Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Les Années Lumière

Les Années Lumière (Light Years Away) stuck in my mind for 25 years after I accidentally saw it on late night television when I was a teenager.
It was possibly the west of Ireland landscape and the mystic elements of the plot (although at the time I had no real interest in mysticism) that made it stick in my mind.
It took me a long time to track it down, eventually securing it via an online Spanish retailer, under the title A Años Luz – which is in English with Spanish subtitles.
Apart from the landscape there is very little in this film to define it as Irish. It is based on a novel by Swiss writer Daniel Odier, who also writes under the name Delacorta on whose novel the film Diva was based. Les Années lumière was directed by Swiss director Alain Tanner and its main characters are played by English actors Trevor Howard, whose character is called Yoshka Poliakeff, and Mick Ford who plays Jonas.
I don't think the original novel is available in English so I can't say if that is why it was set in Ireland. The opening scenes were filmed in Dublin and although the city is never named it makes no attempt to disguise the cityscape along the banks of the Liffey before the days of the Point and the International Financial Services Centre. We even see Jonas sleeping in a bus shelter with ‘SLF’ graffiti scrawled upon it.
The rest of film looks as if it was filmed in Connemara and most of the supporting actors speak with Irish accents.
We are told that Yoshka's father was Russian but that is the only reference to nationality in the film. He is obsessed with his ‘life’s work’ but is secretive about it, kicking out his former lover, Betty, 10-years earlier because she tried to find out what he was doing. She and Jonas subsequently become lovers.
Jonas travels to Yoshka's derelict filling station set on an isolated road beside a scrap yard where the old Russian sets him a series of pointless tasks.
He stands by the petrol pump for days waiting for a customer - a new road has diverted traffic away from the filling station. When a customer eventually comes Jonas discovers that the petrol pump doesn't actually work.
Yoshka then asks Jonas to clean up the scrap yard but when he does so tells him that he hasn’t done it right and tells him to put it all back the way he found it.
When Yoshka is injured he gets Jonas to dig a hole in the ground and bury him up to his neck and leave him there for three days. When he is dug up again all his wounds have healed.
The scene with Yoshka buried up to his neck and the desolate landscape in which the two central characters torment one another, perform pointless tasks and wait around a lot has clear Beckettian parallels.
Yoshka is like a Zen master whose tasks seem to be aimed at setting Jonas on a higher path and eventually they begin to discuss meditation and dreams.
“Every human being is a universe,” Yoshka tells Jonas.
The younger man’s apprenticeship is eventually complete and Yoshka reveals that he has spent his life studying birds in an effort to learn the art of flight but that he needs an eagle to complete his studies.
Jonas heads off into the mountains ¬- stopping at a 1980s disco where he gets into a fight over a girl - to trap an eagle and bring it back to Yoshka.
He completes his task and the old man tells him that he plans to fly off ‘beyond the galaxies’ on the wings he has been working on. However, before he can do so the eagle escapes and kills all the other birds in the shed where Yoshka has spent his life working.
On a stormy night he takes off but the next day he is discovered dead in a field, his eyes plucked out. Perched nearby, Jonas sees the escaped eagle.
Les Années Lumière is an intriguing film with some great scenes and intriguing characters and but somehow it doesn’t really come together in the end. Like a Beckett play you get the impression that there is something else going on at a deeper level but it never really becomes clear what this is.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Nollaig Shona

Given that it is the eve of the winter solstice here is a picture of Ballynoe, not too far away from where I live. In the background you can see Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in the Mournes. The original name for the mountains was Beanna Boirche (the peaks of Boirche - named after a cow herd who ruled the Kingdom of Mourne).
Below is a description of Ballynoe given by Anthony Weir on his website Irish Megaliths.
A very large circle of over 50 stones up to 1.8 metres high (though many smaller) encloses a space about 35 metres across. It was built as a counterpart to the circle at Swinside in Cumbria. In the E half of the circle is a long low mound which contained large kists at the E and W ends. This mound obliterated two shortlived cairns built after the circle was constructed, in what Aubrey Burl describes as "prehistoric bigotry and vandalism [which] ruined this magnificent monument. "
Three pairs of stones stand outside the circle at varying distances, the nearest pair at the W side forming a kind of entrance 2.1 metres wide. Many of the stones in this circle were originally shoulder to shoulder, as at Lough Gur, at Swinside in Cumbria and La Menec in Brittany. A portalled entrance is aligned on the setting sun half-way between midwinter and midsummer (around March 21st), and the setting sun at winter solstice seems to slide down between the Mountains of Mourne which form a fine backdrop to the circle.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

IRISH filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain were in Venezuela to make a documentary on President Hugo Chavez in 2002 when they found themselves caught in the middle of an attempted coup.
I remember seeing the second half of this film when it came out on TV and have been trying to track it down ever since and so was pleasantly surprised when a recent search turned up the entire film, free to view on google video.
Chavez is the dominant force in South American politics at present. His country’s huge oil resources have given him financial clout – Venezuela is the fourth largest foreign supplier of oil to the US.
However, his his alliances with Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba and other leftist leaders in the region have demonised him in the eyes of the US. He has all-but nationalised Venezuela’s oil production and pumped the revenues in to health and education in the country.
His enemies at home and abroad have branded him as a communist dictator while his supporters have praised his anti-neo-liberal credentials and efforts to redistribute the country’s wealth to help its poor.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised gives both sides of the story but the filmmakers seem to sit much more comfortably on the Chavez side of the fence than with his opponents.
They were given close access to the president and set the scene by following him on a visit to a rural area where Chavez is greeted with devotion and handed dozens of slips of paper with appeals for help. One of his aides tells us that all of these are read and responded to.
We also see Chavez on his weekly television programme Alo Presidente where he takes phone calls from people from throughout the country.
He is huge bear of a man, manfully punching men on the shoulder and grabbing them by the wrist when they shake hands. It is significant how he interacts with the soldiers who form his guards of honour and who patrol the presidential palace, taking time for some shoulder punching and a whispered word.
Chavez is a former army man who was arrested after an attempted coup in 1992 and served time in prison. However, he reinvented himself to become a constitutional politician and was elected with a landslide majority in 1998.
However, his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ has antagonised the country’s elite who control Venezuela’s media, including its private television stations and we are shown irate men and women in suits accusing Chavez of having a “sexual fixation with Castro” and being “mentally ill”.
One scene shows a group of his opponents at a meeting where they are told to keep an eye on their servants as they might pass on information. They are also given instructions on how to use a gun.
Things reached a head in 2002 when Chavez took control of Venezuela’s oil companies and the private TV stations started to call for demonstrations. The opposition was led by Pedro Carmona and Carlos Ortega who with the backing of senior military commanders ordered Chavez to stand down.
On April 11 they organised a major demonstration, however, Chavez supporters held a counter rally outside the presidential palace in support of the president. Things turned serious when the opposition marchers began to converge on the presidential palace. The army were trying to keep the two sides apart when shooting broke out.
We see graphic images of people lying on the ground with blood dripping from their heads – shot by a sniper’s bullet.
The private TV stations claim that Chavez supporters were shooting at the opposition marchers and show footage of a group of men firing pistols over a bridge. However, what they did not show was that there were no opposition marchers on the other side of the bridge and that those who were shooting seemed to be retaliating against sniper fire.
The opposition blame Chavez for the violence and claim that he ordered the shooting. Senior army chiefs appear on private television to say they have withdrawn their support for Chavez and there are calls for him to be overthrown.
The only station broadcasting the Chavez line is the state broadcaster Channel 8 which is suddenly taken off air.
It is at this point that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised comes into its own. The crew are cut off in the presidential palace where the Chavez government are in an emergency meeting. The palace has been surrounded by tanks and Venezuela’s military leaders have vowed to attack unless Chavez stands down.
A military delegation is brought in to the room where Chavez is waiting. We see Chavez supporters twitching nervously as they pass their guns from one hand to another. “The CIA is behind this,” one tells the camera.
Eventually it is announced that Chavez has refused to resign as president but has agreed to hand himself over to the opposition to prevent the palace from being bombarded and we see shaky camera shots following him as he is led out to vows of loyalty from his supporters.
The next morning the private TV stations are jubilant with opposition organisers giving details of how the coup was planned. In the presidential palace, which has now been taken over by opposition supporters, a speaker says that the elected national assembly has been dissolved, the supreme court dismissed and the national elections board dismissed. He talks about their mandate and democracy.
Out in the street a woman cries. “What about my vote? I voted for Chavez?”
We see pictures of soldiers breaking up pro-Chavez demonstrations and people lying dead on the street.
A Whitehouse spokesman tells a press conference that “Chavez provoked this crisis”.
Opposition leader Pedro Carmona is sworn as president among scenes of jubilation, however, we see members of the red-beret soldiers that once guarded Chavez still in the presidential palace looking uneasy at the events unfolding around them.
Despite the privately-owned TV stations efforts word begins to spread that Chavez did not resign and his supporters begin to take to the streets again and march towards the palace. We see the palace guards huddling into groups and a look of alarm spreading among the faces of the suits that had been celebrating their victory a few hours earlier and they start to make a hasty exit as they see the crowds gathering outside the presidential palace.
The speaker who declared that the national assembly had been dissolved is among a group being held in the cellar and we see a minister in Chavez’s government coming down to tell them that although they are prisoners their rights as citizens are guaranteed.
The private TV stations have still not reported the newest turn of events and Chavez supporters frantically try to get the state-owned Channel 8 back on air, telling us that it is key to restoring Chavez to power. We are told that he is being held on an island and that a US-registered plane has landed and may be about to take him out of Venezuelan jurisdiction.
Channel 8 comes back on air and helicopters are dispatched to rescue the disposed president. Reports come in from around the country that despite support from the army’s high command for the coup the grass roots soldiers are firmly behind Chavez and had been kept in the dark about what had happened.
Eventually a helicopter in the night flies over the thousands of Chavez supporters still gathered outside the presidential palace and the deposed president is back in control. Telling those who opposed him that while he would rather have their support they were entitled to oppose him but that it had to be under the terms of the constitution.
He urges his own supporters to go home and to restore calm.
On the way out of the press conference he turns to the Irish film crew and tells them that he is sorry that he didn’t get a chance to speak to them when he was being led away but that he knew he would be back.
Click on The Revolution Will Not Be Televised to see the film. It lasts for about an hour and 15 minutes.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The art of the short story

The last week has left me feeling like I have been given the equivalent of a literary doing over that I think has undermined by body’s resistance and left me shivering and coughing and spluttering with a cold for the last few days.
It started about two months ago when my cyberspace friend Gerard Brennan emailed me and invited me to contribute a short story to a book that he is co-editing.
Gerard runs the crimesceneni website and has been more than kind about my novel The Lost Chord, reviewing it on his blog and on Amazon, plugging it in an article for Verbal magazine and even talking about it during a contribution he made to a book show on BBC Radio Ulster.
He said the common theme of the story collection would be crime stories with an Irish mythological theme and he had already lined up a number of leading crime writers from throughout Ireland.
I was a bit wary to start with, firstly because while I have total respect from crime writing as a literary genre it is not my thing. My publisher described The Lost Chord as a novel of ‘music and mystery’ on the blurb and it does have elements of a detective story to it but it is by no means a crime novel.
The other names who had agreed to contribute are among the best-known crime writers in Ireland and so I felt that I would be a bit of an imposter.
The second reason why I was wary about getting involved was because I had never really attempted to write a short story before. Sure I’d done a few but never bothered revising them and never even thought about trying to get them published.
I like novels, I read them for pleasure and at this point I have written three and a quarter of my own – one published, one hopefully due to be published soon, a new novel which is still taking shape and my first flawed, much-rejected outing which is tucked away in a drawer somewhere.
I think I know what makes a novel work and it is a genre I am comfortable with but short stories are a totally different thing. Apart from Liam O’Flaherty and Jorge Louis Borges I never really bothered reading them until quite recently when I got John McGahern’s New and Selected Short Stories as well as O’Flaherty’s three book box set of Complete Short Stories.
The briefing notes and guidelines that Gerard sent me were intriguing but I decided that it was not really for me until while out walking one morning I hit on an idea. Writing is writing, right. It doesn’t matter if it is crime, science fiction, romance or so-called serious literature. So what if I wasn’t a natural crime writer it was all down to the art of story telling.
Two days later I had written nearly 8,000 words and was still only halfway through the story. The guidelines were between 2,000 and 6,000. But this was a first draft I told myself, keep writing, get all my ideas down and then I would cut it back in the next draft.
By the time I’d finished the story was nearly 13,000 words and I briefly considered expanding it and seeing if I could turn it into a full-length novel. There were four very strong characters and a couple of interesting minor ones, I thought, and they could all be developed and other plot lines brought into play.
In the end I decided against it, firstly because I wanted to continue with the novel I am writing, secondly because I wanted see if I could actually distil it into a good tight short story and thirdly because I’d already told Gerard that I would contribute.
I emailed him and said I’d had over run on the word count and could he accept something more than the top limit of 6,000 words.
No problem, he replied, and so I set about trying to edit my story down eventually getting a version that I was happy with which sat at just over 8,000 words. I’d had to cut a number of scenes that I was very keen on and drop sub-plots that I’d thought gave the story a bit more depth.
I was keen to get an opinion because from his website it is clear that Gerard Brennan lives and breaths crime fiction and I wanted to know if my story would make the grade. The reply back was cautiously optimistic but with the proviso that all decisions had to be taken jointly between Gerard and his co-editor Mike Stone (no not that one – an English writer of mainly of sci-fi, horror and fantasy).
A few weeks later Gerard came back and said the plot was too complicated and that Mike had thought it was really a novella being squeezed into a shorter format, although he said they both liked the overall story.
They were right. I had approached the story as I would writing a novel. When I had edited it down I had still tried to keep in all the ideas that I’d had when it was a 13,000 word piece introducing too many character points of view, too many twists and sub plots.
Gerard advised on keeping the basic plot and writing from a single point of view, cutting the number of characters and ditching some of the superfluous scenes. Superfluous! These were some of my favourite parts of the story and included some of, what I thought, was the best writing.
Again I decided that I would just forget about it until about two weeks later I suddenly thought of how I could maybe make it all work and so within a day I had rewritten a new draft, using mostly material from the original, but from a different perspective and telling a much simpler story.
I sent it back. Gerard was upbeat but suggested a few more revisions which I agreed would make it a better story and so rewrote again. By mid-week Mike Stone was also involved in the process pointing out gaps in the plot which I had thought were perfectly clear but then again just because I knew what I was talking about didn’t mean that everyone else did.
We were down to mere sentences but both editors had still not finally committed to including the story in the collection until Friday morning when I got two separate email from Gerard and Mike saying that my story was in.
As I said at the start I felt as if I’d been given a literary hiding but it was an invigorating and humbling experience. To have something you have written scrutinized in such fine detail is unnerving but to me it is the sign of the perfect editor.
It is hard to distance yourself from something that you have written. You can’t see the flaws, especially when you are trying to turn the whole thing round in too short a period of time.
It was like having a master class in short story writing. In fact mid-week to try and take my mind of my ‘crime’ short story I started writing another one and finished it that night. I read over it yesterday and I can see that it needs redrafted but is much more focused and tightly written. It is a short story and not a mini-novel squeezed into the short story format.
Thanks to both Mike and Gerard. You can find out more about Mike’s writing at his website mylefteye and about Gerard’s writing and his excellent insights in Irish crime writing a crimesceneni.
The short story collection they are editing is due to be published by Morrigan Books in early 2010 and Gerard is running a competition to try and find a name for it. You can read more at his website and find out who some of the other authors who are contributing are.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Dr Jung

Perhaps I am reading too much into what is supposed to be a bit of populist entertainment here but after just watching a couple of episodes of Doctor Who it struck me that it was almost a Jungian parable.
The episodes Human Nature and The Family of Blood are from Series III with David Tenant as the Doctor. They are set in 1913 when the Doctor, who is being pursued across the universe by a family of blood-thirsty aliens, changes his metabolism to become human and wipes his memory.
This, he tells his assistant Martha, will enable him to hide from the Family long enough for their lifeforce to die. His true personality has been uploaded into a device that is disguised as a fob watch and when three months have passed Martha can open this again and the Doctor will be fully restored.
The persona he adopts is that of John Smith, a master in an English public school. The name John Smith is a nod to the ‘classic’ series, particularly the Jon Pertwee years, when the Doctor often used that alias.
The setting reminded me a bit of If… which I saw at the QFT in Belfast last month. This film, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Malcolm McDowell, was also set in a public school although it was set in 1968, the year in which it is made.
However, I wonder if the Doctor Who script writer Paul Cornell and series producer Russell T Davies were paying more than a passing homage to it.
The rambling school building, the military discipline and firearms practice – including all out gun battles – and the younger boys ‘fagging’ for the older ones in the Dr Who episodes seem to pay homage to If…
However, being an amateur Jungian it is the ‘individuation’ aspect that most interested me about the John Smith/Doctor scenario.
Jung writes of dreaming that he was hiking through a hilly landscape when he came to a chapel. He went in and saw a yogi sitting in the lotus position and meditating. When he looked closer he saw that the ‘yogi had his face and came to the conclusion that “he is the one who is meditating me. He has a dream and I am it.” Jung concluded that when the yogi woke from his dream “I would no longer be”. (Jung: Memories, Dreams and Reflections pp355).
This more or less matches the reality for John Smith whose existence as a human is merely a diluted projection of his ‘higher self’ – the Doctor.
Smith often dreams that he is an adventurer across time and space and writes down these stories and illustrates them with drawings that we as the viewer of course know relate to his true identity.
The concept of a higher self is more often found in Eastern mysticism but is also found in Western gnosticism and in terms of Jungian psychology represents the “unconscious prenatal wholeness”.
Jung goes on to say that the greatest limitation for man is to be confined by the ‘self’ – the persona that we construct to deal with every day life and that most people end up becoming.
He writes: “Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious. In such awareness we experience ourselves concurrently as limited and eternal, as both the one and the other. In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination – that is, ultimately limited – we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite.”
This can be a daunting prospect – John Smith is terrified of opening the fob watch because it will effectively kill the narrow human persona that he totally identifies with even though it will restore his true identity as the Doctor.
That is what Jung is challenging us to do – to open the fob watch of our unconsciousness and allow its contents to mingle with those aspects of ourselves that we are already aware of and to become complete beings.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Going veggie

I am seriously considering becoming a vegetarian again following reports that pork and cattle feed in Ireland has been contaminated. This has caused shops and supermarkets to withdraw all pork products from their shelves and consumers being advised not eat any pork produced in Ireland since September until further notice.
It has also emerged that some cattle may have been fed contaminated feed as well.
It reminds me of when the full extent of the BSE issue first emerged. I was outraged that anyone could even have contemplated feeding bits of cow brain back to cattle simply because it was cheap. It seemed to me to be a subversion of nature in the name of profit and while I did not immediately give up eating beef I certainly curtailed my intake.
I stopped eating meat completely – including beef, pork, lamb and chicken but kept on eating fish – in 2000 and maintained my mostly vegetarian lifestyle until 2006. There were a couple of lapses, mostly when I was abroad. I remember ordering vegetable soup in Chile and finding a piece of bone in it. I didn’t send it back and kept eating it.
A few years ago when we were in Africa we were invited to dinner in the home of some people we had become friendly with. I knew before I went that meat was likely to be served, and it was. Being the male guest spoonful after spoonful of a beef stew in peanut sauce was served up and our hostess, Janibar, told how she had got up early that morning to ensure she got the best cut of meat. Our friends were not poor by west African standards but they almost certainly earned a fraction of what we did. There was no way I was going to turn round and say ‘sorry but do you not have any quorn’.
The following year we were in Spain and I cracked – the concept of vegetarianism does not really exist there. Sure there are lots of great fish dishes but all that chorizo and jamon de Serrano was too much temptation for me and I have been a carnivore ever since, although with more than a twinge of guilt.
In some ways it was quite liberating to be able to go in to a restaurant and not find myself limited to scampi, salmon or pasta with a few chopped vegetables tossed in to it. I enjoy trying out different foods and am particularly fond of wild meat, especially game.
But this week’s news that once again our food chain has been contaminated has made me resentful. It is an industry on which the consumer has to place total trust and which has consistently let us down. The contamination will probably turn out to be an accident rather than the misjudgement that led to BSE but that does not excuse it.
Although we are being told that the contamination will probably not have any impact on humans who have consumed infected products I still feel violated. We had sausages on Saturday and beef on Sunday.
Of course giving up meat will not necessarily spare me from the incompetence of the food industry. Vegetables can be sprayed with toxins and the ground in which they grow can be polluted. Fish can be poisoned by the waste that we pump into the sea and affected by the processing industry.
But it is my way of protesting. The meat industry will not suffer economically because I no longer eat sausages or buy mince to make chilli con carne but in my own way I will have shunned and made clear my contempt for it.
Being vegetarian demands a certain amount of commitment, although it does not necessarily mean having to sacrifice good food.
I’m not a bad cook and can rustle up some decent Thai and Indian dishes. I’m also quite good at soups and make a good veggie Harira, a north African staple, chowder and a chunky vegetable broth. However, Sinead mightn’t be too pleased as it will mean going back to cooking two meals when we eat together or else her having to share my veggie or piscitarian delights – something she was never to keen on in the past.
Most meat substitutes are revolting and I never quite got why people who are non-meat eaters should want to munch on something with the texture of cardboard that very slightly resembles the flavour of bacon.
I’m sure I will still eat the occasional meat dish – especially while travelling and maybe I will allow myself a bit of game now and again. Somehow I feel better knowing that the meat I am eating was running about in a field or flapping around a tree a few days ago rather than beneath artificial lights in a barn and being feed with toxin-infected grain.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Hable Con Ella

Following my musings on Spain in my last post in which I used an image from the Almododvar film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her) it was almost inevitable that I would want to watch it again. It is my favourite film and strikes me as a complete work that operates at a variety of levels. It has a fairly straightforward narrative, but it is filled with symbolism, cinematic vignettes, mini stories and minor characters that enrich the overall narrative.
That it should be viewed as symbolic is clear from the very start as the film opens with a dance sequence, Café Muller, choreographed by Pina Bausch which is being watched by the two central characters Benigno and Marco, who are sitting beside one another in the audience but who have not yet met.
The film ends with another piece of dance theatre and sandwiched between them within the main body of the film are numerous choreographed sequences.
The second scene where Benigno, a male nurse, and his colleague Rosa, wash and dress the comatose patient Alicia is a highly stylised piece of cinematic ballet as are the bullfighting sequences in which the female matador Lydia appears. Similarly the scene where Lydia is dressed by her, male, assistant is also a beautiful piece of cinema in which careful lighting and closely choreographed movements are used to create a highly intimate moment.
The female bullfighter has been much commented on as an attempt by Almodovar to challenge the macho world of the Spanish male but he also does so in other more subtle ways. Marco weeps at the performance of Café Muller and we see him welling-up on a number of other occasions as he remembers the pain of his breakup with his previous partner Anglea. Yet it is this highly emotional man who ends up with Lydia the bullfighter – who out of her matador garb is intoxicatingly feminine in short body-hugging dresses and dripping barely covered by a towel as she steps from a shower.
Despite his vulnerabilities Marco is portrayed as a sophisticated man of the world – an Argentine-born journalist who works for El Pais and who has written a series of travel books.
In contrast Benigno is portrayed as sheltered and naïve – described as a “retard” by his boss. He spent his youth nursing his mother who was confined to bed, not because she was ill but because she was “a bit lazy”. He is slightly creepy and stalks Alicia to the point where he arranges an appointment with her psychiatrist father so that he can get into their home and while there sneak into her bedroom – yet it is he who ends up nursing her after she is left in a coma following a road accident.
We see the former stalker Benigno washing down Alicia’s naked body and looking after her every need, to the point where he is even allowed to clean up her period. He confesses to Marco that the four years he has spent nursing her have been the most satisfactory of his life.
Benigno’s journey from a sad and lonely obsessive through to the imprisoned, unshaved “psychopath” who raped his comatose patient is dramatic and yet despite his crime it is hard not to feel sympathy for his action which was driven by devotion and desire for the woman in his care.
And here Almodovar sets us up with a moral dilemma for his audience – by raping Alica and impregnating her Benigno proves to be her redemption as she miraculously regains consciousness and we are left with the philosophical conundrum that if by performing an act of evil something good is the result can we still judge the original act as evil.
Marco’s development is more subtle than that of Benigno and he emerges from his morose, introspective self pity to engage with Benigno. He even shares some his traits, his obsessiveness and loneliness, and he admits to Benigno that he too is very fond of still-comatose Alicia. Marco is redeemed by his unquestioning support for the incarcerated Benigno when all others have abandoned him even though he is horrified by his friend’s crime.
Almodovar uses Hable Con Ella as vehicle to show of his considerable skills as a filmmaker. It jumps back and forward in time – and even contains a flashback within a flashback – but never seems to lose its narrative thread.
It even contains a film within a film, which he uses to symbolically depict the rape of Alicia. The silent movie tells the story of a man who drinks a potion concocted by his mistress which causes him to shrink until he ends up just a few inches high and cavorting over her naked body from where he “disappears inside her for ever”.
Almodovar also manages to strategically place objects and sequences of dialogue that hint at deeper levels of meaning.
On Marco’s bedside table we see a copy of the novel Las Horas (The Hours) by Michael Cunningham, while beside Alicia’s hospital bed is the novel version of La Noche del Cazador (The Night of the Hunter).
Alicia’s dance teacher, played by Geraldine Chaplin, describes a ballet she is working on set in the trenches of World War One where the ethereal emerges from corporal depicted by female ballerinas emerging as the souls of dead male soldiers who have been killed by warfare.
It is the dancer Alicia who eventually emerges from her near-death state while Benigno, whose rape of her instigated her recovery, is incarcerated in prison and eventually in a grave after he takes his own life during an attempt to induce himself into a coma through a drugs overdose so that he can “be with Alicia” whose recovery he is unaware of.
Throughout, Almodovar paces his main narrative with slight distractions and humorous interludes. The female nurse explaining how she can tell how well a man is endowed by the shape of his face and the pretty receptionist who works for Alicia’s father answering the phone and telling her friend that she has just had “an elephant-sized dump” (surely one of the great lines in cinema) add nothing to the plot but help create a multi-layered feel in which numerous elements mingle.
The visual impact is enhanced by the soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias which for me is now so synonymous with film that even when playing it while driving in my car I can visualise the scenes that each track accompanies.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Mi vida española

IT'S not easy being Spanish when you haven't got a drop of Spanish blood in your body and live in Ireland - but I try.
My day usually starts with a cafe con leche and a bit of bread while I sit and watch the news on 24H, an online news channel broadcast by Televisión Española. A couple of times a month I will pick up a copy of El Pais (which is usually a day out of date).
Lunch is often paella, tortilla español (potato omelet), sopa Castellano (garlic, egg and chorizo soup), or gambas a la plancha con ensalada (grilled prawns with salad). Sometimes I might have a copa de tinto (small glass of wine) with my lunch.
Other Spanish delicacies are harder to come by. There is a shop in Belfast which sells boquerones (anchovies in vinegar) - but they are absurdly expensive. As for navajas (razor clams) I have never even seen them on a restaurant menu in Ireland.
There is a continental market being held in the centre of Belfast at the minute which sells churros (deep fried strips of donut) but it is not quite the same standing outside in a frosty December and eating them as sitting in warm bar in Madrid with cup of hot chocolate to dip them in.
In terms of music I have a decent selection of Flamenco, Galician traditional music and more contemporary Spanish artists – including Mano Chao, Los Rodrigues, Celtas Cortos – and quite a lot of very dodgy Spanish pop. Thanks to broadband I can also listen to a lot of Spanish radio stations.
I also enjoy Spanish (and South American) cinema and would probably rate the Pedro Almodovar film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her) as my favourite movie.
I've spent quite a bit of time in Spain, teaching in Madrid and working in the tourism industry in Mallorca and in Andalucia - but that was in the early 1990s. However, I still go back when I can, I was there in June this year, 10 days last year and a fortnight the year before that.
My Spanish is flawed and very ungrammatical but it is a language I am fairly competent in. Technically I should be able to speak Irish at least as well but I lack the confidence to launch into a conversation and worry that I'm using the wrong tense or transposing English idioms.
No such problem with Spanish... if I don't know how to say something I'll find my way around it and have often launched into topics of conversation with absolutely no idea of how I'm going to construct a sentence.
For the most part I find that I am understood and I can usually understand what is being said back - watching Spanish television and listening to the radio has also helped, as has reading the papers, in print and online.
Of course there are nuances of Spanish life that I will never master and like anywhere else there are vast regional differences that tend to be glossed over in the overall outsider’s image of Spain.
I am fairly au-fait with the broader politics concerning the Basque issue and Catalan autonomy but I have found it best to avoid getting involved in debate - it is a bit like an outsider coming to Ireland and launching into a conversation about constitutional issues here.
I occasionally muse on the possibility of going back to live in Spain. Maybe not in Madrid which is a much bigger and much more complicated city than the one I remember, although I'm sure I could adapt.
I quite fancy Malaga. It is on the coast of Andalucia, within easy reach of Seville, Granada and Cordoba as well as the northern coast of Africa. Given the huge ex-pat population living down the coast on the Costa Del Sol and the number of holiday makers who come to the region there would be plenty of work for an English speaker.
But while I enjoy a hot climate I also like a bit of rain now and again and so I think I would be more suited to a northern city - Zaragoza, Valladolid, or even Santiago de Compostella in Galicia.
However, maybe I'm simply deluding myself that is what I want. Could I really live without being close to the Mourne Mountains or my favourite coastal walks.
I have quite a romantic image of Spain and eulogise it because of the memories I have of the times I spent there. But I was in my twenties when I lived there, was much more sociable and enjoyed going out and meeting people. Now I prefer taking it easy with a quiet glass of wine and a bit of music.
No reason why I couldn't do that still but there are other factors - not least Sinead who quite likes Spain but who might not necessarily want to live there.
There is also the danger that I am simply deluding myself that I would prefer life there. I remember a couple of years ago dropping off a hire car at Barajas Airport in Madrid and when the guy who worked in the office saw my passport he started lamenting how he'd spent the best year of his life in Ireland and would love to come back and live here. We almost agreed to swap lives.
I wonder if he wakes up in the morning and makes a cup of tea and toast and has fish fingers with beans or a big greasy fry for lunch and yearns for sausages and champ accompanied by a pint of Guinness for his evening meal?

Monday, 1 December 2008

The White Hotel by DM Thomas

I listed Ararat, reviewed below, by DM Thomas as one of my favourite books when setting up this blog a few weeks ago. It still is but after just finishing The White Hotel, by the same author, I have to admit it is a far better book.
As I mentioned before, Thomas is not afraid to plunder the big themes and major historical events in middle and Eastern Europe in his novels. That also goes for people and a central figure in The White Hotel is Sigmund Freud.
The novel is centred on the figure of Lisa Erdman, a part Jewish opera singer of Russian descent who was born in Ukraine but settled in Vienna.
The White Hotel opens with a fantasy sequence, often sexually explicit, firstly written in verse and then expanded on in poetic and image-driven prose.
It is followed by a case study in which Freud analyses Lisa and tries to cure her of debilitating physical ailments using psychotherapy.
He constantly refers back to the fantasy sequences to try to identify how Lisa’s suppressed memories and childhood trauma are behind the hysteria that is undermining her physical health.
Of course, being Freud the motivating psychic energy is sexual and during his psychoanalysis he uncovers childhood memories where Lisa witnessed her mother and her mother’s twin sister and her uncle in a threesome.
He also catches Lisa out in lies and denials during her therapy – she fiddles with a crucifix, which formerly belonged to her mother, when she is being dishonest.
Other memories, inhibitions and suppressed sexual desires emerge and Lisa’s health seems to improve following her sessions with Freud allowing her to resume her career as an opera singer.
The following years see her enjoying modest success on the stage but unable to form a relationship until when she is in her early forties and she travels to Kiev where she marries a Ukrainian Jew who she once performed with in La Scala opera house in Milan and helps to bring up his son, Kolya.
Lisa had shunned her Jewish heritage and practised her mother’s Catholic fate. In fact she resented her Jewish ancestry – her first husband, who she married when she was in her early twenties, was anti-Semitic and she had hidden that aspect of her background from him.
By 1941 Lisa is scraping a living with her adopted son in a Jewish district. Her husband has been shipped off to a gulag for supposedly complaining about the Soviet government.
However, in September that year Kiev is invaded by Nazi Germany and Lisa and Kolya are rounded up and marched to a train station where they believe they are going to be shipped to Palestine.
Lisa at first tries to ignore the sound of gunfire as they approach the train station but she soon realises that they are going to be shot in a nearby quarry known as Babi Yar.
Despite being able to prove that she is not Jewish and given an opportunity to escape, Lisa refuses to leave her adopted son, whose papers state that he is Jewish, and they both die with more than 30,000 others who tipped into the quarry after being shot by Nazi machine guns.
Thomas’s narrative is often matter of fact and dispassionate in this section of The White Hotel which makes the more poignant observations unnerving when he suddenly drops them in.
After describing the massacre and the subsequent plundering of the piled up dead bodies he writes:
“The soul of a man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored. Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences, even the babes in arms (perhaps especially the babes in arms)… If Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person.”
What Freud also missed was the aspects of premonition is Lisa’s fantasy writing where he had interpreted certain images as evidence of sexual hysteria when they were in fact a foreboding of Lisa’s death.
That is one of the reasons why this novel will drag you back to the start as soon as you’ve finished to try and pick up those elements again that you thought you had sussed out only to find that Thomas was planting information that would develop into something entirely different.