Monday, May 31, 2010

Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher

In Moorish Spain Richard Fletcher achieves a significant feat. In a short book he not only chronicles the bones of nearly a millennium of history, but also offers much that adds to our understanding of the social context, both of his chosen era in particular and of history in general.

Moorish Spain does not aspire to scholarly excellence. Richard Fletcher’s stated aim is to provide a fuller and more accurate account of Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula than the cursory accounts offered in travel books. He also aspires to a treatment of the subject that is more accurate than the romanticised position of nineteenth century travellers, accounts that served to create and then perpetuate myth.

And paramount in this myth is the received opinion that in Moorish al-Andalus all things social were both sweetness and light and pure harmony. Not so, says Fletcher, as he chronicles power struggles, intrigues and repeated conflict. He describes the different interests that ensured that conflict, both small-scale and local or larger-scale and spread across a wider front, was never very far away. When competing parties felt that they could all benefit from interaction and trade, it was, he suggests, largely pragmatism that kept the peace.

His story begins in the early eighth century when the first invasion of what we now call Spain arrived from Morocco. It ends with the expulsion of the Mozarabes in the sixteenth century. In between, in a quite short and accessible book, he illustrates how shifting alliances and opportunity for short-term gain mix with broader views and humanitarian concerns to present a patchwork of history. And this patchwork is characterised, above all, by our inability to generalise. Throughout, it is the particular that is important.

In contrast he presents a number of generalised overviews and illustrates how none of them is more than partially correct. In a short but telling final chapter he offers a generalisation of his own to illustrate how dominant contemporary ideas can filter history in order to enhance its own credibility. Tellingly, he also reminds us of how much chronicled history relates only to the recorded opinions and lives of a wealthy, sometimes educated elite. How much detail of life in the twentieth century USA could be gleaned half a millennium from now if the only source was a telephone poll of Hollywood celebrities?

Richard Fletcher’s book therefore transcends its own subject matter. It presents a rounded, carefully reconstructed picture of an immense swathe of history. In such a short account, of course, he can only present a relatively small amount of detail, but what is there goes a long way beyond what the average reader might ever discover from a shallow tourist guide. The style is easy but never racy and the content has a feeling of reliability that suggests a second visit would be worthwhile.

View the book on amazon
Moorish Spain

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Viceroy Of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy Of Ouidah masquerades as a small book. In 50,000 words or so, the author presents a fictionalised life that has been embroidered from truth. History, hyper-reality, the supernatural and the surreal and the cocktail that creates the heady mix through which strands of story filter. Overall the experience is much bigger than the slim book suggests. We meet Francisco Manuel da Silva, a Brazilian born in the country’s north-east in the latter part of the eighteenth century. We learn a little of his background and then we follow him to Dahomey in West Africa, the modern Benin. 

He finds a place in society, consorts with kings, encounters amazons and conjoins with local culture. He also becomes a slave trader, making his considerable fortune by moving ship-loads of a cargo whose human identity is denied, as if it were merely the collateral damage of mercantilism. Francisco Manuel survives, prospers and procreates with abandon. He fathers a lineage of varied hue, a small army of males to keep the name alive and further complicate identity, and a near race of females who inherit the anonymity of their gender.  

But The Viceroy of Ouidah is much more than a linear tale of a life. Bruce Chatwin’s vivid prose presents a multiplicity of minutiae, associations, conflicts and concordances. Each pithy paragraph could be a novel in itself if it were not so utterly poetic. A random example will suffice to give a flavour. “Often the Brazilian captains had to wait weeks before the coast was clear but their host spared no expense to entertain them. His dining room was lit with a set of silver candelabra; behind each chair stood a serving girl, naked to the waist, with a white napkin folded on her arm. Sometimes a drunk would shout out, ‘What are these women?’ and Da Silva would glare down the table and say. ‘Our future murderers.’” 

 Within each vivid scene, we experience history, place, culture, and all the emotions, disappointments and achievements of imperfect lives. A jungle vibrates with untamed life around us. Treachery sours and threatens, while disease and passion alike claim their victims. It is a book to be savoured almost line by line. It provides an experience that is moving, technicoloured, but, like all lives, inevitably ephemeral. Like the outlawed trade that endowed riches, it eventually comes to nought, except of course for those who are inadvertently caught up in its net and whose lives were thus utterly changed if, indeed, they survived. 

I read The Viceroy Of Ouidah without a bookmark, always starting a few pages before where I had previously left off. Each time, I read through several pages convinced that it was my first time to see them and then I would reach a particularly striking phrase and realise I had been there before. The extent of the detail and complexity of the images present a rain-forest of detail that is completely absorbing. The Viceroy Of Ouidah is thus surely a book worth reading several times. View the book on amazon The Viceroy of Ouidah (Vintage Classics)

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier presents a vivid story. It features two central characters, both women, who inhabit the same places but are separated by four hundred years. The two women discover not only similar experience, but also suffer similar responses, perhaps because they share the same genes. The two women are of the same stock. Ella Turner is an American, a trained but not practising midwife, who has moved to France. Her husband, Rick, has a new overseas posting. 

They seem to get on well, but Rick is very focused on his career and hardly seems to notice how difficult is Ella’s transition to European life. Ella’s surname, Turner, is in fact derived from the French Tournier. There is a recorded immigrant in her family’s past. So life in France is potentially a return to roots of a kind and she decides to take the opportunity to do some research. Luckily, her family used to live in the region where she and Rick have settled. And thus she discovers a family of Hugenots, French Protestant converts who migrate to Calvin’s Switzerland in search of security and tolerance. As Ella carries out her search, her hair, perhaps coincidentally, changes colour. Isabelle de Moulin was the ancestor that Ella discovers.

She found herself moved by a vision of the Virgin Mary in which a blue, a vivid, variable blue of a fabric features memorably. It’s a blue that appears in dreams, is recalled when her sexual maturity beckons experience. And her hair turns red, giving her the nickname, La Rousse. She is soon pregnant. And the father, Etienne Tournier, does the honourable thing, but, as is customary for him and his family, without a great deal of honour. But there is turmoil around. There is a new faith, a protester’s church that the Tourniers espouse. Isabelle’s visions of Virgin Blue cause internal conflict, a conflict that seems to focus in her daughter, Marie. 

Threat of persecution forces flight over the border. Ella, meanwhile, is learning a lot about France, Hugenots and her family’s origins. She visits a library, finds a family bible and meets a librarian called Jean-Paul, perhaps not coincidentally named after a Pope. They share and interest, pursue it and then find more in common. Ella begins to suffer blue visions of her own. And, with her own life in turmoil, she follows her ancestors to Switzerland to uncover more of their history. What she finds shocks her and reveals how a fundamentally female energy has the power to transcend time in order to colour experience. The novel’s denouement is truly surprising and not a little shocking. But what Tracy Chevalier does not do in The Virgin Blue is tie up all the ends or explain all detail. And this is eventually one of the book’s strengths. 

When all of Isabelle’s and Ella’s trials and tribulations have passed by, there are still questions, loose ends and unmade decisions. The Virgin Blue thus presents rounded characters whose vulnerabilities and inconsistencies render them thoroughly credible. There are few writers who present women as complete characters pursuing their own independent, incomplete lives, but Tracy Chevalier is one of them. View the book on amazon The Virgin Blue

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Antonio Mari on show at the Sculpture Garden in Alfas del Pi

Sometimes, perhaps rarely, people have a vision. They not only see, they see through or beyond, allowing them to appreciate, often quite suddenly, a bigger space, more powerful than the immediate. Often it’s an artist that prompts such realisation. After all, it’s the artist’s role to help us see and, at the same time, to interpret. But alongside the art it’s sometimes also the setting that helps us to find an experience that lies beyond mere sight. Such a perfect blend of expression and content can be seen at the Jardin Escultorico in Alfas del Pi on Spain’s Costa Blanca, where works by Antonio Mari are on display. 

Toni Mari is a Javea-born artist who sculpts in iron. His work is often highly naturalistic, with bulls, birds, fish and sheep and other farmyard animals featuring. But it is the human form that dominates his work, despite the fact that most of his figures are often more air than substance. His figures often stride like a Bocchioni or dance like a Degas. 

Charging bulls display a life-force. A strangely light iron bird seems ready to take flight. A Good Shepherd strides, superhuman in scale, across his meadow, his joints – characteristically for Mari – twisted tendons of metal. At the hip a lunch satchel swings, no doubt crammed with the cheese of his following sheep, whose delicate fleece is soldered springs. A welded dog eagerly awaits its master’s call. A series of dancers add pure grace, their clothing and costume flowing into ribbons that do no more than punctuate their back-drop of sky. Though welded to their rusted plinths, surely they move, thus claiming their freedom of life. 

But Antonio Mari’s work is also revelatory, an aspect that is only amplified by the setting. This special exhibition sits alongside a permanent sculpture collection, amongst which are other works by the same artist. The whole is set in the beautiful gardens of the Jardin Escultorico in Alfas del Pi, on Spain’s Costa Blanca. 

Established in 1998, the gardens are the vision of Johanna Klein-Schreuder and Johannes Klein. Twelve years ago they bought a plot with some three hundred decrepit orange trees. Their unique vision was to create a sculpture garden, a space to exhibit human and natural creation both to contrast and complement. Now more than a decade into the project, Johanna and Johannes have achieved their goal. 

Their garden is worth a visit in itself. Though formally laid out, its main features are trees, themselves apparently living sculptures presenting a remarkable variety of shape and form, some in flower, some hardly yet in leaf. Interspersed between these natural forms are works of contemporary sculptors, including other works by Toni Mari, including Love Dance and Man On Stilts. In the former, angels dance a round while in the latter a perfectly formed person who has hardly any physical form seems to stride through the garden at tree-top height. 

Ausencia by Jorge Castro Fl√≥res is a reclining figure whose very substance has been torn away. Here the reduction of the human to a kind of essence is as painful as Mari’s use of the same idea is uplifting. Elsie Ringnalda’s On Top Of You features two elongated but anonymous figures. He is lying on his back. She is upright walking towards him along his legs. Thus natural and human creativity mix, the whole producing its own life. The vision of Johanna and Johannes works beautifully with the joint focus of garden and sculpture augmenting and amplifying each other. The Jardin Escultorico is a wonderful place to visit for residents and tourists alike. And it would also repay repeated visits, since the featured exhibitions change regularly and, of course, the trees are never the same, even from one day to the next. You can visit this beautiful place at Cami del Pinar 23, Alfas del Pi. See for further details and opening times.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe

Novels in translation always present at least twice their share of pitfalls for the reviewer, or even the reader. A translated novel has to be approached as a package, experienced as such and reviewed in kind. After reading The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe I am presented with a wholly new dilemma, however. An entomologist disappears while out bug hunting. He finds himself a virtual prisoner in a sand pit, a pit inhabited by a woman with whom he soon finds a predictable solace. He tries to escape, and does not. He dreams of escape, and does not achieve his goal. The characteristics of his new environment seem to contradict all of his assumptions. Nothing helps. The Woman In The Dunes might be described as absurd. Equally, the term nihilistic might be appropriate. It might even be deliberately trivial. As such it presents an intellectual challenge to the reader who, of necessity, must constantly interpolate the banality of the book’s inaction into a sub-text of potentially enormous significance. I say “potentially” enormous significance because I remain unsure, having finished the book, whether any significance at all might apply. But then again, perhaps that’s the point. The Woman In The Dunes has been likened to Kafka’s Trial or the absurdity of Samuel Beckett’s plays. As an experience, however, none of the suspense of the former nor the bald linguistic power of the latter. Perhaps the novel’s rather one-paced prose was a true reflection of the original. If so, then I might suggest that the writer rather over-stated his point. View the book on amazon The Woman in the Dunes (Penguin Classics)