legs supple. She realised, an hour later, that she had no cause to worry about the state of the old man’s plumbing, which she had experienced in full working order. But still the writer took her advice and hopped, just a little. He then turned to face the younger man, the slight downward attitude of the head inevitably suggesting condescension.

“I have to work to my notes,” said the smaller man, averting his eyes just enough to attain an independent angle. “In my position I cannot ad lib, even if I feel I’m capable of doing it. I always have to make doubly sure that every word plays a calculated part in the whole message. One cannot be too careful. I cannot risk a single word being misinterpreted.” He patted the left breast of his military-style camouflage jacket and then flicked the lapel aside with his right hand so that he could retrieve a folded sheaf of hand-written sheets from the inside pocket. He began to read. “Muchas gracias por su solidaridad…”

“You will speak in Spanish?”

“Yes. And with an interpreter. As I said, we have to ensure that our words are clear, unambiguous, saying precisely what we mean and only what we mean. There is no room for error. There are those waiting to gather ammunition against us.”

“No pasaran!” said the old man as he gave the other’s upper arm a firm squeeze with his out-turned left hand. It was a strange gesture, a reverse, backhand expression of support, firm in its conviction, ambiguous in its sincerity. The younger man smiled, suddenly and obviously more at ease, less in awe of this great name’s perceived distance. “But your English is perfect, fluent”, continued the writer. “Why not speak to us directly in our own tongue?”

The younger man only shrugged, as if to imply that a question with an obvious answer need not be asked. “As a writer,” he said at last, “you know that language must be precise…”

“...and so a problem, should it arise, can always be put down to poor translation?” A silence from the other signified agreement. “And so the politician can retain deniability, even if that was in fact what you meant to say? A side exit from the trap of duplicity?”

“It would never be my intention to deceive…”

“But if the charge arose, you could sidestep it without confronting it? Shall we say that you could find an avenue of convenience?”

The younger man kept his silence for a minute or more, during which time he stared again at the thin but noisy line of blue-suited protesters in the road below. He noted for the first time that they all seemed to be in their early or mid-twenties. They were so similar in appearance they might all have been selected for the role. Wanted: official agitators, he mused. Blue suit, aged twenty to thirty, head shaven to at least a number two.

He then turned back into the room to face the writer. “But then words are your tools, your stock in trade - I think that is the correct English idiom – so you know perfectly well how important it is to have exactly the right word in the right place. You would never make a mistake.”

The writer laughed. “My dear man,” he began, now turning to pace towards the room’s centrally placed, heavy walnut but dull-topped table, “You invest in me credibility, talent and invention beyond my worth. I am but a story teller, a literary fraud whose imaginings occasionally, and for just an hour or two, might light up the dull lives of blighters like those down below. I churn out the literary equivalent of b-movies for residents of suburban semis. Words? I’ve spawned millions of them, drivelled them out like torrents of wanked sperm, onanised only on the stony ground of the popular imagination – an oxymoron for sure.” His pause was pure theatre, calculated to maintain his hold of the flow and, at the same time, to add emphasis to his words and retain control, measured to keep the other silent. With apparent impatience, he retrieved the cigarettes and lighter he had previously tossed carelessly onto the table-top from a hand that had been summoned to shake its greeting with the newly arrived president of the republic. The old writer’s right hand had fiddled a cigarette from the pack, his left hand had lit it and he had already taken a long, deep, settling drag before the instant elapsed. When he spoke again, it was as if there had never been a break in his flow, his words now animated by loose clouds of smoke, particles that clipped the edge off his voice. “These people just do as they are told. They see us as we are sold to them. Today a performing monkey that writes books and an ogre who threatens their freedom. Tomorrow performing monkeys are cast as illiterate and the ogre is a partner in trade. Joe Soap does what Joe Soap is told to do. A whim is less fickle than popular consciousness.”

“So is your support for our cause such a whim? Will you oppose tomorrow what you support today?” The younger man’s voice was harder, more forthright in its continued deference.

“It rather depends on you and your people – your phrase, by the way,” replied the writer. Here the word ‘people’ clearly did not refer to an agglomerated populace, but a clique whose existence the writer was keen to suggest. “We all know whom we oppose. We know what we are against. It’s what we are for that perennially confuses us, especially when we are confronted with the complications of interpreting a reality that we only imagine.”

The younger man now moved away from the window. Stepping slowly, thoughtfully, his face downcast, he began to amble a wide arc around the table, the old writer at its centre, a stalking of sorts. He pressed his fingertips together, forming a cat’s cradle across a stomach that the other judged would fill out in a few years, thus transforming the current stocky athleticism into a portly middle age that would no longer be flattered by the military fatigues he currently wore.

When the younger man stopped and turned, he looked up to see that the old man still faced the window, stood erect, taking staccato drags from his cigarette, each accompanied by an audible suck of the lips. It’s ironic that I should address his back, he thought. “And exactly whom do you oppose? Or should I more precisely ask whom do you currently oppose, since in the past your allegiance to any cause has been – let’s say – variable…?”

“My dear man, Mr President,” said the writer, smiling, as he turned to face his inquisitor, “every man has his price. Take Joe Soap in the street down there, for instance” he said, nodding towards the window, now behind him, “You don’t think that any of those snotty nosed Johns of city clerks actually believe the rhetoric about your regime? Do you think that a twenty-two year old moron who spends all day wheeling trays of punched cards around the bowels of a bank’s computer centre for subsistence pay goes home of an evening to read and analyse Heritage Foundation reports on the communist take-over of Central America? He doesn’t do that any more than he comparatively tests all available brands of soap powder before buying his Omo – except on reflection he probably wouldn’t buy that one on the grounds of being embarrassed by associations with its name. No, he gets led by the nose to the Daz and he buys it. He goes along with the tide, we might say. The trick of manipulating the popular imagination, oxymoronically, of course, is to cover all the options, to back all sides. The trick is to convince Joe Soap that he needs washing powder and then to cartelise the shelves with an agreed and shared presence. Whatever brand decisions he makes are utterly irrelevant because the big guys who run his brain have the market carved up between them. Politically, his brain space, albeit quite small, is fully occupied with propagandistic threats to his lifestyle, threats that might restrict his right to detergent choice, a human right worth fighting for.”

“And it is your view that your books are just more soap powder?”

“Precisely, dear fellow. Precisely.” The writer turned away again, puffing to pursue the production of ash.

The younger man ambled forward again as the writer turned his back. Legally trained, the young president of the republic found himself thrust back into the profession to which he had aspired, but had never practised, his studies having been interrupted by what a respectful obituary might describe as brushes with the authorities. He was stalking his witness, here a writer confined within a dock of his own invention, perhaps imagination. It was to become a cross-examination. “But I’ve read your work - almost all of it, though I admit that most was in Spanish translation. Maybe something was gained in translation, but I always felt that your so-called, self-professed mere stories, entertainments, always had their deeper side, another level no less, where the characters and the situations in which you placed them epitomised moral conflict, ideological questions which they always at least tried to address. Indeed you, the writer, the creator, always seemed to want a moralistic resolution to your characters’ dilemmas.” The president paused to look the writer in the eye, but the taller man’s gaze was fixed ahead, above his level, blankly concentrated on the mechanics of drawing smoke. “So you would deny,” he continued, “that what I read into your work was ever intended? It was a mere figment of my furtive, youthful imagination?”

“Leading question. Counsel should not put words into the mouths of the witness,” said the old man, choosing his words with intricate care whilst fixing a stare at his inquisitor in time with the very end of the phrase.

“Ah”, interrupted the other, uncharacteristically immediate in his interjection. “So not only do you know detail of my education, you want to play judge as well! Is that it? Is that the key? You want to claim the status of inconsequence, the mere story teller, whilst, somewhere in your unwritten estimation, you believe you hold the ultimate truth, the end point, the last word, the judgment?” A smile began to lift the curves of the black moustache that dominated his face, his rimless spectacles lifting a little on flexed cheek muscles.

“Judge?” replied the old writer. “Judgment? You sound like a Christian.”

“I am.”

“Well I’m not.”

“You are a Roman Catholic. You converted. Everyone knows that”.

“Pragmatism, my dear boy. Pure pragmatism. The old girl demanded it. It was the only way I could get my end away with her… a state I yearned for so much I would have topped myself if I hadn’t succeeded. Not that it did me a whole lot of good in the end. She turned out to be stretched frigid with guilt, a guilt I could not penetrate, a need to appease the wrath of a loving God she knew hated her, her alone.”

“And so you looked elsewhere?”

“Well documented. Well known, as you might say.” The old man fumbled for another cigarette, lit it and tossed the pack and lighter carelessly back onto the table. “You don’t smoke, of course.”

It was an intended diversion, a plea for the re-establishment of shallow politeness. The ploy was ignored. “I approach the problem in entirely the opposite sense”, said the other. “I was a Catholic, a devout believer, and I’m happily married to a woman I hope will live for ever. But we are shunned by our church, shunned because of my politics, shunned because of the ideology I have espoused, a philosophy the bishops call godless.”

“In the words of a famous economist,” began the writer, his manner beginning to approach the patronizing as he paused for a moment to signify the unearthing of an aphorism, “in the long term we are all dead. Gods, godlessness, ideology, alienation, they all become as significant as a flake of this”. He tapped his cigarette, causing a tip of ash to fall and disintegrate on the carpet.

“So what motivates you?” asked the former trainee lawyer, pursuing again his original point.

“A quick fuck. A good bottle. Dope. And then another fuck. The here and now is all we have…”

“Even though sometimes you try to bring even that to an end?” The lawyer’s question was fast, calculated and completely disarming, delivered with a politician’s panache for locating a weakness and exploiting it.

“You have done your research well. I suppose one of your ‘people’ read all the sordid biographies just to prepare you for this evening?”

“No. I knew already. As I said, I’ve read much of your work. I have the ultimate respect…”

“Ultimate? A good word for a head of state to use.”

“I have no intention to pull rank, sir,” replied the younger man. “What I say will always be true, always honest.”

“Yes, It’s common knowledge, if any form of knowledge can be described as common.” The old writer took a long noisy drag on his cigarette and ambled back towards the window. “It’s a conundrum the hoi polloi never face. The worker ant stays in line. The experience, therefore, is always one of perceived unimpeded progress, of unblocked pathways to repeat the humdrum of existence and its duties. The fact that the way is cleared in the first place and kept free by the work of the soldiers, those with the duty to explore, to remove the danger, to clear the way, this is never known, let alone understood by the Joe Soap workers. They assume the mundaneness of their lives is a norm, not an achievement created by the efforts of others.”

“Or a conspiracy …..”

“A process of management, let’s call it, to use the vocabulary of the market age. Our protestors chant their slogans; their leaders feed them with more; they learn to regurgitate.”

“And what about our supporters? Those hundreds filling the hall below?”

The old writer turned a little and cocked his head, as if feeling the air for sound. He realised that the chants of “No pasaran! No pasaran!” that filtered along the maze of corridors to their waiting room must be deafening inside the auditorium. “I apologise for the crudity of my sweeping logic. But even you, Mr President, even you would acknowledge that the supporters are a minority, dwarfed by the opposition, a piss in the ocean compared to the torrents that oppose you?”

“Today, maybe. Tomorrow, who knows? That’s why we are both here. We both know what we oppose. And I, at least, know what I support.”


“No. Much longer than that. Just as I know a little about you, then I’m sure that you know something of me. My politics are not the clothes I put on yesterday. I’ve been committed to the work for justice and human rights for over twenty years. I am also a patriot – not a nationalist, a patriot. I want to achieve progress for my people, my country, but not at the expense of suffering for others. You know my history.”

Both men knew they had reached a critical juncture. There was a sense of threat on the edge of these last words, a malice that the professedly libertarian old writer sensed the more keenly. Ill at ease, he tried to divert. “When we’re on the podium, old boy, then we will know the shape of things. I don’t doubt that there are many out there who passionately support your cause. But there are others who are with you only to oppose a shared enemy. And there are others, perhaps many of them, who aren’t members of your audience at all.”

“I don’t understand,” said the other, though he did.

“I’m sorry. I forget that It’s your first time in our green and pleasant land. You will see. Watch them when you speak. There will be many who stand and cheer. But for every three or four doing that, there will be a man – always a man – still in his seat, apparently a spectator, apparently indifferent. Except, of course, he won’t be looking at you. He knows who you are. It’s the identity of those in the audience that interests him. Ostensibly, he is in the audience to protect you. Like the gazelle he probably isn’t, it’s his job to leap onto anyone who looks like they are about to shoot you. After all, you are a head of state.”

“Policeman. Secret Service men.”

“Precisely. The place will be packed with them.”

“It’s a pity,” said the young president, “that there weren’t more of them down there when I arrived. There’s sixty or seventy of those thugs….”

“In Britain they are called Young Conservatives by the way,” said the old writer with a punctuating guffaw.

“…..and there was only a handful of policeman. They were throwing things, tomatoes, bags of flour….. is that the way visiting heads of state are greeted?”

“It depends on who invited you, old bean.”

“Also on what I represent?”

“No, only who invited you.”

“So what do you recommend? That I start my speech by inviting all the spooks to stand up and take a bow? So that I can invite all of our supporters to applaud them in a show of magnanimity and humility? To thank them for protecting my safety and with it the integrity of our revolution?”

“Waste of time. Nice gesture, but it would be taken as a sign of weakness.”

The old writer paused, his tone indicating that he remained in mid-flow, that second thoughts about what was to follow had stayed his tongue.

“And you, of course,” said the younger man, his voice expressing an assumed continuation of the other’s perceived meaning, “ought to know, because you used to be one of them. That was when, presumably, you also knew what you opposed.”

“They paid my bills. It was a job. I was a worker ant.”

“And throughout you were a conscientious and loyal employee. You did what was asked, opposed those who opposed. And, I suppose, you did what you did because of your own patriotism, a noble cause and supreme motivation for an Englishman, I understand.”

“Wherever did you hear that? I merely did what I was told. Patriotism is something the English, in particular, despise amongst themselves. Abroad, or in the company of foreigners – a term that includes everyone who does not think like oneself – the English become fiercely patriotic, but it is always motivated by profit. If the returns aren’t there, the retreat can be swift, indeed.” The tall old man looked his partner in the eye, pausing as if to assess the merit of continuing, as if to assess the impact of the words that might follow before he dare speak them. The young leader thought that this might be the pose that the nation would choose to immortalise the man in bronze after his death. “Your revolution is a privileged state…”

“We are threatened from every side…”

The old man turned away, held up the palm of his right hand to stay the other’s words. “It’s privileged because you know where you stand. And that’s a luxury. You will be defeated, of course, but only temporarily. Your cause will triumph in the long term…”

“…when we are all dead…”

“Indeed. But your cause has integrity. It will be resurrected, maybe many times, and each time it will forge progress towards its goal. In Britain, we still continue to stuff ourselves with the illusion that our total defeat in the war was, in fact, a victory. The fact that we were not invaded convinces people that we won. We were on the winning side, but we lost the war. Ask them why the true victor demanded the complete dismantling of the British Empire, the ceding of our oil-rich territories in the Middle East, the adoption of an independent nuclear deterrent that we never had the right to use, and the requirement that we always send troops, always under the empire command, to any conflict that the empire chooses to pursue, and they will look at you blank-faced in ignorance. Our cause, our patriotism you might say, is corrupt. It’s a false consciousness, as false as people’s conviction that their consumer choices really exist. So when I worked for the services, we did the empire’s job. We had no choice. We knew who our real master was, and we knew we worked to further that interest, which had subsumed anything that we might call our own. Patriotism was not even on the agenda, because we could no longer identify what it was. So we did what we were told.”

“Plus a little more, on occasions.” It was a lawyer’s insistence, coupled with the politician’s opportunism that rendered this statement a question that demanded immediate response.

“I was not born rich,” said the old man, now leaning forward a tad more, his stoop an assertion. “Like any other human being I took a job. It paid the rent. A steelworker doesn’t necessarily believe in the ingot he is forging. A miner does not dig ideologically to supply the furnaces of capitalism.”

“But a man does not join an intelligence service devoted to fighting communism in order to dig coal.”

“It paid the rent. And I did other things on the side – for reasons of ….”

“Integrity? Truth? Conscience?”

“Lord, no! Pragmatism, as ever.”

The younger man held fire for a while. It was the right time to introduce the point, but the language was difficult to find. “So this would explain your current status. Patriotism, that which an outsider might presume you pursued when you worked for your government, was always a purely business arrangement. They paid you and you served them. And now they no longer pay you, so the patriotism evaporates and you become a tax exile. So you have no country apart from the self.”

“e e cummings, I believe?”

The younger man was silent, taken aback. A look of gentle confusion spread across his face. The tack he had planned had been undermined by this unexpected turn.

The older man sensed the other’s vulnerability and laughed. Intellect had once again granted an upper hand that was his to exploit, but he chose not to use his knowledge to control. “An American poet,” he said, calmly, “who broke all the rules, broke them so completely he recast what he did as a new system, a new set of rules. The artist’s only inevitable country is himself. You, Mr President, will never be an artist. You do not have the qualifications. For one, you have integrity, and lack the selfishness required.”

“So for you selfishness is publicly excused as pragmatism?”

“Each of us has a relationship to capitalism and pragmatism pays the rent. In your situation, where you are pushed outside of the ring, you don’t even have the choice to cooperate. For you, for your regime and for your people, pragmatism is not an option.”

“And was it pragmatism that led you to organize the infiltration of the student movements I later joined or the labour movement my friends organized? Was it your pragmatism that successfully placed spies in all the organizations that opposed the cynical old son of a bitch we called a dictator in our country but whom you and your imperial allies befriended because he was your son of a bitch? And is it not true that some of those people you placed, especially the less important ones in the student movement, did not they report to your office? And through that to our enemies? And was it pragmatism that led eventually to the arrest of activists, arrests that led to the imprisonment and exile of many truly honest and committed people? And was it also pragmatism that created the trumped up charges and rigged hearings that convicted them? And was it this pragmatism that led, in my own case, to years in jail and then exile – and eventually to my excommunication from a Church I love, that was my very life? Did you do that? Was all this the consequence of your pragmatism? Did you perpetrate such things to pay your rent?”

“I did what was required of me…”

“The defence of an officer in a death camp. I was acting under orders … … and doing a little on the side, making a small fortune from the market in gold teeth.” The young man’s scorn quickened the words to a tirade, the silence they demanded deep and uncomfortable. A politician who ought to have employed circumspection had lost control. A writer with a command of words had been cornered, rendered speechless and left without defence.

The president stood again at the window. He again retrieved the papers from his inside pocket and began to read. The old man, now looking every one of his eighty years, took the four steps needed to be at the other’s side. Over ignored papers and smouldering cigarette, their joint gaze again fell on the smartly dressed right wing thugs in the street below. “We know what we oppose,” said the president.

“At least today,” said the old writer.

There was a knock on the door, a sharp single perfunctory tap that signalled immediate entry. It was the old writer’s turn to speak to the assembled rally. Again, as he turned, he offered a back-turned left hand, a slight grasp of the other’s upper arm a gesture of solidarity. But this time the words were without passion, without animation and perhaps more sincere for their whisper. “No pasaran. I’m with you.”

“Today,” repeated the other quickly, the slight pause obviously inserted as a prelude to continuation, “and every day I have found your work inspirational.”

The old man smiled a little and gripped again.

miércoles, 2 de abril de 2008

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Stamboul Train was the novel that made Graham Greene’s name. Published in 1932, it catalogues a train journey that, a few years later, would have been impossible, a journey across Europe that was about to be changed for ever. The novel is set in a time when the Orient Express travelled from Western Europe to Constantinople across several borders, each of which that presented its own different challenge. Seventy-five years ago the continent was neither bifurcated by ideology coupled with allegiance of necessity, nor united by a desire for greater capitalist integration. It was also not a stable place, with the short-lived tensions of the Treaty of Versailles less than fifteen years old. To reflect this, Graham Greene presents Stamboul Train as a journey, almost a travelogue, with the setting of each part offering an informed relevance to the action. So we progress from Ostend to Cologne to Vienna to Subotica to Constantinople.

The book is highly cinematographic in character and is cast as a tangle of almost separate stories acted out by characters that mingle along the way. People join and leave the train. There’s a love affair in a sleeper. A Jew is on his way to do deals in currants. A wanted criminal boards and leaves. A young thing is on her way to a job as a dancer. There’s a political refugee fomenting revolution in his homeland. There’s a lesbian journalist seeking to interview a famous popular writer. Stanboul Train is clearly not the eight fifteen from Pinner. Or maybe it is…

The action is both on and off the train as the characters’ stories weave together to create a novel. And it is possible to read the book as an almost linear story, where everyone, as in a soap opera, is pre-occupied with their present to the exclusion of all other time. But Graham Greene goes further than this and gives us vignettes of political, historical and social comment. Miss Warren’s interview with Savory, the writer, is an example.

Savory the writer is playing a part of being a writer. He has made his name selling books written from a Cockney point of view, at the time a euphemism for a down-to-earth, working class, perhaps therefore honest perspective. But Savory is unsavoury. His Cockney credentials are false, since he was born in beautiful Balham, far south-west of Bow Bells, and he claims an aspiration to achieve a re-creation of Chaucer’s spirit to counter the gloom and introspection of modern fiction. But Savory reveals himself to be “a man overworked, harassed by a personality which was not his own, by curiosities and lusts, a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown.” And Miss Warren, his interviewer, hates dealing with the impersonation that is stardom, the necessity to deal with another person as a commercial creation, a lie in the form of an advertisement. She earns a living from writing about such people, but yet she despises consumerism for its own sake, derides its pulpy products. She yearns to tell Savory that his books are rubbish, destined for the dustbin as fickle taste moves on, reorders consumer sentiment to ridicule its current eager choice.

And here, perhaps, we have Graham Greene revealing his own self-destructive, self-abusive darker side. He feels as unsavoury as Savory, producing these entertainments just to sell books, to make money, to indulge in his weaknesses. But what Greene’s deprecatory self-analysis apparently did not like to admit was that he was always doing more, much more than this.

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Stamboul Train (Vintage Classic)