Thursday, January 31, 2008
But Bruno is much more than a linguist, certainly much more than a translator and, as a result of the application of conscience, considerably more than the interpreter his employers have hired. His perception of language is so acute that it provides him with an extra sense, a means of interpreting the world, no less, not just a method of eliciting meaning. But he also has the intellectual skills to identify consequences, to interpret motives. And it is here where he begs to differ with his paymasters.
The Mission Song is the kind of book where revelation of the plot, beyond this mere starting point, would undermine the experience of reading it. Suffice it to say that Bruno’s task is both what is seems to be and also not what it seems. Bruno’s ambivalence in relation to its aims prompts him to go beyond the call of duty. And, in doing so, he learns more about his near-anonymous employers. But, of course, they learn more about him, a reality that eventually has fairly dire consequences.
The Mission Song is also a love story, or two, one on the way in and one on the way out. It’s also about privilege and power, plus their use, misuse and abuse. In many ways it inhabits similar territory to John le Carré’s Absolute Friends, but is singularly more successful, especially in the credibility of the eventual denouement.
Fans of John le Carré will need no convincing. For those who have found his other work less than satisfying, The Mission Song shows the author at his best, presenting a complex, highly credible plot in a skillful, illuminating, informative and yet entertaining way. Its eventual message about the abuse of power is subtly threaded into the very substance of the plot and makes its point with strength and relevance. We know a little more about the world by the end.
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The Mission Song
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Where Kite Runner tells the story of two boyhood friends approaching maturity, separating and reuniting, A Thousand Splendid Suns presents two women who are forced together by arrangement. As in Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini presents ethnic and social class differences as the givens of the story. Similarly, Afghanistan’s turbulent thirty years from the mid-1970s is more than a backdrop: it is the very substance of the idea, eventually revealed as the flesh on the story’s bones, the driving force of circumstance that creates the inevitability of the characters’ fate.
And this is why I wish I could read both books again in the different order, because too often in A Thousand Splendid Suns I felt I had been there before. The backdrop came just too much to the fore, in some parts so much so that I felt Mariam and Laila became puppets of its detail and demands.
That, I suppose, may also be part of the point. Whereas Kite Runner concentrated on male experience, A Thousand Splendid Suns focuses on women and, given what happened in Afghanistan over those decades, it may be that the sense of subservience to the turn of events is the very essence of these women’s experience. Thus, it is almost true to say that they were not, themselves, protagonists. They were done unto.
Mariam and Laila differ in age, ethnicity, birthright and social class. They both, and for different reasons, finish up unhappily married to the same man, Rasheed, older than both combined, brutish, bigoted and sadistic. Rasheed is thus a symbol for the traditional male role without declaring himself as such. In Western terms, we read this “tradition” as misogyny, however, and it is here where I find the book’s weakness. In my opinion – for what it’s worth, and not much at that - A Thousand Splendid Suns would have been an even greater novel had Rasheed been cast as a more liberal figure and had he also suffered as a result of his own conflict with the requirements of changing times. But Khaled Hosseini made A Thousand Splendid Suns from the women’s stories and a more complex role for their husband might have deflected attention from them.
The two women had quite different experiences of youth, and demonstrate quite different capacities to relate to others and even to life, itself. But they have enough in common to need to act together, to need to form a relationship, less than an alliance, more than acquaintance. Pragmatism might have been easier, but the two women develop a real bond, a relationship that shares out the pain, disappointment and unfulfilled dreams of their marital confinement. There is tragedy aplenty and ultimate resolution of a kind.
And then it was the eventual similarity between Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns that prompted me to take my eye off the ball, to lose a little bit of interest in the story at mid-point. But if this is a criticism then it is an extremely minor one. As I suggested at the start, had I read the two books in the opposite sequence, I would probably have levelled my criticism differently. But having also said in a review of Kite Runner that I would not criticise the book for a lack of explicit position on the politics, I feel that in A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini ought to have said more about the status and role of women. Mariam and Laila live a tragedy, but they are also offered as icons for something bigger, which is women’s position in the society at large. In A Thousand Splendid Suns I thus wanted the author to offer explicit comment on the plight of his characters, at least some general comment, even a dose of polemic to merely label absurdity. Alternatively, as I stated earlier, he could have made Rasheed, their aging husband, a little more complex, a tad more endearing in order to offer a source of the social attitudes without the need to justify them.
But these are all minor points. A Thousand Splendid Suns is, in its own right, another supreme achievement by Khaled Hosseini and a further reminder to all of us that ideology imposed blindly can be a blunt and dangerous instrument.
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A Thousand Splendid Suns
Monday, January 21, 2008
For us it was just part of a tour, a long weekend snatched in common from the clutches of our combined, ever demanding careers. I felt utterly liberated, that beautiful evening, as we walked the quarter mile or so down the steep dry cobbles from the obligatory car park into the car-less village, the deadlines and demands of advertising for once confined outside the limits of this small place. And I could tell from the spring in Jenny’s step that her battles with bottom sets in Lewisham were now further distant than our three days on the road.
There was a small gift shop, a tourist-trap trinket place, just a hundred yards along the lane. I bought the newspaper our early departure from St. Ives had denied me, my daily fix of political gossip now long established as an essential feature of my adoption into London life. I explained that we were strangers here, had driven down the side road in the hope of finding something interesting and had nothing booked.
The shopkeeper said we had just three options – the Old Hotel just down the lane, a bed and breakfast at the bottom by the harbour or the farm near the junction with the main road, back where we had turned off.
“It was different years ago,” he said, “when lots of people used to stay over, but now it’s all day trippers and holiday homes. Ten years ago we had half a dozen guest houses, but they’ve all closed down.”
The Old Hotel was just two hundred yards from the shop, at the head of the steep cove that housed the tangled triangle of the village. It was a bit beyond the price we usually paid and had AA stars framed over its reception desk, but we fell for the place and checked in, just for one night. It was the kind of mock Jacobean black and white inn, whose lack of a straight line just might have suggested it was original. But the beams were hollow and the plaque above the entrance said, “Refurbished 1958.”
“Do you have any luggage to bring from the car park?” the receptionist asked. The name tag pinned to her blouse said, ‘Hilary, Manageress’. “We have a man with a donkey and sledge who will bring it down for you.” She wasn’t joking.
I lifted our two hold-alls and said it was all we had. She smiled, offering politeness but communicating knowledge tinged with judgment. It was in an era when it was still unusual for a couple to sign in without obviously trying to appear married.
We took the key for room number six. There were only eight and the other seven keys were still hanging on their hooks when we took the lift – yes, the lift! – to the upper floor. Number six was at the back, of course, right above the kitchen extractor fan and overlooked an enclosed yard with a yellowed corrugated plastic roof. It hid an array of lidless dustbins, from which a hint of an aroma sweetened the still air when we opened the windows to encourage the previous occupant’s cigarette smoke to leave. We dropped the bags and walked down to the sea to absorb the last of the late springtime sun at its setting.
The beach was shingle and small, hard-packed against a harbour wall that extended a good fifty yards into the shallow sea. A couple of clapperboard buildings, largely rotten, clung to its prominence, their profit long past, but their structures all but remaining. There were doors missing and one structure had no interior, the uncovered entrance revealing merely sky beyond. At one time, clearly, the locals had something of a living from this place, fishing perhaps, maybe small trade, smuggling in poor times, salvage by design, who knows. And then came the tourists, the stranger trade of nineteenth century invention that evaporated when the trunk road widened and rendered the place no more than a day trip from anywhere this side of Birmingham or London.
As we walked back up the deceptively steep single track that bisected the village, we passed several open doorways seeking air on this unseasonably balmy evening at the end of May. After London everything here felt so cosy, so small, warm and unthreatening, as if the place itself were welcoming us into its embracing fold.
We saw just two other people, both descending the path, and independently both offered greeting. “Isn’t it pretty,” said Jenny. “Don’t you wish you lived here?” I declined to answer.
We ate at the Old Hotel. There was nowhere else. We ordered the grilled sole with parsley butter. Potatoes and broccoli were the ‘legumes de saison’. It took over half an hour for the food to appear. We finished the bottle of house white we had ordered to go with the fish long before even the smell of cooking wafted through from the kitchen. We got significant giggles speculating on how far out into the Bristol Channel the boat had to go to catch our order. We ate. It wasn’t bad, and then we moved across to the bar, the four steps needed to change location effectively redefining us from guests to locals. A concertina glass partition separated the areas in theory, but tonight it had been opened wide for ventilation. The rest of the evening became a tale of three women, Hilary, Sue and Sandra, all of whom have dreamt.
The hotel bar is the only place to drink, so it’s a pub, complete with its regulars. A half a dozen men are collectively and determinedly engaged in preventing the oak top from rising, their planted elbows firmly ensuring its continued sojourn on earth. They are passing the time of night with what seems to be a predictable set of platitudes. “I bought the D-reg because I thought it would work out cheaper in the long run, what with the smaller servicing bills and the like... …But you ought to do more of that sort of thing yourself and then you wouldn’t have to pay anything at all… … Yes, I know, but I just don’t have the time. Have you, these days?... …Give us another, Sandra… …You go just beyond the first turning… …Down past the egg farm where my brother used to work… …They are really cheap if you buy them by the sack… …bloody heavy, mind you…”
She is forty going on sixty, utterly contemptuous of what she sees before her, yet utterly resigned – or condemned – to servicing its every need. She is rather large and quite square, both in face and body. She’s been like that ever since she can remember. Black hair, cut quite, but not very short and swept to a wave at the front showing that she has spent not a little time tonight cleansing and preening herself before starting work behind the bar at the Old Hotel. On the other side of the argument is a series of slobs, one of whom we only ever seem to see from the back. His head is triangular with apex at the base. A pair of key-in-keyhole ears protrude. He was probably called ‘wing-nut’ by his classmates at school. I resist the temptation to grab an ear-key and twist it to see what it might unlock. From the bar talk we can clearly hear, the answer surely is not much.
Mr Ears is something of a leader, he thinks. He rarely lets any conversation that is shared by the others to pass without his own inserted comment. He wears a boiler suit, heavily stained, and a pair of Doc Martins that have seen better decades. His skin is rough and darkened, but probably not by sun. His head is shaved, but shows a shadow at the edge of his baldness. He seems to lead with his head, which he sticks out to emphasise every voluminous word he speaks.
At one point there seems to be a lull in the conversation. Mr Ears picks up one of the wet cloth runners from the bar and throws it at Sandra. He thinks it’s very funny and nudges his neighbour in the ribs as he flings. Sandra is hardly amused. She tries to say, “Please don’t do that” just as he raises his arm, but she is only half way through the “Please” by the time he has flung it. To say that she is not amused is to understate the utter contempt that fills her eyes. But still, it’s a living.
Her son has been helping out with the washing up in the under-staffed kitchen. He is fourteen, at least that is what Sandra immediately chooses to tell us the moment he appears. She gravitates towards our end of the albeit small bar, placing the maximum distance between herself and the group that we now learn includes her husband, Mr Ears. Darren, the son, is just like her, the same shape, but with brown, not black hair. I sense Jenny concluding that the mother’s is dyed. Darren is still very much his mother’s boy, not yet his father’s threat. Knowing that she will have to put the place to rights tonight before she leaves, she has him wipe down the tables and stack the stools, destined to be unused this evening. Mr Ears, he of the triangular head and key-in-keyhole ears, smiles a mild pride a little as he drinks whisky chasers at some rate.
He orders a round of drinks for himself and his mates. He almost theatrically flips open his softened leatherette wallet and then pulls a face deigning surprise when he finds it empty. Sandra’s expression is both knowing and tired as she, reluctantly, scowling when she turns her back to him, writes out an IOU and places it in the till. It’s no doubt in her own name. She takes some pence in ‘change’ from the chit, which she offers and he pockets, rattling the coins against a set of keys in his deep pockets, as if ensuring that it has fallen to the bottom. A few minutes later he needs another refill costing eighty-five pence, but he produces only twenty-five from his pocket. Sandra makes up the rest from her purse, her lips pressing a silent curse as she operates the till.
A minute later Hilary appears from the kitchen. She hands Sandra a brown envelope. A slight smile confirms that these are wages, perhaps for the week. Sandra immediately extracts a note, places it in the till and retrieves her IOU, which, after attracting her husband’s attention, she pointedly tears into small pieces and ditches into an ashtray, an ashtray that she will have to clean out later. Mr Ears barks and growls a little, maybe sensing a put down in front of his mates, but later we are told that really wants to have the paper intact so he can read the amount to check that Sandra’s not fiddling him and arranging to keep something for herself. “Never trust people in business,” he says, loudly to his mate, “but never vote against them!” He laughs.
Sue follows Hilary from the kitchen. We know her name immediately because Sandra greets her, as if she has not seen her for weeks. Her white, side-buttoned jacket identifies her as the person who grilled our fish. She is a very good cook. We enjoyed our sole, I tell her. She says thank you, but then immediately delivers a bout of self-deprecation, apologising for the fact that she has never had any training. Her words are like a magnet for the other women, who immediately move to our end of the bar, as far from the locals as it gets. Sue then tells us of a coffee fudge cake that prompted one guest to propose to her. The ladies laugh, including my Jenny. Her husband, however, was the one who taught her how to cook fish. It’s all in the salt. After all, they live in salt water, don’t they?
Perhaps because we are strangers, Sue wants to talk. Clearly the locals at the other end would not be interested in the fact that she often has to cook for thirty people in a kitchen that’s the size of a dog kennel. Hilary, Sue and Sandra are clearly not happy with their lot. Hilary, especially, seems tense and dispirited as Sue tries to explain the facilities at the back. When she invites us through the bar to inspect where she works, Hilary looks perturbed, even threatened. “Look”, says Sue, with a wave of an arm, “there’s one piddling microwave, a gas cooker from year dot and a freezer that wouldn’t service a family of four. And when the place is full of trippers, I have to do twenty bar meals an hour at lunchtime.”
Hilary ushers us back the right side of the bar There’s not much work around here, she tells us. Having us visit the kitchen was clearly more than her job was worth, so she changes the subject. “It’s nice here, but I feel that life is passing me by. I’m a city girl. I’m from Walsall. I’m not used to living in a small place like this. I envy you two. I’d really like to be in London, but my boyfriend is a herdsman and there’s no call for them in Mayfair.”
But she does make sure we register that Sue is slaving away in the kitchen for next to nothing. And the owner who often supervises rang in to say that he would not be around to lend a hand this evening because he was sick, when she knew full well that in fact he and his wife had been invited out to dinner by the Cowan’s at their farm.
“At this time of year, when the sky is clear and the air is fresh and the weather’s nice, you would think that this is a really nice place to live. But just go and have a look at the backs of these places. Go round the side and have a look. Give me a modern bungalow with double glazing and central heating any day. They are falling to bits. In winter you can have the heating going full blast and still have a gale blowing in around the window frame. On nights like those I’m almost glad to be working here. At least it’s warm.” The words were qualified by a nod towards the regulars. “But then you have to sit here and put up with the rubbish that lot talk about all evening… Honestly in winter, in the dark nights, there are times when you wish you were anywhere apart from here. And this is the best work in the village, despite the fact that the owners never want to put any money into the place. And the people from here can’t get it into their heads that it’s in their own interest to invest in the place, to make it more attractive.. But then you get up in the morning and the sun is shining and the sky is blue and you can see across to Lundy Island and you walk the dogs across the cliff top and everything seems fine. I don’t know.”
It was then that she changed. An overlooked duty resurfaced from a forgotten cell. A moment later she returned from the reception. She had another brown envelope for Sandra, who smiled as she took it. The word ‘bonus’ could be heard, but there was a question mark of sorts. By then we had decided to go to bed and, as we left our bar stools, we only had time to bid her goodnight.
The following morning we walked around again. There really wasn’t anywhere to go, except where we had already been. You could go up or down. Up was back to the car. Down was to the sea. We chose down. Up would come later. We walked along the harbour wall, past the dilapidated clapperboards to look at the flat calm lying below a grey but light sky There was a buzzard, an intruder, screaming as it was shepherded away by pecking gulls. We watched the pursuit for ten minutes or more as the local nesters made sure that the unwanted foreigner was well and truly escorted off their patch.
As we stepped off the rampart and back onto the shingle, a British Telecom van appeared from the town. We assumed that he must have special dispensation to drive the main street, a privilege afforded only to the corporate. At the bottom the driver sped to a halt and then engaged reverse. This was clearly only a change of direction, there being nowhere along the main street to turn once you had entered the village. A group of men to our right noticed the noise and broke off from their idiotic task of trying to move a rusty old hulk across the shingle with makeshift crowbars. It was the hint of wheel-spin that attracted them Here was someone who did not know the place. Here was potential profit. A hint of forward movement in the van dissolved into an engine race as the rear end sank as far as the body into the loose stones.
Crowbars discarded, the blokes surrounded their captive in a matter of seconds. “He’s got that well and truly…,” grumbled Mr Ears, who was one of the first to arrive. He recognised us from the bar and actually spoke directly to us, but the words were for the van driver’s benefit. He scratched his head a few times as his mates appeared. They too mumbled as they crouched to inspect the depth of the problem. The van driver and his companion had got out of their seats, their doors scraping into the shingle. Mr Ears then said quite a lot, but I caught only an odd word. He scratched his head again. “It really isn’t my day today,” he said to me as he passed.
After a few minutes our little crowd still surrounded the prey when the Land Rover appeared. Mr Ears told us that it normally does the ferrying back to the car park for those trippers who can’t bring themselves to walk back up the hill. “It doubles as a tow truck for the boats,” he said. He tied a small thin rope to the tow bar and then selected a suitable place to attach it to the Telecom van. A whistle to the Land Rover produced a crawl. The rope broke, of course. Mr Ears scratched his head again. He was clearly having to work hard today. A mate went off to find a heavier rope, which was duly attached. The Land Rover growled as the van driver raised a scream from his engine. There was a splutter at the back end of his van and then it was free. There was a round of applause. A note was offered and Mr Ears took it, but clearly expressed a belief that it should be bigger. “The things I have to do to earn a living,” he said as he shuffled past the two of us, pulling and rewinding the rope that probably belonged to someone else. As British Telecom whined its way up the hill in second gear, we set off towards the Old Hotel to retrieve our bags, check out and get under way. Jenny and I shared a joke about Mr Ears, referring to elbows and arseholes.
Sandra was waiting for us. She had a cloth bag in her right hand and her son’s hand in her left. He really was a very young fourteen. Clasped by her thumb, and pressed against her son’s grasped fingers was a brown envelope, presumably the envelope that Hilary had passed to her just as we left the bar. The envelope was torn and a single sheet of paper flapped loose. Jenny stayed with her while I paid the bill and got our bags.
“She wants a lift into town,” said Jenny when I returned. She got the sack. They have accused her of taking money from the till. She’s leaving.” I cast a glance back down the hill, but there was no-one in sight. Mr Ears was still down there, earning, when the four of us, all strangers now, set off towards the car.
But often writers are not up to the task. The attraction of that big issue is greater than the powers of judgment needed to create the right balance when the smallness of the story’s detail is pitched against the vast potential dominance of its setting. The balance, therefore, is often a fine one and, because of the power of the setting, the story is often belittled or, more usually, appears merely trite against the overbearing importance and significance of the backdrop. In recent times I have read several books which have revealed the limitations of the writer’s concept by falling into one or other trap. Not so with The Kite Runner.
The plot is important, so suffice it to say that Amir and his family are in Afghanistan before the Russian invasion. Their life is described. The Kite Runner of the title is the label for the role of the kite handler’s friend, who runs to retrieve the kites that have been cut from the sky in combat. Finders are keepers and it is this booty that is mutually fought over.
With the arrival of the Russians, part of Amir’s family flees to the United States, Amir among them. He grows up there and we rejoin him years later, by which time he is well on the way to becoming a creative writer and is about to marry. But his life in the US has its imperfections, some of which are sourced in the guilt of memory. And so Amir returns to his homeland to rediscover some of those he left behind. But now it’s an Afghanistan destroyed by war and dominated by the Taliban. Amir desperately tries to uncover his past, to trace those he seeks, and he succeeds, but sometimes in ways that he least expected, ways that further complicate an already tangled tale.
As Amir’s country descends into chaos and then into new war, with the only hope apparently continued uncertainty, his personal experience becomes both painful, taxing and trying. He stumbles upon much that is unexpected, some of it perhaps not so surprising, but some of it terrifying in its threat. But, despite the suffering, there is hope, even if eventually it might arise out of the spoils of renewed conflict, perhaps just another severed kite to retrieve.
Where Khaled Hosseini succeeds in a simultaneously engaging and informative way is the blending of his drama with its context. His narrative takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery, where actions, memories, guilt are experienced at first hand, but also a journey where history unfolds in a way that includes, never merely instructs.
The Kite Runner is not a work of politics, and neither is it a history. It’s a novel, so any thought of criticism on the grounds that it lacks analysis or completeness would be misplaced. The novel does give a keen insight into the horrid and horrifying consequences of war without ever really trying to confront why it arose, or the motives of those who perpetrated the conflict. But this, again, is not in any way a criticism of what the novel achieves, merely a criticism in the literary sense, an attempt at description and contextualization of the work. If there is still anyone out there who thinks that conflict is about winning or losing, about one side fighting another until victory, then I would recommend The Kite Runner as a both essential and essentially moving experience that would both inform and educate.
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The Kite Runner
Saturday, January 19, 2008
So, having apologised for presenting a non-book with a non-story, Bill Bryson proceeds to fill two hundred pages with pure, unadulterated delight. The text provides context, detail and background. It is less than adulatory on the surface, apparently determined to stay within the bounds of the known and the probable. But when Bill Bryson does offer opinion, he reveals a clear and deeply felt love and admiration, almost worship, for his subject.
The book is an absolute joy from beginning to end. Perhaps there really aren’t any new facts or figures to discover, but Bill Bryson’s account of Shakespeare’s life has enough detail, biographical, critical and contextual, to offer as rounded a picture of the writer as we are likely to get. There are numerous Bryson humorous asides, of course, and these only add to the clarity of the piece.
In this slim work, Bryson offers a potted biography, snippets of literary criticism, some illuminating linguistics, much associated history - both of the era and the scholarship, and even a quick guided tour of the pretenders to the myth.
By the end the reader can only marvel at how much an assumed bedrock of national culture and identity could have been laid down by the sedimentation of so little material. But then, of course, there’s the works, which speak for themselves.
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Shakespeare: The World as a Stage (Eminent Lives)
Despite this criticism, the characters are acutely drawn, interesting, engaging and are utterly credible. They tend to stumble or shamble through their lives from one opportunity to the next mistake, initiating and terminating relationships. Despite their tendency to write about or enact other characters, they often display very little facility for introspection. They often resort to their bottles or recreational drugs and treat sex as if it were a challenge.
So the stories deal with late twentieth century British professional middle classes, whose careers are always on top until they are bust, whose fortunes are always up until they crash, and whose relationships are always idyllic until they are failed.
Hanif Kureishi has a keen eye for the character of eighties and nineties Britain and on several occasions one feels implicitly that his subjects would not dream of discussing their woes with their parents. They are a generation apart, convinced by the illusion that they are special, that they live in a new era that owes nothing to any past. They are confident yet vulnerable, assertive yet indecisive, committed yet utterly ephemeral. There are occasions when these characteristics are a little overstated, but overall this is a moving and memorable collection which is probably best read one story at a time, rather than cover to cover.
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Midnight All Day
Friday, January 11, 2008
The piece opens with a confident, harmonically complex theme which seems to pass from one place to another, from one orchestral section to another like question, answer and analysis. It seems to portray life lived ordinarily, but tangibly celebrating the sophistication and tolerance of negotiated social contact. There is conflict here, but resolution is at hand through thought, interaction and experience. The music seems to offer a sense of life lived in the unending complexity of community.
But then the movement’s often derided second section begins. Over the “bolero-like” insistence of a repeated drum rhythm, an apparently innocuous, vaguely brainless, almost pop music joke theme strikes up, quietly at first, almost as if apologising for its own banality. The theme is repeated alongside an associated answering and balancing motif from the same mould. But it keeps getting louder and more assertive until eventually it transforms into a menacing presence that threatens violence. At its climax, the theme becomes a series of explosions which obviously refer to conflict and war. The complex theme of the opening returns to compete and the music fights out an exhausted resolution where the original sophisticated theme triumphs, but in an exhausted, empty way whilst the trite naivety of the drum rhythm reminds us that banality is not completely defeated.
The movement is often presented as entirely programmatic, as if it were film music. The complex themes at the start are the good people of Leningrad going about their daily lives, hence the sense of sophistication, an interpretation arising from a singularly patriotic interpretation of the work. The repeated intensity of the pop-like trivial tune is often described as the advancing German army. It begins quietly because it’s in the distance and gets louder as it approaches. On its arrival in Leningrad conflict is inevitable and, yes, the good people of Leningrad prevail, but achieve only an exhausted victory from which they can never recreate their original sophistication.
Now I have a problem with this view of the work, largely because, if it is accepted, the other movements make little sense. It is true that Shostakovich might have originally composed the first movement as a free-standing work and only added the other movements as an afterthought. It is also true that he himself summarised the symphony’s movements as War, Recollection, My Homeland and Victory, but I think that, as ever, the constraints that Stalinism placed on opinion rendered the composer more reticent than he might have chosen to be. I do think that the Leningrad’s first movement is programmatic, but I contend that its subject matter is ideology and that its intention could even be essentially propagandist, rather than patriotic. The fact that it does not believe its own propaganda, or indeed slants it in a way that might have caused displeasure to officialdom is the crucial element in my argument, because then the other three movements become nothing less than essential as attempts to answer the charges, to answer the questions.
Yes, the harmonic complexity of the opening theme must remain a depiction of the happy, sophisticated citizens of Leningrad going about their negotiated lives. But it’s a picture of the social interaction, an idealised socialism. It’s a portrait of what happy, democratised Soviets ought to be. The naïve repeated theme that follows is no German army, however. It is a musical depiction of the very concept of fascism. As with Nazism, itself, it begins small, almost unnoticed, its voice hardly heard. It is almost self-deprecatory in recognising the stupidity, the utter inanity of its own content, thus reflecting concepts such as nationalism, racism and other essential elements of such no-brain politics. But what can you do with a stupid message except repeat it? You can’t develop something that begins inane and stays that way. But you can repeat it and hope that it attracts the intellectually like-minded, the idiot, who will espouse its brainless simplicity because of the ease with which something without either content or rigour can be believed. And voices of support are added, slowly at first, but added nevertheless, and that’s why everything gets louder. And it doesn’t change because, having neither debate nor sophistication, it can’t change. It just asserts its own nonsense and inanity more forcefully. But now it is dangerous, largely because it has mobilised support amongst those who want to follow it blindly. So the repeated theme is the ideology of fascism and its triumph is the overbearing assertion of its own crassness. Its graduation to assertion beyond its own borders and thus to conflict is inevitable.
But in the end, of course, it fails, because once motivated the democratic, sophisticated, analytical ideology of the Soviet citizens of Leningrad will prevail. So the entire movement is an ideological conflict between fascism and Soviet socialism, with the latter, albeit exhausted, eventually victorious, despite the nagging continued presence of the former at the end of the movement. So that’s that. Or is it?
It is my suggestion that Dmitri Shostakovich did not believe this, at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That’s why we need the other three movements. The second is thematically related to the opening of the first, but the music is almost exhausted, bereft of the sophisticated energy of the beginning. Is this where we finished after the “war”, or in fact was it a different view of where we started – not so confident, not so sophisticated, just worn down? If so, then this movement is a different way of looking at the ideological propaganda of the first movement, for propaganda was what it was.
The third movement is again thematically related, but everything is slowed down. The sonorities are those of the Russian Orthodox Church in places. Its obvious nostalgia again harks back to a state and time where we idealised our past, but where that past might even have attained the ideal. We are separated from it now, and its utopia can only be imagined or perhaps worshipped.
The fourth movement now becomes the ideological key to the entire work. Yes, it is triumphant. Yes, it asserts and reaffirms an ultimate victory, but its climaxes are grand rather than heartfelt. It finds its expression via the musical platitudes that Shostakovich made his hallmark. So, yes, we have prevailed. Yes, we have also won. We have defeated the ideology of fascism manifest as enemy, as depicted in the propaganda of the first movement. But what we have achieved is neither the sophistication we claimed at the outset nor its idealised memory from some imagined past. The opening theme is there at the end, but it has lost all confidence in itself. There is a hollowness about the success, a questioning about which side of the overall ideological conflict actually prevailed. So when the great patriotic symphony that in some estimations celebrates victory in the Great Patriotic War ends triumphantly, it is not just exhausted but also disillusioned because the naivety of the outcome bears considerable resemblance to what we originally opposed. Now that’s sophisticated.
To live in a Mediterranean climate with year-round access to the sea, good food and wine, plus magnificent scenery would be enough. To have access to three symphony orchestra venues within ten kilometres of the front door is a priceless bonus. The Palau in Altea is long established, whilst the Auditori Mediterrania in La Nucia is entering its second year. But this week we have the inaugural concert series of the Teatre Auditori de La Vila Joiosa, in whose steeply-raked, red, black and white surroundings the Jeunesses Musicales World Orchestra played last night, 9 January 2008. Under their supremely gifted director, Josep Vicent, the orchestra, resident in Communidad Valenciana since 2005, offered five twentieth century orchestral works. As ever, the programme was beautifully and expertly played by this excellent band and, once again, Josep Vicent’s choice of content was outstanding, his conducting masterful.
The evening began with Short Ride on a Fast Machine by John Adams. It is a miniature concerto for orchestra, played against an insistent percussion beat. For me the piece is a parody, an update of Arthur Honnegger’s Pacific 231, a piece with which it shares significant structural similarities. In the 1920s, the cutting edge of Honnegger’s musical depiction of speed was the railway engine. For John Adams in the 1980s it was a motorbike. It is uncanny how both pieces change rhythm half way through, both restating their pulse through the low brass of tuba and trombone. Adams’s motorcycle is less heavily engineered than Honnegger’s railway engine, however, and is definitely a lot quicker off the mark.
Josep Vicent’s second choice was Ravel’s La Valse, a piece I find thoroughly surreal. In theory, it’s an extended waltz for orchestra, but in places the music and its dance rhythms are so stretched and pulled out of shape as to render the effect brooding, even threatening. When the waltz theme emerges relatively intact, it seems super-real, almost over-stated and thus incongruous. Ravel’s masterly orchestration provides surprises and arresting juxtapositions of sonority. The Jeunesses Musicales World Orchestra was able to show off its admirable ensemble and individual virtuosity throughout this strange, strange piece.
The concert’s first half concluded with a performance of Ravel’s G major piano concerto, with Canaries-born Iván Martin as soloist. I would dearly love to write more of the orchestra’s superb playing of this deceptive piece, but not to give complete prominence to Iván Martin‘s playing would be criminal. He made the solo part sound effortless, kept a wonderful pace and was perfection indeed across the rhythmic syncopations. But he was especially convincing in the slow movement, when the piano plays throughout. It all sounds deceptively simple, and too often the movement is presented as sentimental or comes across as a platitude. Not so in this performance, when it was sincere, elegant, dignified and not a little noble. Again Ravel is deceptive, offering polyrhythms and occasional conflicts of keys within an overall impression of lightness and jazz.
Pursuing what was now emerging as a theme, the second half began with another work that presented popular idiom in a challenging way. This time it was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The Jeunesses Musicales World Orchestra grew to gargantuan size for this piece, with a veritable battery of percussion, plus obligato finger snapping. But the piece is tough beyond the imagination of a listener who knows only the musical’s famous tunes. It’s a real orchestral tour de force and was a triumph of the player’s virtuosity.
The evening’s final piece was again a virtuosic, tough-edged celebration of popular idiom. Manuel de Falla’s suite from his ballet, The Three Cornered Hat, owes much to the flamenco of his native Andalusia. It has many spectacular moments where the music speeds and slows with the bravura of a macho showman dancer. And so the concert moved accelerando towards its thunderous conclusion, a racket matched only by the enthusiasm of the applause.
And, by the way, the area is likely to have another concert hall in a year or so. Plus, if you missed the concert in La Vila, it’s repeated next week in La Nucia. I shall be attending for a repeat performance. Artistry of this quality cannot be missed.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
There’s a hint of Under Milk Wood about the setting, though there’s no attempt at poetry. What we do have, however, is a portrayal of a small community that is impinged upon by outsiders and their ideas. Not that all of the characters were born and bred Cornish. They weren’t, and so to some extent the book covers some similar ground to Julian Barnes’s England England. But it is both more and less than this.
The Partnership is about the psychology and the mechanics of the relationship between Mss and Foley. Quite different in personality as well as other highly significant traits, they cooperate to achieve a common goal. Perhaps like any relationship, their pragmatic business arrangement succeeds while its boundaries are defined and agreed. Its success is limited, however, and both yearn for something else. What they individually desire leads eventually to their becoming incompatible, however.
The Partnerrship is a must for someone like me who is a confirmed addict of Barry Unsworth’s work, but it is definitely not a place to start. Some of the issues the book deals with have dated, as have the ways in which they are treated. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, once I had come to terms with its limitations.
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Saturday, January 5, 2008
In our grasp
My name is Philip Spires and I am a Libros International author. It’s about six months since I first held a copy of my book, Mission, in my grasp. Mission was a project I had lived with, on and off, for twenty years. I wrote the book in the 1980s and forgot about it until November 2006. I retrieved it, decided to finish it and then there was Libros International. So, in my grasp, there was the book. It was a strange feeling. It felt like it had a life of its own, as if it had nothing to do with me any more.
I am proud of Mission. It’s not autobiographical, but many of the events in the book did happen. But, of course, I re-ordered them, changed them, made them fit the overall idea that I decided would underpin the book. I would not be so crass, so clichéd, as to say that it is “based on real events”, but I would claim that Mission contains a lot that derives from my personal experience. The book is my way of communicating that experience, hopefully in a way that goes beyond merely listing a series of events. There’s meaning there, somewhere – at least I hope there is.
Writing, obviously, is a form of communication. Creative writing is personal communication. It offers a particular, yes, a personal view of existence. When we write, we claim that we are special, that we have something special to say. There would be no point in doing it, otherwise.
So what might I be able to communicate? What is so special about me that might motivate others to read about the experiences I relate? Who is this “Philip Spires”, resplendent on the cover of the book?
Well, I was born in 1952, so that makes me 55 years old. I was brought up in what was then a mining village in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The home we lived in had no garden. You walked directly from the front room onto a main road. We spread cinders from the fire across the back yard to fill out the puddles. My mother had to go out and lift up the washing line with a prop to let the coal wagon through. We had an outside toilet with torn up newspaper on a nail. We had no bathroom, and running water only in the kitchen sink. Baths were taken once a week in a galvanised tub set in front of the kitchen fire. The cellar used to flood and I spent many hours sailing the tin bath in that subterranean sea. Tell ‘em that you lived in a shoe box in the middle of the road and do they believe you? No.
But it turned out that I was quite good at school. I was accelerated. I did my eleven plus at nine and went to Normanton Grammar School. From there I won a scholarship to Imperial College in London where I studied Chemical Engineering. Yes, I am a mathematician and a physicist. End of conversation…
But I didn’t want to design oil refineries, so I trained as a teacher. I have always been conscious that I am a product of the 1944 Education Act. Had that legislation not sought to widen access to education then I would probably have become an electrician like my father or gone down the pit like my grandfather. For me the 1944 Education Act changed everything. So I went to university. I was always conscious of this opportunity that had never been available to previous generations of my family. That’s why I decided to teach. I wanted to help other poor people to empower themselves, as I thought I had done.
And then I went to Kenya. I did two years as a volunteer in a self-help secondary school in Kitui District, eastern Kenya. I became a head teacher after just three months and so, as a 22 year old, I found myself running a school with 180 students, 120 of which were full-time boarders. I had six full-time teaching staff and five ancillary staff. I had to construct a science lab, library, kitchen, dining room, two teacher’s houses and a large concrete water tank. I did all the school accounts, extracted fees from the students, paid the staff, handled governors’ and parents’ meetings in Swahili etc. It was quite an experience. Things that happened in those two years formed the basis of Mission and, indeed, A Fool’s Knot, my next book awaiting publication by Libros International. It’s thirty years since I wrote A Fool’s Knot, incidentally, though I revised it this year having retrieved my original hand-written manuscript after 15 years of separation. Ten years ago I threw away the two copies of the book that I had typed. At the time I needed to offload luggage. And now it will be published.
After Kenya, I went back to London where I met Caroline. We married and lived and worked in London for 16 years. I taught in schools and colleges and was involved in some very interesting spare time projects.
Then, in 1992 we upped and went to Brunei in South-East Asia. We lived there for six and a half years and then moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates for three years. Then we gravitated here to Spain, and have been here for five years. I have taught mathematics and information technology throughout, but I have also studied. I have a Master’s degree in education and a PhD in social sciences, specialising in the psychological aspects of economic change. So here I am, a maths teacher who does computers, grounded in educational theory and a specialist in how economic change impacts the individual’s identity, beliefs and culture. Perhaps I am unique, but then we all are, because we are all individuals and have an individual and thus individualised experience.
A pause here to say thank you and for being patient while I talked about “me”. But what’s the point? How does this come together? Well let’s start with the 1944 Education Act. And let’s remember that it’s only 150 years or so since economically developed countries actively tried to widen access to education. Prior to that it was a controlled, utterly exclusive path, open to only a miniscule fraction of the population. It is still true that 95% of all scientists who have ever lived are alive today. This statistic is a direct consequence of a deliberate global widening of access to education in the last century, which itself has led to an amazing flowering of knowledge and discovery. Human population and life expectancy have soared. In Brunei, for instance, life expectancy rose from 40 to 80 years in one generation. Yes, “progress” results in environmental pressures, social tensions, conflict, perhaps, but personally I would not want to return to a life expectancy of 40, and neither would I volunteer to forego the technology that so enhances the quality of my life. Our ingenuity got us here. It will take us somewhere else as well. But if that ingenuity is not literally “schooled”, not presented with opportunity to develop and express itself, then it will be wasted, never realised. So it is my assertion that all of this human transformation, most of which is positive, came about primarily as a result of wider access to education.
I am also a social scientist. If physical sciences observe natural phenomena with a view to categorising them and extracting patterns of predictability and behaviour, then social sciences do the same with groups of people. It’s harder to categorise in the social sciences because the targets keep moving. Societies tend to change before they have defined themselves, certainly before they have succumbed to description, let alone analysis. The mechanisms of the physical world are relatively constant, if stubbornly hard to reveal, whereas those of the human world are a seething pot of bubbles.
There’s an approach to social sciences called phenomenology. What it uses for data is individual experience. I’ve done a bit myself. It takes many hours of work to conduct interviews, transcribe them, analyse them and then reflect upon the content. When, as a researcher, you try to contrast the phenomenological data provided by people here and now with that of the past, you quickly realise that there really isn’t anything to work with. If access to education only increased a hundred or so years ago, access to the means of recording individual human existence really has never widened. It remains restricted, access to it controlled in the way that education used to be the privilege of the few.
If you want to communicate your own personal and particular experience, you write something. Speech is both free and common, but it’s ethereal: once spoken it’s gone for ever. Until the end of the twentieth century, individuals who wanted to record experience first had to secure access to education to learn literacy. They then had to have enough time off from securing the necessities of life to write. And finally they would be presented with the highly unlikely task of finding a publisher, someone who was willing to invest money in the production of a record of that highly personal experience. Interesting it may be. Marketable it generally was not. In addition, the publisher doing the paying usually demanded the call of the writer’s tune, so the individual part of that individual experience was generally dropped as the publisher inserted his own requirements.
But where are we now? New technology means that we can produce books with little investment. The print-on-demand technique currently produces relatively expensive books, but that will soon change. Electronic self-publishing can be free. The blogosphere is something entirely new. And, as a consequence, for the first time in human history, the voices of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, having ordinary experiences can be heard. The word ordinary, by the way, is illusory. What we really should say is “particular”, “individual”, “different”, or “interesting”.
Currently there is no phenomenological human history. It does not exist. We are witnessing its birth. Imagine a hundred years from now being able to say that 95% of all the authors who have ever lived are currently alive – and all because of changes in technology at the end of the twentieth century, allied with the initiative of a few visionaries at the time who saw the potential. So thank you to all five of the founding partners of Libros International, the author’s publisher, for being prime movers in a revolution, a revolution to make the voice of the ordinary, the particular, the unique individual heard. Thanks to you, it’s now in our grasp.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Those who write book blurbs are often prone to hyperbole. The greatest, the best, the most, the biggest, the most superlative are terms of mundane commonplace. The term “best selling” is usually an empty platitude. “Real” often signifies “very”, but without the latter’s imagined meaning. So what can we make of “a short novel of remarkable depth by a writer at the height of his powers”? In the case of On Chesil Beach this blurb is an understatement, but it is essentially accurate and justified. If I were to write a blurb for this Ian McEwan novel, I would use a single word: masterpiece.
I will offer only the merest summary of the plot to provide context, because the book effectively deals with just one event, a newlywed couple’s wedding night. What happens to them is the book’s crucial point, so to reveal it would render the reading less rewarding. Suffice it to say that Edward and Florence are newlyweds and they are in a Dorset hotel for their honeymoon. This is the early 1960s, an era when sexuality was not discussed or even approached in the manner of even half a decade later.
Edward and Florence are products of their age and of their upbringing. Ian McEwan tells us much of these aspects of their characters in asides and cameos throughout the narrative. When I reviewed the same writer’s Saturday, I described the book as time turned inside out. In that book, across the span of a single day, an entire family is presented through its past, its aspirations, its identities. On Chesil Beach accomplishes a similar feat across a smaller canvas, but in a much more concentrated form, replete with comment, detail, analysis and observation.
Florence is solidly middle class, Edward less so. She is a violinist from a musical family. He likes Chuck Berry. They are deeply in love and they marry, but they remain children of their age, and there is the rationale for the book, an examination of their private ideas on how to cope with adulthood, alongside an account of the practicalities.
On Chesil Beach has limited objectives, lives mainly in the events of a single evening, but, like Saturday, turn its time inside out, so we have beautifully detailed pictures of both of the nuptials’ families. Coping, or not, is what characterised the age. On Chesil Beach is a masterpiece, beautifully conceived and executed. Do read it.
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On Chesil Beach