Saturday 31 December 2011

My Highlights of 2011

As another year comes to an end, I would like to bring to the attention of my readers and fellow bloggers the books, films, music and dance pieces that made me go "Wow!" in the last twelve months. Difficult task it is, though, as I was exposed to so much quality in 2011. I hope you enjoy my selections. Happy New Year everybody!


Andrea Levy's The Long Song is one of those novels that manages to be both entertaining and clever, rooting the story it tells on so many facts that at times it feels like a documentary. Whether as part of your (expanding) bookshelf, or as a gift for your literature-loving friends, this is a must-read.

Virgilio Piñera's Complete Plays took me down memory lane to a place where I came across my adolescent self face to face once again. What made me fall at that young age for this (supposedly) snobbish, no-nonsense, Cuban intellectual who did not suffer fools gladly, and yet always had a kind word for up-and-coming authors? I don't know but, his love for language, his fearlessness when writing, his endless creativity and the fact that he exuded Cubanness whenever he put pen to paper, are elements that must have contributed to that.

A lot has been said about James Joyce's Ulysses. It's the novel that everyone talks about but whose plot people rarely discuss. That's because there's no plot per se. The book centres on one day in the life of both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Above all, for me Ulysses is a very sensorial novel. We not only watch the main characters eating, brawling and (in Bloom's case) engaging in sexual acts, but we feel them, too. In a previous post I questioned Joyce's pole-high position as the pinnacle of modernism. At the time I had not read Ulysses, but now that I have I can tell you all that the hype is justified.

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine is the type of book I wish it'd been fiction. But no, it's a very real piece of non-fiction. Which makes it the scariest piece I've read for a long time. Naomi carries out a thorough analysis of the economic ideas sponsored by the Chicago School under Milton Friedman's tutelage and traces their links with oppressive regimes across the globe.

Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness was the second book of short stories I bought by the Canadian writer and it like Open Secrets, it didn't disappoint me. She has a way of making the quotidian lives of citizens in and around Ontario extraordinary. But be careful, her fiction is brutal and takes no prisoners.


This was the year when I managed to have a proper taste of Anoushka Shankar's music. And what a treat it was! The two albums I bought, Breathing Under Water and Traveller have been playing on a loop at home, in the car and on my mp3. Breathing Under Water, where the star sitar-player teams up with percussionist Karsh Kale, is highly lyrical and rooted in Indian classical heritage.
Traveller brings the flamenco tradition back home (it has been widely acknowledged that flamenco has its origins in India) in an organic and fluent way.

The 1956 collaboration between the saxophonist Ben Webster and the piano prodigy Art Tatum, supported by Red Callender on bass and Bill Douglass on drums, was called simply The Legendary: the Album. Such a grandstanding title might attract accusations of hubris, yet each and every single note on the record is pitch perfect. If you like jazz, you must buy this album.

Three records later I consider myself a Concha Buika fan. Her voice should carry a health warning: "Quality on board! Consume carefully". This time around was "La Niña de Fuego" that got me. Concha possesses the type of vocal range that can soar or soothe, depending on its owner's will. Fabulous.

Calima Flamenca was my little surprise this year. They were the wild card about whom I knew very little, mainly through, and who ended up providing me with two of my favourite tunes of the year from their album Al Calor de la Noche.


I first saw Missing many years ago and watched it again recently with my wife, courtesy of Lovefilm. Against the backdrop of what's happened in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last ten years with British citizens being arrested and tortured abroad, the movie has a prescient feel. Jack Lemmon is mesmerising as the American, law-abiding, conservative father whose son is "disappeared" in an unnamed country in South America (but we all know it's Chile) and who is forced to acknowledge (with a little help from his daughter-in-law Sissy Spacek) the ugly truth about the US involvement in the dictatorships that sprung up in the 60s, 70s and 80s in the region.

There's not much beauty in Biutiful, by the acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. What there is, though, is a hell of a powerful script and a terrific performance by Javier Bardem as the heartless criminal who at the same time is concerned about the wellbeing of the illegal Chinese immigrants he himself exploits. Impartial and raw.

I had some misgivings about watching The King's Speech because of the buzz surrounding it. Plus, 2011 was the year when the monarchy got its mojo back. I, for one, neither Republican nor pro-Crown, didn't want to be a part of it. But The King's Speech is cinema at its best. No gimmicks, or CGI, just a plain, simple story, beautifully acted by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush (Helena Bonham Carter gets a look-in, but hers is a minor role) and capable of awakening feelings of mirth and commiseration.

The Secret in Their Eyes was the type of movie that reminded me of how good Argentinian cinema was. Ricardo Darín plays Benjamín Esposito, a retired legal counsellor, who wants to write a novel in an attempt to close a chapter of his life that remains unsolved. Throw in a psychopath, a dictatorship, a corrupt government official and an unfinished love affair and you have one of the better Latin American movies in recent times.

London River tells the story of Elisabeth (played by Brenda Blethyn) and Ousmane (played by Sotigui Kouyaté) whose offspring are killed in the terrorist attack on 7th July, 2005 in London. What starts as hatred, ignorance and racism is eventually transformed into understanding and sympathy. A movie I would watch again.


If with Into the Hoods, Katie Prince and ZooNation conquered the West End of London, with Some Like It Hip Hop she has elevated the urban dance form to new levels. Based loosely on Some Like Hot and Shakespeare's Twelth Night, Some Like It Hip Hop deals with mistaken identity, lost daughters and rulers in crisis. The acting is good, the story believable but the dancing, oh, my, oh, my! The dancing is out of this world. Enough to become my dance highlight of 2011.

What will 2012 have in store for me artistically speaking? I don't know but what I can assure is that the quality will be the same or higher. See you next year!

© 2011

Next Post: “From Here, There and Everywhere…”, to be published on 8th January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 25 December 2011

From Here, There and Everywhere...

This week I'm posting another article with which I fell in love the minute I read it. One of my favourite sections in The New Yorker is the "Shouts and Murmus" column. I love the quirky and warped humour in it. And I still have a hard copy of the text below which I reproduce here in its entirety. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Merry Christmas everybody!

God’s Blog-by Paul Simms

UPDATE: Pretty pleased with what I’ve come up with in just six days. Going to take tomorrow off. Feel free to check out what I’ve done so far. Suggestions and criticism (constructive, please!) more than welcome. God out.


Not sure who this is for. Seems like a fix for a problem that didn’t exist. Liked it better when the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.

Going carbon-based for the life-forms seems a tad obvious, no?

The creeping things that creepeth over the earth are gross.

Not enough action. Needs more conflict. Maybe put in a whole bunch more people, limit the resources, and see if we can get some fights going. Give them different skin colors so they can tell each other apart.

Disagree with the haters out there who have a problem with man having dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, the cattle of the earth, and so on. However, I do think it’s worth considering giving the fowl of the air dominion over the cattle of the earth, because it would be really funny to see, like, a wildebeest or whatever getting bossed around by a baby duck.

The “herb yielding seed” is a hella fresh move. 4:20!

Why are the creatures more or less symmetrical on a vertical axis but completely asymmetrical on a horizontal axis? It’s almost like You had a great idea but You didn’t have the balls to go all the way with it.

The dodo should just have a sign on him that says, “Please kill me.” Ridiculous.

Amoebas are too small to see. They should be at least the size of a plum.

Beta version was better. I thought the Adam-Steve dynamic was much more compelling than the Adam-Eve work-around You finally settled on.

I liked the old commenting format better, when you could get automatic alerts when someone replied to your comment. This new way, you have to click through three or four pages to see new comments, and they’re not even organized by threads. Until this is fixed, I’m afraid I won’t be checking in on Your creation.


One of them is going to eat something off that tree You told them not to touch.

Adam was obviously created somewhere else and then just put here. So, until I see some paperwork proving otherwise, I question the legitimacy of his dominion over any of this.

Why do they have to poop? Seems like there could have been a more elegant/family-friendly solution to the food-waste-disposal problem.

The lemon tree: very pretty. The lemon flower: sweet. But the fruit of the poor lemon? Impossible to eat. Is this a bug or a feature?

Unfocussed. Seems like a mishmash at best. You’ve got creatures that can speak but aren’t smart (parrots). Then, You’ve got creatures that are smart but can’t speak (dolphins, dogs, houseflies). Then, You’ve got man, who is smart and can speak but who can’t fly, breathe underwater, or unhinge his jaws to swallow large prey in one gulp. If it’s supposed to be chaos, then mission accomplished. But it seems more like laziness and bad planning.

If it’s not too late to make changes, in version 2.0 You should make water reflective, so the creatures have a way of seeing what they look like.

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Penguins are retarded. Their wings don’t work and their legs are too short. I guess they’re supposed to be cute in a “I liek to eat teh fishes” way, but it’s such obvious pandering to the lowest common denominator.

There’s imitation, and then there’s homage, and then there’s straight-up idea theft, which is what Your thing appears to be. Anyone who wants to check out the original should go to (And check it out soon, because I think they’re about to go behind a paywall.)

Putting boobs on the woman is sexist.

Wow. Just wow. I don’t even know where to start. So the man and his buddy the rib-thing have dominion over everything. They’re going to get pretty unbearable really fast. What You need to do is make them think that there were other, bigger, scarier creatures around a long time before them. I suggest dinosaurs. No need to actually create dinosaurs—just create some weird-ass dinosaur bones and skeletons and bury them in random locations. Man will dig them up eventually and think, What the f?

Epic fail.


Next Post: "My Highlights of 2011", to be published on Saturday 31st December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 18 December 2011

From Here, There and Everywhere...

As you know I'm having a well-deserved break but didn't fancy leaving the blog idle. Time off needn't necessarily translate as switched-off brain. This essay by the acclaimed Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, came out a couple of months ago and I knew then I had to share it with you all. Especially as I've somewhat gone off science fiction myself. Very interesting read. I look forward to your comments.

Recently I set out to explore my lifelong relationship with science fiction, both as reader and as writer. I say "lifelong", for among the first things I wrote as a child might well merit the initials SF. Like a great many children before and since, I was an inventor of other worlds. Mine were rudimentary, as such worlds are when you're six or seven or eight, but they were emphatically not of this here-and-now Earth, which seems to be one of the salient features of SF. I wasn't much interested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish. Our earliest loves, like revenants, have a way of coming back in other forms; or, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother to the woman. To date, I have written three full-length fictions that nobody would ever class as sociological realism: The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Are these books "science fiction", I am often asked. Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much "science fiction" as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much "science fiction" as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.

My desire to explore my relationship with the SF world, or worlds, has a proximate cause. In 2009, I published The Year of the Flood, the second work of fiction in a series exploring another kind of "other world" – our own planet in a future. The Year of the Flood was reviewed, along with its sibling, Oryx and Crake, by one of the reigning monarchs of the SF and fantasy forms, Ursula K Le Guin. Her 2009 review in this paper began with a paragraph that has caused a certain amount of uproar in the skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities – so much so that scarcely a Q&A session goes by at my public readings without someone asking, usually in injured tones, why I have forsworn the term science fiction. Here are Le Guin's uproar-causing sentences:

To my mind, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn't want any of her books to be called science fiction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can't be science fiction, which is "fiction in which things happen that are not possible today". This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names. What I mean by "science fiction" is those books that descend from HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, "speculative fiction" means plots that descend from Jules Verne's books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn't completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians. Not because I don't like Martians, I hasten to add; they just don't fall within my skill set. Any seriously intended Martian by me would be a very clumsy Martian indeed.

In a public discussion with Le Guin in the fall of 2010, however, I found that what she means by "science fiction" is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under "fantasy". Thus, for her – as for me – dragons would belong in fantasy, as would, I suppose, the film Star Wars and most of the TV series Star Trek. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein might squeeze into Le Guin's "science fiction" because its author had grounds for believing that electricity actually might be able to reanimate dead flesh. And The War of the Worlds? Since people thought at the time that intelligent beings might live on Mars, and since space travel was believed to be possible in the imaginable future, this book might have to be filed under Le Guin's "science fiction". Or parts of it might. In short, what Le Guin means by "science fiction" is what I mean by "speculative fiction", and what she means by "fantasy" would include some of what I mean by "science fiction". So that clears it all up, more or less. When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance.

Bendiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping, and inter-genre visiting has been going on in the SF world – loosely defined – for some time. For instance, in a 1989 essay called "Slipstream," the veteran SF author Bruce Sterling deplored the then-current state of science fiction and ticked off its writers and publishers for having turned it into a mere "category" – a "self-perpetuating commercial power-structure, which happens to be in possession of a traditional national territory: a portion of bookstore rack space"A "category", says Sterling, is distinct from a "genre", which is "a spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a coherent aesthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an ideology if you will".

Sterling defines his term slipstream – so named, I suppose, because it is seen as making use of the air currents created by science fiction proper – in this way: "I want to describe what seems to me to be a new, emergent 'genre', which has not yet become a 'category' … It is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a 'sense of wonder' or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late 20th century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility."

His proposed list of slipstream fictions covers an astonishing amount of ground, with works by a wide assortment of people, many of them considered to be "serious" authors – from Kathy Acker and Martin Amis to Salman Rushdie, José Saramago and Kurt Vonnegut. What they have in common is that the kinds of events they recount are unlikely to have actually taken place. In an earlier era, these "slipstream" books might all have been filed under the heading of "traveller's yarn" – Herodotus's accounts of monopods, for example, or medieval legends about unicorns, dragons and mermaids. Later they might have turned up in collections of the marvellous and uncanny, such as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or – even later – the kind of you-won't-believe-this hair-raiser to be found in assortments by MR James or H P Lovecraft or, occasionally, RL Stevenson.

But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, through a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science fiction, speculative fiction, sword-and-sorcery fantasy, and slipstream fiction: all of them might be placed under the same large "wonder tale" umbrella.

Ustopia is a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other. In addition to being, almost always, a mapped location, Ustopia is also a state of mind, as is every place in literature of whatever kind. As Mephistophilis tells us in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Hell is not only a physical space. "Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it," he says. "Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd / In one self place; but where we are is hell, / And where hell is, there must we ever be." Or, to cite a more positive version, from Milton's Paradise Lost: "then wilt thou not be loth / To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess / A Paradise within thee, happier far." In literature, every landscape is a state of mind, but every state of mind can also be portrayed by a landscape. And so it is with Ustopia.

How did I come to create my own Ustopias – these not-exactly places, which are anywhere but nowhere, and which are both mappable locations and states of mind? Why did I jump the tracks, as it were, from realistic novels to dystopias? Was I slumming, as some "literary" writers are accused of doing when they write science fiction or detective stories? The human heart is inscrutable, but let me try to remember what I thought I was up to at the time.

First, The Handmaid's Tale. What put it into my head to write such a book? I had never done anything like it before: my previous fiction had been realistic. Tackling a Ustopia was a risk. But it was also a challenge and a temptation, because if you've studied a form and read extensively in it, you often have a secret hankering to try it yourself. I began the book – after a few dry runs – in Berlin in the spring of 1984. I had a fellowship, in a programme run by West Berlin to encourage foreign artists to visit, as the city was at that time encircled by the Berlin Wall and its inhabitants felt understandably claustrophobic. During our stay we also visited East Berlin, as well as Poland and Czechoslovakia, and I thus had several first-hand experiences of the flavour of life in a totalitarian – but supposedly utopian – regime. I wrote more of the book once I was back in Toronto, and completed it in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the spring of 1985. Tuscaloosa provided another kind of flavour – that of a democracy, but one with quite a few constraining social customs and attitudes. ("Don't ride a bicycle," I was told. "They'll think you're a communist and run you off the road.")

The writing of The Handmaid's Tale gave me a strange feeling, like sliding on river ice – exhilarating but unbalancing. How thin is this ice? How far can I go? How much trouble am I in? What's down there if I fall? These were writerly questions, having to do with structure and execution and that biggest question of all, the one every writer asks him- or herself with every completed chapter: is anyone going to believe this? (I don't mean literal belief: fictions admit that they are invented, right on the cover. I mean, "find the story compelling and plausible enough to go along for the ride".)

These writerly questions were reflections of other, more general questions. How thin is the ice on which supposedly "liberated" modern western women stand? How far can they go? How much trouble are they in? What's down there if they fall? And further: if you were attempting a totalitarian takeover of the United States, how would you do it? What form would such a government assume, and what flag would it fly? How much social instability would it take before people renounced their hard-won civil liberties in a trade-off for "safety"? And, since most totalitarianisms we know about have attempted to control reproduction in one way or another – limiting births, demanding births, specifying who can marry whom and who owns the kids – how would that play out for women?

And what about the outfits? Ustopias are always interested in clothing – either less of it compared to what we wear now, or more of it. The clothing concerns usually centre on women: societies are always uncovering parts of women's bodies and then covering them up again. My rules for The Handmaid's Tale were simple: I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools. Even the group hangings had precedents: there were group hangings in earlier England, and there are still group stonings in some countries. Looking further back, the Maenads, during their Dionysian celebrations, were said to go into frenzies during which they dismembered people with their hands. (If everyone participates, no one individual is responsible.) For a literary precedent, one need search no further than Emile Zola's Germinal, which contains an episode in which the town's coal-mining women, who have been sexually exploited by the shopkeeper, tear him apart and parade his genitalia through town on a pole. A less raw but still shocking precedent is Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" (which I read as a teenager, shortly after it came out, and which made a chilling impression on me).

The coverups worn by the women in The Handmaid's Tale have been variously interpreted as Catholic (as in nuns) or Muslim (as in burqas). The truth is that these outfits are not aimed at any one religion. Their actual design was inspired by the figure on the Old Dutch Cleanser boxes of my childhood, but they are also simply old. Mid-Victorians, with their concealing bonnets and veils to keep strange men from leering at their faces, would not have found them so unusual.

I prefaced the novel with three quotations. The first is from the Bible, Genesis 30, the passage in which the two wives of Jacob use their female slaves as baby-producers for themselves. This ought to warn the reader against the dangers inherent in applying every word in that extremely varied document literally. The second is from Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal": it alerts us to the fact that a straightfaced but satirical account – such as Swift's suggestion that the grinding Irish poverty of his times could be alleviated by selling and eating Irish babies – is not a recipe. The third – "In the desert there is no sign that says, 'thou shalt not eat stones'" – is a Sufi proverb stating a simple human truth: we don't prohibit things that nobody would ever want to do anyway, since all prohibitions are founded upon a denial of our desires.

The Handmaid's Tale was published in Canada in the fall of 1985, and in the US and the UK in the spring of 1986. In the UK, its first reviewers treated it as a yarn rather than a warning: Britain had already been through Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan republic and there seemed to be no fear of re-enacting that scenario. In Canada, people asked, in anxious Canadian fashion: "could it happen here?" In the US, Mary McCarthy, writing in the New York Times, gave the book a largely negative review on the grounds that it lacked imagination, and anyway it was unlikely ever to take place, at least not in the secular society she perceived as the American reality. But on the west coast, so attuned to earthquake tremors, switchboards on talk shows lit up like Las Vegas, and someone graffitied on the Venice Beach seawall: "The Handmaid's Tale is already here!"

It wasn't already here, not quite, not then. I thought for a while in the 1990s that maybe it never would be. But now I'm wondering again. In recent years, American society has moved much closer to the conditions necessary for a takeover of its own power structures by an anti-democratic and repressive government. Approximately five years after The Handmaid's Tale was published, the Soviet Union disintegrated, the west slapped itself on the back and went shopping, and pundits proclaimed the end of history. It looked as if, in the race between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World – control by terror versus control through conditioning and consumption – the latter had won, and the world of The Handmaid's Tale appeared to recede. But now we see a United States weakened by two draining wars and a financial meltdown, and America appears to be losing faith in the basic premises of liberal democracy. After 9/11, the Patriot Act passed with barely a cough, and in Britain citizens have accepted a degree of state supervision that would once have been unthinkable.

It's a truism that enemy states tend to mirror one another in organisation and methods. When colonies were the coming thing, everyone wanted one. Atom bombs in the United States created the desire for some in the USSR. The Soviet Union was a large, bureaucratic, centralised state, and so was the America of those times. What form will the United States assume now that it's opposed by unrelenting religious fanaticisms? Will it soon produce rule by the same kind of religious fanaticism, only of a different sect? Will the more repressive elements within it triumph, returning it to its origins as a Puritan theocracy and giving us The Handmaid's Tale in everything but the outfits?

I've said earlier that dystopia contains within itself a little utopia, and vice versa. What, then, is the little utopia concealed in the dystopic world of The Handmaid's Tale? There are two: one is in the past (the past that is our own present). The second is placed in a future beyond the main story by the afterword at the end of the book, which describes a future in which Gilead – the tyrannical republic of The Handmaid's Tale – has ended and has thus become a subject for conferences and academic papers. I suppose that's what happens to ustopian societies when they die: they don't go to Heaven, they become thesis topics.

After The Handmaid's Tale there was a period of approximately 18 years during which I did not write ustopian novels, but then came Oryx and Crake in 2003. Oryx and Crake is dystopic in that almost the entire human race is annihilated, before which it has split into two parts: a technocracy and an anarchy. And, true to form, there is a little attempt at utopia in it as well: a group of quasi-humans who have been genetically engineered so that they will never suffer from the ills that plague Homo sapiens sapiens. They are designer people. But anyone who engages in such design – as we are now doing – has to ask: how far can humans go in the alteration department before those altered cease to be human? Which of our features are at the core of our being? What a piece of work is man, and now that we ourselves can be the workmen, what pieces of this work shall we chop off?

The designer people have some accessories I wouldn't mind having myself: built-in insect repellant, automatic sunblock, and the ability, like rabbits, to digest leaves. They also have several traits that would indeed be improvements of a sort, though many of us wouldn't like them. For instance, mating is seasonal: in season, certain parts of the body turn blue, as with baboons, so there is no more romantic rejection or date rape. And they can't read, so a lot of harmful ideologies will never trouble them.

There are other genetically engineered creatures in the book as well: chickie nobs, for instance, which are chicken objects modified so they grow multiple legs, wings and breasts. They have no heads, just a nutriment orifice at the top, thus solving a problem for animal rights workers: as their creators say, "no Brain, no Pain". (Since Oryx and Crake was published, the chickie nob solution has made giant strides: lab-grown meat is now a reality, though it is probably not in your sausages yet.)

A sibling book, The Year of the Flood, was published in 2009. Its original title was God's Gardeners, but although this was perfectly acceptable to the British publisher, the American publisher and the Canadian publisher objected to it on the grounds that people would think the book was a far-right extremist tract, which goes to show how thoroughly the word "God" has been hijacked. Many other titles were proposed, including "Serpent Wisdom", which the Canadian publisher liked but the US felt suggested a new age cult, and "Edencliff," which the British thought sounded like "a retirement home in Bournemouth". Book titles are either immediately obvious, like The Edible Woman, or very hard to decide on, and The Year of the Flood was the second kind.

The Year of the Flood explores the world of Oryx and Crake from a different perspective. Jimmy/ Snowman, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake, has grown up within a privileged though barricaded enclave, but The Year of the Flood takes place in the space outside such enclaves, at the very bottom of the social heap. Its pre-disaster plot unfolds in neighbourhoods that the security forces – now melded with corporations – don't even bother to patrol, leaving them to criminal gangs and anarchic violence.

However, this book, too, has a utopia embedded within a dystopia; it's represented by the God's Gardeners, a small environmental religious cult dedicated to the sacred element in all creation. Its members grow vegetables on slum rooftops, sing sacred-nature hymns, and avoid hi-tech communications devices such as cellphones and computers on the grounds that they can be used to spy on you – which is entirely true.

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood cover the same time period, and thus are not sequels or prequels; they are more like chapters of the same book. They have sometimes been described as "apocalyptic", but in a true apocalypse everything on Earth is destroyed, whereas in these two books the only element that's annihilated is the human race, or most of it. What survives after the cataclysmic event is not a "dystopia", because many more people would be required for that – enough to comprise a society. The surviving stragglers do, however, have mythic precedents: a number of myths tell of an annihilating flood survived by one man (Deucalion in Greek myth, Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic) or a small group, such as Noah and his family. Do the surviving human beings in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood represent a dystopic threat to the tiny utopia of genetically modified, peaceful and sexually harmonious new humans that is set to replace them?

People have asked, many times, about the "inspiration" for these two books and their world. Of course there are proximate causes for all novels – a family story, a newspaper clipping, an event in one's personal history – and for Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood there are such causes as well. Worries about the effects of climate change can be found as far back as 1972, when the Club of Rome accurately predicted what now appears to be happening, so those worries had long been with me, though they were not front-page stories in the spring of 2001 when I began Oryx and Crake. As with The Handmaid's Tale, I accumulated many file folders of research; and although in both there are some of what Huckleberry Finn would call "stretchers", there is nothing that's entirely without foundation.

So I could point to this or that scientific paper, this or that newspaper story, this or that actual event, but those kinds of things are not really what drive the storytelling impulse. I'm more inclined to think that it's unfinished business, of the kind represented by the questions people are increasingly asking themselves: how badly have we messed up the planet? Can we dig ourselves out? what would a species-wide self-rescue effort look like if played out in actuality? And also: where has utopian thinking gone? Because it never totally disappears: we're too hopeful a species for that. "Good", for us, may always have a "Bad" twin, but its other twin is "Better".
It's interesting to me that I situated the utopia-facilitating element in Oryx and Crake not in a new kind of social organisation or a mass brainwashing or soul-engineering programme but inside the human body. The Crakers are well behaved from the inside out not because of their legal system or their government or some form of intimidation but because they have been designed to be so. They can't choose otherwise. And this seems to be where Ustopia is moving in real life as well: through genetic engineering, we will be able to rid ourselves of inherited diseases, and ugliness, and mental illness, and ageing, and … who knows? The sky's the limit. Or so we are being told. What is the little dystopia concealed within such utopian visions of the perfected human body – and mind? Time will tell.

Historically, Ustopia has not been a happy story. High hopes have been dashed, time and time again. The best intentions have indeed paved many roads to Hell. Does that mean we should never try to rectify our mistakes, reverse our disaster-bent courses, clean up our cesspools or ameliorate the many miseries of many lives? Surely not: if we don't do maintenance work and minor improvements on whatever we actually have, things will go downhill very fast. So of course we should try to make things better, insofar as it lies within our power. But we should probably not try to make things perfect, especially not ourselves, for that path leads to mass graves.
We're stuck with us, imperfect as we are; but we should make the most of us. Which is about as far as I myself am prepared to go, in real life, along the road to Ustopia.

Next Post: "From Here, There and Everywhere...", to be published on Christmas Day, Sunday 25th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 11 December 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Recently I was watching a repeat of an Actors Studio episode on which Michelle Pfeiffer was being interviewed by the warm but enigmatic host James Lipton. When the time came for the Academy-nominated actress to take questions from the audience a young chap shot up his arm immediately in order to have his turn. However, he could barely get the words out of his mouth, so nervous and touched he was by the occasion. He looked embarrassed and so did Michelle. I was left wondering if it'd been easier for him to write his question to Ms Pfeiffer and get the show's host to read it. It also made me think about the relationship that some people establish with their favourite artists, whether they be authors, photographers, actors or directors.

Do fans idolise their objects of affection too much sometimes? And if so, where to draw the line?

The answer to the two questions above goes beyond this blog's virtual borders. At present there's an investigation going on into alleged illegal activities carried out by the tabloid press in the UK. What the Leveson inquiry has unearthed so far is business practices that owe more to the modus operandi of drugs cartels than to the fair and impartial behaviour we expect of our media.

And yet, whom are these hacks servicing? On whose behalf do they risk being found in a bin digging up the dirt (literally) of their "celebrity" targets? Response: readers. If everyone was as innocent as that young man on Actors Studio, whose only crime was to go all wobbly when he had the opportunity to interview his (probably) favourite actress, then the world wouldn't need vultures such as The Daily Mail, The Mail On Sunday, The Sun, The Daily Star and The Mirror with their never-ending thirst for tittle-tattle. Although the latter still manages to retain a modicum of decency. At least it was one of the few British papers that protested vehemently against the invasion of Iraq. But ultimately those who consume trash are also to blame for what the likes of JK Rowling and the McCanns have gone through. As the saying goes: "Eat s**t! A billion flies can't be wrong". And the more they eat, the more addicted they get to it.

Since the newspaper industry is, sadly, declining steadily, a lot of this dirty-laundry-in-the-open service is found online, where the playing field between public and celebrities has been levelled consistently in recent years. The internet, with its various platforms for personal expression such as blogs, social networking sites and web-based publications, has done a lot to knock down that wall of impenetrability that used to exist between "famous people" and the rest of us, mere mortals. Although, taking into account that anyone can gain notoriety these days with minimum effort, fame is no longer that hard to achieve. What stands out more, however, is that opening a magazine nowadays and being presented with a photo gallery of celebrities looking the worse for wear is no longer a rarity, but the yardstick by which modern journalistic standards are judged.

This change in attitudes is chiefly based, in my opinion, on the false assumption that some people have and whereby they believe that they own their favourite actors, poets or musicians. And given that all they need now is a click of the mouse nowadays to express their discontent if their objects of their affection fail to produce work worth of their appreciation, the verbal abuse to which they can potentially be subjected is more immediate. This act of appropriation is intimately linked to a sense of identification with the lives of those who're found almost permanently hogging the limelight. One extreme leads to stalking, whilst the other could well plunge a normal, law-abiding citizen into an unexpected depression, should he or she find out that their "star(s)" is/are in distress. Imaginary identification, plus ownership.

In my case, I remember how this sense of ownership manifested itself on one occasion. I'd read in a weekend magazine that one of my literary heroines, Maya Angelou, had just collaborated with Hallmark on a series of cards bearing her inspiring poetry. I recall feeling betrayed and even if I didn't go online to pour bile on the "people's poet" and her alleged "treason", inside me there was a little voice shouting out: "Sellout! Sellout!" But sell out to whom? Maya is Maya is Maya is Maya. The poems she contributed to Hallmark's regular middle-of-the-road output might not have had, in my humble opinion, the same quality of her masterpieces "Still I Rise" or "Phenomenal Woman" but they were still better than the usual crop Hallmark produces. That was, as I mentioned before, many years ago. The other day I read an interview with her in the paper where she was telling a journalist that she had just written a cookery book. She then went on to explain how some people thought it strange that she had decided to venture down a road that was so far from her main occupation, that is, to write poems. Presumably, and this is pure speculation, these people - amongst them, critics - considered cooking a less worthy activity than poetry. However, I remember thinking after I finished reading her interview that if there was one person in the world for whom the word "cooking" was created, that person was Maya Angelou.

Do some people idealise artists too much? I think they do, although not all the time. And in doing so, they're treading a fine line between being in awe of their favourite artisans and plundering their private lives in search for the minutest details in order to satiate their curiosity or to identify with them. Fortunately, somewhere in the middle of that equation there's a young chap, too touched by the grand occasion of seeing his favourite actress sitting on stage so close to him, who can't even manage to remain calm whilst asking his question. The good news is that, he at least represents the positive side of fandom.

And this is "see you later" from me until January. As I usually do at this time of the year, I go into hibernation for about three or four weeks. However, Sundays will not be empty. I have a little pressie for you, my dear readers and fellow bloggers because after all 'tis the season to be jolly. I will be posting each Sunday some of my favourite articles and essays from the last few years or so. These are pieces that have inspired me a great deal, mainly by journalists, specialists and writers whom I worship. Please, bear in mind that I haven't sought permission to publish these articles, so, if a newspaper or magazine editor asks me kindly to take them down, I will comply straight away. In the meantime, I wish you a merry and relaxing festive period and a Happy New Year!

© 2011

Next Post: “From Here, There and Everywhere”, to be published on Sunday 18th December at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Festival of New Words)

If I was to choose my favourite word of the year that's about to finish it would be neither a neologism nor a slang term, but a quaint, short beauty I came across whilst reading The Road: "bivouac". It means "a military encampment made with tents or improvised shelters, usually without shelter or protection from enemy fire" and it encapsulates in its brief but complex spelling the tribulations that the two main characters in the book have to face on a regular basis.

However, having a "word of the year" is not an activity in which I normally indulge. I usually have a record or book that becomes my highlight of the previous twelve months, but very rarely does my attention centre on a word that stands out amongst the myriad vocables I come across every day whether they are just a sequence of sounds or considered as a unit of meaning. Sometimes, though, I put on the mantle of eccentricity when it comes to linguistics. Especially when it's about sticking two fingers up to the establishment.

In France they have a similar attitude. Since 2002 in the Gallic nation, a festival has been held in both Paris and Le Havre in the third week in November to choose a new word and sound. As reported in The Guardian recently the latest winner at the Festival XYZ was attachiant(e), a term whose literal translation could be something like captivating or attractive nuisance. Or Marmite in good old British English. You either love it or hate it. Speaking of the famous yeast extract which usually ends up spread on so many of our sandwiches ( I love it), it had something of a PR disaster recently when a lorry carrying more than 20 tonnes of the stuff got overturned on a busy motorway. Cue endless jokes about the driver "being yeast extracted from the wreckage" or people wondering if the accident had affected the "yeastbound carriageway". And that's the key to language and its uses sometimes: humour. Which is an element usually found wanting in the puritanical bodies tasked with looking over our languages, for instance, L'Académie Française and La Real Academia Española for French and Spanish respectively.

Unlike these rather austere meddlers, the organisers of the Festival XYZ, by their own admission, seek to highlight the contributions that keep French live and kicking. Whilst having a jolly good time. As they put it succinctly and clearly on their Facebook page, " ce festival d'hiver apporte sa contribution en musique et en textes à une langue vivante et sonnante... Le Français. En y associant un son nouveau, elle va plus loin encore dans le déchiffrement du mot Mot (mo), n.m. (lat. vulg. mottum, mot et grognement, du v. muttire, grogner, murmurer). Son articulé, composé d’une ou plusieurs syllabes réunies." You have to love the etymological component in their mission statement.

Some of the terms included in the newspaper's article made think of English equivalents. Thus, the new French word "aigriculteur", a farmer upset with the hand life's dealt him/her, could easily become "angryculturist" or "angrycultor". This would describe a farmer from a developing nation really vexed with the huge subsidies enjoyed by members of the European Union.

Likewise, the Gallic "bête seller", the type of novel that hasn't got much going for it from a literary and artistic point of view, but sells in its thousands (no names mentioned, but there's a certain author who writes political thrillers that comes to mind), could easily morph into "beast-seller". In Cuban Spanish we've come very close to a literal translation. When a movie or a book is really good, especially from a commercial point of view, we sometimes tend to say: "¡Qué monstruo de película/libro!"

We need more events like the Festival XYZ to remind ourselves that a language is a living body of words and it cannot be confined solely to a canon of syntactic and grammatical rules. I'm all for the correct use of our linguistic norms including syntax and grammar, however these standards do not operate in an abstract world but in a very practical one. Even if we sometimes, unfortunately, we have to deal with "phonards".

© 2011

Photo taken from the Festival XYZ Facebook page.

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflection and Music”, to be published on Sunday 11th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 4 December 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

We're in a transition period. Slowly autumn's auburn skin peels away and reveals the ominous and stern London winter. The one that flicks open its sharp razor every year and, with its white foam, shaves the remaining leaves off the branches, thus, finishing off autmn's job. It's that time of the year when the early twilight tempts us to a cup of steaming hot chocolate or coffee. Or maybe a tall Mocha, to balance things up. The weekend paper lies on our lap. Looking through the door on to the back garden I see the fading sun rays spilling on to the shrinking undergrowth. I bend down to grab my mug and what's left of my coffee and when I look back up it's gone. The light's gone. The neighbouring houses are sinking rapidly into a monochromatic landscape of dark greys and blacks, like 2D figures in a shadow animation.

I've never been a big fan of the London winter except for its mornings and nights. The former brings rich lashes of mist layering themselves on top of each other, sandwiched between a never-ending humidity on the ground and a crisp, howling northeasterly wind whipping my face and a label that announces "Best served chilled". In those early hours the sky is yet to acquire its Arctic-blue complexion, usually attained at midday. That's why sunrise presents us with a combination of hues that travel from a pale rosé to a fierce claret. For a moment you forget about the hot (but not boiling) water you have to pour regularly on the car's windshield and windows to get rid of the ice and the manoeuvres you have to perform every day to warm the car up before setting off on your journey in case the engine switches itself off because of the cold.

Winter nights appear as downward spirals whose motion remind me of curtains closing on a memorable performance. You're left with the indelible memory of a bright - or, as in London, most of the time grey - day and a cold snap. Summer is all about the moment, the here and then. Heat is conducive to lapsus mentis. Winter likes to lie back in its seat and enjoy the show. The sky darkening at around three in the afternoon. The morning mist, temporarily dissipated during the day, surfacing again on the urban horizon at tea time. Our shapes being swallowed by the early evening blur. This is winter playing hide'n'seek as usual.

It's not the thermometre clocking in at -5C that disconcerts me. It's the lack of snow. Without a white carpet laid out on my doorstep it's hard to take in the bare landscape. It's as if someone's written an essay and left all the verbs out. With no active or passive voice, how am I to make sense of the big, yellowish-orange arch fast plunging into the total darkness?

And yet, when it arrives this absence of light is welcomed. As my surroundings become dimmer, I position my reading lamp by my side and sit cross-legged either on the couch or at the kitchen table with a mug of a hot, steaming concoction of chamomile, mint and green tea in my hand. Winter is here, I might not like it, but I'm ready to let it in.

© 2011

Next Post: “Living in a Bilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 7th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Photo taken from the Town and Travel website.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

My late grandmother on my mother's side used to invoke the Divine Providence whenever something went her way. She would raise her eyes to the heavens, beam out that broad smile to which we had all grown accustomed by then and forth her gratitude would pour to whom she believed to be her Maker for his alleged guardianship. Hers was one of those phrases which, no matter where you found yourself on the religious spectrum, had a certain comfort to it. Like the butternut squash and sweet potato soup my wife makes in winter time.

Recently I had cause to also thank a similar Divine Providence, although this one was of the earthling variety and likes writing in the kind of language I call colourful and others label pretentious. The reason for my delight was Will Self's recent essay "The symphony and the novel – a harmonious couple?" (The Guardian Review, Saturday 8th October). In it, good ol' Will explores the reasons why both art forms, although having developed almost at the same time, in the 19th century, have supposedly moved in different directions; whilst one (music) has retained its risk-taking approach, the other (literature) has pressed its finger firmly on the "safe mode" button.

At first sight Mr Self's article smacks of snobbery. He reprises the usual line about novelists not living up to and failing to capitalise on their innovative and modernist moment in the first decades of the 20th century, namely, James Joyce's Ulysses, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Virgina Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Had it carried on in the same vein, Will's article would have ended up in the recycling bin. But his outing contains so many gems, that not discussing them with you, my dear readers and fellow bloggers, is tantamount to treason.

For a start his insight into composing a score and how it compares to writing a novel is thought-provoking. Earlier this year, I mused in this very space over the influence of music on the process of writing. On that occasion, however, I was focused more on the effect certain melodies have on authors, journalists or bloggers and less on the similarities that might exist between the score and the written word. Yet, Will goes one better. For him the symphonist and novelist share key artistic objectives: "The search for motifs, or themes, the creation of an alternative world in words, the struggle for authenticity of narrative voice, the counterpointing of different protagonists' views".

One of the aspects that differentiates us, rational animals from non-rational ones is the way we come up with pictures in our heads of people and situations we haven't seen yet but which fit neatly into the alternative world we want to create. We're capable of widening up the scope of our objective and material world in ways that defy categorisation. In that sense, the writers mentioned by Will did deserve to be included in his list as pioneers. My only grievance is that in his essay he stopped half way through the previous century. But more on that later. The musician works in a similar way to the writer. In my opinion, the composer has an image, a picture in his or her mind that represents the notes that will make up the score. That this language sounds and is more abstract than the written one should not deter us from the fact that it still contains a narrative and characters.

A typical symphony will be structured in different movements. Some will be slower, others faster. But the intention is the same: to induce a state of mind, to manipulate, or tap into the listener's own emotions and feelings. Writers usually work towards a similar goal through a variety of "movements": introduction, development and conclusion. That some authors play around with this formula, tweaking it here and there, doesn't mean that the conflict they present to the reader hasn't got a solution by the end of the story. It just means that the emphasis is on the "how" and not the "what".

On writing about the composer's "sonic cosmos", Will Self addresses the perennial questions with which artists (whether writers, painters or film-makers) are faced: how much do I reveal about my unique inner world? And will this chime with the reader/viewer/listener? The answer is: you reveal as much as you like, or as much as your manager/publisher/agent allows you to; and you might or might not care one jot about what your future audience thinks of you work. Which, some of us might say, is almost career suicide.

And yet without the bolder approach question two demands, we wouldn't have had the likes of Astor Piazzolla and Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges' inclusion was not accidental. Mr Self only gives examples of novels, mainly from a distant era. It's as if Kundera and Rushdie had never happened. As chance would have it I've just read two books (plus a third one, being digested as I write) that could well serve as an example of Will's thesis despite the fact he refuses to acknowledge contemporary fiction. The Road is a sparse and laconic novel which takes place in an apocalyptic future. The language used is redolent of literary thriftiness, bereft of tropes and as bare as the grim and cold environment the book depicts. We could probably compare it to a piece by Phillip Glass. The Road was followed by Interpreter of Maladies, a fantastic collection of short stories that functioned better as a well-written exercise in voyeurism than as straightforward literature. It reminded me of Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G Minor (or Little G Minor Symphony). The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, the novel I'm reading now, falls within Will's remit of "struggle for authenticity of narrative voice" and "the counterpointing of different protagonists' views". The main character suffers from Asperger's syndrome and everything we experience in the novel is perceived from his point of view. It's challenging for the reader, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for the writer. The musical equivalent? One of piano prodigy Art Tatum's short compositions.

And therein lies the rub, too. Will mentions jazz briefly at the beginning of his essay (John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk) and you can see why. Jazz, especially in the States, became one of the most revolutionary art forms after the Second World War. Against the safe, rhythmic patterns of a Gershwin or an Armstrong, you suddenly had the likes of Charlie Parker blazing the trail with the hard sound of his bebop. But in literature there was also a shift. The Beat generation, just to give one example, possessed that "self-enclosed expressiveness", which Mr Self attributes to Monk and Coltrane. Their writing might not have had the same degree of experimentation Joyce and Woolf displayed, but there was inventive craftmanship aplenty.

On the whole Will's article is a beautiful elegy to two art forms that have brought pleasure and joy to millions and whose essence remains (despite the current Ikea approach to fiction- and song-writing. Your work is already boxed in; all you have to do is assemble it) the creation of alternative scenarios in which the human experience can be seen in all its glory. Whether guardianship of a Divine Providence is included or not, it doesn't matter. It's still welcomed all the same.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 4th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 27 November 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Imagine a world in 2D. Picture an Earth in which everything is monochromatic and where objects that are usually inanimate constantly move towards us - eternal static beings - and not the other way around. Think of a situation in which randomness is the rule: we breathe every now and then and not in regular intervals, there's not such thing as patterns and shapes lack geometrical sense.

In the same way a world like the one described above is impossible to envision, so is the annual Christmas charade utterly predictable. And every year it seems to arrive earlier. Back in August I saw a display of mince pies on a shop window.

It is more than fourteen years since I first came across the yuletide season. To me it felt as if all my life I'd been travelling through a desert only to find myself all of a sudden in the middle of a never-ending oasis. In the post-Castro Christianityphobic Cuba of my childhood the only (clandestine) celebration around the 25th December was our very own "Nochebuena", Christmas Eve. This was for most Cubans, a very family affair with the usual accoutrements: a hog roast with rice'n'peas, fried plantains, yucca and salad. Occasionally as the clock struck twelve and the 24th of December morphed into the 25th someone (in my house, it was my late grandmother) would produce an image of Jesus Christ, kiss it and say a prayer. But that's as far as we dared to go.

Over here it's the other way around. There's no way to escape the tinsel and baubles as soon as we move the clocks back and November arrives. My first exposure to Crimbo was Oxford Street's dazzling Christmas lights display. They're usually switched on by a celebrity, a singer, perhaps, who will probably perform a couple of songs after the official opening ceremony's over. After all these years I still remember the overhead beaming arch formed by the lights and decorations, and the way they seemed to invite me to lock arms with passersby whilst singing "Al ánimo, al ánimo, la fuente se rompió...", a game I used to play as a child.

Christmas then became for me, a Johnny-come-lately in London all those years ago, less about its religious significance and more about time off to be enjoyed and spent with my newly-created family. To my surprise I found out that I was not alone.

We know that we don't inhabit a 2D world and that in order to live we need to breathe at regular intervals. Likewise, we're fully aware that if ever a bearded geezer came down our chimney in the middle of the night holding a sack and saying "Ho ho ho!" we ought to get on the blower straight away and call the police. So, why does Christmas still hold us in thrall? My response is that it's got more to do with our psyche and less with the actual holiday.

As products of an ongoing evolutionary process, we, humans, have developed a whole range of conflicting emotions and unpredictable behaviour. We work long hours for weeks or months on end, but then try to get rid of our stress over a weekend. We destroy ourselves little by little through various vices, unconsciously most of the time, but then come up with perfect excuses as to why our course of action is right. In short, we lie to ourselves to make us feel better. Christmas, from that point of view, is a big lie.

Not a Big Lie, as in capital "B" and "L", but rather self-deception in a small scale. The perception we have of reality from the moment we're born is as accurate as our senses allow us to have, unless there's some kind of pathology involved. This means that in order to navigate through the outside world, we use the information we absorb. However, when it comes to responding to different stimuli, we make conscious decisions based on our prejudices and prejudgements. I have employed these two last terms in the most neutral way possible. For instance, we might be prone to boosting our self-esteem through a variety of actions: working or studying hard, raising our children in a particular way or challenging ourselves physically. If we were to come across someone who sits on the opposite end of the spectrum in regards to these activities, we might make a mental note of his/her traits as shortcomings.

This phenomenon is not new and neither is it consequence-free. We (that's the journalistic "we", by the way, as in most of us, not every single person on the planet) practice self-deception at some point in our lives because it makes us feel good. The downside is that it also makes us vulnerable to predators, i.e., industries whose main remit is to tap into and exploit those half-truths we tell to ourselves. Marketing is the first example that comes to mind. And marketing within the Christmas period is ideal cannon fodder to ramble on about the negative effects self-deception has on us.

At present there's an ad on telly in the UK that has stood out from the word go for its mix of simplicity, innocence and sweetness. If you reside on these isles, by now you're probably aware that I'm referring to the "Please, please, please" John Lewis commercial. This just-under-two-minutes clip is about a boy who can't wait for the morning of the 25th December to roll in. So far, so predictable. He counts down the days, the hours, the minutes, the seconds. Until the big day arrives and he gets up, whizzes past his own presents, rummages in his wardrobe, produces a red box with a nicely done ribbon, runs down the corridor to his parents' room, wakes them up and with a beautiful smile on his face holds out his Christmas present to his folks. The tagline? "For gifts you can't wait to give".

The advert works. A few commentators have already written about welling up by the end of it. It's been lauded by marketing specialists and its soundtrack has been singled out as a masterstroke by John Lewis, since it is a cover version of The Smiths' "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want". Not that Messrs Morrissey and Marr will be complaining too much about selling out when they check the balance in their bank accounts at the end of the month. Above all, the ad taps into our self-deception.

Amidst the greed displayed by the members of parliament involved in the expenses scandal and the recklessness of the bankers, the message of a boy wanting to give a present to his parents resonates with many of us, eternal optimists who think a better world is possible. Coupled with a soundtrack (performed by sweet-voiced Slow Moving Millie) that will remind people of a certain age of their rebellious youth will be an addendum. Throw in the mix the Occupy protest movement at St Paul's Cathedral with their socio-economic, political reform agenda and you couldn't have a more perfect backdrop.

And yet, it is self-deception, although of a higher quality. We don't know what the boy is carrying in the box. It could be a voucher for Alton Towers for which his parents will have to fork out half the money because you know, it's an adult half price and the other one full whack and as usual, terms and conditions apply. All right, all right, the box is big. Maybe it's a small voucher wrapped in old copies of The Daily Telegraph. But if that's the case, it's hardly a selfless act. We're also aware that the ad, The Smiths' blessing notwithstanding, is by and about John Lewis, a retailer which, despite the best of intentions, is only interested in the Kerching! sound at the till. To me the key element, though, is the word "give". It's the clincher at the end of the short clip. The child can't wait to give. Whilst the other chains can't wait to take your money and insist that you shop until you drop, John Lewis wants you to give... them money so that you can bring happiness to other people.

If "give" is the key element in the ad, money is the ghost in the room. We feel its presence and yet we're too spooked to mention it. We're led to think that he only reason why the child is doing that countdown till Crimbo is because he can't wait to open up his presents. Which probably left his mum and dad remortgaging their house. Money is the euphemism we daren't address. Self-deception is built on a "creative" and liberal use of our everyday language and that vocabulary includes dosh, too. We like to "indulge", to have some "me" time, to "chill out". But when asked to discuss how much these pleasures cost, we beat around the bush. In the UK, I've noticed a funny relationship between people and questions around money. A lot of us don't like talking about our earnings, our expenses or our lifestyle. However, "Money makes the world go around/The world go around/The world go around/Money makes the world go around/It makes the world go 'round" as Liza Minnelly and Joel Gray both averred in Cabaret. Maybe our reluctance to discuss the choppy seas of finances is more to do with the reputation money has, therefore self-delusion is the more appealing solution. We want to be as far away as possible from the message Pink Floyd gives in its eponymous song: "Money, get away, you get a good job with good pay and you're okay/Money, it's a gas, grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.

For a lot of people, I think, it's hard to admit that Christmas is less to do with the birth of the most important figure in Christianity and more to do with feeling good about spending an enormous amount of money on presents, both on other people and on themselves. That's why sales from Boxing Day to New Year's Day always bring out the crowds. And by then Christmas is over. We're fully conscious that this attitude takes the sheen off the season of goodwill and brackets us as money-minded creatures or penny-pinchers, in the case of sales. Hence, a healthy dose of self-deception. Which is, come to think of it, akin to thinking that the world is monochromatic and bi-dimensional.

© 2011

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 30th November at 11:59pm( GMT)

Sunday 20 November 2011

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

You’re never quite sure how it starts. This pilgrimage, this rite of passage. One day - or night -, you switch the radio off, look outside your bedroom window and there it is: that vast concrete serpent, stretching for miles on end. The wall that separates the oily blue and the potholed road; that divides the hopeful dreams and the daily grind; that splits the daytime hustlers and the night-time revellers.

On one side we hear the sound of the hiccupping waves slapping against the rocks. On the other, the din of the polluting traffic: cars, lorries, and buses shaped as even-toed two-humped Bactrians. Malecón, we don't come to you, you beckon us over. On your hard, historic wall we take flights of fancy, sing at the top of our voices until we go hoarse, bid friends goodbye and drink ourselves to oblivion.

5th Avenue tunnel at one end. The gaping ecphonesis that spits out the first perpendicular street numbers: O, Calle 18! O Calle 16 (and the famous beauty parlour)! O Calles 14 and 12 (and the pool at the Echevarría Social Club where Beny and I used to splash the lady with the striped bathing suit when diving)! Should I mention you Calle 10 with El Kastillito on the corner, fountain of unforgettable terpsichorean memories?

Malecón, Spanish opening exclamation mark that preambles lines bursting out with vim and salitter. You are the canvas in which we all inhabit. The living, moving 3D Cuban version of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. But instead of a dozen apostles surrounding the “Chosen One” from Galilee, there are hundreds taking turns at being Bartholomew, Thomas or Jude Thaddeus. Or Jesús. Jesús, like The Newly Arrived Emigrante, back from Amsterdam, blond, blue-eyed wife perched up by his side. The guy who made it. The bloke who runs a small electric goods business in the city of bicycles, tulips and cannabis coffeshops. And who has stories to tell, eyes to open, minds to unwind (or wind up). He is the remedy to your old, malfunctioning clock that is in need of quick repair because it can no longer tell if it’s going too fast or too slow. He is the snappy fix that finds you with the midmorning sun warming the hard stone that presses painfully against your buttocks. But discomfort matters not. Here’s your mate, your pal, your yunta, who left for Holland three years ago and now has got a group of followers gathered around him, like in days of yore when people sat around a fire to tell each other stories. Like Peter leaning over to John, ready to let him in on that “little business” to do with Jesús. It’s like the perfect scene for a photo. The photo that will survive all attempts to loosen the hold it will have on us. The al fresco image that no matter how torn and damaged it becomes, will still mesmerise us in years to come.

Snap! Your friend will start talking about the Van Gogh Museum (where you’ll lose your ear if you’re not careful, he quips), the Canal District and the open-air concerts by artists from the Dutch Antilles and Suriname. In the shadow of the Riviera Hotel (where your mate is staying with his silent but smiling wife, and where he woke up about six hours ago and couldn’t get back to sleep. Damn jetlag!), he attempts to pronounce a few words in Dutch and they all come out with a harsh, guttural Caribbean rasp. You’re hanging onto his every word until he decides to go all BB King on you, Havana and Malecón because for him “the thrill is gone/The thrill is gone away/The thrill is gone baby/The thrill is gone away/You know you done me wrong baby/And you'll be sorry someday (…) You know I'm free, free now baby/I'm free from your spell/I'm free, free now/I'm free from your spell/And now that it's over/All I can do is wish you well…” and you think, “free?”, free from what? You can see his point, though. He has just arrived from the city in which lawns are manicured to perfection; where autumn is real autumn, no chin-chin drizzle; where spring blossoms every year in an orgiastic explosion of colour. You watch him and in his eyes you see his scorn at the post-earthquake craters that decorate this hard, long wall. Later on, he will jeer at the long queue at La Piragua pizza parlour where the "siete pesos" will mingle with the "Camilitos", students from medical school and the regular gang from the Faculty of Economics in La Colina. You will all end up at the Maine monument with its mix of colonial history and sexual double-entendre every time you bend over. And all because it was blown up. And your friend, El Emigrante wants to be free of this. Do you ever want to be free of it, of El Malecón? El Malecón, where people strut, stroll, perambulate, but never ever walk? Where at ten o’ clock now, mid-morning, your mate, his (silent, but smiling) wife, your other friends and you are almost throwing a party? No, bro, the thrill ain’t gone, it never will be. But then, again, a few years hence, you yourself will land in Gatwick airport, London.

Snap! The Jose Martí sports centre and the famous track that is nothing but a mountain of rubble and yet runners still insist on doing laps around it. Plus jumping over the hurdles. She’s facing the ocean, the vast open sea; he’s facing inland, the Ladas, Fiats and Volgas going at sixty per hour down Malecón Avenue. She wants out. Like Da Vinci’s creation, sitting in the middle of her own tableau, she fears betrayal. He’s trying to find a philosophical, Marxist and Leninist solution. Her denial, plus his of hers, isn’t that the source of development, of the moving forward, of the next stage, the panacea, en brèf, communism? No, she retorts, the “no” is rotund, round and solid. It’s a “no” with intention. It’s the “no” to machismo, to backwardness, to empty rhetoric and false hopes. Besides… besides? He asks. Besides… she doesn’t answer. The immense blue swallows up her response.

Snap! Afternoon. We’re celebrating. End of college. Year 12 is but a distant memory, never mind the fact that it’s only a few weeks behind us. A couple of hours before, Calle 25 across from the Mariana Grajales monument. The wait. The long wait. Then, the teachers pinning sheet after sheet on the glass with the results of the university entry exams. Who got what? Did you manage to get into medical school? Will you be doing engineering? The names of the faculties ring out endlessly in the suffocating, summer heat: Economía, Periodismo, ISRI, Biología, Derecho, ISPLE. No more Saúl Delgado. From September onwards, it will be only ISPLE. And we, the temporary Chosen Ones (both leading and supporting roles), march down to El Malecón. Calle D all the way, without stopping. There’s hardly any breeze and humidity is in the 90s. We sweat profusely but we fail to notice it. We’re what? Seventeen, eighteen. We steamroller to Malecón. We buy some beer on the way there and sit on the wall, the one to which you made that first pilgrimage all those years ago. The one which, through the hard rocky surface, understands you more than your parents. In silence you confess your problems to it. You hold a conversation with it regardless of the fact that you've both pressed the "mute" button. No need for words. Telepathy is the game. We lie back or sit against the wall on that uneven surface, talk gibberish and see the sun slowly come down.

Snap! You and your girlfriend. In a world of your own. Recently hooked up, seldom separated. There’re not enough hours in the day for you two to be together. You read her poems, she reciprocates. You don’t realise that you’ve gone past Calle K, no, you’re still in your own little world. Mi china, this, papito, that. Let me tickle you here, I will tickle you there. From a passing car, a window is rolled down and a voice calls out: "Suéltala, desgracia'o!", to which your reply is the usual one: "Tu abuela, sapo!". Why involve grandmothers and toads when someone tells you to let go of your girlfriend? Now, you’re caught in the twilight, both the day’s and politics’. You have stopped (innocent, little lambs!), a few hundred yards past Calle L. You don’t hear the voice: iracund, unintelligible, loud, booming towards you. You don’t hear the voice, and you also fail to hear the steps, thundering across the pavement, onto the road, the hand motioning the traffic to stop. The voice (¡Compañero, Compañero, COMPAÑERO!), the heavy boots screaming: Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of transgressors!. By the time the uniformed guard touches your shoulder, turns you around, asks you for your ID card and questions you on your motives to halt your march right there, you have suddenly come to life, or at least, returned to this world. And all the time he’s talking, you’re looking past him at the ominous building, the tall edifice across from which you have stood so many times to protest against the embargo. You have even joined in the shouts of “¡El que no salte es yanqui, el que no salte es yanqui!” jumping like a child high on fizzy drinks. Unbeknownst to you, in the near future some of your closer friends will be queuing up outside this building, down Calzada St. from the small, wee hours in the morning, in search of a dream ninety miles to the north. Now the light of the late afternoon sun bounces off the glass of the offices in the tall building and spreads a silver carpet over the blue sea. You mumble a few words, your girlfriend looks embarrassed and the guard keeps jabbing his finger at you. Leonardo would have loved to paint this scene.

Snap! It’s night. New York never sleeps, they say. El Malecón is always awake, I could retort. Here’s the musician who did his civil engineering degree in Berlin and washed up again in my city because the going got tough after the Wall was knocked down and the “skinheads” didn’t like dark-skinned foreigners. The economics graduate student who works in nearby Cohíba Hotel as a receptionist. The secondary school English teacher who doubles up as a Spanish tutor in her free time. Five dollars per hour is her going rate and she never lacks willing students. The comuñanga who just finished carrying twenty-two buckets of water up to his flat on the seventh floor of the building he shares with his mother, father, sister, sister’s husband, nephew and niece (his sister’s children) in Alamar. There are more, more than ten, certainly more than twelve. For we haven’t congregated here to find out about betrayal. We’ve been betrayed somehow all these years. By a superlative, gigantic political psoriasis that has blighted the skin of an entire nation. And it is here on this avenue against the backdrop of a chamaleonic sea that the scaly patches are more visible. The clandestine pizza vendors who put melted condoms instead of cheese in their products, thus ensuring that their pockets bulk up whilst the local A&E ward is kept busy. The impromptu trio-turned-quartet-turned-quintet-turned-sextet... ad infinitum, that delights tourists with their various versions of La Guantanamera. The "5th Avenue Flowers" (© Silvio Rodriguez Dominguez) who have extended their garden - and their constant pursuit of foreign fairy godfathers (and some mothers) - beyond the tunnel to the west, 23rd Avenue to the south and La Catedral to the east. The "pingueros" and "culeros" (tops and bottoms), part of Havana's underground gay culture, who crawl out at night, forming an almost straight line from the Yara cinema down La Rampa to Malecón. The "bisnero" (hustler) whose voice lowers to a whisper as he approaches your group and offers you "cinco por uno" (in '87), "ciento veinte por uno" (in '94). He is our FTSE, our Stock Exchange, he regulates the valuation of peso vs dollar. This canvas is less like Renaissance and more like Surrealism. No, we don't gather here to learn about deception but because this is our headquarters, our DNA, our hajj, our fifth pillar. We don’t just do it once in our life. We do it regularly. We come to be mesmerised by these waves, which, during hurricane season, resemble giant cobras raising the front of their bodies, ready to strike. We’re Pepe, Yusimí, Antonio, Clara, Mirtica, Sandra, Pedro and many more. Malecón is one step beyond Simon and Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy; it’s a full-on assault of “Suave, nena, suave, suavecito, nena, eh, eh, eh…”. Malecón, Havana’s own throat coughing up black gold the closer you get to El Morro Castle. We gulp down the homemade rum, chispa’e tren, the cheap booze that someone got from Felipito’s house on Gervasio St. Gervasio, one third of the famous patronymic made famous on the sketch show Alegrías de Sobremesa: Gervasio Escobar y Campanario. But tonight, at around midnight you’re only interested in the Gervasio bit. Someone’s brought a guitar. Silvio, of course, and then, Pablo, the bottle does the rounds, the voices rise, more people join in. A feeble sea breeze offers some succour in this July heat. The guitar changes hands and now we’re going back in time. In the midnight hour we go soft and cheesy, we’re all about José José, Roberto Carlos and Emanuel. We go through the entire songbook they sell for one peso, twenty cents at the Abel Santamaria book shop, on Calle 25. All of a sudden, the melodic sound of the acoustic guitar mixes with the heavy drumming wafting out of one of the houses on the corner of Galiano and Malecón, near the Deauville Hotel. The ritual order of the oru, oru del igbodu and oru del eya aranla keeps the crowd on its feet. Only with the latter is the audience allowed to dance freely. The party spills over onto the pavement, a pavement whose cracks resemble a country road, whose lines crave to be read and to be interpreted. Who knows what life’s got in store for you? At four in the morning, the party across the road is still in full swing, the guitar’s changed hands several times: DJavan, Donato, Mercedes, Santiaguito… The apostles become orishas. No more Judas and Simon, but Oshún and Obbatalá. And behind us, the eternal blue of Yemayá.

Snap! Red eyes, croaky voices, bodies leaning on each other, old relationships reaffirming their love, new relationships breaking new ground, the lonely… still lonely. Slowly, a weak, early morning sun breaks through the flaking, damaged canvas and travels down Malecón east to west, from the Plaza de San Francisco (and the convent), El Templete, the Real Fuerza Castle to Prado Avenue. Early-rising fishermen dot the coastline like pick-up sticks released by a giant hand. It won’t be long before the hard stone is warmed by the generous sun and the revellers go back home and crash on the couch in the lounge after yet another pilgrimage, another journey to the majestic wall, the vast concrete serpent: Malecón.

Fiat lux!

© 2011

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 27th November at 10am (GMT)


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