Romesh Gunesekera: Suncatcher (Sri Lanka)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

In this new release, set in 1960s Colombo, a young boy, Kairo, befriends an older teenager, the Gatsby-esque Jay, characterised by an alluring combination of macho self-confidence, practical proficiency and effortless daring. Kairo’s left-leaning family seem worlds apart from Jay’s life of cossetted wealth, and Kairo is entranced by Jay’s laid-back glamour, not to mention his success with the opposite sex. Jay has a menagerie of animals, including an aviary of captive wild birds, and lives with his decorous mother and intimidating father in the rambling Casa Lihiniya, complete with stables and garages full of cars collected by his Uncle Elvin. To Kairo it is a dream world: “A gilded castle complete with secret passages, captured animals and a mesmerising queen. A whole cosmos far, far more thrilling than the one I’ve been born into.

As the boys’ friendship intensifies, they and Jay’s Uncle Elvin travel to the family’s wild estate bungalow, Villa Agathon, a journey “as fantastical as a trip to Mars or Moscow“. There the boys run wild, although when the estate-hand’s son is seriously injured in a sort of over-zealous cowboys and Indians game, both Jay and his uncle seem disturbingly unconcerned.

In many ways this coming-of-age tale seems terribly familiar, even if the setting doesn’t. It often feels like nothing actually happens, even when, from time to time, things do happen, sometimes devastatingly. And while the tumescent prose vividly evokes the long, adolescent heat-soaked days, it doesn’t always serve to drive the narrative or particularly propel the reader into turning the page.

However, the language used to describe post-independence Ceylon is often very beautiful, and the descriptions of the boys’ interactions with the natural habitat around them are lushly drawn, and at their most innocent reminiscent of the childhood adventures portrayed by Gerald Durrell.

Both boys’ families are similar in one way, and that is their background of marital discord (or marital schism in the case of Jay’s parents). The repeated allusions to cages, to tamed wild animals and to efforts to protect Jay’s aviary from predators are surely symbolic, whether of the threat posed by the economic, social and political changes taking place, the restraints of domesticity, or Jay’s desperate efforts to impose some kind of (pecking?) order on his unpredictable family and increasingly rivalrous followers.

Romesh Gunesekera was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, growing up there as well as in the Philippines, before becoming a British citizen. The British Council website tells us that: “it is less productive to read Gunesekera’s fiction as a romantic or nostalgic attempt to come to terms with the loss of a homeland, or … to generate fictional forms of imaginative return, than as a [an] unravelling of the ways … the discontinuities of time … collapse spatial and temporal boundaries, creating as T. S. Eliot once put it, ‘the still point of the turning world’.”

Little Women: film by Greta Gerwig (USA)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

I read Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women as a kid, and having put myself through that, I didn’t really fancy the film. As a kid I remember being agog that the reader was expected to believe that such perfect and selfless people could exist in the world. Teenagers who would give away their Christmas goodies to the poor without even blanching just a teeny, tiny bit. The book, as I remembered it, felt like being beaten to death with a Bible and relentlessly castigated for my own moral failings.

But maybe I’d remembered it wrong? I was only about 10 years old then, after all. What’s more, it felt as though literally every single person I spoke to over the last couple of weeks couldn’t stop talking about the film: the costumes, the amazing direction, the performances, how emotional it was, etc etc. People kept inviting me to come with them to see it. It was obviously an “event” movie. So I finally succumbed to peer pressure and went to see the film with my eldest daughter.

This new adaptation of the novel, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, has a great, positive message about women, that I fully buy into, about privileging stories about the inner life, and allowing emotions and feelings to take centre stage over action and intrigue, and about valuing independence, not rushing into marriage, not marrying as a financial transaction, and not feeling obliged to get married at all, if that’s not your bag. The movie was beautifully filmed and, yes, the costumes were lush, but it was mostly really, really boring. I was genuinely more entertained by the much-derided, universally panned Cats than by this film.

As the love interest boy next door, I felt Timothée Chalamet was wildly miscast. He has no natural chutzpah, and lacks sex appeal or even charm. The women were much better, and they were played with a kind of kinetic ebullience, rather than complying with the buttoned-up 19th century stereotypes. Saoirse Ronan was good as the closeted Jo, and I liked Florence Pugh as Amy and Emma Watson as Meg. When the insipid Beth (Eiza Scanlan) died (surely not a spoiler, given the book was published in 1868), I did manage to dredge up a single tear.

I checked my watch a few times, while the huge man to my right, obviously dragged along to the film by his wife, overflowed into my seat and snored into my ear intermittently.

I can’t recommend this film to you, but no doubt everyone else you speak to will.

José Eduardo Agualusa: A General Theory of Oblivion (Angola)

Translated by Daniel Hahn

AFRICA

The trouble with reading books from around the world is that there are so many war stories. Sometimes it feels as though every work of translated fiction I read is set in a war zone, past or present. Obviously I recognise the importance of hearing people’s stories and being informed of the personal significance of country-specific events. But surely there are many books written by authors from other continents and ripe for translation that are not war literature? The alternative would be as ludicrous as if the only fiction to be translated from English into other languages was set during, say, the Second World War.

A General Theory of Oblivion, though, set during the Angolan War of Independence (1961-1974) and the civil war that followed (1975-2002), provides a welcome new perspective on conflict. Although described by Agualusa as a work of “pure fiction”, in the Foreword he also acknowledges a debt to the apparently true story of a Portuguese woman living in Angola, who, on the eve of independence, bricked herself into her apartment in the country’s capital, Luanda, and survived there alone for decades.

The novel was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, but lost out to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. However, it subsequently succeeded in winning the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award.

The story is related by an omniscient narrator, who pursues a number of disparate strands, then expertly weaves them all together. I found the novel at times somewhat reminiscent of Louis de Bernieres’ The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, and at other times it reminded of Salman Rushdie‘s intellectual ebullience, but without his air of self-congratulatory smugness.

The most fascinating parts of the story, for me, were the accounts of the day-to-day survival of Ludo who, following the disappearance of her sister and her brother-in-law, bricks herself into her luxury apartment with only a dog, Phantom, for company, creating as the years pass a “general theory of oblivion”.

Angola proves itself adept at creating a sort of oblivion, too, through its post-independence inconsistencies and reversals, enacted by a cast of colourful characters.

After the death of the first president, the regime experimented with a hesitant opening-up. Those political prisoners not linked to the armed opposition were released. Some received invitations to occupy positions in the apparatus of the State.

and:

Guys who just months ago had been railing against bourgeois democracy, at family lunches and parties, at demonstrations, in newspaper articles, were now dressed in designer clothing, driving around the city in cars that gleamed.”

This is one of the first books in translation I’ve read where I’ve paused to consider just how skilful the translator is. Although I don’t read Portuguese, and so don’t know the language of the original text, passages such as this impressed me, with their careful alliteration and assonance:

The dogs held out on the city streets for some years. Wild packs of pedigree dogs. Gangly greyhounds, heavy asthmatic mastiffs, demented Dalmations, disappointed pointers...”

I really loved the overall conceit of the novel, as well as its implementation and the use of language. I also found appealing the flights of imagination, with bizarre tales of an orphaned pygmy hippo that is taught “to dance the Zaire rumba“, and pigeons carrying hidden messages between lovers. Overall, an original and satisfying read.

Jojo Rabbit: film by Taika Waititi (New Zealand)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

Early reviews of this 2019 film suggested it was a “Marmite” movie: you were either going to love it or hate it, no half measures. I’d watched Waititi’s earlier features, including the hugely entertaining What we do in the Shadows (2014, a mock reality TV documentary about vampires) and the kooky and charming runaway-kid movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), so I was interested to see if he’d succeeded in making a Nazi comedy that wouldn’t simultaneously be deeply offensive…

Jojo Rabbit is based on the 2008 novel Caging Skies. In the movie, Johannes (Jojo) is a sensitive and essentially kind 10-year-old boy (played by Roman Griffin Davis) who is, in theory, an eager member of the Hitler Youth. He lives with his mother Rosie, played in a range of super-stylish outfits and pin-curled hair by Scarlett Johansson, in a house full of enviable polished wood interiors; his older sister Inge has died, while his father is supposedly away fighting in the war. Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell steals the show with a great support role as Hitler Youth leader Captain Klenzendorf, who is macho with more than a touch of camp.

Jojo has an imaginary friend, a childish version of Hitler, who starts off brash and funny and supportive. When Jojo discovers his mother is sheltering a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), however, his assumptions are increasingly challenged, while his imaginary pal shows a meaner, more petulant side. Waititi not only wrote and directed the movie, but also took on the role of Hitler, after apparently finding it difficult to persuade anyone else to do it. He told the Hollywood Reporter “I think it was a little difficult for people to figure out if it was a good career move, and I can fucking totally understand. Who really wants to see themselves as Adolf Hitler on a poster?”

The film starts off compellingly and audaciously, by intersplicing contemporary scenes from the film with archive Nazi propaganda footage set to a soundtrack of screaming Beatles fans. However, it loses the courage of its convictions as the action unfolds, and veers a little more towards heart-warming schmaltz, staying the safe side of the line delineating the difference between a cuddly family film and an art house comedy-drama. Nevertheless, although with this film Waititi has been accused of ‘smugness’ and ‘tweeness’, I didn’t come away feeling the film was either of those things.

I saw the film with my husband and three children aged 10 to 15, and they all loved it. I liked it a lot but thought it stopped short of brilliance. On balance I preferred Waititi’s earlier films, and feel Hunt for the Wilderpeople remains his real masterpiece to date.

However, I enjoyed the film’s slightly leftfield perspective (it sometimes reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie), I was moved by the film, and the soundtrack, including Bowie’s German-language version of Heroes and Love’s Everybody’s Gotta Live, felt pitch-perfect. I also felt the lines from Rilke that closed the movie were a wonderful choice, and something we might all benefit from keeping in mind:

“Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final.”

A Girl Made of Dust: Nathalie abi-Ezzi (Lebanon)

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

I recently joined the Shelterbox Book Club, which for a donation of £10 a month sends me a regular book for discussion as part on an online book club, and also helps to provide emergency shelter and resources for families affected by disaster worldwide.

The most recent book that I received was A Girl Made of Dust by Nathalie abi-Ezzi, who was born in Lebanon, and moved to the UK at the age of 11, when Israel invaded the country of her birth. The book was first published in 2008, and was not a title I was previously aware of.

The story is written from the perspective of a young girl, Ruba, during the Lebanese conflict in the 1980s, and deals with issues such as the civilian experience of war, the pervasive and destructive effects of trauma, and dark family secrets.

Privileging the female experience of conflict is a welcome way of balancing accounts of the war experience. As Rachel Cusk has written in her essay on female writers, Shakespeare’s Sisters: “masculine values …. prevail … This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because if deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.” Well, here, A Girl Made of Dust gives us both the scene of conflict and the shop.

Ruba’s home environment is richly described, with vivid depictions of, for example, her mother’s cooking, and with a strong sense of place. I found the device of using a child’s viewpoint to tell the story to be both appealing and powerful. Ruba doesn’t understand the political situation behind the conflict, and she doesn’t always understand the motivation of the adults around her, but is guided by her emotions and her sometimes fantastical imagination.

The book was good on the incomprehensible and senseless brutality of war, and the way civilians can, through necessity, become partly inured to constant fear, and it had a satisfying resolution. Nevertheless, the characters didn’t quite ring true for me, and I found the writing wasn’t strong enough to carry the overall lack of pace. The book was somewhat reminiscent of the work of best-selling Afghanistani writer Khaled Hosseini, in its juxtapositions of the domestic lives of people and a place riven by conflict. However, I find his books to be more gripping – albeit more emotionally manipulative.

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75): The Snow Queen and other stories (Denmark)

EUROPE

What better choice for Christmas Eve than a cold, seasonal fairy tale from that master of the form, Hans Christian Andersen?

When I was very young, we used to visit my grandparents, and in the evening I would be put to bed with a selection of the few children’s books that my grandmother kept in her house: ’70s annuals featuring famous actresses and that omnipresent (at the time!) symbol of wealth and sex appeal, a pet tiger; Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies; and an old book of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. I can still remember a line from The Tinderbox, about the dog with eyes as big as teacups.

However, I subsequently forgot about Andersen until decades later, when I blithely read The Little Match Girl to my then 6-year-old daughter, having forgotten the story’s heart-breaking ending.

We all think that we know these old fairy tales backwards, and references to them have passed into idiomatic, everyday speech. Here, in northern Europe, we’ve all heard of the “Emperor’s new clothes”. But how often is it that we sit down with a fairy tale as an adult? Even when I used to read collections of fairy stories to my daughters, they were always abridged, and tended to have been rewritten in modern language.

So, I decided it was time to rediscover Andersen’s writing, and revisit those stories I had thought I knew so well, as well as a few I didn’t know at all.

On reading a selection of stories, it was clear that they often don’t carry any strong moral message (although one faintly surreal tale, The False Collar, has a go at incorporating one). Nor do they make any attempt to protect the innocence of children: The Tinderbox is basically amoral, while The Little Match Girl is disturbing in its evocation of poverty and an uncomfortable ideation of death as a joyous escape from a life of misery.

As well as tackling a few short stories, I also read the much longer, seven-part The Snow Queen, which is one of Andersen’s best-known stories.

The Snow Queen is an iconic figure, with a kind of icy sexual power, and inspired both C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories and the massive Disney franchise Frozen. The Snow Queen was apparently originally modelled on the opera singer Jenny Lind – a fictionalised version of whom also pops up in US blockbuster movie The Greatest Showman – who rejected Andersen’s advances.

The main characters in the story of The Snow Queen, Gerda and Kay, are best friends (“They were not brother and sister; but they cared for each other as much as if they were”). However, when Kay gets a fine splinter of glass from an enchanted mirror in his eye and in his heart, his nature becomes icy cold. He is spirited away by the mysterious Snow Queen, and Gerda eventually sets off to find him, though she faces obstacles at every turn.

It is remarkable really that in this 19th century story the boy, Kay, is the vulnerable victim, while both his kidnap and the efforts to bring about his rescue are undertaken by a number of strong, female characters.

Overall, I found The Snow Queen to be startling in both its originality and its glittering, evocative language, as well its undercurrents of nascent sexuality.

Do you have any favourite fairy tales, whether by Hans Christian Andersen or by other writers?

Rembrandt's Light: art exhibition (Netherlands)

@ Dulwich Picture Gallery, London until 2 February 2020

EUROPE

This temporary exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery focuses on the period 1639-58, when Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) was living in his dream home in Amsterdam (now the Museum Het Rembrandthuis), with a light-infused studio. (He eventually lost the property, due to financial problems.)

Dulwich Picture Gallery was recently the victim of an attempted robbery, and two stolen paintings, which made it as far as the gallery gardens before being recovered, were unavailable for viewing, having since been returned to their respective lenders.

Rembrandt is famous for his attention to detail, his realism (at a time when most artists were creating idealised images), his focus on expression and his use of light to accentuate both theatricality and spiritual intensity.

I took one of the free audio guides, which included some great anecdotes. Rembrandt taught students at his house, and female life models were sometimes (shockingly) used. Apparently one young man waited for his female model to undress, then undressed himself stating “now like Adam and Eve we are naked!”. Rembrandt listening in, opened the door, and threw them both out, exclaiming “Now, like Adam and Eve, you are expelled!”

I hoped I could edit the tilt on this photo, but I couldn't, but it does capture the effective use of light

The picture above is the Denial of St Peter. (I’d intended to edit the photo as it is a bit skew-whiff, but was unable to -please excuse the bad alignment!) The important thing I wanted to show was the incredible luminosity and effective use of light in this religious scene, in which Peter denies to a servant girl that he knows Christ; in the back right, Christ can be seen turning towards Peter and the scene of his betrayal.

In certain rooms, the gallery has mocked up lighting to mimic the effects that Rembrandt would have experienced (for example, candlelight), and his own methods of filtering light have also been reproduced (see below):

What I loved most in this exhibition, though, were the portraits. I always love a portrait…

Rembrandt is said to have displayed the picture below (Girl at a Window) in his own window, and passers-by were apparently stunned that the servant girl they noticed had remained still for so long. Whether or not this anecdote is apocryphal, we are made aware of the judicious use of paint to add to the vitality of the painting: the servant girls’ suntanned hand and lower arm are darker than the skin further up, and there is a tiny dot of white paint on her nose, adding to her air of animation.

Meanwhile, in the intimate painting below, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, the water is illuminated by light, as the woman (presumed to be Rembrandt’s lover) lifts her chemise as she wades into the pool.

All in all, this technically informative and fascinating exhibition was well worth the hefty-ish entrance fee.

Mariama Bâ (1929-81): Une Si Longue Lettre/So Long a Letter (Senegal)

Translated from the French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas

AFRICA

So Long a Letter is an epistolary novel (rare in African literature) and seminal African feminist work that laments injustices in the female experience in Senegal. The book was published in French 1979, and first appeared in English in 1981. It has been judged to be one of the top 12 African books of the 20 century. The book won the inaugural Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 1980. The text is generally regarded as semi-autobiographical.

Teacher Ramatoulaye is a Muslim woman and recent widow who relays news of the death of her husband Modou to her close friend Aissatou, and reflects on the unfolding of her marriage to Modou, during the course of which she bore him 12 children. In keeping with an intimate letter between friends, the book is deeply personal. We learn that, like Aissatou’s husband, and despite having married for love, Modou in later years took a second, very young bride – in his case, the best friend of one of his daughters.

As the novel proceeds, Ramatoulaye asserts an increasing sense of agency and power in her own actions, throwing off her compliance with certain patriarchal traditions – such as the assumption by Modou’s brother that she will now become his wife.

Unusually for a post-colonial African novel, Ramatoulaye is not always critical of the European influence on her country. She writes of the educational opportunities she and her peers were given in gaining access to a French colonial school:

“…to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us: these were the aims of our admirable headmistress. The word ‘love’ had a particular resonance in her. She loved us without patronizing us, with our plaits either standing on end or bent down, with our loose blouses, our wrappers. She knew how to discover and appreciate our qualities.”

Although the book is short (at less than 100 pages), I found it heavy going at times. However the narrative, while sometimes stilted, can be beautifully evocative:

Coconut trees with their interlacing leaves, gave protection from the sun. Succulent sapodilla stood next to sweet-smelling pomegranates. Heavy mangoes weighed down the branches. Pawpaws resembling breasts of different shapes hung tempting and inaccessible from the tops of elongated trunks.”

It is difficult to be fair to this book as it is very much not something I would usually read. It’s certainly not a light or even a particularly enjoyable read. But it does give interesting insights into the issues experienced by post-colonial West African women in the late 20th century, and poses questions about how best to live as a modern woman in that place and at that time. These issues parallel concurrent debates about whether the Senegal of the late 1970s should plot a traditional or more modern course.

The book is considered hugely important in the field of African studies, and at the time of publication in English So Long a Letter was described by literary academic Abiola Irele as “the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction“.

South Korean Artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006): exhibition @ Tate Modern

until 9th February 2020 @ Tate Modern, London, UK

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

Nam June Paik’s work blends artistic vision with an intense interest in the technological advances of the 20th century. The work also draws on a fascination with Zen Buddhism, meditation and popular culture, while the artist collaborated productively with many other creative figures, including performance artist and sometime topless cellist Charlotte Moorman, artist Joseph Beuys, George Maciunas (founder of experimental artists’ group Fluxus) and composer John Cage.

Born in Seoul, Paik fled with his family during the Korean war, and he subsequently travelled widely, living in Hong Kong, Japan, Germany and the USA. His rather nomadic lifestyle led him to challenge the status quo, particularly concerning ideas pertaining to borders and cultural differences, amid a world of burgeoning technological connections. An early progenitor of video art, he is credited with coining the phrase “electronic superhighway”. Why hadn’t I heard of this man?

TV Garden (below, 1974-77), is a strangely beautiful, futuristic landscape populated with television sets and living plants. Paik believed that the future would involve the cohabitation of the natural world with the technological, and the Tate’s literature tells us that this complied with his Buddhist faith, which consider everything to be “interdependent and closely connected”. The TV sets display a bewilderingly entrancing eclectic, frenetic and kinetic melange of high and low culture, spanning Beethoven to Japanese TV ads.

Paik’s interest in TVs and other forms of audio-visual technology dated back much further than the above work, from at least the early 1960s. The Tate exhibition displays work in which TV broadcasts have been disturbed and distorted through the use of magnets, in an effort to “reveal their manipulative power”. This primitive robot (below, 1964) tries to cut through the arcane knowledge and complexity underpinning much technology, to create a primitive humanoid, that could walk, play sounds “and even urinate”.

In my art reviews I like to include portraits and self-portraits, where possible. The one shown below, dating from 2005, is probably the most eccentric self-portrait I’ve yet featured.

Self-portrait

One of Paik’s last works, this is a self-portrait crudely painted with permanent oil marker onto a TV screen, which is transmitting images of and by the artist.

It works much better than it sounds as though it should!

TV sculpture, signed in English, Korean and Chinese.

There is so much more to be seen in this exhibition, which is highly imaginative, hugely intriguing and undeniably unusual. It’s definitely worth a look if you’re in London!

Such Small Hands: Andrés Barba (Spain)

Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman

EUROPE

This creepy little book by Andrés Barba seemed like the perfect quick read for December, which calls out to me for a creepy story or three.

The cover art is pretty horrible. My daughter asked me to move the book off the table as it was creeping her out so much she couldn’t do her maths homework. Fair enough!

This is the sort of unsettling and disturbing read that is hard to shake off. The short, unadorned opening sentence is effective in piquing curiosity and luring you straight in, and the line is repeated throughout the book, like a chorus:

Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital“.

Marina, strange and impassive, after recovering in hospital from the injuries arising from the car crash that killed her parents, is discharged with a new doll, also called Marina, to an orphanage. The doll is gifted to her by the medical staff, perhaps intended as some kind of transitional object for comfort, or a tool for processing trauma, and is central to the plot.

From Parts 2 of the book there is a switch to the third person plural, a “we” of the other girls at the orphanage. Marina is different. The physical scars from the horrific injuries she has survived literally mark her out as alien, while her talk of the normal, midde-class childhood she has so recently lost, with trips to Disneyland, provokes jealousy from her institutionalised peers.

We’d been happy until Marina showed up with her past … we were plagued by a feeling of rage and surprise, and we wanted to gnaw away at her, little by little.”

Gothic motifs abound: a vulnerable female, an uncanny institution, dreams and fantasies; even a disturbing Freudian eroticism creeps in. The book is psychologically acute in evoking the swirling, inchoate hive mind of childhood, as the novella builds to its inevitable conclusion.