Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Black Girl in Search of God and Some Lesser tales by George Bernard Shaw

The title piece in this anthology is a parable on the nature of religious belief. When first published in 1932 it caused quite a stir and I wondered whether the intervening 75 years might have rendered it something less of a shocker. I found that, apart from one violation of current political correctness and a few inevitable stylistic issues, the message had lost none of its poignancy and perhaps little of its ability to shock.

The Black Girl in Search of God is not a novel or a novella. It is not really a short story either. I choose to describe it as a parable because others have, but equally it could be classed alongside Plato’s symposium as a vehicle for examining a philosophical idea. It’s not a discourse, but it could be a meditation, albeit a rather energetic one. The idea in question, of course, is the nature of religious belief.

The Black Girl of the title is only cast as such, I think, to provide Shaw with a literary vehicle to convey his otherwise naïve questions about Christianity. To this end, The Black Girl is presented as a “noble savage”, and thus a tabula rasa. It is here – and only here – that Shaw violates current correctness. The character could have been cast as a child, but then she could not have threatened to wield her knobkerrie, her weapon, and nor could she have been portrayed as bringing no tradition of her own. We must accept, therefore, that there remains a functionality about the role of this character. She does not represent anything, except her ability to ask the questions she is required to ask.

The Black Girl has been converted to Christianity by a young British woman who has taken delight in amorously jilting a series of vicars. She then becomes a missionary, despite her clearly thin grasp of the subject matter. She is, perhaps, an allegory of colonial expansion. She goes abroad to teach others despite not having achieved fulfilment or knowledge in her own life. It might be important that the teacher and the taught are both women.

When her convert starts asking questions, fundamental questions that the missionary herself has never heard asked, never mind answered, she reverts to invention, not scholarship. Shaw’s intention is clear. She invents myth to mystify myth. And this cloak satisfies the curiosity of the average Christian, but not The Black Girl, who thus goes off in search of God.

And, guided by snakes, she finds Him. And not just once, because there is more than one God in the Bible she carries. There is the God of Wrath, who demands the sacrifice of her child. When she cannot comply, He demands she find her father so he can sacrifice her. A good part of the Bible thus disappears from her new-found faith.

She meets an apparent God of Love, but he laughs at Job for being so naively and blindly devout. More of her book blows away.

She meets prophets who, one by one, deliver their different messages, most of which conflict and communicate individual political positions or bigotry rather than personal revelation.

On the way she belittles Imperial power and male domination. She learns that most “civilised” countries have given up on God and hears a plea that people like her should not be taught things that the mother country no longer believes.

Scientists offer her equally conflicting opinions. They are careful only to describe, never to conclude or interpret. In a way, they are just modern prophets, each with their own interested positions.

There is an amazing episode where a mathematician implores her to consider complex numbers, the square root of minus x, which The Black Girl hears as Myna sex or perhaps its homophone minor sex, and is clearly a reference to feminism. Along with economic power and male dominance, The Black Girl sees guns as the highest achievement of white society. This anticipates the description of colonialism’s trinity in Ngugi’s Petals of Blood.

Then, in a strange section, an Arab discusses belief with a conjuror. These appear to be a pair of major prophets in thin disguise. But their discussions merely confuse the girl and their words skirt her questions.

And so she meets an Irishman, marries and settles down. She devotes herself to him, their coffee-coloured children and the fruits of their garden. Note that she does not devote herself to herself. She projects out, does not analyse within. And in this utterly humanist universe she finds not only personal happiness, but also fulfilment and, with that, answers to her own metaphysical questions that religion per se could not even address.

And so, as the parable closes, we ponder whether the Irishman she marries is Shaw, and whether The Black Girl is the questioning, non-racist, non-sexist, socialist and humanist vision of the future he has personally espoused.

And as for the Lesser Tales, they are generally lesser. Don Giovanni explaining himself was fun and the Death of an Old Revolutionary Hero was prescient of the role of the Socialist Workers’ Party adopted in maintaining Margaret Thatcher in power in the 1980s. A great, historical and fundamentally contemporary read.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Up and Down in Toledo, the expected and the surprising

I have wanted to visit Toledo for at least forty years and for one particular reason, being the canvases of Domenicos Theotokopoulos, or El Greco as we have learned to call him. Well, now I have been and I found what I sought, plus a truly amazing and unexpected surprise.

Toledo is one of those celebrity tourist destinations that defy categorization. It was a trading centre in Roman times. It was the Visigoth’s capital in what we still call the Dark Ages. It became a splendid, rich, cosmopolitan, multi-faith trading city and artistic centre under Muslim rule. The Christian era saw the construction and decoration of the institutions and monuments that now comprise the city’s current iconic identity. And, after the period of relative decline that affected all of Spain, it is now one of the world’s most visited tourist venues whilst retaining its own, highly dignified life.

Its setting is superb. Almost surrounded by the Rio Tajo, the outcrop towers over the gorge. And it is topped by a mass of buildings, each of which seems to state its own competitive claim to grandeur. Few of them can challenge the sheer scale of either the Alcazar or the cathedral. The former is much reconstructed and rebuilt after being fought over many times, but its vast scale alone impresses, and surely, courtesy of El Greco’s painted cityscapes, is one of the most recognizable buildings one earth. The cathedral, on the other hand, is both monumental and aesthetically pleasing. Its pictures include El Greco portraits of the saints and an amazing, near cubist Madonna by Morales. One chapel has portraits of all the archbishops who have reigned there. The treasury has five hundred years of their robes. And the ambulatory behind the altar has some of their cardinal’s hats hanging from the ceiling. Apparently they are hung over the owner’s tombs and remain there until they rot. The hats, that is.

There’s an interesting point to be made about a visit to one of the town’s smaller buildings, the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca. The period of Muslim rule was marked by great tolerance. Though the different religious communities had their own areas of the city, Christians, Jews and Muslims built their own churches, synagogues and mosques. But after the re-conquest, Christianity asserted its dominant and normative creed and everything except the churches was suppressed. So the synagogue became a church. An altarpiece was erected in front of the holy wall and arches were bricked up so that Christian paintings could be added. And since the Christians actually did not believe that Jews and Muslims had actually converted, a Holy Inquisition was established was established to identify dissenters. It was not long after this turbulent period that el Greco arrived in Toledo.

Domenicos Theotokopoulos left Crete to train as an artist in Venice. By 1577 he had settled in Toledo and there he stayed. His unique style, a blend of high Renaissance, Orthodox Church iconography and emerging Mannerism is both instantly recognizable and supremely expressive. His use of light - or often lack of it, since he often painted in the dark – gives his canvases a strangely ethereal whiteness which so often seems to stress the humanity and therefore vulnerability of his subjects.

El Greco’s work, of course, is represented in major collections throughout the world and, it could be argued, the collection in the Prado far exceeds in importance and sensation what remains in Toledo. But in the city’s San Tomé church, still in the place for which it was conceived, is the painter’s masterpiece, the Burial of Señor Orgaz. It’s so well known that the experience of standing before it might provoke déjà vu or anti-climax but, like all true masterpieces, it transcends even its own reputation by offering much more than its expectation. Painted in 1586, it depicts the interment of a medieval knight, a resident of Toledo, philanthropist and benefactor of the Sane Tomé church. In the foreground, Señor Orgaz’s body is laid to rest. Meanwhile, towards the top, his soul is admitted to heaven. Across the entire width of the picture a line of mourners faces serves to separate the worldly lower half from the heavens above. Each person is a unique individual, each offering a different emotional and perhaps political response to the burial. In the swirling heavens above, human gravity has no place. There, everything glows with a cool white light, perhaps suggesting cascades of water rather than flights of passion. And it’s the row of human heads, with their intellects perhaps combined, that forms the boundary between the material world below and the ethereal heavens above. A true Renaissance message.

There are other El Greco originals and several copies elsewhere in the city, in Santo Domingo Antiguo, the cathedral, Santa Cruz museum and Tavera museum. Perhaps only the artist himself knows why so many of the people in his paintings have pointed noses. But if all Toledo had to offer was the Burial of Señor Orgaz it would still demand a visit.

The other venue with El Greco paintings is the Casa del Greco, but this is closed for restoration. There are a couple of very well known paintings in that collection, notably a view of the city with a map, so they have been re-housed in the nearby Victorio Macho museum.

Given my motivation for visiting Toledo, I doubt whether I would have made the Victorio Macho museum a priority. He’s a twentieth century sculptor, born in Palencia, Spain, and who spent many years in Peru. It was the El Greco paintings, re-housed there, that drew me, but I left having experienced one of those wonderful surprises that renders a particular trip not just memorable but etched in the mind, never to be forgotten. Macho’s work is astoundingly beautiful. There are bronzes, stonework and drawings. His series of self portraits is masterful, the face full of doubt, but its representation a model of expression and confident technique. A female nude from the back entitled The Guitar is memorable, to say the least. But the most stunning piece was the one a fellow visitor described as just like her grandmother. A small old woman dressed entirely in black sits alone with her head ever so slightly bowed. The head and hands are white. Her expression at first seems detached, at least contemplative, perhaps rather aloof and judgmental. But it changes. A hint of a smile appears as you study her face. And then the sculpture seems to suggest the woman’s entire life. She is simultaneously old and young, with the contrast of white flesh and black clothes suggesting youth and age. And it’s all there in that enigmatic face.

So having found in Toledo the experience I sought, an experience of a quality I had expected, the works of Victorio Macho provided the surprise which made the visit utterly memorable.

A review of Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov

Black Snow is a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. This apparent platitude is full of contradiction. The book is perhaps better described as an autobiographical episode, with Bulgakov renamed as the book’s central character, Maxudov. It’s also a satire in which the characters are precise, exact and often vicious caricatures of Bulgakov’s colleagues and acquaintances in the between-the-wars Moscow Arts Theatre, including the legendary Stanislawsky. In some ways, Black Snow is a history of Bulgakov’s greatest success, the novel The White Guard, which the theatre company adapted for the stage under the title The Days of the Turbins. The play ran for close to a thousand performances, including one staged for an audience of a single person, one Josef Stalin who, perhaps luckily for Bulgakov, liked it.

Black Snow is also a sideways look at the creative process, itself. Maxudov is a journalist with The Shipping Times and hates the monotony and predictability of his work. Privately he creates a new world by writing a novel in which the author can imagine transcending the mundane. But the product of this and all creation is useless unless it is shared. Only then can it exist. Only then can the author’s relief from the self he cannot live with be realised. But when no-one publishes the novel, when no-one shows the slightest interest in it, the author is left only with the isolation that inspired the book, but now this is an amplified isolation and more devastating for it. So he attempts suicide. But he is such an incompetent that he fails. It’s the same middle class Russian incompetence that Chekhov celebrated in Uncle Vanya where no-one seems able to aim a shot.

But then this unpublished book is seen by others, for whom it seems to mean something quite different from the author’s intention. Instead of a novel, they see it as a play. They ask for a re-write, complete with changes of both plot and setting. Effectively, the only way the work can have its own life, its own existence, is for it to become something that denies the author’s own intentions and thus nullifies the reason for writing it. And so Maxudov goes along with things and thus in effect he is back again doing what he does for The Shipping Times, in that he is writing things that others want.

And here is where Black Snow becomes a parody of what was happening later in Bulgakov’s own career. He wanted to write a play about censorship and control. This, obviously, was impossible in Stalin’s Soviet Union, so he set the play in France, basing it upon the historical reality of Moliere. After four years of tying to prepare the play for performance what finally emerged was a costume drama from which all allusions to censorship had been removed or watered down. So Bulgakov’s intended comment on Soviet society was lost. And the play flopped.

So the satirical caricatures are truly vicious. We have an impresario who is incapable of remembering the playwright’s name. We have the opinionated arty intellectual, full of biting criticism and dismissive posturing until he realises he is speaking to the author and then he does an instant, blushing volte-face. We have a character that is so sure about every detail of organisation and experience that they are almost always wrong.

Ultimately, Black Snow is about a creative process where a writer can create whatever is imaginable. But then in communicating it, the receivers change it, transform it into what they want it to be. The writer makes the snow black, the recipients read it as black but change it to white and then probably argue whether it has already turned to rain. Black Snow is an enigmatic, super-real and surreal satire.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A review of The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk

I have visited Turkey, but not Istanbul. It’s one of those iconic places that keeps cropping up in travel plans, but then gets overlooked, possibly because its name fits so easily into my thoughts that I convince myself I have already been there. Having just read Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, that illusion will be orders of magnitude stronger. Orhan Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature and this seems to have spurned new translations of his work, new versions which hopefully can widen his readership in the English-speaking world.

The Black Book is a gigantic work. And, in the way that I suspect most readers might understand the term, there is no plot. Suffice it to say that Galip wakes up one morning and his wife has disappeared. He assumes she has gone off to seek out her first husband, Celal, a well-known newspaper columnist. Galip sets off to find Celal and, he assumes, his wife, but strangely the journalist has also disappeared. As a means to help him track down the two missing people, Galip immerses himself in Celal’s life, his writing and, gradually, his very identity. Effectively he becomes the person he is seeking. He re-reads his past work and discovers unknown things about his own, his wife’s and her former husband’s past. By then, however, we cannot be sure if we are dealing with reminiscences of Celal, Galip’s interpretations of them, Galip’s reworking of them, or, indeed, Galip’s own words presented as if they were those of Celal.

But the plot in The Black Book is almost irrelevant. It’s not a book that one reads to discover what happens. It’s a book that’s replete with flavour, experience and history, and the reader feasts on vast helpings of all three.

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul – let’s face it, there is no other city on earth that has been named three times and where, on each occasion, that name has passed into language as an expression of political, strategic, religious and economic pre-eminence. It’s a city that bridges continents, ideologies and faiths. Nowhere else on earth has a greater claim to the very quintessence of humanity than Istanbul. And yet modern Istanbul is a Turkish city, and perhaps its most fascinating aspect is its potential to mirror contemporary debates on religion versus secularism, tradition versus modernity, imperial past versus global present.

The Black Book has thirty-six chapters, each having its own title and prefacing quotation. The form, at least in part, is its content, in that each chapter could be read as if it were an article written by Celal or by Galip impersonating Celal. There is no linear narrative. We experience what inspired the writer and there is no ordering of time or place. But we feel we are in that city. We feel we are living its history, whatever that might be. And we feel we are experiencing contemporary debates on its and its people’s identity. The city is central to everything in the book, with its multiple histories and allegiances mixed into the melting pot of its contemporary form.

Throughout, Galip finds he gradually becomes his quarry, Celal. He trades identities and roles, but never permanently, never for sure. In this way the characters become the city, whose sense of place and multiplicity of identities pervade all, thus mirroring the apparent confusion of its – and humanity’s – complexity. But the people eventually are always welcomed by some aspect of the city’s – and humanity’s – multi-faceted nature.

The Black Book is a work that demands to be re-read, but not because it is in any way a difficult or impenetrable read. I have never been to Istanbul, but like the book, I feel it will be an experience that, once tried, will demand to be re-visited.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons is a giant of a book, a giant because of the way in which it gently wraps you into its characters’ world and allows you to feel their lives being lived. It’s a giant of a book in a very small world, a world inhabited by Maggie and her husband, Ira, and, it seems, by precious little else. They are long married, happy, perhaps without really knowing it, and replete with generally unacknowledged failure.

Breathing Lessons starts with Maggie picking up the family car after its repair job and spruce up. She immediately runs into a truck and doesn’t stop. She and Ira then head off on a long drive to a funeral of a long lost friend. Memories revisit high school and adolescence as the widow attempts to recreate her wedding service to bid farewell to her husband. The songs her friends originally sang turn out to be highly inappropriate, depending on your point of view, and some don’t want to try to recreate their youth and so become dignified spoilsports. Some old scores are retallied, none settled, of course.

Then Ira and Maggie set off home and decide to call in on their son’s estranged wife and their granddaughter, a girl of seven, it turns out, they haven’t seen since she was an infant. On the way there is a strange encounter with a fellow traveller. Maggie invents a story, for some reason, which he believes. She pursues the scam, is as duplicitous as hell and carries the whole thing off as if it had been gospel from the start. A strange episode.

Maggie is surprised that she does not recognise her granddaughter. Perhaps Anne Tyler is suggesting that the only really important things for Maggie are those she keeps within the confines of her head. Fiona, the estranged daughter-in-law, seems surprisingly accommodating, even more so when details emerge of how poorly treated she has been by Maggie and her son, Jesse. Maggie and Ira clearly weren’t too good at being parents, or grandparents, either.

Maggie convinces herself that she can get the separated couple back together and cajoles her daughter-in-law and granddaughter to motor back to Baltimore with them. She phones her son and arranges for him to call round later that day, after the travellers have reached the family home. It seems that everyone except Maggie is both indifferent and sceptical, but, for some reason, everyone goes along with her suggestions. And, of course, it all goes nowhere. None of these folk, by the way, could be described as intellectual. Not one of them seems to have read a book or, indeed, ever suffered the trauma of a moment of self-reflection since birth. All anyone ever does is react, and then usually wrongly.

Maggie is the book’s central and essential character. Ira, her husband, for the most part busies himself driving, playing solitaire or teaching Frisbee. But basically he seems to hover around the edge of Maggie’s universe, occasionally putting his foot in it by pointing out the odd reality here and there, realities that Maggie expends massive resources trying to ignore or deny. She makes mistakes. She crashes the car every time she drives (two out of two in the book). She constantly imagines herself as God’s gift, a sort of Mrs Fix-It for everyone else’s problems. But she is singularly unable to organise her own existence. She is overweight and yet overeats. She is full of self-justification, almost invariably based on obviously false premises. And she seems to have developed absolutely no powers of self-analysis or reflection, even when reality occasionally forces its way into her existence to contradict her assumptions and undermine her intentions.

I have to admit that I tried to start the book at least three times without success. For me, Maggie’s character was just not quite credible and, if it were credible, I could find no reason why I would want to read about such a person. I persevered this time, however, and the result was a rewarding insight into an uncultured and eventually valueless approach to life that, I suspect, Anne Tyler suspects may be widespread, though I feel that she would not be as judgmental about it as myself.

In the end, all of the characters in Breathing Lessons are failures, who consistently render their own lives a chaotic mess, both inside and outside their heads. They are surrounded by their own mistakes and missed opportunities. These are people who really work at their incompetence and succeed brilliantly. I can’t help feeling that at least one of them, in the normal run of things, would display an intellect superior to a demented parrot and a facility for self-reflection greater than a sooty fireback. But no one ever does. Perhaps that’s the point.