Wednesday 23 December 2009

'El Último Trago' (Review)

An old saying in Spanish states that ‘segundas partes nunca fueron buenas’ (second parts are never good) and you could be forgiven for thinking that the recent collaboration between Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés and flamenco singer Concha Buika is nothing but a copycat of the 2003 similar musical partnership between Bebo Valdés, Chucho’s father, and Diego ‘El Cigala’, another flamenco stalwart. However this conclusion would be misleading because ‘El Último Trago’ is an excellent album in its own right that celebrates the nonagenarian Costa Rican-born Mexican singer Chavela Vargas’s oeuvre.

The record’s twelve songs feature Buika’s powerful, heartfelt voice against the backdrop of Chucho’s solid and melodious piano. Concha is what they call in flamenco a ‘cantante larga’ (long singer), which means she can tackle any genre and still remain unique and poignant in her delivery. This is obvious in songs such as the album’s opener ‘Soledad’, the renowned ‘Cruz de Olvido’ and the title track ‘En el Último Trago’, a classic from Chavela’s repertoire. Chucho’s contribution, on the other hand, sometimes remains in the background and sometimes takes centre stage in pieces such as ‘Las Ciudades’ and ‘Se Me Hizo Fácil’. The result of this combination is a mesmerising album, which will delight jazz and flamenco enthusiasts alike.

Unfortunately the clip below features a song by Buika from a previous record and not from 'El Último Trago'. Nonetheless, you will still be able to appreciate her vocal strength and her stage persona. By the way, I love the informal setting. Ta muchly.

This post is also my 'see you later, alligator'. With the Christmas holidays upon us already I will be taking a break from blogging. The Sunday posts will only have music; I hope you'll still enjoy them. Thanks a lot to you, my dear cyber-community for your support, your comments and for welcoming me to your very own spaces. I very often feel fortunate to be exposed to such an amazing array of blogs, websites and fora. May the New Year bring you health and happiness. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Copyright 2009

Sunday 20 December 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

One of my favourite lines from a song ever comes towards the end of Billy Joel's 'New York State of Mind', the fourth track from his 1976 album 'Turnstiles'. It goes like this: "I'm just taking a Greyhound on the Hudson river line (piano-pounding, momentum building)/ 'cause I'm in (the piano pirouttes mischievously)/I'm in a New York (this is the moment when Richie Cannata's saxophone spirals up and down melodically) state of... (half a second silence) mind... (the whole band comes back for the finale)."

I have often wondered why I like this section of that song so much when I have never been to New York - though, I'd love to -, I have never got on a Greyhound bus and I don't even know what the Hudson river looks like (though I'm under the impression it's quite long and broad). Some of the theories I have come up with are: Billy's tribute to his hometown echoes my feelings for my beloved Havana, the Greyhound serves almost four thousand destinations in the US, thus, symbolising adventure and the open road for me; and the same goes for the Hudson river with its expansive mass of water.

But apparently there's more to my fondness for this song than I first realised. According to research conducted by the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Music in Human Development and London-based chamber group, the Nash Ensemble (The New Statesman, 31st August, 2009), we, human beings, seem to have a built-in sense of musical harmony that allows us to engage in producing and/or listening to music. And I can hear all of you singing like a one-voice choir: But we knew that/after all, music is a universal language. I'm afraid there wasn't any effort on my part to get those verses to rhyme. Apologies.

I agree with your above refrain, of course, but there was one element, amongst some others that Guy Dammann lists in his excellent article, that attracted my attention straight away. It was the fact that music affects the amygdala, the part of one's brain that is involved in emotions of fear and aggression. And although that might not explain, at first sight, my penchant for that particular line of 'New York State of Mind' (hostility=love?) it might clarify why my hearing Billy singing that verse brings such a raw response in me. In my case, as a person living abroad now, my tension and dissonance manifest themselves in occasional displays of melancholy and nostalgia (I call them my fado moods, after the Portuguese musical genre), which obviously trigger off the need to listen to a particular kind of music.

It was in this situation, also, that I found myself recently after visiting Pilgrim Soul, one of my favourite blogs. This space is the domain of the Puerto Rican-born, US writer Judith Mercado and on it she discusses issues such as: identity, literature and music. It was the latter on which one of her recent posts touched when she uploaded a clip of a famous Puerto Rican song, 'Lamento Boricano' accompanied by an exquisite write-up about the sources of inspiration for one of her novels and the reasons as to why this particular track had been chosen. What could have been a totally personal experience (hers) became a shared tear-jerking moment (for me). I last heard 'Lamento Boricano' when I still lived in Cuba and I cannot even remember by whom, however, that was beside the point when I watched the video. What happened after can only be illustrated through Guy Dammann's explanation in the aforementioned feature: 'the significance of musical sound derives from the representation of that most elusive of all structures: the human subject itself.'

To wit: Judith Mercado and I had just shared a subjective moment together, steeped in our common history. We both come from the same neck of the woods, Latin America, and 'Lamento Boricano' had helped bring that cultural experience closer.

Of course, it helped that the song de marras was sung in Spanish. What happens, though, when we are touched by a composition written and performed in a language we don't understand? Does it still move us? Again, I agree with Guy when he states that 'when we hear music, we hear that another sensitive being is present. The proof of this is, in the best tradition, strictly empirical: people have been discerning this in the music they love for centuries.'

Personally, what both research and essay showed me is that music truly is the universal language and Guy's essay confirms that suspicion. I have known people who don't like visual arts at all, or can't stand dance. I've met others for whom cinema is irrelevant, but I have never heard of someone who doesn't like music, and I mean, someone who doesn't like any musical style. The world of harmonies might be linked to the area in our brain that guarantees our survival, but we can certainly vouch for the safety and warmth we find in its bosom even if one has never taken a Greyhound on the Hudson river line.

And to prove or disprove Guy's theory about music being a universal language, my clip today is a classic from that revered Catalán singer, Joan Manuel Serrat. Whilst going through some of my previous posts recently - yes, I do that every now and then so as to avoid repetition - I was struck by my sheer hypocrisy. There I was, a few weeks ago, ranting and raving against the classics' dictator and his monoculture, and yet, I am also guilty of contributing to that phenomenon. Most of the clips I upload on this blog are in English. I know why, of course. My blog is in English, most of the readers are English-speakers (in fact, bar a couple of them now, most fellow Cubans have deserted me, [sobs]) and I live in an English-speaking country. But still, I think my little Iberoamerican corner should be promoted more. That's why, in order to redress this imbalance and after seriously berating myself, I will be posting music in Spanish and Portuguese more often. I hope you will still enjoy it and more importantly, understand it. Although, taking into account the song below, that will sometimes be a hard task even for Spanish speakers.

'El Romance de Curro "El Palmo"' deals with the eternal topic of unrequited love but in this case the ending is quite sad and tragic. Curro, a fake Gypsy, loves Merceditas, who works as a cloakroom assistant. The latter elopes with a doctor and Curro dies of love. Quite simple, really. But if there's an aspect of Serrat's songbook and poetry on which we, fans, can always count is the lack of simplicity in his melodies. His songs are powerful vehicles that travel the whole gamut of human experience, from sheer regional patriotism (cor, the guy was born in Barcelona, you don't get any more patriotic than that, all right, then, since you insist, Basques, too, have that local pride embedded in their DNA) to sublime romanticism ('Penélope' and 'Lucía' come to mind). So, 'Romance...' goes beyond the traditional tale of unreturned passion and delivers an emotional, poetic narrative, teeming with themes such as: class, deceit, manhood ('Y Curro se muerde/los labios y calla/pues no hizo la mili/por no dar la talla') and the afterlife. For Spanish speakers, who, as I was, are at a loss over some of the terms Serrat uses in the song, find below a little glossary for you. And I hope you enjoy the clip. Many thanks.

Pegarse el piro: To leave, to escape.
Marcial Lafuente Estefanía: Prolific writer of cheap western novels.
Cura- pupas: Doctor.
Palmar o palmarla: To die, in this case 'Curro fue palmando', Curro was dying.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'El Último Trago'(Review), to be published on Wednesday 23rd December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 17 December 2009

La Historia Oficial (The Official Story) - Review

According to accounts by eyewitnesses of the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated the coastline of eleven countries and killed hundreds of thousands of people in 2004, there was a moment of dead calm before the final strike by the waves. This interlude was characterised by an almost total withdrawal of the sea from the coast encouraging those of a curious disposition to explore the exposed beach. As we all now know this peculiar sight is misleading, for the sea will come back much stronger giving those intrepid explorers no time to escape.

It is a similar situation we come across when dictatorships are toppled and genocidal regimes come to an end. There is a moment of initial euphoria and optimism - the equivalent to the receding sea - followed by a realisation of the scale of the horror that has been inflicted on the country in question. This is akin to the onrushing, gigantic waves travelling inland at great speed.

The Argentinian dictatorship known as 'La última Junta Militar (the last Military Junta)' was one of those cases. It capitalised on the squabbling of different political factions in the wake of Perón's death and seized power in 1976. 'La Historia Oficial (The Official History' deals with the return of democracy to that South American country and the aftermath of the seven years of 'The Dirty War'. To the sight of grieving families marching in the streets of Buenos Aires demanding justice for their missing relatives, another lesser known, but not less shocking, horror was added: that of the children of these 'desaparecidos' and their consequent fate. Their offspring ended up being adopted by many of the junta-favoured families and by the 'milicos' (military) themselves.

'La Historia Oficial' deals with this issue. Alicia is a middle-class, college - high school - teacher, married to a wealthy businessman and lawyer. Because of Alicia's infecundity, she and her husband adopt a little girl (Gaby) who turns five just as the first scenes of the movie begin to unfold. On the surface, Alicia's life is a fulfilling one: she has a good paid job, her marriage is solid and she has a close circle of friends who belong to her same socioeconomic stratum. Like many of her compatriots, Alicia is unaware of the horrors visited on a large part of the population by the junta. Slowly, though, the truth starts to unveil itself and before long doubts seep in. First off, we see her holding forth with her students on the issue of up to what extent the government is trying to re-write the history of torture and rape that has just plagued their country. Next, it is her friend Ana (clip below, and please, hankies at the ready) who contributes to her 'enlightening'. Ana has just come back from exile and the revelations she confides to Alicia are very far from the rosy pink view her friend has come to embrace. Finally, it is Alicia's chance encounter with a grandmother who is trying to track her daughter's child that becomes the final nail in the coffin of her confusion. It is possibly one of the most harrowing moments in the film. Alicia realises that her husband was involved in the government's 'Dirty War' and that he also cashed in on deals made with the ruling dictatorship. He also knows the horrid story behind Gaby's adoption. Alicia presses her husband on these issues but he tells her to forget about everything and to look to the future.

Although 'La Historia Oficial' focuses on a period that affected specifically Argentina and Argentinians and which left scars that have taken many years to cure (if they ever have), the over-arching topic is universal: that of memory and forgetfulness. From South Africa to Kosovo, the world has had its fair share of dictatorships and brutal regimes. What to do when peace is achieved and democracy is ushered in? Should we prosecute the culprits? Or should we attempt to wipe the slate clean and begin anew? The film also addresses complacency and political apathy, especially in Alicia's decision to play 'See no evil/Hear no evil' whilst the cries of justice for the thousands of 'disappeared' go unheard.

The plot is strong but it is the performances that really stand out, more remarkably Norma Aleandro as Alicia Marnet de Ibáñez. In a case of life imitating art, Norma herself was exiled during the dictatorship years. Asked once about her role as Alicia, the Argentinian actress said that her character's search for the truth reflected her country embarking on the same enterprise. The chamaleonic Héctor Alterio as Roberto Ibáñez gives one of those controlled, self-composed performances that stays on your mind long after the film has finished. Especially in the closing scene when, as Alicia insists on finding their daughter's real parents, he snaps and his façade of serious businessman crumbles to the ground.

Having already seen this movie three times before I was more focused on the adoption issue this time around. Especially in the wake of reports in the Argentinian press of cases of young people whose parents were amongst the thousands killed by the junta and who have recently found out that they were handed over to military families as babies. Adoption at the best of times is a very delicate topic that has been sadly triviliased by the likes of Madonna and Brangelina (that's Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for you, in case you don't know your celebrity slang). At the worst of times, it is a very emotionally disturbing experience that leaves deep scars on those affected by it. Although in 'La Historia Oficial', Roberto's hands get smeared with the colour of money rather than with the hue of blood, he is still an active accesory in the military machine. And the outcome, unfortunately, can be seen today in real life, in the several dozen Argentines who are trying to trace and match their DNA to parents they never knew. A social and political tsunami, indeed.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 20th December at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 15 December 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (15th and Final Part)

And after fifteen weeks of reading about, probing into and analysing that marvellous art we call writing, this is the final instalment of Zadie Smith's eye-opening and exquisite essay 'What Makes a Good Writer'. Once again, I would like to thank Ginny Hooker from The Guardian for making this text available to me and by extent to all my fellow bloggers, followers and writers who visit my cyber-house. I would also like to thank Garrincha for his commitment to provide the witty and humorous images accompanying each post. It's been a ball for me looking forward to his regular e-mails. And last but not least I would like to thank the British writer Zadie Smith herself without whose brilliant intellect this fifteen-part series would not have happened. Zadie has a new book out, a collection of critical texts called Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. I, for one, will be adding it to my amazon's wishlist very soon. And on the strength of the final part of her essay 'What Makes a Good Writer?' tonight, I would advise you to do the same. Many thanks. For parts 1-14, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. here, here, here and here.

In conclusion I have tried to make a case for the special role of writer-critics, as it is in my interest to do. There is a suspicion that writers who become critics retain too much of the sentiment and mysticism of their craft to be capable of real critical thought - maybe I am evidence of that. But Roland Barthes is a good exception to that rule. He had both a sensuous understanding of the creative artist and an unimpeachable critical skill. Most of all, he understood that the critic's job is a non-cynical truth-seeking exercise, deeply connected to the critic's own beliefs, values and failures. "Each critic," he says, "chooses his necessary language, in accordance with a certain existential pattern, as the means of exercising an intellectual function which is his, and his alone . . . he puts into the operation his 'deepest self', that is, his preferences, pleasures, resistances, and obsessions." That's what I want to hear and feel from critics and readers, this deepest self . Maybe we have to get out of the academy and away from the newspapers and back into our reading chairs to regain access to this feeling. Listen to Virginia Woolf, my favourite writer-critic, speaking of the experience of evaluating fiction from the comfort of her reading-chair: 'It is difficult to say, "Not only is this book of this sort, but it is of this value, here it fails, here it succeeds, this is bad, that is good". To carry out this part of a reader's duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive of any one mind sufficiently endowed, impossible for the most self- confident to find more than the seeds of such flowers in himself . . . [Yet] even if the results are abhorrent and our judgements are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant. We learn through feeling we cannot suppress, our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.'

Writers learn through feeling, too, and the novels we love exercise our sensibilities: they educate and complicate those parts of us that feel. This is what separates them from philosophical treatises or laws or newspapers. The Trial , a novel about justice, works upon us in a fundamentally different manner than John Rawls's essay "A Theory of Justice", or Judge Judy shouting at us about justice through the television. The Trial properly translates as The Process , and reading it and all novels is a process like no other. Both the writer and the reader must undergo an ethical expansion - allow me to call it an expansion of the heart - in order to comprehend the human otherness that fiction confronts them with. Both fail in varied, fascinating ways to complete this action as ideally as it might be completed. But if it were ideal, if the translation from brain to page were perfect, then of course all idiosyncrasy, as Woolf suggests, would indeed be impoverished: the novel would not exist at all. There would be no act of communication, no process, no gift - we would simply be speaking to ourselves. Fail better.

What a strange business we are in, we writers, we critics, we readers! Writing failures, reading failures, studying failures, reviewing them. Imagine a science institute that spent its time on the inventions that never actually do what they say on the tin, like diet pills, or hair restorers or Icarus's wings. Yet it is literature in its imperfect aspect that I find most beautiful and most human. That writing and reading should be such difficult arts reminds us of how frequently our own subjectivity fails us. We do not know people as we think we know them. The world is not only as we say it is. "Without failure, no ethics," said Simone de Beauvoir. And I believe that.
Copyright 2009

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here

Next Post: 'La Historia Oficial/The Official History' (Review), to be published on Thursday 17th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 13 December 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

There is a gigantic Zoo in London that is made up of roughly 270-odd cages. This humongous enclosure covers a large part of Greater London and the neighbouring areas of Hertfordshire, Essex and Buckinghamshire. Every day different specimens prance, roar, squint, fight and sprint in its subterranean coops. Some of the most interesting social interactions I have seen in the animal kingdom have taken place in this den.

Of course, I am referring to the London Underground and its escalators system.

As an ex-commuter I sometimes miss the good old Tube's moving staircase. Call me a masochist, but I have a soft spot for that up and down motor-driven movement. And what really sets my nostalgic pulse racing is the remembrance of the various breeds I came across during those years when I regularly joined the zoological brigade each morning and afternoon during the rush-hour.

Exhibit A is the Hippopotamus Verticalus, a territorial bull of an animal. The hippopotamus is largely harmless when stationary, i.e., standing on the right side of the escalator as all signs indicate. But mention rush-hour and you will see him/her stampeding down the transport device. Pity the person who gets caught in that charge. They will be dragged down mercilessly and without so much as an apology to compensate for the onslaught.

Another specimen notable for its ubiquity is the Vulpes Stǣger ēlectricus, commonly known as 'escalator fox'. This creature, and this applies to both male and female, has some remarkable characteristics such as an endless flirtatious nature. Commonly found on the right side of the moving staircases watching the people going in the opposite direction and fixing their vulpine eyes on them, the escalator fox is the chief contributor to the formation and disintegration of many a platonic relationship. Life span of the aforementioned affair? The couple of minutes it takes you to go up or down the escalator.

The last species I will be describing in today's post is the one to which I belong, the Suricata Observatorus, commonly known as 'Underground Meerkat'. Unlike our cousins in the Kalahari Desert in Bostwana, and in South Africa we don't hang around together, so, please, don't call us 'mob' or 'clan'. What we do do is observe. We love watching people, their quirks and mannerisms and then we write about them on our blogs. The Underground Meerkat has a creative and inquisitive nature, which, alas, sometimes gets them into trouble. Have you ever tried to explain to a bloke that you were not ogling his 'bird', but merely participating in a very human exercise called 'sentry role-play'? Minus the barking sound. We all need to stop somewhere.

These are but three of the many creatures commonly found on the escalators of the London Underground; after all, it is a big Zoo. Lack of space and time means that I have had to exclude some other interesting specimens. For instance, the Loxodonta Passager is similar to the Hippoppotamus but with a better memory. If they feel wronged by you, he/she will remember whereabouts on the escalator you were exactly when the alleged incident took place. And next time you're on the electric device with them, they will remind you. With devastating consequences. The Acinonyx jubatus subterrāneus is the only traveller capable of running up or down the motor-driven device without causing any havoc whatsoever. All you feel is a gust of wind between your legs and the signs of footprints where his/her shoes trod momentarily before. Since his/her speed can reach up to 75 mph, nobody has ever been able to describe one in detail.

This post only concerns itself with the specimens using the London Underground's escalator system. In future columns I will write about the other urban species who populate the platforms and the trains.

As much as I hate to admit it I love the new McDonald's ad. It's one of those guilty pleasures that has been preying on my mind for the last few weeks and to which I have to own up now. The reason for my feeling so ashamed is that I stopped going to the fast-food restaurant many years ago. I remember distinctly when, it was a Sunday and Chelsea had just trashed Spurs 4-0 for the second time that week. My wife, my son and my newborn baby daughter were in the car having some burgers and chips - well not my daughter, obviously. Then my son said: 'I love coming to McDonald's, they always give you a toy'. My wife and I looked at each other only once and we both knew what the other one was thinking. We never crossed the golden arches again.

But now it's different. The new McDonald's ad, with its Rolf Harriesque approach (it's based on a piece by him and Rolf himself gave his approval for his poem to be used), is a work of genius. Bouncy, buoyant and breezy, it is the epitome of British urban cool. The photography is amazing, especially when one takes into account the drabness of McDonald's colours. Another reason for me to be embarrassed is that up to now I have been very snotty when it comes to advertising on telly and if a commercial doesn't look or feel like one of Guinness's promotion clips, I'm not interested. And this comes from a teetotal. But I would willingly forsake my self-imposed exile from the land of alcohol to just sip on a cold Guinness if that implied getting closer to the horses riding on the crest of waves (and the Moby Dick motif), the elderly swimmer and the snail race (shot in Cuba, apparently, correct me if I'm wrong, please).

However, that McDonald's ad is a serious contender for promotion clip of the year. Even if I will still stick to Ed's Easy Diners and Gourmet Burger for a long time to come.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 15th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 10 December 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Linguistic Ruse)

- ¡Quiero que mi hermana salga de mi cuarto ahora mismo! I want my sister to leave my room right now!

I was more surprised by Son's correct use of the subjunctive mood of the verb 'salir' (to leave) than by the actual message he was conveying. After all, even though he and Daughter get on very well, they have been known to have the odd squabble now and then. But what was happening now and has been, in fact, occurring in the last couple of years is worth seeing as an exercise in parental control... by the children.

Whereas both Daughter and Son's Spanish accents are as neutral as they can be due to the lack of surrounding Hispanic speech patterns, that has never affected their fluency. Grammar is still wanting sometimes but overall their linguistic skills are excellent. A plus, or drawback - whichever way you choose to see it - is that they are not exposed to insults in my mother tongue. And I mean the benign ones, the equivalent to 'Damn!' in English. This brings a mix of comfort and displeasure at the same time as, on the one hand I will be very unlikely to ever become the object of their adolescent linguistic wrath (I will leave that to Wife), but on the other hand I will probably miss a '¡Coño!' or '¡Carajo!' said with vim (by the way there's a bar called 'Carajo' in Vitoria, in the Basque Country, needless to say it cracked me up the first time I heard of it). I know that those parents who already have problems with their teenage children will tell me that I will come to rue that fantasy but when you live in a foreign land even the sound of a 'palabra fea' ('ugly word', as my late Gran used to called them) in your native tongue coming out of your children's mouths is enough to make your day.

There are promising signs on the horizon, though, that this situation will change soon. As I explained at the beginning of this post I have noticed a tendency in the last two years, especially in Son, to tailor his Spanish in a way that it will attract my attention. His arguments with his sister still take place in English, but when I step in to calm down the storm, and demand both versions of the story, his replies are grammatically correct and semantically sound. This has led to his younger sibling raising her game and now Daughter has the most amazing rows with me using language that I'm sure she has been discovering on her own (visions of her with a torch on in her bedrooom at 2am raiding her English-Spanish dictionary for 'unusual' terms she could bring up in an altercation with me look very plausible).

When we go to Cuba or Spain both Son and Daughter speak in English to each other. But the other day I was downstairs sorting out the clothes to iron when I heard Son utter a word in Spanish to his sister. I stopped what I was doing and yes, they were having a conversation, if somewhat basic (something to do with school) in Spanish. And would you believe it? Neither a squabble, nor an 'ugly word' in sight. Marvellous.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 13th December at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 8 December 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (14th Part)

Can writers ever fail themselves, or do they just disappoint readers? Zadie Smith again posing difficult questions this week. For parts 1-13, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. here, here and here.

Imagining better readers, better writers

But if the real duty of writers is to themselves, how can they ever fail? Are we advocating a new "nice" criticism, where all writers get off the hook just because they tried hard, were in good faith? No. What I am imagining is, I hope, a far more thorough reader. My reader holds writers to the same account as the rest of us, my reader does not allow writers to transcend the bounds of the human, because my reader recognises that writers exist like the rest of us, as ethical individuals moving through the world. One critic-practitioner, Iris Murdoch, understood this well. She insisted on the idea that art-making was a test not only of a skill, but of one's entire personality. Here she is making a high-wire connection between what it takes to make good art and what it takes to live well: 'The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one . . .' This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. For a writer, that's a fascinating, terrifying idea. What if the personal qualities we need to recognise the Good in life do indeed bear some resemblance to the literary tools we need to write well? It is, Murdoch once said, incredibly hard to make oneself believe that other people really exist in the same way that we do ourselves. It is the great challenge of art to convince ourselves of this fundamental truth - but it's also the challenge of our lives.

Writers, just like everyone, are prone to the belief that all the world's a movie, in which they are the star, and all the other people, merely extras, lingering on set. To live well, to write well, you must convince yourself of the inviolable reality of other people. I believe that, and I believe further that this relationship can be traced at every level - a sentence can be self-deluded, can show an ulterior motive, can try too hard to please, can lie, can be blind to anything outside itself, can believe itself to be of the utmost importance. To see things as they really are . . . to me this is always and everywhere, in writing, in life, a matter of morals. But that's just me. I'm sure there are many other, more radical ways to trace the relationship between our experiences and the demands that narrative makes on us as many ways as there are shapes of narrative. Wouldn't this be an interesting project for a new generation of critics to undertake? Every critic is an artist in this fantasy literary republic I'm envisioning, every critic is doing as much imaginative work as the novelist, probably more. A great critic is, in the end, imagining the novelist . He is piecing together, retroactively, the beliefs and obsessions and commitments that powered the novel into existence in the first place. And as he does so he reveals his own beliefs, obsessions, commitments. He speaks the truth about an individual experience with a novel.

I have said that when I open a book I feel the shape of another human being's brain. To me, Nabokov's brain is shaped like a helter-skelter. George Eliot's is like one of those pans for sifting gold. Austen's resembles one of the glass flowers you find in Harvard's Natural History Museum. Each has strengths and weaknesses, as I apply them to the test of my own sensibility. I can slide down Nabokov, but not slowly, and not fully under my own control. I can find what's precious with Eliot, but only hidden among mundane grey stones of some weight. Austen makes me alive to the Beautiful and the Proportional, but the final result has no scent and is cold to the touch.This is my private language for a private understanding. It is the critic's job to formulate a public language that comes close to their own private understanding, and which, if it is acute enough, will find its companions in a community of like-minded readers. And if you read with the wideness and flexibility Murdoch describes, with as little personal fantasy and delusion as possible, you will find fiction opening up before you. To read The Virgin Suicides followed by The Idiot followed by Despair followed by You Bright and Risen Angels followed by Bleak House followed by Jonah's Gourd Vine followed by Play it as it Lays is to be forced to recognise the inviolability of the individual human experience. Fiction confronts you with the awesome fact that you are not the only real thing in this world.

Copyright 2009

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 10th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 6 December 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I have never read a novel by Philip Roth. I recently opened the first page of Joyce's 'Ulysses' and closed it again. It can wait. Especially when the introduction runs almost as long as Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'. I have yet to read Don DeLillo's 'Underworld' despite many people's claim that it contains one of the best baseball scenes ever written, and I am a fan of that sport. In my early twenties I opened and closed in succession, without reading, the following 'masterpieces': 'La Casa de los Espíritus', 'Steppenwolf', 'Death in Venice' and 'Cien Años de Soledad' (since then opened, read and closed but not liked).

In the meantime, though, I have devoured almost all of Milan Kundera's novels, become acquainted with and enamoured of Margaret Atwood's oeuvre, delighted in Salman Rushdie's fiction and become a fan of Zadie Smith's novels and essays.

So, when my Literary Judgement Day arrives what will I declare? What will my excuse be for not liking 'Don Quijote de la Mancha'?

I'm only asking because it seems to me that ever since papyrus was first used during the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt, there has been a need to have a 'must-read' canon to which we, avid bookworms, must kowtow if we want to be accepted in the lap of literature's gods. This attitude, which I shall call 'the dictatorship of the classics' does not take into account human life span, basic needs or cultures. No, the classics' tyrant's only concern is what he/she calls good literature and our incessant pursuit of it.

And what is good literature? By no means I am attempting to replicate Zadie Smith's magnificent fifteen-part essay which I have been uploading on this blog weekly since September and whose latest instalment focused on the 'corrective critic'. But the question of what good literature is has been roaming my mind since many years ago an acquaintance of mine said to me with a frown on his face and a scold in his voice: 'I can't believe you have not read (insert famous novel title here) yet! But you like reading so much, I always see you with a book. You are so eloquent and passionate about literature. I would have thought you already had (novel title again) under your belt.'

Well, for starters I don't wear a belt most of the time. But what most intrigued me and, I confess, annoyed me from my acquaintance's tirade was the surprise on his face that I had not read this 'classic'.

I don't know about your reading habits, my fellow bloggers and readers, but mine are as follows. I have always had a list of books I wish to read out of pure enjoyment, regardless of their literary merits or lack of them thereof. But sometimes, even if I like the author and I am familiar with his/her work, I hesitate before delving into the narrative they offer me. This uncertainty is mainly based on circumstances rather than volition. The will is there, but the spark is missing. The opening sentence is not enough bait for me to swallow the hook. There are exceptions, though. I started twice and put down the same number of times two Toni Morrison's novels: 'Beloved' and 'Jazz'. The third time around I stuck with them - on separate occasions, mind - and I was rewarded with two magnificent literary behemoths, which I am planning to re-read very soon. But my habits, on the whole, remain the same. I am attracted to a book, be it a novel, essay or poetry collection, for its (potential) literary merit rather than its cultural impact. That the two of them coincide oftentimes these days is more down to the fact that I have fine-tuned my search for good books in the last fifteen years and become choosier.

And economics plays an essential role in that decision. I referred to three elements that 'classics tyrants' overlook when it comes to evaluating a work of art: the length of human life, basic needs and culture. Let's examine each of those aspects separately.

From an early age you will be exposed to a lot of reading material. And bar the small fact that your parents or carers will choose the books they'll read to you when you're little, you will be free most of your teenage, young adult and mature life to pick out which novel or poetry collection you want to read. Assuming that you're not a book reviewer - minority -, your main incentive for reading will be to enjoy the work in front of you. And that's without taking into account the literature you will have to read through your student's years or as part of your job. That means that a novel like 'War and Peace' might not be as appealing as, say, a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The seven volumes that make up 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu' will look like a waste of time and money when you realise that it will not take you as long to read Nadime Gordimer's entire catalogue and still have time to enjoy 'Telling Tales', an excellent compilation of short works by some of the foremost authors nowadays edited by the South African writer; I strongly recommend it. But the classics' dictator will have none of it. To him/her (although it's more 'him' than 'her' if truth be told, so I will start using the masculine from now on), to this person, Proust is the apogee of good literary taste. His is the most beautiful type of literature there is and the fact that not many people can 'get' him is evidence of the critic's own infallible ability to judge what's good and what isn't. Some people call this attitude snobbery. I have a stronger word for it which I won't use because I don't like gratuitous swearing on my blog. My conclusion is, though, life's too short, read what you want without feeling you 'must' digest this or that novel because it's a classic.

Basic needs are better expressed through the current economic downturn, a fine euphemism for a financial crisis if ever I saw one. With unemployment and inflation rising, the time and resources for meandering through aisles of old tomes that call out for our attention are diminishing. The dilemma worrying many people at the moment is how to survive in the midst of this credit crunch and that's why the market is awash with escapist novels and what I call crap lit. This is the type of book that Borders (alas, in receivership now) and Waterstones advertise in their 3 for 2 deals. It's probably why the Katie Prices of this world have supplanted the J. M. Coetzees. And although I also stick my snobbish nose up at the former, this phenomenon has a logical genesis. You think of putting food on the table first and then indulge in your favourite pastime afterwards. But to the classics' inquisitor this shift of loyalties is akin to the original sin, without the snake, mind. My verdict on this aspect is that as much as I love books, I need to look after my family first and foremost, and you can burn me at the stake if you want, Mr Despot.

And so we come to the cultural element which I have left for the end because it's always been a bugbear of mine. So, if you notice an axe being swung it's because I have one to grind.

It's logical that in an English-speaking country most literature will be read in that language. The same goes for Spanish or Chinese. It's not surprising that when people are asked to list their favourite novels or poems, the majority will be works in their own lexicon. It is also reasonable to suppose that we tend to think of many of the books we hold dear as the centre of the universe, what my acquaintance referred to as the 'I-can't-believe-you-haven't-read-that' type of literature. After all, some of us are miniature dictators ourselves.

But when the classics' autocrat gets up on his High Chair to list the 100 Best Novels of all time, or nominate the greatest poem of the 20th century, my ears always prick up and my eyes open wide. I'm usually interested in who makes the cut and who is left out. That's also the moment when my cynicism sets deeper in. Because no matter how broad the scope is, the majority of the works enumerated will be usually European and more specifically in English. And that cuts across the board. Whether you're talking about visual arts, theatre or cinema, the bulk of any 'Best...' list will have at the very least an Anglophone undertone. This is not to detract from the very good art that has been produced in North America and Europe, especially Britain, for many centuries. But it is rather disheartening for anyone who, like me, has been exposed to equally brilliant art from an early age in his/her country of origin, regardless of economic outlook.

My first reaction to Stephen Moss's article on TS Elliot (link above) was to write to The Guardian to let him know the names of five poets from Iberoamerica from whose body of work I could select any poem that could very easily compete with TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' to win the title of 'greatest poem of the 20th century'. They were: Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Julia de Burgos and Mario Benedetti. If you know your Hispanic poetry you will be aware that I did not include any Cuban poets in that list; I did not want to be accused of jingoism. But on second thoughts I decided against writing the letter because it would have been futile. The classics' dictator has two major shortcomings: monoculture and monolanguage. The landscape in which this literary Stalin lives is monochromatic. He doesn't read Alfonsina Storni's 'Voy a Dormir', not because he doesn't like her but because he doesn't know who she was. This authoritarian ignoramus lives in a secluded intellectual island beyond whose shores he will rarely venture. The thought of learning another language in order to delve into a different culture terrifies him. But this deficiency will not stop him from deciding which writers have the qualities that define good literature.

When non-English speaking writers do make it to the aforementioned lists, it is because they are read in translation, with the usual suspects - at least from my neck of the woods - being showered with all kind of compliments: Gabo, Isabel and Borges. This hurts because the plethora of good writers in the Spanish-speaking world who gets left out is mindblowing. Julio Cortázar's 'Rayuela' is a Latin American classic, paving, as it did, the way for other similarly innovative writers such as the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante whose 'Tres Tristes Tigres' I devoured earlier this year and it's shaping up to be my Book of the Year. Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez) drew heavily from another compatriot of mine, late writer Alejo Carpentier, to become the doyen of the so-called 'magical realism' genre, however it was the islander who first coined the phrase 'lo real maravilloso (the wonderful reality)' in the prologue of his trail-blazing novel 'El Reino de Este Mundo'.

And it wouldn't matter really, whether these non-English speaking writers were acknowledged or not by an Anglo-Saxon public, because they have already earned their kudos in Iberoamerica. But since it is the Germanic lexicon in which the worldwide literary market chiefly operates, non-recognition equals to small or zero sales, so it does matter in the end. As the Indian author Pankaj Mishra pointed out recently in The Guardian Saturday Review, if you want to be published abroad you have to conform to the stereotypical views many readers have of a particular writer's nation. For Cuban authors, it is 'steamy sex or salsa' or nada at the till. This situation results in a Catch-22 for the writer who has to resort to formulas in order to sustain a living through writing. Which in effect is convenient cannon fodder for the classics' tyrant in order to back up his claim of what he believes to be good literature.

I apologise if I have stepped on some toes today. After all most of the people who visit and comment on this blog are English-speakers. So for the record, this is not a diatribe against the Anglo world or European culture at all - good Lord, probably Nigerian or Jamaican writers are in a similar situation - but against that prejudiced classics' dictator who would like nothing better than lock us up, rebel readers who dare to read for pleasure, in a type of Konzentrationslager, where our hours would be devoted to analysing the symbolism of TS Elliot's second chapter in 'The Waste Land': 'A Game of Chess'. Me? I'm off to read some Girondo.

Neither the second part of this post, nor the video that follows it are in any way related but I can understand it if people see a kind of segue in my decision to upload a Queen track after writing about Aids. After all, that was the disease that killed the British band's frontman, Freddie Mercury, eighteen years ago. However, it would be a fair comment to make that Mr Farrokh Bulsara was never in the same situation as thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people in countries such as Swaziland where the percentage of people affected by Aids/HIV is currently 26.1% for adults and 50% for adults in their 20s. Moreover, at their peak, the cost of one of Queen's (in)famous parties probably dwarfed Swaziland's annual per capita spending. That's why it's so inspiring for me to count amongst my cyber-acquaintances, Dr Maithri, an Australia-based doctor who has travelled to, stayed in and helped out in that African nation. Dr Maithri's blog, The Soaring Impulse, is a truly magical space where you can catch up with the latest news about Swaziland, read good poetry and even enjoy Maithri himself jamming with another fellow doctor (just go to his profile and click on the video link; I've already mentioned to him that should medicine ever fall by the wayside, he can always look forward to a lucrative singing career). It is to Dr Maithri and his colleagues to whom this second part of my reflections today is dedicated. Many thanks. And I hope you enjoy the Queen clip.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 8th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 3 December 2009

An Angel At My Table (Review)

If the discovery of certain creative skills sets many people on a collision course against conventional notions, then it should not come as a surprise that this is the same fate that awaits film-makers who dare to stray from the norm. In Jane Campion's 1990 sophomore cinematographic outing, 'An Angel at My Table', the opening shot is from the point of view of a newborn. We see a shadow, a shape, arms. There's no coherence or logic in the sequence, just as there's none in a baby's first days outside the womb. Suddenly we hear a female voice calling out: 'Come on, darling, come on!' The fact that this scene could well be the background to a horror film or a thriller, serves only to illustrate how effectively the New Zealander director taps into our innermost emotions. She literally steps back and allows the infant to take on the leading role. Next we see the baby-turned-toddler running through the grass with her brothers and sisters. Again, Jane remains on the periphery, the camera doing the talking.

'An Angel at My Table' narrates the story of the New Zealand author Janet Frame, based on her three-volume autobiography. Already at an early age, Janet displayed a precocious ability for language. However, her genius was never acknowledged properly when she was younger and as a consequence she spent the better part of a decade in mental hospitals due to a misdiagnosis. An emotional breakdown brought on by family bereavements led doctors to believe she was suffering from schizophrenia. The film charts several of Janet's stages through her prolific creative life: from her years living in small towns in Otago and Southland to her training as a teacher in Dunedin; from the publication of her first novel, 'Owls Do Cry', to her stay in London, where she wrote her next five novels.

Jane Campion's treatment of her subject matter is a classic example of cinema as a medium on which to explore the human psyche. And the fact that she met the reclusive author before the cameras began to roll makes the cinematic experience all the more rewarding for the viewer. Here's a female director who deeply cares for the human being behind the writer. The evidence is everywhere: scenes whose framing is not constrained by time or space, as in Janet's stay in Spain and her subsequent love affair with another writer; Frame's face when she is hospitalised for the first time at a mental institution, initially showing resignation and later refusal. This is an open-ended film with many shades of grey. And above all, life flows through it. This is a very organic movie in which Campion addresses Janet's insecurities: her teeth, her red hair, her clothes. At times it feels as if she is criticising the positions of female artists in society.

But all of the above would have been nigh impossible without the exellent performance by Kerry Fox. In what was her big screen debut, Kerry totally made hers the role of Janet Frame. Each smile, each vacant and distant gaze in the faraway horizon, each mannerism was a masterful display of thespian superbness. Unsurprisingly she is reunited with Jane Campion in the latter's most recent feature, 'Bright Star'.

Although I first saw this movie in 1994 (or was it '95?) at the Havana Latin American Film Festival, I was recently reminded of it by Willow, from Life at Willow Manor and rented it straight away from LoveFilm. This new company is a very good and cheap option for residents in the UK who are interested in non-mainstream movies and are fed-up with what the local Blockbusters video shop has to offer. Many thanks.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 6th December at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 1 December 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (13th Part)

I think this is definitely one of my favourite parts by far. For parts 1-12, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. here and here.

Corrective criticism, AKA failing to be the sort of thing I rather like

Far from the system critic there is another critic, let's call him the corrective critic, who prides himself on belonging to no school, who feels he knows his own mind. He is essentially meritocratic, interested only in what is good, and good for all time. If a reputation is artificially inflated he will deflate it if another is unrecognised he will be its champion, regardless of fashion. He is not, as Kingsley Amis once accused his son of being, a leaf in the wind of trend. His criticism is the expression of personal taste and personal belief - the most beautiful kind of criticism, in my opinion. But there is something odd here: he fears that his personal taste is not sufficient. It is not enough for him to say, as the novelist has, this is what I love, this what I believe. He must also make his taste a general law. It is his way or the highway. To understand the problem with corrective criticism, we have to return more fully to the idea of a writer's duty. I said earlier that it was each writer's duty to tell the truth of their conception of the world. It follows that each writer's duty is different, for their independent visions must necessarily each have a different emphasis, a different urgency. In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James, while discussing religious subjectivity, gives a piece of advice the corrective critic would do well to heed: Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner. One of us must soften himself, another must harden himself one must yield a point, another must stand firm, - in order the better to defend the position assigned him. If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.

This is really a posh way of saying different strokes for different folks, a simple enough truth and yet one the corrective critic refuses to recognise. He has decided there is only one worthy mission in literature. It is a fortunate coincidence that it happens to coincide with his own prejudices and preferences. The pointlessness of penalising Bret Easton Ellis for failing to be Philip Roth, or giving Thomas Bernhard a rap on the knuckles for failing to be Alice Munro, does not occur to him. All he sees are writers who lack the qualities he has decided are the definition of good literature. But while it may be true that Douglas Coupland understands little of the pastoral, Coupland understands the outlines of a cubicle perfectly, and his failure to comprehend the first is his illumination of the second. And although it's certainly the case that Philip Larkin was incompetent when it came to the idea of women, it happens that women were not his business - his business was death.

If the corrective critic were not so intent upon looking for one quality through it all he would notice that these apparent lacks are also aspects of each writer's strength - but he seeks the sentence of literature, not the syllables. Committed to his theory, he defines his theory as"literature" itself, recasting his own failure of imagination as a principle of aesthetics. And while there is nothing wrong with believing in a certain quality in novels over any other quality, it is vitally important that one recognise one's own beliefs. The corrective critic is like one of William James's cocky atheists, believing everything else is subjective belief except his own objective atheism. It is important that we recognise, for example, that the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani fundamentally does not believe the world to be as David Foster Wallace believes it to be. That's what Wallace Stegner meant when he called the novel the "dramatisation of belief". And a response to a novel, a piece of literary criticism, is also a dramatisation of belief. We are honest about our literary tastes when we recognise that if a piece of fiction appears to fails us, if we reject it, part of what we are rejecting is what that fiction believes.

Copyright 2009

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here

Next Post: 'An Angel At My Table (Review)', to be published on Thursday 3rd December at 11:59pm (GMT)


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