Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Families in Conflict - Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne

Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne presents a vast project. Its story crosses the globe, beginning in Sri Lanka and ending in Britain. Great events befall its characters, but throughout their lives seem to be writ small against a backdrop of history. The novel opens with an apt quote from Jack Kerouac – All life is a foreign country. This idea forms substantially more than a theme, in the no matter how secure the book’s characters might appear – and equally however insecure – they never really seem to be at home with themselves.

We meet the Fonsekas in Colombo. They live near the beach in this frenetic city. Alice is a nine-year-old. Her parents, Stanley and Sita are a mixed marriage, Tamil and Sinhalese. Alice’s grandparents, Bee and Kamala, are happily married in their own way. Bee is something of an artist. The grandparent show significant wisdom. But things are stirring in Sri Lanka. There is a smell of conflict, a hint or war.

A mixed marriage is hard to sustain, and its offspring don’t fit into anyone’s interests or desires. Alice grows into a rather isolated child. She has friends, but then she doesn’t. She does well at school, and then she doesn’t. She makes things, shares her grandfather’s artistic bent. Lives in paradise grow steadily more complicated, apparently less sustainable. Stanley, Alice’s father, decides that his future, and eventually his family’s, lies in Britain. He books a sea passage and an unscheduled stop-over in Greece opens his eyes to ancient cincture and provides other activities that always threatened, but until then never materialised.

In Britain he ekes out an immigrant’s lot, doing whatever he can. When Sita and Alice eventually join him, he has changed and they don’t fit in. They can’t. Perhaps no-one ever does, anywhere. Sita mourns the child she lost to her own destruction as she works from home on her sewing machine. Alice doesn’t get on at school, except with a chain-smoking art teacher. And so life progresses, from one mistake to the next, with an idealised past becoming a new paradise, a place that it perhaps never was. But there is no going back. Conflict has intervened. Lives have been lost and there will be more to follow. Marriages fail. There are short passionate affairs.

There is much imagined longing. Roma Tearne’s story thus meanders through its themes, but without ever concentrating on any particular one to create a lasting impression. The characters seem more confused than reflecting, more victims of events than their instigators. Wherever they are, they remain foreign.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Maudiegirl and the Von Bloss Kitchen - a cookbook fiction

Maudiegirl Esther Kimball’s first husband, Campbell, died on the voyage to Ceylon. Her second, Kimball, succumbed to malaria. She then married Cecilprins and became his tower of strength. This is how Carl Muller describes - for want of a better word – the heroine of Maudiegirl And The Von Bloss Kitchen. The book continues the story the author began in the award-winning The Jam Fruit Tree, a tale of Burgher life in Sri Lanka.

If “heroine” was a slightly inappropriate description of Maudiegirl, then “story” is certainly not a description of this book’s plot. Simply put, the book presents a picture of life within the Burgher community, an island within an island. It illustrates, but does not lead. Read it for an experience, not a journey. 

Nominally Dutch, but Sinhalese-speaking, Asian born but with European aspirations, the Burghers are a wholly integrated race apart. The names survive – Van Der Poorten, Caspars etc – but the identity is merely confused. Whose isn’t? 

Most of this Burgher family’s life revolves around food and sex, not always in that order. Sustenance and procreation occupy most of the time, with recreation – usually in the form of sex – taking up the rest. Maudiegirl is the pillar of the household, probably of the community. She brings people together, solves problems, disposes wisdom and occasional rebuke via her cooking. She has a recipe for every occasion. Her meals can cure ills, solve problems, offer advice, and her cooking skills are recognised throughout the Von Bloss family, even the community.

The cooking’s unfamiliar and complex mix of influences, European, Asian, Dutch, English, Sri Lankan, Indian and American, reflect the community in which they live and its place in the world. A woman who can’t conceive eat too much fish. Need something stronger. Stewed eel works wonders. Only wonder what. Dunnyboy expose himself in public. Big thing. Worries sisters. Eat pork pie. Daughter need baby. Need hammering. Make plum pudding (dried fruit only, butter a pan, boil or steam for four hours). Problem solved. 

Carl Muller’s style is pithy, occasionally playful, often funny, always earthy, sometimes vaguely embarrassing. He sails metaphorically close to winds and occasionally obfuscates via the inclusion of unexplained, un-translated Sinhalese words and phrases. He makes no excuse for this, and invites the interested reader to find a Sinhalese speaker to help translate this world language and explain, and thereby intensify the experience and promote communication between races and cultures. So there! Maudiegirl And The Von Bloss Kitchen, this part novel, part cookbook, thus records the day-to-day, reflects life and opens a window onto a perhaps unique culture that is in no way special.

There is no plot, no obvious sequence of events, only everyday life as it predictably and unpredictably unfolds. It is also a superb cookbook, recording the recipes of an expert cook. And refreshingly, whatever she cooks and in whatever style, no-one ever seems to dislike anything, pick at their food, question its authenticity, count its calories or even mention omega-3. It’s the food of a living culture.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Figurative Expression - The Art of Antoni Miro

It is certainly a considerable privilege to have the opportunity to visit the house and studio of an accomplished artist with an international reputation. When the visit is to Antoni Miró’s finca, in Ibi, near Alicante, Spain, then the experience is substantially more than mere privilege: it is nothing less than enlightening delight. Antoni Miró’s work is extensive and challenging, but it is also direct and immediately communicative. It has a fundamental humanity, its subject matter largely drawn from impressions experienced by the artist and not, primarily and crucially, within him. He may have internalised responses to his subjects, but via his art he wants to share those raw responses with his viewers, not to impose his views on them.

A phrase that he has used in relation to his work is “a chronicle of reality,” and it is the reality of our modern world, with all its complicated social, economic, political and personal relationships that inhabits his art. Antoni Miró was born in Alcoi in 1944. He confesses to an inner drive that demanded he became an artist, a compulsion that saw him reject a role in the family business in favour of a pursuit of his personal goal. His first solo exhibition came as early as 1965, the year when he founded the group Alcoiart, which functioned until 1972.

Throughout his career he has explored what he calls figurative expression as a tool to create visual communication. His art is thus immediate, never quite photo-realistic, since it liberally employs artistic licence of light, shade, focus and colour to highlight the core of a work. But the images are direct, often drawn from everyday experience and they are presented to evoke and provoke reaction in the viewer. Beggars in the street figure regularly, often alongside the portrayed reactions offered by those they confront.

Everyday objects abound – taxis, excavators, ships, bicycles, buildings and industrial scenes. Beside a multitude of passers-by, anonymous people encountered for just seconds in a day’s encounters, there are also portraits of well-known characters, historical figures, politicians, scientists, philosophers and many fellow artists. And there is also the figurative reworking of familiar themes, such as reinterpretations of Velasquez, which appear frequently in his work. A particular theme which recurs many times in Antoni Miró’s work, however, is the process of looking at images. It’s almost a process of self-analysis.

There are many gallery scenes, where onlookers, some interested, some less so, scrutinise, discuss, ignore, glance at or walk by well-known artworks. The Famous Giaconda looks out at us while the assembled unknown onlookers are potentially all identifiable, with names, families and lives of their own. The lady in the picture is immortalised by time, but is anonymous, despite being instantly recognisable. She can’t tell us about herself, whereas all the anonymous onlookers are real individuals destined to remain unknown. There are also responses to issues in Antoni Miró’s work. His burka polyptich is reminiscent of Andy Warhol. But whereas the subjects of Warhol’s coloured variants were iconic and instantly recognisable, the women in the burkas remain hidden from view, eternally unknown by choice.

There is New York City portrayed as a graveyard, the obelisks presenting a necropolis of a culture, perhaps. A trip through the grounds of Antoni’s Ibi finca – perhaps by Land Rover, on a wet afternoon! – reveals an extensive sculpture garden. There are many works in a multiplicity of media. Again much is drawn from everyday life, using everyday materials, objects and images. There is a striking series exploring the erotic. It is, after all, part of life and experience, so it forms an essential part of Antoni Miró’s art. Antoni Miró explains how dictatorship in Spain stifled freedom. It was an era when he fought for the voice of the individual.

The current era, where the market and capital are the new dictators, presents its own issues. In some ways, it was easier to cope with the more obvious contradictions of the past. Today’s oppression is more nebulous, but real all the same. He has thus used his art to campaign on behalf of social justice. He advocates a socialist, anti-capitalist stance where environmental, social and political themes dominate, alongside the essential ingredient for him, which is Catalan identity. His art involves the viewer as it searches for a more fully human world.

Its neo-figurative technique is direct, making its subjects both instantly recognisable and communicable. Its inspiration is the stuff of life, itself, in whatever manifestation that might appear. But in order to recognise, in order to understand, in order to react, any of us has first to be able to see, to observe and to notice. Antoni Miró’s art is primarily about learning to see, to look and then to realise our relation with life, our own lives, and those of others with whom we interact, with whom we share experience, but rarely know.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Marriage under scrutiny - A review of Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

In the postscript to the preface of Jude The Obscure, Thomas Hardy quotes a German reviewer of the novel. Sue Bridehead, the heroine, was described there as “the first delineation in fiction of the woman … of the feminist movement – the slight pale ‘bachelor’ girl – the intellectualised, emancipated bundle of nerves” that modern conditions were producing. The book’s reception ‘cured’ Hardy of the desire to write another novel, and all of the above happened before the dawn of the twentieth century.

Jude The Obscure is a novel about relationships within marriage. Hardy’s opinion was that legal ties between men and women ought to be breakable once the union had achieved dysfunction. It was an opinion that differed from that expected by the age. It prompted a bishop to burn the book, rather than the writer, who was unavailable at the time. Thomas Hardy’s Jude Fawley was adopted into a baker’s family, and harboured an ambition to self-teach himself into a classical education in Christminster’s learned colleges.

His schoolmaster, Mr Phillotson helped a little. Jude’s ambition was always somewhat far fetched, though he applied himself diligently to his studies and achieved a great deal. In his formative years, he also learned the stonemason’s trade to allow the earning of a living. On a country walk he then took up with Arabella, the daughter of a pig farmer. Having found himself stuck, he tried to learn how to stick real pigs but somehow the penetration never came easy. The couple parted, apparently childless. Sue, Jude’s cousin and thus a co-member of a family reputed for its marital failures, was always a soul mate for the young man. But she never quite seemed up to the task of giving herself, giving of her self. Thus, when she married Phillotson, the much older, staid and perhaps already failed schoolmaster, his lack of demands on her fit exactly with her assumptions about how married life would progress. Sue certainly knew what she wanted from life and did everything in her power to secure it. Safety, security, respectability, perhaps property were top of her list.

Arabella, the pig farming barmaid who lured the naïve Jude, was similarly single-minded in pursuing her own, rather different interests. After leaving Jude, she takes up with a new man and hops it to Australia, apparently for good. Sue and Phillotson finally dissolve their marriage by mutual consent to allow Sue to pursue her desires. She and Jude, who love one another dearly, then make their lives together. They do not marry. They live as brother and sister, with lust on one side of the bed and revulsion on the other. A child arrives by train. The wizened-looking boy is Jude’s, Arabella claiming she was pregnant before the couple separated. Sue and Jude offer a home for the waif, and then two more whose family fortunes have fallen on bad times.

And then tragedy appears. Their world falls apart. Sue craves the responsibility of marriage, perhaps merely for the respectability she has lost, so she returns to a new marriage with Phillotson. As before, it’s just for the show of it. Jude develops consumption. What happens in Jude The Obscure is the meat of the book. How it happens is less important than how the characters justify their actions, effectively their reactions to what life offers in response to their imagined aspirations. How these people seek to justify themselves tells much of what they think is expected of them by others, by the society at large. Thus the novel appears to be a study – even a treatise - in selfishness melded with self-obsession, but this is always shrouded in a coded justification that cites the need for social, societal, even sanctified heavenly approval.

In many ways, Jude The Obscure’s men are its victims, its women coldly triumphant, its tone vaguely misogynist. It has little time for the establishment, which is often portrayed as a conspiracy to promote misery. Christminster, Oxford in other words, is thought of as a great centre of high and fearless thought. But in reality it is “a nest of commonplace schoolmasters whose characteristic is timid obsequiousness to tradition.” The alternative, self-congratulatory selfishness did not appear to be much better. Thus Jude The Obscure has much to say about our own time, about public virtue and the need to live according to the socially expected.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Northern Ireland Childhood - Patrick Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

Patrick Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle is an unusual, highly original account of life in a Northern Ireland Catholic household. Written from the point of view of Paddy, the eldest son, aged ten, of the Clarke family, it draws the reader through a particular experience of childhood. There is a child’s wonder at the new. There are strange facts about the world to be unearthed and challenges to face like a man.

But when you are ten, there is also always the rock of parents, ma and pa, ma and da, mum and dad on which to rely. Their love for you and their constancy will always offer support and never let you down. Like God, they are not subject to question. So when you do something that was not quite advisable, and as a consequence a window gets broken, or a plant uprooted or an ornament broken, there’s recrimination to expect, of course, perhaps punishment to endure, but it will be fine in the end, because ma and da always make things happen that way. You can trust them, assume their interest, take them for granted.

And that applies even when you beat up your mate, and hit him just a bit too hard. You might say he fell, or stumbled and hit himself hard in an unfortunate place, let blood that spotted his shirt or came home crying in fright, but it would all be fine in the end. When you give your younger brother a dead leg just to keep him in his place, or declare war under the covers after bed time, or even when he messes his pants provoking the others to giggle and mock, there is always home waiting, where there will be safety behind the parental screen. And when you pick a fight because someone says that George Best is not the best footballer in the world, that a teacher you like is a whore or a defenceless sibling ought to get punched, ma and da always step in, mediate, soothe.

Until, that is, you realise your da might not be telling the truth, until you realise that he is just another grown up, perhaps as inconstant and unreliable as all the others. And what about when your ma and da start to fight? The noises percolate through the wall from the other room. They can’t be hidden. Well that’s just called growing up, which is already happening, even – perhaps especially – to a ten year old. And then, of course, there will be adulthood, when everything will be different in a world where people don’t fight, where there will be no conflict.

This is Northern Ireland, after all. Roddy Doyle’s book is a delight. It takes a while to suspend the disbelief associated with becoming a ten year old, even longer to get used to the idea that little Paddy might have written it all down. But the mood and his character soon take over and draw us into a world as fascinating and as threatening as any experienced by an adult.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vietnam – A History by Stanley Karnow

At around 270,000 words, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam – A History is something of a monster, as is its subject. Even those who did not live through the era when reports of the conflict dominated most international news, the title itself is still probably recognised as something iconic, something that sums up the third quarter of the twentieth century. The word iconic would be inaccurate, however. Icons are small images that suggest something bigger.

Vietnam, as a subject, as a reality, was always a big issue. It was fought over for thirty years, toppled US Presidents, claimed untold thousands of lives and effectively involved the whole world. This was superpower conflict by proxy. Stanley Karnow’s book is replete with detail, analysis, fact, some fiction and much posturing. It benefits from being written largely from experience. The author was a respected journalist who covered the war at its height and his encounters with political elites, combatants and victims bring the story of death and destruction to life, if that phrase is not in bad taste. This was no minor skirmish, confined to a far corner of the North American world view. World War Two devastated Europe and significant other parts of the world. And yet a greater tonnage of explosives was dropped in the Vietnam War than in all the Second World War’s theatres of conflict combined. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that.

In addition, chemical weapons, defoliants and napalm were sprayed around with apparent abandon before the United States, defeated, left for their territorially unaffected, unattacked home. There are those who thought the war was counter-productive. There were those who still think that the war was fought by a USA that had one hand tied behind its back. An all-out onslaught would have brought decisive victory. But, given the above, what would that victory have looked like? Just how close did the world come to a second nuclear war? Stanley Karnow reminds us how truth becomes a casualty.

He describes how US officials, civilian and military alike dared not communicate negative messages or attitudes about the war. To do so was seen as defeatism and there were no promotions for defeatists, no opportunities for pessimists, their positions being interpreted as merely unpatriotic. In contrast, positive reports were rewarded, even if they bore little resemblance to reality. And the author’s portrait of Walt Rostow, a prominent member of LBJ’s team, casts him squarely in the role of anti-communist hawk, a guise in which we should view him when today we approach his still respected work on economic change and development.

But what is perhaps most troubling was the ease with which those in power used the mechanisms of their state to hound dissenters, to tap their phones, block their careers. And, it has to be remembered, this culture did lead – though perhaps indirectly – to the near impeachment and actual removal from office of an elected US President. Stanley Karnow’s book captures the conflict ideologically, historically and politically. Alongside Gabriel Kolko’s book on the same subject, it ought to be required reading for anyone left in the world who thinks that war can solve conflict.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

In his novel, The Glass Room, Simon Mawer starts with a picture of privilege. Through that he explores human relationships, families, history, sexuality and change, to list just a few of the elements and themes that feature. Not only does he blend these and other penetrating ideas, he also consistently and utterly engages the reader, draws the observer in so effectively that sometimes the experience is participatory.

The Glass Room is a novel that succeeds on so many levels that it becomes hard to review. The only comment is that you should read it. So why start with a shortcoming? Well, the start is as good a place as any to record The Glass Room’s only weakness, which relates to the identity of the family that forms the book’s focus, the Landauers.

Victor has married Liesel. He is a rich man, an industrialist, an owner of a firm that makes cars. One would expect such a person to live and breathe his work rather more than he does. Consequently, he always seems less of a character than he surely ought to have been, rather aloof, something of a vehicle for the women involved. So the main criticism of a multi-themed, multi-layered book is that it could have pursued one more idea! But The Glass Room’s real focus seems to be on the lives of its women. 

There are three central female characters that form the book’s backbone. Much of the book’s success is to see events separately, from their different individual perspectives. Liesel is a German speaker, married to the car-maker, Viktor, who is Jewish and Czech. They are rich, unapologetically so, and commission a famous architect to design and build a house to be their family home near Prague. It is to be a house to end all houses. The Glass Room is the result, al ultra-modern, modernist, Bauhaus house with more light than can be imagined. Significantly, its areas of glass make it open to the world, a transparency within which a marriage grows gradually murkier towards the opaque. Hana – let’s use a shortened version of her name – is a family friend. She is rather off-beat compared to the apparently conventional Landauers. Initially we know little of her own domestic life, circumstances that become highly significant later on. Hana becomes Liesel’s confidante, her closest friend. Her economic status is not that of the Landauers, but this does not seem to create a barrier. Kata is a different kind of twentieth century heroine. She creates a life for herself with apparent pragmatism beneath the protecting umbrella of Viktor Landauer’s wealth and power. It may appear that he retains the upper hand, that he always writes the rules, but this story is more subtle than that.

When war comes the Glass Room is left behind. It changes. A deranged fascist project occupies its space. (Does that sentence contain a tautology?) A self-deceiving but damaged psychopath exploits an ideologically-driven, self-justifying search for a science of race. At least these scientists know what they are looking for. It’s a pity they must remain blind to the results. What they found they sought to enjoy, but it wasn’t knowledge. The war affects each character differently and we follow them and their fortunes across Europe and across continents. Interestingly, it’s the economically advantaged who have the best chances. As in history, the poor just disappear. And by the end we have lived the characters’ lives almost alongside them. We have sensed the joy, the terror, the suffering and, most acutely, the deception and duplicity.

The author’s footnote states that Der Glasraum does not necessarily translate to The Glass Room, since “raum” means something less defined, something more, like space or environment. The book captivates, its characters confide in us, but paradoxically the image of The Glass Room only rarely suggests transparency.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beyond the Schoolboy Fringe - Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

Untold Stories by Alan Bennett is something of a pot pourri. It starts with an autobiographical exploration of social and family origins, and then moves on to include occasional pieces on travel, architecture and art, copious diaries from 1996 to 2004, reflections on previous and current work and essays on contemporaries, educational experience and culture. The fact that it all hangs together beautifully is a result of its author’s consummate skills, both linguistic and perceptive.

Untold Stories takes its title from the autobiographical sketch that opens the book. Alan Bennett was the physically late-developing child of a family in the Armley district of Leeds, a northern English industrial city. His father was a butcher who owned two suits, both of which smelled of raw meat. His mother was the supporting pillar of the household, but was also prone to bouts of depression. As a child, Alan Bennett seemed to dream less than most. Perhaps he is still less than able to admit the breadth of his flights of fancy.

“With a writer the life you don’t have is as ample a country as the life you do and is sometimes easier to access.” This sounds remarkably like e e cummings, a character that would not usually be linked with someone as apparently domesticated as Alan Bennett. But reading all of Untold Stories, the reader is repeatedly struck by how much of the eventual content of Alan Bennett’s perceptive, witty and perspicacious writings has its origins within the four walls of the family home. Many of the values, assumptions, attitudes and standpoints, whose apparently unquestioning adoption by his fictional characters lead the listener to question them, arose from a wider family that feverishly tried to be mundane but, like all families, never achieved that goal. The family was, after all, made up of individuals, each of which had his or her own reality alongside unresolved and often shared misgivings. 

Thus, immediately, a writer has several lifetimes of real and imagined material. Alan Bennett, perhaps by virtue of having at least potentially crossed some of the chasms of social class that so profoundly divide British society, seems able to comment, often with no more than an occasional word or phrase, on those tentative but agreed assumptions that make us what we are. “Minor writers often convey a more intense flavour of their times than those whose range is broader and concerns more profound.”

But this, despite the authenticity of his flavours, is no minor writer. Not for a moment would anyone wish this writer’s passing, but there is no doubt that Alan Bennett’s work will live on, probably grow in stature as its ability to comment on the changing Britain of the twentieth century develops a sharper focus.

Essentially Alan Bennett comes across as a conservative type. He dresses and even looks like a 1950s schoolboy, visits churches to describe architectural details of selected tombs in Betjemanesque prose, probably doesn’t indulge in fusion cooking, shuns recognition, inhabits the inner city but is perhaps never quite at home there. But then there’s the anti-establishment side, the satirist, the overt homosexuality and general anti-bigwig mentality. 

And all of this from a First at Oxford. “But taste is no help to a writer. Taste is timorous, conservative and fearful. It is a handicap. Olivier was unhampered by taste and was often vulgar. Dickens similarly. Both could fail, and failure is a sort of vulgarity, but it’s better than a timorous toeing of the line.” Untold Stories is a long read, but one which offers a simple yet sophisticated joy from beginning to end. Alan Bennett revisits topics he has written about in the past. Miss Shepherd, The Lady In The Van is here, as are his early plays and Beyond The Fringe. So are Talking Heads and The History Boys. But throughout he selects and applies language with much wit and humour to offer apparently ephemeral perspectives on everyday life, perspectives that on reflection are anything but shallow. He is a man of taste, as revealed by his regular revulsion with Classic FM, but he is also an enigma because he keeps listening to it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Dead Heart by Douglas Kennedy

We first meet Nick Hawthorne in a Darwin bar. As a stripper offers contorted perspectives on what Australia has to offer, our hero from Maine meets a fellow countryman from Detroit intent on doing to Asia what America does to most places. (Personal opinions, eh?) Nick has some of those. He has a personal approach to life, but feels he gets little out of it, despite having achieved the status of being the first person principal character of Douglas Kennedy’s novel The Dead Heart.

Nick is a journalist who has only ever had bit jobs. They interested him bit, earned him a bit, stimulated somewhat less. Then he found a map of Australia and became so obsessed with the continent’s emptiness that he sold up and left the US to discover the unknown, to visit the unvisited. He is less than impressed with Darwin. It’s not a good start. But a VW camper van bought from a Jesus freak promises a great escape along the road to Broome. Not round the corner…

A hitcher called Angie provides welcome diversion from the repetition of the road. She seems easy-going, not to mention easy, and a little threatening. She is travelling for the first time, but exudes confidence. Nick, however, retains control. Or so he thinks… Until he finds himself in Wollanup. It’s a town whose recent tragic history has removed it from the map. Nick has arrived at nowhere, the dead heart of a land. 

He is now unknown, has sex and beer on tap and an awful diet. A horror story haunted by powdered eggs… Until Krystal starts to cook… His mechanical skills come into play. The rebuilt camper van is destroyed again. Its renewed mobility is a threat. Events happen, like they do… Douglas Kennedy’s The Dead Heart evolves into a kind of fast-moving, page-turning thriller. But there are characters here. Something – not sure what! – seems almost credible. Nick is not the most likeable person, but this rather self-centred, thirty-odd, overweight hedonist does realise that there might be more to life than unlimited sex and beer on tap. He wants both, but clearly somewhere other than Wollanup.

What happens in The Dead Heart is crucial. It’s a plot-led work, but it is also engaging and well written. Its racy style fits the characters´ obvious preoccupations and helps to create a vivid portrait of lives that know only the here and now. The Dead Heart is a book to be read in a single sitting. The process will leave readers wondering how they might have reacted in such circumstances. And what about Australia as depicted? Is this a stereotype? You bet…

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally

The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally is based on the life of an Australian bushranger called Jimmy Governor. Fictionalised as Jimmy Blacksmith, the character takes several steps down the social ladder in terms of his name, but remains at the bottom of the pile in reality by virtue of being not only black, but also an Aborigine. As Jimmy Blacksmith, however, the character is not without skills. 

He speaks English and can build a uniform fence as strong and even as anyone. He can work as hard and deliver as much as any hired hand, except, of course, by definition. Thomas Keneally’s novel is highly successful in its presentation of white people’s assumptions of superiority.

Knowing that they occupy a level much higher up the Victorian pyramid of life that has God and The Queen at the top, they can be imperially confident that anything they might think or do must necessarily outshine what the likes of Jimmy Blacksmith can achieve. When reality suggests a contradiction, then their position of privilege allows them to change the rules in order to belittle achievement and deny results.

To label such attitudes as merely racist is to miss much of the point. These whites, always eager to proffer judgment at the turn of twentieth century Australia, did not regard their attitudes as based on race. The relevant word was surely not race, but species, since the indigenous population was seen as something less than human. So even when Jimmy Blacksmith displays complete competence, strength, endurance or cooperation, even if he becomes a Methodist Christian, marries a white woman according to God and The Law, even if he speaks the master’s language, he remains by definition something short of human. An ultimate irony of Jimmy’s acceptance of his duty to marry the pregnant girl, by the way, is that the child turns out to be white, fathered by another of the girl’s recent acquaintances.

So, as an oppressed black man, Jimmy Blacksmith is left carrying another white man’s burden. Jimmy reacts against his treatment. His reaction is violent. He takes an axe to several victims, most of them women. He then flees and is joined in crime by his brother, Mort. Together they evade capture, despite being pursued by thousands until an inevitable fate materialises. Jimmy Blacksmith presents several problems for the modern reader, however. Powerful it may be, but then Thomas Keneally’s attempt to render an accent in writing does not work. As a consequence, the dialogue sometimes seems confused and opaque.

The author stated some years later that if he were to write the book now he would describe events from the perspective of a white observer. This would, however, render Jimmy an object, and the reader is often surprised by occupying the role of subject in this book. Thomas Keneally does create some wonderful scenes. Jimmy’s shedding of blood is brutal, but is it any less brutal than the slaughter of thousands by the British? And in the end, did those with power treat their working class subjects any better than they treated Jimmy? Was the young white bride Jimmy took any better off than him by virtue of her species superiority?

Alongside Peter Carey’s Kelly Gang and, from a factual perspective, Alan Moorehead’s Fatal Impact, Jimmy Blacksmith provides a different and complementary insight. To experience the book’s power, the modern reader has to know something of Australia’s history and, crucially, something of the 1970s attitudes that prevailed at the time of writing. Any shortcomings then pale into insignificance when compared with the novel’s achievement.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Smarter Science of Slim by Jonathan Bailor

In his book The Smarter Science of Slim Jonathan Bailor presents much more than advice on lifestyle and diet. This is a complete argument relating themes of nutrition, exercise, digestion and food to their associated consequence, weight. Unlike many works in the area of diet, The Smarter Science of Slim presents informed consideration of the subject, offers no quick fix, no formulaic or unsubstantiated, quasi-religious claims. What the book does do is argue a coherent, rationally-constructed and evidence-justified position which identifies an approach to diet and lifestyle rather than a prescription. It is to the author’s credit that the book achieves its aims in a fluent, readable style that engages and entertains as well as informs. Jonathan Bailor begins with a criticism of current approaches, a corpus of advice that represents something of an establishment position. It’s a diet he labels INSANE. It’s not quite an acronym, but it gets the point across. The consequences of this diet are obesity. Yes, we are being officially advised into a state of obesity. In contrast, the SANE approach allows you to eat just about as much as you want. What’s more, it’s better nutritionally and your weight will stabilise at a lower level. Does this sound too good to be true? To prove the case the author cites research findings and extensive data to identify a diet that is roughly equally shared between protein, carbohydrate and fat. On the face of it, this may not seem to be such a radical departure from the current received position, except in relation to fats. But The Smarter Science of Slim approach differs markedly in the foodstuffs identified in each category. Jonathan Bailor thus declares war on starch! Out go grains, flour, potatoes, rice and pasta, for example. In comes as much water-rich vegetable as you want to eat. Crucial to Jonathan Bailor’s argument is that these fill you up and thus satiate, while simultaneously providing all essential nutrients alongside low calorific values. He is also confident that eating more proteins will restrict the appetite that currently craves more starch because it is fat and protein deficient. The argument then moves on to the concept of a person’s natural body weight. The norm can change and can be changed, but the human body always tries to maintain what the brain perceives an optimal or normal weight. The problem is that this norm is influenced by the digestive load that the diet presents. When this is changed, then the perceived norm can be changed. INSANE diets raise the norm and hence promote obesity, while SANE approaches encourage stabilisation at lower weights. But The Smarter Science of Slim goes beyond this. It also suggests exercise routines that don’t take all day, are efficient at burning energy and keep the body fit and trim. And all of this can be accomplished in just twenty minutes a couple of times a week. Cooks will be disappointed with Jonathan Bailor’s approach to meals that adhere to his SANE principles. But the ingredient list is extremely long and even five minutes in the kitchen would produce something palatable, tasty and also SANE, certainly something a tad more appetising than a veggie smoothie. The Smarter Science of Slim allows, even encourages consumption of almost anything you want in the line of meat or fish. Since fats are not outlawed, you can even take a slab of cheese. But you will have to make your sandwich with cabbage leaves, rather than bread. Anyone who has feelings of guilt or even mere concerns about weight, diet or lifestyle could profit greatly from reading The Smarter Science of Slim. The book illustrates that there is nothing to be afraid of, that there are multitudes of wholesome and tasty foods that can be eaten with abandon without fear of obesity or ill health. As a consequence of The Smarter Science of Slim’s SANE approach, these things will look after themselves, leaving you to get on with living life rather than worrying about it. Then you can read The Smarter Science of Slim again to admire the book’s style, scholarship and coherence.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Northern Ireland family - Reading In The Dark by Seamus Deane

Reading In The Dark is a first person account of an extraordinary childhood. On the surface, the family seems to be stable enough. They are Catholics and the novel’s narrator is about half way along his parents´ progeny. Nothing special there... They are not rich, and apparently not poor. They get by.

The lad explores the neighbourhood, makes friends, starts school. Eventually he proves to be quite academic and he clearly goes from personal success to further personal success. But all the time there’s something in the past that labels him. There are people who call him strange names, accuse him of things he hasn’t done. He does not understand, but feels the consequences.

Life can be complicated when you’re born to a Catholic family in Northern Ireland. The boy grows up in the 1950s and 1960s. Via short, dated chapters, arranged chronologically and starting in February 1945, we able to build and perhaps experience the lad’s world. We share the boy’s new experience, feel the changes in his life and body as he does. But there is always something unsaid, intangible, but undoubtedly real and of consequence. Everyone seems to know something, but he has little idea what it all means. Mother and father remain reticent. Relatives and acquaintances allude to Eddie, the boy’s uncle, who is not around any more. Clearly Eddie died in strange circumstances. But in the Northern Ireland of the 1950s, you have to be careful what you say, when you speak and whom you mix with.

Just being seen talking to Sergeant Burke, the policeman, can result in your being labelled a traitor, a collaborator, or worse. The boy’s relationship with the Church and its clergy is both fascinating and surreal. There are moments of humour, times of fear, often juxtaposed. There’s a maths teacher whose class rules are so complex that any response seems punishable. Serves them right… It seems that whatever contribution an individual might make has the potential to render that person in need of strokes, but the ground rules demand that no-one may opt out. It’s the same in the wider society. When you’re a Catholic in Northern Ireland – and perhaps if you are not! – there are no fences you can sit on. Whatever you do it will be wrong.

There are enemies on both sides of every fence, so wherever you climb down, beware. Tread carefully, know your place, stay on your guard. But what if, like our young lad, you don’t know what to beware of? Slowly, however, the real truth behind Uncle Eddie’s fate emerges. It’s only then that the growing boy, and indeed the reader, realises just how complicated – and vindictive – life can be. Reading In The Dark is a highly poetic novel. The scenes are vivid, beautifully portrayed. They are short, but each adds its own new detail to the bigger story of how a family has learned to cope with its own chequered past. 

Those who don’t know the mistakes of history are perhaps doomed to repeat them. Those misled by untruth are not necessarily liars when they restate it. But complicating the past probably confuses the present and disturbs the future. Seamus Deane’s novel, Reading In The Dark, is a vivid and moving portrait of a family troubled by a past it dare not admit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A review of Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

In her novel Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel presents a series of characters who ought to be Mr and Mrs, or Uncle and Auntie Normal. They all live near the M25, London’s orbital motorway and inhabit places as interesting as Slough, Maidenhead and Uxbridge. Even distant Essex gets a mention.

But many of these people aren’t normal, or average, or even alive, for that matter. Many of them are in fact the dreaded four-letter d-word, the word that the book’s principal character prefers not to say out loud. Alison is a medium. This m-word applies to her trade, not her stature, which is determinedly out-size. She is a large woman, fat, to be precise, if that is not an f-word. She regularly communicates professionally with the spirit world in front of a live audience. At least some of them seem to be alive.

Alison works with an assistant, Colette, a woman with a history of her own. They even live together, but don’t start thinking there’s any funny business between them. Oh no! This is the M25 we are near, after all.

Alison and Colette have their own lives, and their own pasts. Alison’s seems to be the more lurid. Mother was a professional woman, the kind that admits to the world’s oldest profession, and so can’t be sure who might have been Alison’s father. The mother and all the candidates for the role of father are now ex, deceased, d-word, but of course Alison is a medium – a large medium – so she can effectively meet with them whenever she wants. One of them is called Keef, but he probably spelled it Keith. Colette’s past is much more mundane, but it has had its ups and downs. She has had her share of dealing with men, enough to have them come back to haunt her. She seems to value the stability offered by Alison’s regular work. They even buy a house together, one of those new ones on an estate.

But don’t you think there’s anything going on between them! There are pleasant, even amusing moments in beyond Black. But overall the book is too long and presents little to challenge or inform the reader. These are people we have to take at face value, since their engagement with the world seems to go no deeper than this. And it always seems strange that, given the number of d-word people who clearly don’t exist any more, that a medium quite by chance encounters one of them who knows someone in that night’s audience. The chances of that happening must be very slim indeed, a lot slimmer than Alison, at least.

As Alison and Colette examine their past and current lives, Colette starts to tape their conversations with a view to putting it all down on paper. She might even write a book. But the recordings are regularly interrupted by memories from the spirit world who always want to have their own say. At least the dead are electromagnetic. I mean, it’s all in the past. Can’t they just let go? Thus we examine the two women’s identities. Beyond Black presents a sometimes funny, generally entertaining, if rather long read. But it is a book that challenges little and does not inform. It also only inhabits the surfaces of its characters. But then they do live near the M25.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Russian Pianist Elena Lasco plays jazz in Teulada-Moraira´s Auditorium

Elena Lasco’s jazz presents an eclectic mix. But this is eclecticism with focus, a focus that is provided by her perhaps unique musical personality. She is classically trained, out of a prestigious Moscow music conservatoire, no less. She was a child prodigy and learned the Russian greats, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But then this was also the Soviet Union of Nikolai Kapustin, as jazz idiom composer of dots on paper, a writer who formalised music that almost sounds like it might have been improvised. Elena Lasco’s interest in jazz clearly derives from the post-war American greats, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk. And, unlike Kapustin, she does improvise. She also composes, and that’s where the eclecticism emerges. At her recent solo concert in Teulada’s new auditorium, Elena Lasco exhibited not only consummate pianistic and improvisatory skills, but also she delivered wit and originality. This she presented her own variety of eclecticism, a character that paradoxically is no mixture. It is nothing less than her own complex statement. She played Ellington’s “A Train”. But it’s not Ellington’s “A Train”, it’s “Don’t Take This Train”, a self-mocking variant of Strayhorn’s music. So here is the mix: jazz standard, reinterpretation by Elena Lasco, improvised upon by a performer of the same name and presented on a brand new Steinway. It was quite an evening! “There’s That Rainy Day” follows and then personal takes on “Autumn Leaves” and “I Love Paris”. “Stella By Starlight” is followed by “A Sad Day” and then “Round Midnight” appears as something completely different, but with a feminine angle. “A Night In Tunisia” takes on a new feel, something more classically oriental than the original. “All The Things You Are” unfolds, and then Caravan, to return us to Ellington. “My Funny Valentine” is a sad song given a happy ending. But while Hines, Peterson and Garner come to mind, so do Rachmaninov preludes, occasional pieces by Prokofiev, Tchaikovskian paroxysms and Chopin-esque lyricism. Musical quotes are peppered everywhere, sometimes obvious, sometimes disguised beneath an improvised sheen. The music has a brilliance throughout, but the wit and sophistication still shine through. This is music that deserves repeated listening. Elena Lasco is a pianist, a composer and a performer. How’s that for eclecticism?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

In his impressive and successful novel, Hari Kunzru explores the nature of identity. For some people a sense of belonging is very strong, whereas for others such feelings are mere illusion. The former group may cite social group, language, culture or religion as evidence of their stance, while the latter group, perhaps, may cite exactly the same subject matter to prove the opposite. The more politically inclined may even cite our relationship to the means of production as the primary source or personal and social identity.

In that case, the way that we make our living provides much of what we perceive as identity, and, in Hari Kunzru’s book, The Impressionist works through several quite different lives. It’s not that The Impressionist, the principal character of Hari Kunzru’s novel, has no identity.

Indeed, The Impressionist has a whole host of them, and all of them are both complex and, at the same time, completely credible. It is those around him who endow him with the trappings that confirm who he is. 

And he, of course, responds, donning new lives according to each new coat he wears. The book’s style seems to owe much to the magical realism of Salman Rushdie. There is also a superficial similarity of subject matter, since The Impressionist begins in colonial India where we witness our hero’s chance conception. There are royal parlours, low-life slums and chance encounter. We see the inside of an English public school, a prestigious university and eventually travel to Africa in a professional but doomed role. 

And throughout, The Impressionist seems to do no more than merely fit into the niches that have apparently been prepared for him. Everything he tries on fits him well. So, as we follow The Impressionist on his personal travels through multiple identities, we are challenged by the transformations. They are opened up by chance encounters, but yet they also seem inevitable. We are thus encouraged to look at our own lives and ask how many times we might have changed our own spots. A reader with a strong sense of identity might find such a challenge quite threatening. But then it’s just a story, isn’t it?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Several characters in search of a plot – The Country Life by Rachel Cusk

The Country Life by Rachel Cusk presents several promises, but eventually seems to break most of them. When Stella Benson, a twenty-nine-year-old, leaves home suddenly to take up a private care assistant’s job in darkest south England, it is clear that she is running away. From what we do learn later, but by then we perhaps care rather less about the circumstances.

From the start there was a problem with the book’s point of view. Stella presents a first person narrative couched in a conventional past tense. Events – albeit from the past – unfold along a linear time frame, but despite her removed perspective, she apparently never reflects beyond the present she reports. Given Stella’s character, this may be no more than an expression of her scattered immediacy, but that only becomes clear as we get to know her via her actions. This apparent contradiction of perspectives has to be ignored if the book is to work, but once overcome The Country Life is worth the effort.

 Stella - to say the least – is not a very competent person. But then no-one else in this little southern village seems to have much about them. She becomes a live-in personal carer for Martin Madden, a disabled seventeen-year-old who lives with his rather dotty parents on their apparently luxurious farm. Stella has neither experience, nor presumably references, nor the pre-requisite driving licence. Her employers don’t check anything, despite their reported bad experiences in the past.

Thus Stella becomes part of a rather mad family called Madden. Stella steadily learns more about the Maddens. They have their past, both collectively and individually. Pamela, a wiry, sun-tanned matriarch, is married to Piers. They have children, all of whom seem to have inherited different mixes of the foibles on offer. There’s a local scandal or two, rumours of mis-treatment, sexual impropriety and more, but it always seems to dissolve into innuendo. This, perhaps, is the country life. Stella herself is incompetent in the extreme. She gets sunburnt - in England(!), soils her shoes with melted tar from the road, gets drunk several times, falls into the pool, gets lost, cuts up her clothing, behaves inappropriately, steals on demand and can’t find the garden gate. It’s quite a week.

As the book progresses, it seems unsure whether it should be a sit-com or a farce. But at the centre of The Country Life is Stella’s developing relationship with Martin. He is used to being the centre of attention and knows how to play the part, how to manipulate. He may, it seems, have inherited much from his mother and perhaps a lot less from his father. The Country Life is beautifully written. It is both funny and engaging. Stella’s life becomes increasingly a farce, however, and this crowds out some of the other themes that might have come more interestingly to the fore. Rachel Cusk’s writing is always fluent, perhaps overdone here and there, but when you are that good at it, a little over-egging just adds to the richness.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Of Wit and Tragedy - Sculptures by Hanna Gerlind Glauner in Alfaz del Pi

Sculpture is capable of presenting itself in a highly conceptualised manner. Shapes can be featured purely as themselves, as forms that require us to interpret, associate and eventually explain so that we might make sense or perhaps no sense of them. At the opposite end of the spectrum, sculpture can also be utterly representational, more so than in painting, since an object’s third dimension can be real, rather than realised. Occasionally a sculptor can entangle and combine these extremes and thus play with observers’ intellect as well as their vision. When the process also involved wit and invention, the mix can become compelling. Such is the experience presented by the work of Hanna Gerlind Glauner, on show until October 30 2011 in the Klein-Schreuder Sculpture Garden, Alfaz del Pi.

Hanna presents objets trouvés, bits of metal rescued from scrap yards in Spain and Germany. Dismantled, inverted or reassembled tools form the bulk of these objects, but there are carding combs, scissors, jump-lead clips and stocky marine nails as well. What is remarkable is Hanna’s vision in assembling them to form provocative, funny, tragic, moving images.

Rumpelstiltskin is dancing so hard he is coming apart. Crusaders approaching Jerusalem is close to a cartoon. A young couple out for a walk has the father pushing the pram. There is a bishop with acolytes almost hiding in his robes.

But then there’s boat people, a row of round-head clips counting themselves along the length of piece of iron that would sink. Meanwhile, four dividers stand legs apart and align their adjusters to mimic the raised rifles of Goya´s Third of May 1808.

The inventor of the wheel presents his concept. He is tall and one-legged, and so needs the wheel. A young girl is tall and elegant. Another carries water in Africa.

Thus Hanna Gerlind Glauner´s beautiful objects both amuse and provoke. Her observations possess both beauty and poise in their solidified imagination. Her exhibition in the Klein-Schreuder Sculpture Garden, Alfaz del Pi should not be missed. Full details are at http://www.klein-schreuder.com/index.htm.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Between The Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger won the Booker Prize and was notable for its intriguing form. I thought it would be a hard act to follow. It would need a great writer to be able to make a repeat match of both originality and style with engaging content. So on beginning Between The Assassinations I was prepared to be disappointed. I need not have worried because Aravind Adiga’s 2010 novel is perhaps a greater success than the earlier prize winner.

The novel does not have a linear plot, nor does it feature any resolution to satisfy the kind of reader that needs a story. But it does have its stories, several of them. Between The Assassinations is in fact a set of short stories, albeit related, rather than a novel. But the beauty of the form is that the book sets these different and indeed divergent tales in a single place, a fictitious town called Kittur. It’s on India’s west coast, south of Goa and north of Cochin. Kittur presents the expected mix of religion, caste and class that uniquely yet never definitively illustrate Indian society.

And by means of stories that highlight cultural, linguistic and social similarities and differences, Aravind Adiga paints a compelling and utterly vivid picture of life in the town. The observation that this amalgam both influences and in some ways determines these experiences is what makes Between The Assassinations a novel rather than a set of stories. It is the place and its culture that is the main character. The title gives the setting in time.

The book’s material thus spans the years between the assassinations of the two Ghandis, Indira and Rajiv. So it is the 1980s, and politics, business, marriage, love, loyalty, development, change and corruption all figure. Aravind Adiga’s juxtaposition of themes to be found in Kittur town and society thus leads us through times of questioning, rapid change and wealth creation. The book’s major success is that this conducted tour of recent history never once leads the reader where the reader does not willingly want to go.

The stories are vivid, the personal relationships intriguing, the settings both informative and challenging. Between The Assassinations is a remarkable achievement. The author has succeeded in writing a thoroughly serious novel with strong intellectual threads via a set of related stories that can each be enjoyed at face value, just as stories, if that is what the reader wants. Writing rarely gets as sophisticated as this or indeed as enjoyable, since humour, often rather barbed, is always close to the surface. Between The Assassinations is a wonderful achievement.

Kansas In August by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale´s novel Kansas In August was an interesting, if never a very engaging read. It features some rather strange people. There is a man called Hilary and a woman called Henry. They are brother and sister. They share a lover, a bisexual guy called Rufus, but neither brother nor sister is aware of the situation because certain parties have used false names. (It seems that these people always want to be someone else.

Henry is the stronger character. She is a successful medic specialising in often threatening psychiatric cases. Hilary teaches music peripatetically. Some of the children he meets might benefit from the attentions of his sister. Rufus is a partially credible amalgam of a macho man, gay pride, anything, perhaps, that he can think of today. But it is the word “think” that seems to provide the greatest challenge for these people.

They are presented as contemporary Brits rattling around west London. It is apparently always snowing. There are constant strikes and various other social challenges that result in piles of rubbish permanently half-hiding the urban decay that lines the streets. There is much alcohol consumption and occasional drug abuse, probably conceived as recreational, despite the fact that no-one ever seems to have any money. Hilary finds a baby – yes, a real baby – abandoned in a cot. He seems to think that finders can be keepers and sets about being its foster parent. He seems to be under a personal impression that he can keep his find, as if he had discovered a stray dog or a dropped wallet. He sets about occasional feeding and watering, and takes it out once in a while to provide diversion.

A young Asian girl befriends him and develops a crush. And this character, remember, we have been told is au fait with teaching, schooling and other things related to youngsters. As I mentioned earlier, “thinking” seems to challenge these people. I admit to becoming rather confused as I read Patrick Gale´s novel. I found these people quite incredible and not very likeable. I did not understand and definitely did not empathise with any of their opinions or actions. They all seemed completely self-obsessed, rather crass and, crucially, unable to imaging anything beyond the end of the nose. Even immediate reality seemed to pass them by. But then, perhaps, that is contemporary Britain, something of a dross heap of selfishness. But, given west London and snow, why “Kansas” and why “August” remain two questions that still utterly defeat me.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel An Artist Of The Floating World

Superficially, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel An Artist Of The Floating World seems to present a gentle observation of manners. There’s a daughter to marry and thus associated contracts to be nurtured and negotiated. There’s a relationship with an eight-year-old grandson who in the late 1940s is growing up with American cartoons and comic book heroes as his cultural icons. And, above all, there’s the artist himself, bound up with concerns of style and expression, keen to re-examine his influences, especially those arising in the floating world.

His teacher had been instrumental in focusing his tutees on this floating world which could be found in the city’s night-time entertainment district. The artist of this world of pleasure, Masuji Ono, learned well from his master and adopted much from his style, technique and philosophy of Japanese painting.

But Ono was not satisfied to portray the floating world’s beauty for its own sake, or mere pleasure to evoke delight or diversion. No, he had other ideas, such as comment, loyalty, justice, pride, amongst others. And it is because of the direction of Masuji Ono’s developing inspiration that provides the book with its sinister, even violent thread.

An Artist Of The Floating World is set in post-war Japan. There is cleaning up and reconstruction to be done. There is much rebuilding, and not a little reconstruction, much of it not merely physical, but also cultural. A victor’s imposed norms are changing Japan’s future, perhaps to the relief of many who cannot live with their own country’s past. Masuji Ono finds himself at the centre of this transformation because of his previous success as an artist. But, as he continues to seek a future husband for his younger daughter, his personal achievements apparently divide his acquaintances, pupils and even friends into distinct camps, those for, even reluctantly, and those definitely against.

The novel seems to inhabit similar territory to Orhan Pamuk’s later book, My Name Is Red. There is a debate about culture, heritage and identity at the heart of an apparently rather narrow discussion of aesthetics and artistic influence. While Pamuk’s characters inhabit the cut-throat world of the Ottoman court, Masuji Ono lives in a country defeated in war and ravaged by it. The desire to break with the past brings as much tension to Ono as the desire to retain it does in Red. But the style employed in An Artist Of The Floating World is deceivingly gentle and belies the deep tension and conflict at its heart. Kazuo Isiguro’s prose is always silky smooth, so much so that An Artist Of The Floating World seems like a short, even simple book. Luckily for the reader it is neither.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wole Soyinka’s Aké

I expected to get a lot more from Wole Soyinka’s Aké than I did. It’s not every day that the childhood memoirs of a Nobel Laureate come to hand. Expectation demanded something special, something revelatory perhaps, from the formative years of a man who grew up to be one of the greatest writers of all time. What Aké presented was in fact exactly what it said on the tin. It’s a childhood memoir.

There are no great moments, no previously hidden insights on how to achieve greatness. But there is a life, and perhaps that is our clue. Born into a teaching family, Wole Soyinka lovingly recalls a headmaster father he calls Essay and a severe mother nicknamed Wild Christian, who certainly is the ruler of the household. But around this potentially unlocatable family, there exists an eclectic mixture of Yoruba tradition, imported educational values and imposed colonial rule.

The young writer’s concerns, however, are exactly what might be expected of a growing lad. He chases things, explores, is naughty – sometimes very naughty! He is punished and rewarded. Life goes on. 

There are local concerns, sometimes wider ones. He eats plenty of good food and, by no means uniquely, but certainly eloquently, describes the multicultural reality of colonial West Africa. Whether it was the reader or the writer is unclear, but when, about half way through the book, Wole Soyinka starts to relate his school experiences, Aké seems to change into a different, much more vivid book. Recollections become stronger, more deeply felt, more keenly described.

What had already been a joy now becomes thoroughly engaging as well. Wole Soyinka’s neighbours did become objects of great interest, and not merely because they figured in this book. Their name, Ransome Kuti, may be familiar. It’s a family that produced in successive generations two of Nigeria’s most famous musicians. Strangely, their family too lives its life just like the others, with no apparent inkling of the greatness to come.

As Aké progressed and this reader continued to search for what made the author such a great writer, it began to become clear that the only thing that made this man was experience, something we all share. Individually, any experience is unique; it does not need to be dramatic, violent, broken or ecstatic to be special. It is special because it was experienced. And this is what makes Aké, in the end, such a great statement. It’s life. Let’s get on with it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Superficially, Old School by Tobias Wolff suggests the gentility of an adolescent memoir. The paroxysms of growing up will be heartfelt, but from the distance of adulthood they will surely claim no more than the relative insignificance they deserve. But Tobias Wolff’s book is not of this mould. An apparently idyllic paradise is shattered not only by a taste of forbidden fruit, but also by a significant kick up the proverbial by an angry farmer!

Again superficially, Old School presents an adolescent male in an environment of privilege, certainly one to be envied. The school’s atmosphere seems rarefied in the extreme, with the study and generation of literature elevated to render writers and would-be writers to almost God-like status. Students compete to publish in the school’s journals and employ criticism from the adulatory to the vicious, thus forming alliances and confirming enemies. 

The teacher, of course, are co-conspirators, never unwilling to voice an opinion of their own, often implicitly, thereby doubly wounding. This Old School has a tradition of inviting some very famous writers to judge its competitions.

The entries, of course, are pre-selected by teachers, but not all pupils are aware of this preservation of power. For Tobias Wolff, the prospect of a visit by Ernest Hemingway is tantamount to an invitation to dine with God. Unfortunately, his previous attempts at creative writing have not exactly set the editorial committee on fire and he has never come close to winning any of the previous events. Then one day he finds inspiration in the words of another. He finds a story that is so clearly his own that he seems to live the lives of the characters he imagines. It is a story he commits to paper and submits for the great man to consider.

You may have guessed that all does not turn out well for our young student. Years later, having made his way through whatever life he could cobble together in New York, estranged from a previously supportive family, he returns to the Old School to discover that all was not as it seemed when he was a student there. His own recalled misdemeanours had only ever been part of the story. The book’s principal character recalls the childhood impression that personal conflicts are all that matter and that the adult world is a place where such tensions are not allowed to exist. He then realises, apparently suddenly, that this adult world is no more than an aged version of childhood’s continued confusion. It is the school and memories of it that have become old in this surprising book.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Saxophone Dreams by Nicholas Royle

Saxophone Dreams by Nicholas Royle is a remarkably ambitious project. It also presents an immense challenge for the reader. At the end of the process, and from all points of view, I am not convinced that the journey is worth the effort. A list of themes alone is of epic length. We have jazz throughout. There’s Hašek and Ankers, both sax players. They are based in different countries, but manage to collaborate musically via an exchange of tapes. At least the postal system seems to be something less than surreal.

As ever with jazz buffs, there seems to be much name dropping and a lot less musical idea. Then there’s the surrealism of Paul Delvaux. The characters find themselves appearing involuntarily or via dreams in the artist’s paintings, the descriptions of which never really offer any stylistic devices that might convey their content, let alone extend their scenes. The images themselves often involve naked ladies wandering wide-eyed through the night. And it is this image of sleep-walking that underpins much of the book. Apparently in dreams - or perhaps not – these jazz types wander through Europe and witness the fall of Communism whilst encountering one another along the way.

And so we visit Albania, a disintegrating Yugoslavia, a changing Czechoslovakia and a rumbling Rumania. We seem to have hot-lines direct to national leaders who themselves wander in and out of the narrative, some dead, some alive. The book’s narrative becomes unnecessarily didactic rather than dream-like as the text lists strings of facts, Wikipedia-like.

Ian, a black hospital worker from Brighton who always carries drumsticks in his jeans is more of a character than most of the others. He sets off across Europe with a theme of his own to identify the source of illegally trafficked human organs that are feeding business into the pocket of his surgeon boss back home. Ian traces the source of the organs to Kosovo, where ethnic tensions between Albanians and Serbs become part of the story.

Yet another theme… Still with me? Overall, Saxophone Dreams is a well-written and often engaging novel. These people drink a lot, travel quite a bit, perhaps without ever leaving their beds, and seem to enjoy unwittingly acting out stills from paintings. They are into jazz, but play little between the name dropping. They are into politics, but apparently cannot do without a couple of paragraphs with historical background to justify what they think. And they seem surprisingly unaware of the world around them. They are all too busy dreaming, perhaps. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Saxophone Dreams is a pot pourri of ideas, locations, themes and characters that occasionally, just occasionally, delights. But it can be something of a long trip…

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Temporary residents - a review of Waxwings by Jonathan Raban

Waxwings by Jonathan Raban succeeds at every level. It’s one of the best novels I have ever read. Its apparent simplicity continually reveals and interprets the complex, nuanced relationships we have with identity, individuality, family and aspiration. It’s how we manage our inescapable selfishness that seems to count. 

The principal characters are not Mr and Mrs Average. Tom is a university literature specialist who does regular radio talks. He’s also overseeing an unlikely creative writing project for a man with money who is always in the air. Beth, Tom’s wife, is a high flier in high tech. She works for a Seattle start-up dot com that’s trying to bring navigable reality to an increasingly virtual world. She’s the type that gets paid in options, optionally, despite working every minute of her life.

Their little boy, Finn, named in recognition of Irish links, survives the careering whirlwind of the parental environment extremely well. It’s easy to imagine the organised chaos of their old-style house, no doubt deliberately chosen for something Tom and Beth agreed to label character. Chick is Chinese..

At the book’s start, he has successfully stowed away in a trans-Pacific container aboard a ship being piloted into dock. Others in the black interior have died en route, the rest captured by immigration officials. But Chick is resourceful and motivated. He survives, a keen if illegal immigrant, prepared to make a life for himself. His pithy existence admits no free time. His devotion to self-advancement is tunnel-vision complete, even if it means occasionally eating out of trash cans. And then there’s the apparently peripheral figures – the employer that happily watches his Sino-Mexican gang strip asbestos, the failed English hack who profitably reinvents himself as something hip, the college colleagues intent on asserting status, the dot com employees out for show.

They are all superbly portrayed, perhaps with both sympathy and derision. Functional they may be, but they are never less than credible and suggest that each may be worthy of their own novel. Almost as you would expect, Tom and Beth’s marriage disintegrates. It kind of flakes at the edges until the centre cannot hold. She buys a new condo, perhaps thus revealing her enduring but unexpressed and suppressed distaste of the old house. She soon has a new nest mate or two.

Finn reacts as children do and his sharing out between the less than estranged partners complicates. Tom, of course, falls apart, except in public, as does publicly the house he continues to inhabit. He drinks, takes up smoking, but never seems to miss a meal, especially when Fin is around. He hires Chick, the Chinese immigrant, who is now doing roofing jobs with his own Mexican gang. As a relief from the grind, Tom takes a long, self-absorbed, creative walk, an act that might just have changed everything.

We meet a policeman with his own scores to settle with life. The richness of Waxwings’ canvas is staggering and thoroughly enriching. But the masterstroke comes at the end and, for the ornithologist, it was there from the start. It relates to the habits of Waxwings. In their own way, all of these characters are passing migrants in the place that sustains them. Beth is part Irish, hence Finn. Tom is English, his family Hungarian refugees. Chick is Chinese. And everyone, individually is bent on stripping as many of life’s berries off the tree as they can reach. It’s a great study of the self.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bel Canto by Anna Patchett

As a music lover, I wish I could sing the praises of Anna Patchett’s Bel Canto. I always look forward to reading books about musicians, especially composers, and usually I am disappointed. Bel Canto was no exception. Anna Pratchett is in good company, however, for I was not convinced by Ian McEwan’s character in Amsterdam, nor Carpentier’s in The Lost Steps, to name but a couple. Being a singer, I thought that Bel Canto’s principal character, Roxane Coss, might be more responsive to a writer’s pen, but she wasn’t.

Music is always a strange, inconstant friend. Though it never revolts, it can often disappoint. Even when programmes and performers seem completely matched, a spark may fail to ignite the whole into complete experience. Bel Canto lacked that spark. Bel Canto’s programme presents much promise.

Roxane Coss is a world renowned singer. She has performed everywhere, sung all the famous roles in the greatest houses and worked under the baton of every maestro. People don’t just admire her: it goes much further than that. Mr Hosokawa, a Japanese corporate bigwig, is one such worshipper.

When, for some reason, he finds himself in an unnamed amalgam of South American countries on his birthday, he is treated to an invitation only recital by said soprano at the house of Ruben Iglesias, Vice-President of the republic, no less. It’s interesting to note that the President himself had been invited, but he never attends any function that clashes with Coronation Street, or its Spanish language equivalent on the tele.

So, while Roxane Coss is waxing lyrical through her arias, the President no doubt is up to his neck in innuendo, melodrama and pouting looks that tell of treachery, infidelity, scorn and envy. Not a bit like opera… just add soap. Back in the Vice-President’s house, an admixture of invitees lap up the Italian in their diverse languages. There are Japanese speakers, Italian, French, Russian and Spanish, amongst others, as well as the occasional sentence in English.

A young Japanese interpreter in the employ of Mr Hosokawa, a lad called Gen, has all the gen needed to translate, sometime with a touch of humour. His skills were always going to be needed, but they become essential when the evening is hijacked by a terrorist group seeking hostages and their leverage. It’s not quite, “Take this residence to Cuba”, but it’s well on the way. While Graham Greene in his Honorary Consul used the incompetence of the act as plot device, strangely Ann Patchett never really explores just why it was that her own gang of terrorists missed their own boat by such a long way.

But then these guys – and gals – are not real terrorists, at least not the real terrorists that actually kill people. They are of a more refined type, a kind of semi-professional bunch with military connections as well as pretensions, but not much of an ideology. Early on, the unfortunate Vice-President gets one in the mush and needs sewing up around the face. It’s a pity that wound seemed not to affect his speech.

So here are the elements. A worshipping assemblage of music lovers divided by language but united by their interpreter are held hostage in a prominent residence which becomes besieged. They are held together by the commonality of their plight and the heavenly voice of Roxane Coss, which, luckily for all of them, holds up despite the strain. The relationships between the hostages, their love of music, their situation alongside tensions provided by captors and their pursuers ought to offer a wonderful opportunity for character, plot, relationships and reminiscences to come to the fore.

Unfortunately, they don’t and frankly, not much else emerges to fill the void. There’s a couple of romances, French lessons in the broom cupboard under the stairs, unlikely endings, even less likely beginnings. There’s a modicum of humour, but neither of the book’s threads, its music and its languages, are developed. It’s worth reading, but, like a concert where the performers didn’t gel, it ultimately disappoints.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa has written a novel called The Housekeeper + The Professor. At least that’s what it says on the front. On the back it’s title replaces the + with “and”. It’s a good book, well written, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable, but it’s also a book that falls well short of its stated intention. Personally, I blame the designer, because on the title page there’s “and”, not the + symbol. The difference is important. The book’s content affirms that.

The Professor of the title is a former specialist academic mathematician and, guess what, the Housekeeper is his housekeeper. Back in the 1970s, the professor suffered a serious road accident, a head-on collision that left him seriously disabled, not physically, but mentally as a result of head injuries. He needs care, not least because his memory span is precisely eighty minutes. 

Anything that happened longer ago than four times twenty minutes is unknown to him. His life and knowledge from before the accident have been indelibly etched into an unchanging recollection of the past, but the present is eternally and precisely eighty minutes of age. His new housekeeper takes up her post. She finds a dishevelled old man with post-it notes stuck to his suit. It’s his way of remembering things that happened an hour and a half ago. His apparent disorganisation is something of an illusion. She soon finds that somehow memories trivia associated with the adhesive notes are stored. He loves baseball, and collects player portraits. But his sport dates from before his accident.

He has a sister-in-law who organises and oversees his care largely without intervention, except when needed. Gradually the single mother housekeeper becomes involved with the professor’s passion for mathematics – mainly numbers, it has to said. For him, it’s an order that originated with God. Some interesting conjunctions of number are identified. She cares, he enlightens. She learns. That’s the deal. The housekeeper has a young son. He has a rather flat head that reminds the professor of a square root sign. From that moment, the lad is known as Root, even by his mother. I find this not credible. Root and his mother get to know the professor and via him some aspects of mathematics that you might also find in puzzle books.

There’s a bit of number theory – Pythagorean engagement rings, perfect numbers, triangle numbers, series sums and – strangely out of place – Euler’s formula, without explanation or development. An odd conjecture surfaces and our previously non-mathematical housekeeper suddenly adopts all the technical language, the specialist names and even a concept or two without problem, despite typographical and technical errors in the text. Personally, I adore novels that deal with the concept of identity. Usually, however, it’s not its contrast with the concept of an equation that provides the spice.

The professor in Yoko Ogawa’s book seems not to notice the difference, despite his penchant for minute accuracy everywhere else in his life. Via a combination of baseball and numbers Root becomes enthralled, educated and inspired. It’s a good read and I applaud the author’s attempt at blending a mathematician’s passion for his subject with an initiate’s joy of revelation. But disbelief has to be suspended here. When Root is not there, the professor and his housekeeper seem to discuss his needs, despite the professor’s declared inability to remember his existence. There’s the equation versus identity issue above, but then that is related by the housekeeper, so the error might be hers. She, however, seems surprisingly unruffled by the renaming of her son and with ideas that would surely have seemed to be in a foreign language. It’s a bit of fun and worth reading, but as a novel it’s not an achievement.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A review of The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Helen Knightly takes her clothes off for a living. It’s not what you think: she’s a respectable mother of two. She is Knightly by name, but it is her day job that sees her modelling in the nude for art college life classes. Her mother, Clair, used to model underwear. It must run in the family. Her husband, Jake, is – or was, perhaps – an artist.

They met when she was naked and carried on in the same vein. Now they are divorced, if not exactly estranged. He lives out West in Santa Barbara. He has another relationship, with a woman his daughter’s age. Helen tries to mimic. Their daughters are grown up. Helen even has a grandchild. Helen also, and crucially, still has Clair, the mother who now needs almost total care. One fraught day of many, while Helen and her mother exchange superficially meaningless conversation barbed with a mixture of half-truth, nonsense, accusation and innuendo, the octogenarian Clair fouls herself. She seems not a little proud of her odorous product. It falls to Helen to clean up her helpless and apparently resentful mother. And she snaps. 

Almost involuntarily a pillow comes to hand and Helen uses it to smother. It’s a strange word, smother, what daughters do to mothers. Helen now has a problem. Thus The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold becomes a first person account of how she copes with and reflects on her act. There is hatred, compassion, opportunism, in fact more motives beneath the surface than you could count. But on the face of things, there is no single identifiable explanation, other than frustration.

Jake is summoned to lend a helping hand, but his presence just seems to bring memories of life’s unhappiness and disappointment to the fore. Helen tries to relieve her emotional stress via sex, for the first time in a parked car, seducing a friend’s son, apparently for the hell of it, but with Helen there’s always at least a hint of motive. She raises her exploit later when it can be used to compete. She recalls her own childhood, her marriage, her children, her parents, life’s fulfilling moments, its bad times, its threats.

The Almost Moon reminds me of the work of Anne Tyler, where ostensibly ordinary households and families have their skin peeled back to reveal often surprising, sometimes dark innards. The Almost Moon is similar in its forensic detail of family life. But Alice Seybold’s style is always much more threatening, much closer to nightmare tinged with neurosis. The development of the plot is well handled, with Helen’s thoughts never linear, always tending to juxtapose interpreted past, experienced present and imagined future in most instants of her self-analysis. She is a complex person and makes some surprising, even shocking confessions.

The family – every family – is at the bottom of The Almost Moon. Families are full of disparate individuals brought together by an accident of birthright. No wonder they often don’t get on. But then birthright is also a bond, but a bond that sometimes can suffocate. Helen’s first person narrative is powerful. In the circumstances the reader begins to wonder how she might be telling such a story, given the detail it unfolds. We get to know the intricacies of her relations with her husband, lover, mother, father, children and even neighbours. In the circumstances, she seems to have plenty of time. In the end, perhaps the reader is still presented with this same dilemma, but there are suddenly several possible solutions. Don’t expect to be told what to think, and don’t, in The Almost Moon, expect to like the characters, especially Helen Knightly. She certainly would not expect it of you.