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.