Monday, 21 December 2009

Music for the solstice

Cúinne an Ghiorria by Colm Mac Con Iomaire formed an interesting sound track to this year's winter solstice. The fiddler began his musical career with Kíla and is also a member of The Frames. His solo album draws on traditional influences but with distinctly Philip Glass-type moments that often gives a contemporary classical feel.
Loops of sound gradually mutate and overlap to create a hypnotic soundscape with sometimes just the barest hint of a traditional air.
It reminded me at bit of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh's album Where the One Eyed Man is King where he also stripped back all flourishes to create contemporary-sounding pieces that often had a mere passing nod to tradition.
Mac Con Iomaire's former band Kíla were involved in a project earlier this year with French composer Bruno Coulais which is being tipped for an Oscar.
The Secret of Kells is the soundtrack to an animated feature film. Kíla take second billing to Coulais but and the contribution is mostly as backing musicians.
The album combines elements of Irish trad with contemporary classical and monastic chanting to create an intriguing soundscape.
At times it reminded me a bit of Zbigniew Preisner score for the film Three Colours Blue and at others it was pure Kila.

Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The title and subject matter are sure to put off many people from this novel and they would be right as there are quite a few grim moments in it. Despite that it is an immensely rewarding read that left me feeling quite humble.
Cancer Ward is set in a hospital in Uzbekistan in the 1950s which was a Soviet Republic at the time.
It is told from the point of view of various narrators - patients, doctors and nurses - but mainly from the perspective of Kostoglotov, a fictional version of Solzhenitsyn. Like the author Kostoglotov is a former soldier who was sent to a gulag and then on his release in to exile where he developed cancer.
The other patients in the hospital form a cross-section of society in the far-flung outreaches of the USSR. A party apparatchik (Rusanov), an idealistic young communist and various ethnicities are all laid low by various forms of cancer and thrust together in the same ward.
The novel can of course be read at a symbolic level, with the hospital seen as a microcosm the USSR and the cancer that runs through the patients a manifestation of the sickness of society. It is just after the Stalanist era and there has been a relaxation of the harsh laws that saw dissidents like Kostoglotov imprisoned and exiled.
Rusanov, carries a guilty secret that he has only ever spoken of to his wife (he is suffering from a tumor in his throat. Twenty years earlier he had denounced a man and his wife who had shared an apartment with him and his wife because of a minor domestic dispute that resulted in his neighbour being sent into exile. Rusanov feels no guilt for what he has done but is alarmed with the new liberalisation that is taking place that will allow exiles to return.
Despite his illness and the fears of death that it brings he feels little empathy for his fellow sufferers and resents sharing a ward with them.
As a party member he fared well in the Soviet Union and lived a life of privilege. In a society that is supposed to be classless he looks down on the peasants and ordinary workers around him.
Kostoglotov challenges the communism that has been allowed to develop and says that under a true communist system the woman who cleans the hospital ward would be paid the same as the doctors who treat the patients. A statement that outrages the party member Rusanov.
Solzhenitsyn prose ranges from the pure unrelenting description of cancer in its various forms and how it eats away at the limbs and organs of the body to the poetic as gets inside the deepest fears of those who have been striken by the disease. The treatment in the 1950 often entailed bombarding tumors with x-rays with little thought for the collateral damage being caused to adjoining healthy parts of the body. Surgery was also often used, cutting out piece of the body and affected limbs.
There is great sense of time and place for those who lived in the sprawling USSR at that time.
Cancer Ward is as much a history lesson (with excellent but never distracting translator's notes) that helps the reader contextualise what is happening and explain some of the more obscure references.
Solzhenitsyn is superb on how the disease totally redefines the lives of those who are suffering from it, how they move from a before (they were diagnosed) with cancer to after it. How the disease defines their lives and how what they took for granted before suddenly assumes an almost magical and precious quality, that even the banal experiences of everyday life (even for a prisoner and political exile)are suddenly worth savouring.
This is not an easy novel to read but that is not an excuse not to read it.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Horslips -The Odyssey Arena, Belfast

There was trouble at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast last night. Trouble With a Capital T. Almost 30 years after they played their last proper concert at the Ulster Hall in Belfast (immortalised on the live album The Belfast Gigs) Horslips were back.
The hair, beards and glittering costumes that the band favoured during their early days in the 1970s were replaced by sensible clothing but the sound was still unmistakable.
Trouble With a Capital T, Dearg Doom and Sword of Light – rock songs built upon traditional Irish airs were all given a blast.
Also in the set were the more mainstream Man Who Built America, Furniture and the all-out rocker Shaking All Over.
My own particular highlights of the evening ware Charolias from The Tain and good 20-minute section from The Book of Invasions.
Four of the original line-up were on stage – Tyrone-born Barry Devlin on bass and vocals, Johnny Fean on guitar and vocals, Charles O’Connor on mandolin, fiddle and vocals, and Jim Lockhart on keyboards and flute.
Original drummer Eamon Carr, who still works with the band but not on stage, was replaced by Fean’s brother, Ray.
All are superb musicians, Fean in particular seeming to casually flick along the fretboard to draw out some extended but never-dull guitar solos.
Charles O'Connor, the only Englishman in the band, is also a superb multi-instrumentalist, switching between, fiddle, mandolin, concertina, slide-guitar and ad a share of the vocals.
Devlin is laid-back and affable and Lockhart's keyboards and flute gave them that distinct edge that makes their sound so unique.
Horslips built a huge loyal following in the 1970s by bringing Celtic rock to the ballrooms of Ireland including the north where few other rock bands dared to come because of the Troubles.
The Odyssey Arena audience seemed to be a cross section of those who are now in their fifties and sixties who were there first time round and younger fans, ranging from teens through to early middle age who until now only knew the band through their recorded output.
The after-show party (oh the privileges of journalism) was quite a civilized affair that had the feel of a cocktail party rather than a post-gig knees up.
It was interesting to see journalists, DJs and TV presenters all queueing up with the privelege ordinary punters who managed to get in to have their photo taken and gather autographs with the band.
On the way out I saw Eamon Carr standing deep in conversation with someone. How weird must it all have been for him to see the band he is such a central part of playing without him behind the kit?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Brazil, Belfast punk and Celtic Rock

I bought Welcome to Gomorrah by Niall Quinn (not the soccer player) in a Dundalk bookshop 15 years ago after reading the blurb. I was very taken with it at the time and read it three or four times but haven't read it in maybe 10 years.
Yet when I was setting up this blog last year and compiling my favourite books it was one of the ones I immediately included.
Reading it again I would have to argue that it is not a great novel but it is a fine piece of writing. Publishers would probably reject it now because it is too self-consciously literary, too much tell and not enough show and the author's voice constantly drowns out the action with interjections and polemics.
It tells the story of an unnamed narrator who arrives by ship from Europe in Brazil. He is a 'broken man', a mental wreck and with just $60 in his pocket believes that he will not survive long in South America.
He meets Lia, a young prostitute, who tells him he will be mugged and killed before he gets to the end of the street and she escorts him from the docks.
The story is probably predictable, the bitter, damaged man who finds salvation through a 'tart with a heart'.
Lia and the narrator, who is an Irish writer, become lovers. Their stories unravel along with Quinn's critique of the sort of society that brings girls like Lia to the street and others to the point of such absolute poverty that they crawl on a park bench to die while the better off turn their heads to ignore them.
It is an angry novel which Quinn uses as a vehicle to prosecute global capitalism for its crimes against huge swathes of the world's population.
It also follows the downfall of its narrator whose single book was lauded and praised in Dublin and earned him a literary prize which would allow him to study in the US for two years with all fees paid and a living allowance.
Yet when he gets to the university they have never heard of him. I tried goolging Niall Quinn to find out more to see if this element of the novel was autobiographical (it does have the feel of a lived story) but could find few references between the hundred for the soccer player of the same name.
He is soon living hand to mouth in abject poverty with no-one seeming to accept blame for his situation. Even when he is given an airfare back to Ireland he is regarded as a pariah (what had he done to offend the university he was sent to and abuse the literary honour he had been given?). He is not even able to claim the dole because he is regarded as having left his job in the US.
He goes to England, at the time of the miners strike, where he sees thousands of once-proud working people reduced to demonised jobless in Thatacher's Britain. He tries to take his own life but although he is saved he regards the man he was before as dead and the person who was pulled from the exhaust fume-filled car as a distortion of what he once was.
It is this wreck that arrives in Brazil and through Lia creates manages to re-engage with the world.
Welcome to Gomorrah is a novel of the underbelly of society and the narrator makes money by agreeing to launder money... some good tips here on how to forge passports (before the days of digitalisation), steal identities, and to wash illegal money through casinos, buying and selling jewellery and used cars.
It is a novel of attitude and Quinn is as concerned with making his sociological observations as he is with telling a story.
Tonight I bought another book to add to my already teetering unread pile but since the author and two of the main protagonists were in the vicinity I thought why not.
I first saw Stiff Little Fingers when I was 15 and have seen them half a dozen times since in various incarnations. I don't think their music as aged as well as The Undertones, or even The Sex Pistols or The Clash but maybe that is because their lyrics were so much of a time and place.
Some of the main participants of that time in place where in the John Hewitt bar in Belfast for the launch Roland Link's "Kicking Up a Racket - The Story of Stiff Little Fingers 1977-1983 inclduing the band's first drummer Brian Faloon (who played on Inflammable Material) and his successor Jim Reilly, who played on the next two studio albums and the still-superb live album Hanx.
Other faces, were Good Vibrations impresario Terri Hooley, Outcast Greg Cowan and Rudi's Brian Young.
At more than 350 pages the book looks as if it might give details of what brand of guitar strings the band were using in 1978 but SLF were the soundtrack to my youth so I can take that sort of indulgence.
I will of course now have to dig out my various SLF albums to listen to while I read which fits in with current musical mood as I've been listening to the compilation John Peel: Right Time Wrong Speed.
Alternative Ulster by SLF is on there, as is You've Got My Number by The Undertones. Other stand-out tracks are by The Wedding Present, Killing Joke, The Fall, Misty in Roots, Joy Division, Half Man Half Biscuit and even Ivor Cuttler.
Mind you there will be a distinct change in musical genres this week. I've already started dipping into The Tain, The Book of Invasions and the obscure and rather good Drive The Cold Winter Away by Horslips ahead of their reunion gig in the Odyssey Arena in Belfast.
Eamon Carr, who is for me probably the most interesting - he went on to become a journalist and also wrote a travelogue following the journeys of the Japanese haikuist Basho – has said he won't be playing, yet when I saw them on TV at the weekend he was behind the kit. See the footage here.
Will have to almost change my mindset from punk and post-punk to the glam infused absurdity that was Celtic Rock. Ach, sin scéal eile

Friday, 20 November 2009


THE Spanish artist Pablo Picasso may have left his native Malaga when he was just 14 but his association with the Andalucian city is giving it a cultural kudos on a par with that brought to Bilbao by the Guggenheim museum.
While Malaga's Picasso Museum may not have the architectural wow-factor of the Guggenheim, any building that contains more than 140 paintings, sketches and sculptures by one of the 20th century's most famous artists is guaranteed to be a huge draw.
The Picasso Museum has also had a ripple effect and in the six years since it opened Malaga has grabbed the cultural baton and run with it in a bid to secure the title of European City of Culture in 2016.
It now also boasts a museum of modern art, an interactive museum of music - which is aimed at both adults and kids - and even a museum of wine-making.
Thrown in to the mix are a baroque cathedral, Arab fortress, crumbling castle, theatres and concert venues as well as a unique regional cuisine.
In addition Malaga has the advantage of being just a three-hour hop away from Belfast International Airport.
A good starting point is Malaga Cathedral which was built on the site of a Mosque after the Arab Moors were driven from Spain by the Catholic monarchs in the 16th century.
The Moors had occupied much of Spain for 700 years and their influence can still be seen in terms of architecture, cuisine, place names and even on the Spanish language.
Some churches in Malaga simply took over former mosques and you can still see the outline of minarets and Moorish arches. However, the Cathedral was build from scratch, beginning in 1528.
From outside if you stand back from the main entrance you will see that there is only one tower, the other one is just a stub that was never completed.
A huge choir, with two organs, dominates the cavernous inside and set into the walls on either side are little side churches, dedicated to different saints, with some beautiful icons and paintings.
Most of the main cultural sights in Malaga are within walking distance from one another and about 10 minutes stroll from the cathedral is La Alcazaba, an Arab fortress, parts of which date back to the 700s.
A pathway twists up through the remarkably well-preserved fortifications to where the sultan would have held court. Plants and shrubs and running water help cool the air down during the hottest days, although for those who might find the walk too strenuous there is a lift which takes you to the summit.
You can see why La Alcazaba was built where it was for it provides superb views over Malaga and out to the Mediterranean which used to break at the foot of the fortress but which is now reclaimed land and home to the city's gardens and sea port.
Set even higher than La Alcazaba is Castillo de Gibralfaro, which dates from the 14th century, and while only a few ramparts remain it is worth visiting, once again, for some fantastic views along the coast and the mountains which lie inland.
More and more history is being uncovered in Malaga every day and just a few years ago an excavation at the foot of the La Alcazaba came across some Roman remains.
Since then archaeologists have uncovered an entire amphitheatre, its outline now almost fully exposed again after centuries of being hidden beneath the earth.
Just around the corner is Plaza de la Merced where Picasso was born
in 1881. His former home is open to visitors and contains a number of sketches and sculptures but for a fuller exposition to his work a visit to the Picasso Museum is a must.
The museum has works by Picasso covering every period of his life, from his early, fairly conventional, work through his famous 'rose' and 'blue' periods, examples of 'neo-classicism', 'cubism', flirtations with 'surrealism' and the sexually charged pieces of his later years.
He is one of the best-known artists of the 20th century and his style and themes will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in art.
Slightly more challenging is the work on display at Malaga's newly opened Centre of Contemporary Art.
Andy Warhol is probably the best-known artist on display here this autumn alongside Jean Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Gunter Forg and Gary Hume.
Huge galleries are home to sometimes spartan, occasionally interactive and always challenging works - and it's free in. Another new addition to Malaga's cultural landscape is MIMMA - an interactive music museum which has a collection of 300 instruments from throughout the world, some hundreds of years old.
A number of the instruments can be picked up and played which is great fun if you are the one doing the playing.
Malaga's main shopping Street is the pedestrianised Marques de Larios, with a maze of little side streets and alleys running off it as well. Being a Spanish city there are of course hundreds of cafes, bars and restaurants everywhere you go.
Tapas are a great way to sample a variety of different dishes in a single sitting. Malagan salad is made with potato, cod, onion, orange, olives and oil, and while a combination of asparagus, prawns and scrambled eggs may not sound that appealing it does work. The city also has its own version of Anadalucian favourite gazpacho and a regional variation of paella.
My favourite find was a long, narrow 'bodega' on the main thoroughfare, Alameda Principal. Along its back wall are dozens of barrels piled high on top of one another with a variety of wines ranging from strong, almost sherry-like, to light reds and whites.
The barmen notches up the price of each drink with a piece of chalk on the wooden bar before tallying up your total when you are ready to leave. A food vendor sells a variety of tapas, including prawns and smoked hams. A perfect way to round off a busy day of culture.

(This appeared in The Irish News Travel pages on Saturday November 21.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Rejuvenation, cooking and Chinese Dub

Youth Without Youth by Mircea Eliade could be classified as science fiction but then so could Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. An elderly Romanian scholar, Dominic, is struck by lightening and finds that his body has begun to rejuvinate and that his failing memory has been restored and amplified.
His case attracts international attention and he is secreted away by the Romanian authorities. The first part of the novel takes part in the late 1930s and Dominic is smuggled out of the country when it is learned that the Gestapo want to get hold of him.
He had devoted his life's work to the rise of civilization and the link between language and consciousness and his increased mental powers allow him to continued that work. But now rather than studying a book he can simply hold it and absorb it contents and a brief glance at a grammar book enables him to master a new language.
The more fantastic elements of this novella allow Eliade to explore broader themes about the human consciousness, the unconscious, the nature of time and memory. Dominic's physical rejuvenation has also resulted in a split in his mind where alter egos seem to take on a physical form.
He lives out the Second World War in anonymity in Switzerland and his story becomes a myth circulating in certain academic circles.
In the 1950s he meets a young woman called Veronica who has been left traumatised after her car was struck by lightening. Dominic recognises the language that she speaks as a version of Sanskrit spoken in northern India 1,400 years earlier. She tells Dominic that her names is Rupini and that she had been meditating in a cave when a lightning bolt caused rocks to cave in on top of her. When she awoke she was in another cave but did not recognise the world around her.
Dominic travels with Veronica other academics to India and they discover a cave where a woman's body sitting in a meditating position is found. The sight of her skull shocks Veronica back into reality and the academics use her case as definitive proof of transmigration of the soul.
Veronica and Dominic flee the publicity that follows them to Malta but Veronica continues to have regressions going back further and further in time, speaking ancient languages, that Dominic records, until her utterances are almost primal wails. However, the mental strain of these regressions take a physical toll and she ages prematurely. Dominic leaves her, telling her that when he is gone she will regain her youth.
Eastern philosophy, Jungian psychology, linguistics and even James Joyce's Finegan's Wake all make appearances in the novel. The film version, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is fairly faithful to the novel but seems to get tangled up in itself.
Eliade wrote a novel of ideas and trying to transfer that into a movie format forces Coppola into contrived cinematography. The result is not unsatisfying and in a way it complements the novel but as a piece of cinema it doesn't quite work.
Also recently finished was Manuel Vazquez Montlaban's Southern Seas featuring the Barcelona detective Pepe Carvalho. This was my third Montalban novel, although it predates the other two.
Carvalho is a thinking detective who enjoys good food and wine who has been hired by the wife of a wealthy businessman whose body was found on a building site in Barcelona.
The murder victim's family, colleagues, friends and lovers had thought he had been travelling in the Pacific Ocean, following in the wake of the 19th century painter Paul Gauguin.
However, Carvalho discovers he had been living in a tough working class development in Barcelona built for profit by the murder victim and his colleagues with little thought for the people who would live there.
Montalban uses his novels as a commentary on contemporary Spain and this one, set in the late 1970s mulls over the state of ongoing flux as Spain emerges from the dictatorship of Franco into a parliamentary democracy. Yet it is still an elite who seem to govern while a huge underclass are merely expected to exist.
As with his other novels Montalban throws in the obligatory over-the-top sex scene and a couple of recipes.
Favourite music at the minute comes from Jah Wobble on his album Chinese Dub.
The former PiL bass player has long being carving out a a niche career as a world music champion. On this album he takes traditional Chinese instruments and tunes and sets them to a background of dub reggae. It shouldn't, but somehow it works.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Disguise by Hugo Hamilton

Identity and way people construct a persona to deal with the world is the main theme of this novel. Gregor is a German musician who has constructed a history for himself based on the flimsiest of evidence. He believes that as a small child he was a Jewish refugee who was found during the Second World War and swapped to take the place of a dead German child.
He is convinced that the woman who claims to be his mother lost her own child during a Berlin air raid and was persuaded by her father to replace her real son with the orphaned refugee and say nothing, not even to her husband.
Gregor has no evidence to support this version of his personal history. He has no memory of living with another family or of another mother but the ramblings of an old man who knew his grandfather sow the seed of doubt.
AT 17 he abandons his war-veteran father and mother and travels to England, Ireland, Scotland and around Europe.
He rejects the version of his family history that he knew to that date and constructs a past, based on the words of a man who had been scarred both physically and mentally by the war.
Gregor makes his living as a musician and eventually meets and marries Mara and they have a son, Daniel. Mara and Gregor's friends in Germany accept that he is Jewish - Gregor had himself circumcised when he was an adult but fails to tell his wife this and she thinks it was done when he was a child.
His story starts to come apart when Mara makes contact with Gregor's mother and his marriage breaks up as does his relationship with his son.
The key to sustaining this story is that Gregor has not just made up the story about being a foundling, he believes it and is constantly searching for some dark corner of his memory that would confirm it.
The story is told when Gregor is in his sixties and to some extent has been reconciled with his ex-wife, although less so with his son.
The narrative jumps back and forward in time, blurring fact, half memory and Gregor's assumed version of events.
Author Hugo Hamilton can sustain a mood or create a vignette over several pages in which little happens but which carries the reader through on the back of his lyrical and layered prose.
Gregor may have manufactured a past for himself but it is what defined him as a man and is no less valid than what may or may not have been true.
And there is always the subtext that what Gregor believes to be his past may be the true one.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Tinariwen - The Academy, Dublin

I am very prejudiced against the hippy drippy-style of dancing of some people – mostly women – during gigs by African bands. This dates back to seven or eight years ago when I saw a group of tribal dancers performing in St Georges Market in Belfast. Each dance and its significance was explained by a group member - some were performed to celebrate a birth, a wedding or a coming of age, others were to mourn a death or berate a turn of bad fortune. The musicians would then start up and the dancers in full tribal regalia would begin their highly stylised moves.
Meanwhile, infront of the stage, where the dancers and musicians were symbolically lamenting the death of child, a dozen or so women in tie-dye teeshirts and floaty skirts kicked off their moccasins and started twirling their hands, gyrating their hips and twisting their bodies in a free-from style of dance that they presumably thought of as 'ethnic'.
So when Tinariwen took to the stage last night in Dublin and started clunking at their guitars and battering their drums my heart sank as a few people tried to clap along and totally failed to find the rhythm - most guitar, bass and drum concerts follow a simple 4/4 beat, but this seemed to be in 6.5/11. By song three, however, things had settled into a slightly more clappable and danceable rhythmic pattern.
As opposed to the tribal group in St George's Market, Tinariwen were clearly keen to see their audience move, with various members swaying and clapping their hands out over the audience to help them get their rhythm.
Their songs are often played around a single droning guitar note with staccato guitar runs cutting across it, backed by bass, tribal drums and whole clatter of backing singers - although none of the females whose wails are so distinctive on Tinariwen's studio albums were on stage.
Tinariwan's main singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, although exotically dressed, was the only one not wearing flowing desert robes that covered the entire bodies and most of the band members'heads. He left the stage after the first two songs, which he sang, and the vocals were taken over by various other members of the group, until he reappeared for most of the rest of the set.
Tinariwen's music has been described as 'desert blues'. It has been argued that the blues, in the sense of American blues, evolved among the descendants of slaves in the American deep south. Musicologists have looked to tribal chants and wails to find the source of the blues.
In the case of Tinariwen the music has come home and they have taken American blues and adapted it to create their own unique style and punked it up a bit. It was Andy Kershaw who described Tinariwen as the closest thing he had ever seen live to the Clash.
Tinariwen seem to almost slip into each song, find a guitar grove, pick up a bass line, drums and then vocals that builds into a creshendo. The effect is dramatic and while the lyrics are often about the effects of drought and population displacement, the songs are infections and entirely danceable.
Not that I indulged myself, apart from some foot tapping.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Given that Bolaño devotes the first 150 pages or so of his novel to four characters it would be easy to assume that he wants us to identify and develop a relationship with them that will keep us engaged and care what happens to them over the 900 pages of this sprawling book. But when they exit at the end of Book One, that's it and we hear no more of them.
Not that the characters are particularly interesting. They are literary critics, a woman from London and three men from Paris, Madrid and Turin, who are all obsessed by a German novelist called Benne von Archimboldi.
They meet at conventions to discuss the German writer and establish a series of friendships and relationships. They travel to conferences in Europe, to each others' homes, have affairs and form varying degrees of friendship with one another.
Archimboldi, is just a rumour in Book One. He is often name-checked, and his various novels are referred to. The critics meet people who have met him, or claim they have, and arrive at a conference where it is reported that he will appear but fails to do so.
Eventually three of them travel to a (fictional) city in northern Mexico called Santa Teresa, close to the border with the US, where it is reported that Archimboldi is living but they are unable to track him down.
They hear reports of a serial killer on the loose in Santa Teresa, said to be responsible for more than 100 murders.
In Book Two the story is taken up by Amalfitano, who appeared as a minor character in Book One. The Chilean academic lives in Barcelona and is abandoned by his wife to bring up their daughter alone.
The story veers off to cover the unbalanced wife for a while before coming back to Amalfitano who constantly seems on the verge of falling out of sanity. He moves to Santa Teresa with his daughter and once again reports of the numerous killings in the city begin to filter into the story.
Book Three seems as if it was intended to be an entirely different novel altogether and for the first 60 or 70 pages follows a black journalist called Fate around the US as he reports on former militant black activists and comes to terms with his mother's death.
Then Fate is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match (although he is not a sports writer) between a black US fighter and a Mexican. The series of killings in the city come more into focus and Fate can't understand why a serial killer whose body count is running into the hundreds has not been more widely reported.
Amalfitano, appears towards the end of the book and urges Fate to take his daughter out of Santa Teresa before she too becomes a victim.
The last 40 pages of this section are unbearably tense and the expectation of violence is constantly lingering.
Book Four focuses on Santa Teresa and the killings, dozens and dozens of them, one after another. It could be monotonous but Bolaño manages to give most of the victims a life story before their deaths, bringing the cast of this novel into the hundreds.
Detectives trying to investigate the killings are profiled and then sideline before making an appearance again 50 pages later.
A psychic, who can see all the killings, weaves in and out of the story as does a young cop called Lalo Cura. Cura means 'priest' in Spanish (in which Bolaño wrote) but the name Lalo Cura can be written using the same series of letters as La Locura (the madness).
A German is arrested and blamed for the killings, even as new bodies are found and more women and girls disappear.
Book Four is the longest but despite the seeming constant litany of woman's bodies turning up, often raped and mutilated, it is the most engaging of the first four books in 2666.
That is until you get to Book Five in which Archimboldi reappears 80 years earlier when he is born in Germany. In a fairly straightforward narrative we are told his life story from boyhood, through to his time in the German army during the Second World War and his career as a writer and decision to live as hermit despite his growing fame until his story catches up with the earlier stories in the mid 1990s.
The sections on the war are the strongest as Archimboldi advances through Romania and Ukraine with his unit before being driven back. Again we are subjected to endless death and destruction, threaded through with stories of lives lived to the full and people merely existing.
Themes reoccur throughout the five books in this novel, the mundane details of individual lives counterbalanced against great and horrendous events of the 20th century. Secrets are kept and buried, just like the bodies in Mexico and in Europe during the Second World War. Echoes of future events are dropped in - an artist in the 1940s whose paintings are full of dead women.
Santa Teresa is a machine in which millions of people have been caught working in cheap-labour factories churning out goods to feed their wealthy neighbours across the border. The brutal sexual assaults, torture and killings of hundreds of women could be seen as symbolic critique by Bolaño of capitalism - the system debases people, kills them and then dumps their bodies in a desert when they have finished with them and while voices of protest are raised no-one really cares.
Book Five maybe sets the context for what has gone before. The Second World War is within many people's living memory. The human condition that brought that about still exists. The scale may be smaller but humans are still capable of the most horrendous crimes against one another.
At the end you are left with the vague impression of a pattern and an understanding of what Bolaño was trying to achieve with his diverse and seemingly unrelated stories and characters.
It is like a huge piece of abstract art in which different sections of the canvas have unique motifs that link to those next to them but are vastly different from what is on the other side of the canavas. But when you stand back and look at the thing as whole it somehow seems to form a complete work and if you squint your eyes and tilt your head to the side a bit even seems to make sense.
Bolaño died in 2003 before he completed 2666 although a footnote at the end says the novel appears more or less as he intended it. There are a few clumsy links where presumably the editor is trying to make a leap from once section to another which Bolaño hadn't fully tidied up when he died.
There is the possibility of course that he might have tightened the whole thing up and made the various components less abstract from one another but for the most part it works as it stands.
This is truly one of those novels that does cause a shift in your perspective and when you have finished reading it you find yourself running at a slight tangent to where you were before.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Noisettes, Vicar Street, Dublin

1950s pop sensibities, 60s Motown, and 70s glam rock and punk all infuse the music of The Noisettes. They are contemporary and yet their songs are comfortingly familiar.
Singer Shingai Shoniwa dominates their live performances both in terms of her physical presence, vocal delivery and (rather impressively I thought) bass-playing skills.
Dressed in a glitzy party dress Shoniwa looked almost weighed down when the bass was first handed to her. For a singer whose vocal range often reaches the shrill it seemed entirely inappropriate that she should play an instrument whose range is towards the lower end of the musical register.
For much of the set she left the bass-playing duties to a band member who doubled as a roadie, freeing up the singer to prance and dance across the stage, straddle the drum kit, hang upside down from a rope ladder and venture to the back of the venue and serenade those who stood there.
‘Don’t Upset the Rhythm’ is probably The Noisettes best- known song, yet it was the second song in the set which suggests that they are a band who have confidence in their material and are aware that their lesser known songs are just as strong.
My personal favourite is ‘Never Forget You’ which somehow seems to combine the whimsical feel of a Ben E King song with a punk-driven guitar-style chorus.
The set was dominated by tracks from their second album although the encore was funky cover of ‘Children of the Revolution’ during which Shoniwa came off the stage and down through the audience to the back of the Vicar Street venue and then balanced on a barrier infront of the mixing desk. It was a crowd-pleasing move that endeared a besotted audience to her even more.
Guitarist Dan Smith impressed with some blistering guitar solos that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Thin Lizzy concert while the hairsuite drummer Jamie Morrison’s lashing around his kit put Animal (from the Muppets) to shame.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Pilot whales may not be the biggest members of the species in the sea but it is still a special moment when you see them breaking through the surface of the water within almost touching distance.
In the pod that I saw last week, off the coast of Tenerife and heading towards La Gomera, there were fourteen, although there may have been others on the other side of the boat that I didn’t see.
They come to the surface in the mornings, one half of their brains asleep and the other half keeping them floating and breathing. Later in the day and at night they will dive deep below the Atlantic in search of squid, their main source of food.
On the way out to see the whales we had passed a pod of dolphins who were much more lively and at any other time would have been a highlight, but when you’ve seen the playful Fungi off the coast of Kerry his Canarian cousins seemed quite placid by comparison.
Tenerife is probably not the first place a nature lover would think of as a destination of choice as it tends to conjour up images of Brits and Paddy’s with blistered skin lying on a beach after a night out on the rip in a bar called the King George or The Dubliner.
And looking back towards land from the sea where the whales and dolphins swam much of the west coast of Tenerife is a high-rise carbuncle on a barren, rocky landscape.
However, this island, and the entire archipeligo is the result of volcanic eruptions from deep below the waves of the Atlantic and parts of the surface is still smoking and occasionally blasted open by subterranean activity.
From the sea if you look to the north of Playa de los Americas, where most of the mass-tourism activity is situated, you can see Los Gigantes – huge cliffs with gorges cut deep into them.
In one of the gorges is Masca, reached by land via a narrow twisting road that requires stamina to drive along. The village was cut off from the rest of the island until the early 1970s when the road was first built.
Terraces cut into the hillside still provide crops of figs, almonds, aubergines, sweet potatoes and onions and high on the slopes Monte de Aqua, which dominates the skyline inland, lies a rain forest with 20 different species of tree, including pine and laurel.
Masca lies 700 metres above sea level and is popular with hikers who follow a trail from the village down to the shore past darting lizards and below the occasional sea eagle.
A few kilometres north you can see how the island’s mountain range has created two distinct micro-climates that has resulted in a distinctive north south divide with lush green vegetation to the north compared dry arid land to the south where cacti thrive among the blackened contours of lava flows.
At 7,800 metres Mount Tiede dominates Tenerife and on my plane journey in was my first sight of the island as its summit poked through the clouds that covered the rest of the island.
It sits in the centre if El Tiede national park where brown, flecked with black lava flows from the recent (geologically recent in the sense of the last couple of hundred years) sprawl across the landscape.
A huge desert plain stretches out before Mount Tiede, with craggy, petrified magma and scattered cacti recalling the landscape of a thousand American westerns.
In fact this landscape did feature in the film 1,000,000 Years BC in which Raquel Welsh battled the facts of history and some dodgy special effects as placid, tongue-flicking iguanas where cinematically enhanced to make them look like enormous flesh-eating dinosaurs.
Again lizards can be seen darting between the rocks and there more than 200 other species of bird and mammal roaming the volcanic landscape including a rather sinister species of bat known in Spanish as ‘senores de la noche’ – lords of the night.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Former Chilean dictator General Pinochet, the country’s most famous poet Pablo Neruda and the German writer Ernst Junger all appear in this novel alongside fictional poets, artists and writers.
The narrator is Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a priest from Chile, lying on his death bed and recalling scenes from his life.
Lacroix is a poet and a critic, although it is the latter that his reputation is built on. He travels in Chile and in Europe and retells not just stories from his own past but those of others he has met or heard of on his way.
Lacroix recounts with unnerving dispassion the overthrow of the left leaning President Allende in Chile in 1973 by Pinochet and the surreal attempts at normality during abnormal times, how the seemingly respectable can hide dark secrets and how those who try to stay out of it all are wracked with guilt at their own stance.
Bolaño is very much a writer’s writer, focusing on literary themes and experimenting with different styles.
Throughout the novel there are no paragraph breaks although the style of writing changes along with each scene or period of time.
One section takes a question and answer format, another has a sentence that runs over several pages before a full stop is inserted, while others have more conventional narratives.
This is a short novel, running at just under 130 pages, compared to the much longer (900 pages) and more compactly spaced 2666 which I am also reading at present.
By Night in Chile is a good introduction to Bolaño – shifting narrative perspectives, stories within stories, casual violence and philosophical musings yet somehow it seemed to take an age to read and I found myself putting it down everytime I had read a few pages.
2666 by contrast flows past and it is easy to cover 70 or 80 pages in a sitting. Perhaps it is because Bolaño spreads out his material in the longer novel and trying to pack the same breadth and intensity into his novella.
I might be able to call that one better when I finish 2666.

Friday, 25 September 2009

IT’S early Friday morning and I am supping a glass of wine, listening to Galician folk/rockers Celtas Cortos and feeling I should set down a marker for my future self just to see where I was at this point in time.
Tonight I will be playing a gig at The Mill, Ballyduggan, close to Downpatrick. Although my band Samson Stone has been together for nearly three years this is only our fourth live outing but then I suppose that makes each gig an event rather than a routine.
Tomorrow, Saturday, I’ll be heading off to Tennerife for a few days on a press trip which involves visiting a volcano, various nature reserves and a boat trip to do some whale watching and I suppose forcing myself to enjoy lots of regional cuisine.
The pisser about that is that my new Chinese doctor has told me to give up seafood and spicy food for two months. I tried to explain to him that I live on seafood and spicy (mostly vegetarian) food but he shook his head and said it was essential.
I really went to see if he could help my back, which is not chronically sore but can get quite strained and knotted, but while I was there I asked him could he give me something to ease the recurrent head cold I seem to have these days – which is where the abstinence from seafood and spices comes in to play. Next week when I get back for Las Islas Canarias, fine, but there is no way I am going to a Spanish island and not trying to find a restaurant with ‘navajas’ (razor clams) and a ‘racion de calamares’.
In terms of writing I met my publisher on Tuesday who told me that my new novel ‘ecopunks’ is scheduled to come out late next year. Good news. However, given the fact that Lagan Press is dependent on funding from the Northern Ireland Arts Council and that the Stormont executive is facing a major cash shortfall I wonder if that will impact on it.
Another publishing project seems to be making good progress. A short story I was commissioned to write is due to appear in a book out, published by Morrigan Books, next year called ‘The Red Hand of Crime’, which features some great writers, including Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway and Sam Miller.
I met one of the anthology’s editors, Gerard Brennan, at John Banville’s reading last Saturday night and he was raving about the variously contributions, so as well as seeing my own story in print I’m looking forward to seeing how the other writers tackled the theme of a crime story based on a Celtic myth.
In terms of reading I am engrossed in the novels of Robert Bolaño at present - half way through the 900-page ‘2666’ and dipping back into ‘Distant Star’ and ‘By Night in Chile’. I hadn’t actually realised that he had become a publishing phenomena until last week and was quite pleased that I’d read a couple of his novels already. More on 2666 soon.
As well as Bolaño I have been dipping in an out of Jung’s ‘Memories Dreams and Reflections’, John Moriarty’s Turtle Was a Long Time Gone Vol I’, poems by Gabriel Rosenstock, Robert Graves, Yevgenny Yevtushenko and a critical study of the poems of Derek Mahon.
Half read and struggling to be picked up again are ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafron, ‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry and the Bueno Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Monalban.
Also recently reread were Hugo Hamilton’s Disguise – best novel of 2008 – and John Water Lapsed Agnostic – yes well?
Soundtracks to my life at present are Senagelese singer Es Lo, Thelonious Monk, Johann Johannsson’s new album Fordlandia, Celtas Cortos (como siempre), Paddy Keenan, Horslips and Tinariwen.
Due to see Tinariwen in Dublin in a few weeks and Horslips in Belfast in September.
Haven’t watched TV in weeks and no desire to. News now and again but that’s it and more often on Al Jazeera or on the Spanish channel 24H than terrestrial channels.
Bhuel, sin é. Off to practice my chords for gig – Wishing Well, Blitzgrieg Bop, I Predict a Riot, That’s Entertainment, Echo Beach, Shadow Play, Should I Stay or Should I Go and (God help us) Born to be Wild.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

John Banville reading

The setting for this reading was in a small private church on an estate on the shores of Strangford Lough and getting there entailed a torchlit walk along a dark tree-lined path.
During the reading itself the lights were dimmed and the church was lit by candles, with spotlights for Banville and violinist Ruby Colley.
Colley uses an electronic violin and lays down her own backing tracks as she performs that are then played back on a loop and gradually builds to create layered pieces that musically seemed to be inspired by Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Michael Nyman.
The musical interludes sat well in the candle-lit church and might well have been composed as a soundtrack to a movie adaptation of John Banville's new novel The Infinities.
He read two pieces from his just-released book that I thought were not particularly representative of the novel as a whole or at least didn't give a real sense of the novel. However, they went down well and it was interesting to hear the clipped diction of someone who is in Ireland's premier division of novelists.
The question and answer session that followed was less structured and gave a good insight into the mindset of Banville the novelist. He is often portrayed as an arrogant novelist who antagonises other writers and his critics but came across as quite humble about the impact his novels have on the reader.
He often refers to himself in the third person as Banville and seems to have, in his own mind, distanced the man John Banville from the writer Banville and his crime-writing offspin Benjamin Black.
He said that quite often when reading back on what he had written he has no recollection of writing it, as if it comes from somewhere outside of himself. When he gets up from the desk at which he works in a Dublin flat he said leaves a "simulacrum" still sitting there that is Banville the writer while he returns to being Banville the man.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces)

THIS is pure classic Pedro Almodovar, a story within a story, and a movie within a movie, that cuts back and forward in time and is shot in a highly stylised manner.
As in Hable con elle (Talk to Her), La mala educación (Bad Education) and Carne trémula (Live Flesh) Almodovar depicts his characters living in the present and then flashes back to a key event or series of events in their past.
Harry Caine (formerly known as Mateo Blanco) is a blind writer living in Madrid who is approached by a younger man, calling himself Ray X, who wants to pay him a fortune to write a script based on his relationship with his father.
However, Mateo recognises his voice as that of someone from his past and with the help of others manages to place him.
The film flashes back to 14 years earlier when Lena, played by Penelope Cruz becomes involved with billionaire businessman Ernesto, who is in his 70s.
She wants to be an actress and approaches Mateo who gives here a role in a film he has written and which she persuades Ernesto to finance.
Ernesto's son, Ernesto jnr, - who Mateo recognised as Ray X, films the filming and then delivers the footage to his father who employs a lip reader to find out what Meteo and Lena are saying to one another.
There is some fine acting from José Luis Gómez, who plays Ernesto, and you can almost see him being eaten up by jealousy as he realises that Lena and Mateo are having an affair and that Lena loathes him.
In a fit of rage he pushes Lena down a staircase - a knowingly cinematic scene and one which is repeated in the film that Mateo is making to explain why Lena, when she returns to the set of the film she is staring in, is wearing a plastercast.
Despite Ernesto's violence Lena returns to him, telling Mateo that she must stay with him until the movie is completed but when she is injured again the lovers flee Madrid and hide out on the island of Lanzarote.
Ernesto gets back at them by paying the editors of the film that they were working on to choose the worst takes and splice them together and release it to a huge fanfare which is panned by the critics and in sees Mateo and Lena being ridiculed.
Mateo decides to go back to Madrid to sort things out, leaving Lena in Lanzarote but on the way to the airport a car crashes into the them, killing Lena and leaving Mateo blind.
He can still write but no longer direct films so he insists that he should from then on be known as Harry Caine, his pen name, and that Mateo Blanco the film producer died alongside Lena.
By recounting the story Mateo is reconcilled to the past that he has tried to kill off along with his former identity and in the telling he begins to realise that many loose ends have not been tied up.
It is a film full of symbolism, Dario, the son of Mateo's agent Judit empties a bag of torn photos and starts to piece together a picture of Lena and Mateo, just as he helps Mateo piece together the events that lead to his lover dying.
There are visual clues as well as verbal ones scattered throughout the film that help pave the way for a series of denouements towards the end.
In the scenes where Lena is pushed down the stairs, Lena remarks that it is the sort of thing that only happens in movies, and it does here, twice. Almodovar is proudly cinematographic auteur who is not afraid to acknowledge that this is cinema rather than gritty reality.

The Infinities by John Banville

Deities and mortals intermingle in a country house in a world that seems to be ahead of our own in terms of technology. A mathematician, Adam Godley, has been felled by a stroke and his lying dying. His mathematical discoveries have paved the way for a new science on which the world’s energy needs are met by utilizing sea water.
His wife Ursula is hiding her alcoholism, his daughter Petra is a self-harmer and his sons, also called Adam, is floundering as his marriage to the enigmatic Helen seems to be on the verge of collapse.
Into the domestic drama the Greek god Hermes and his father Zeus lurk and occasionally interact – Zeus is besotted with mortal women and on this day with Helen who he seduces, leaving her with only a vague memory, like a half remembered dream.
The narrative point of view switches between the mortals and Hermes. Despite being in a coma old Adam’s mind remains alert and he can recall events from his past and even seems to be aware of what is happening in other parts of the house beyond where he lies.
Occasionally the narratives of Hermes and old Adam run in to one another as if Banville is suggesting that the deities are as much the creation of the mortal as the other way round.
Indeed it is the gods who are jealous of humans, even to the point where they envy their mortality and minor domestic dramas. Although Zeus is the creator of all things his infatuation with Helen can never be truly physical.
Banville’s prose is as sinewy as always with at least one arcane or obscure word seeming to crop up on every page.
Despite the slightly surreal plot Banville is constantly articulating acute insights into the human condition and the angst of living in a world where science claims to be on the verge of coming up with a formula to explain everything.
Adam’s mathematical discoveries turn upside down all previous scientific discoveries but even he is felled by mortality and left regretting lost loves and wishing he had lived more in the moment.
The hints are there from the start but it comes as a let down when we discover Ursula’s secret and while it is clear from the start that Petra has mental health issues the revelation of their full extent and their physical manifestation is painful to read.
Critics have been raving about this novel, newspapers and magazine supplements profiling the seemingly curmudgeonly novelist, with writers expending as much time telling their readers how nervous they are about confronting Banville.
That is probably understandable because The Infinities is the work of a novelist whose prose is exquisitely crafted and who can take on themes and plots that would leave others looking ridiculous.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A Hole in the Head by Francis Stuart

Although the central character in this novel shares many of the traits of a typical Stuartian character the story is less obviously biographical than many of his other novels.
Stuart often took parts of his own life and recast them as fiction, playing on the outsider role which it seemed he willingly embraced following the condemnation heaped upon him after he spend the Second World War living and working in Germany.
The narrator, Barnaby Shane, is still a fringe figure, damaged and isolated, but this time because of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide after his wife leaves him.
Mentally surfing on a cocktail of perscription drugs (although stolen by him) he arrives in his homeland – never named but easily identified as 1970s Ireland – accompanied by Emily Bronte.
Emily is his muse and, because of medication he has taken, as real to him as the doctors and nurses who treat him.
Barnaby is a writer who has lost his way, earning acclaim but whose own novels no longer inspire him.
Stuart paints a picture of a smug literary circle in Barnaby's home city (Dublin) where novelists, poets and playwrights tread on uncontentious ground and rely on literary tricks and forced drama rather than truly challenging their readers.
Emily's Wuthering Heights is highlighted by Barnaby as a truly daring novel in which the heights of human passion and madness are explored.
Barnaby and Emily venture north to the city of 'Belbury', easily identifiable as Belfast, which like its real-life counterpart in the 1970s has been ripped apart by inter-communal conflict.
According to his biographer, Kevin Kiely, Stuart was a regular visitor to the north in '70s and the depiction rings true.
The dynamics of the conflict are glossed over and Stuart does not really want us to identify the various warring factions as republican or loyalist. They are a backdrop to his more intense tale of a disturbed individual wrenched from reality into a self-created parallel world in which aspects of his unconscious (Emily) interact with the reality perceived by everyone else.
As he weens himself off the medication he drifts back to normality but in the process loses Emily, although his memory of his imaginary encounter with her continues to haunt him.
The second part of the novel sees Barnaby, still nervous and edgy, more or less restored to the accepted definition of sanity and after a brief period spent back in the south he returns to Belbury.
He gets caught up in a siege situation where he is sent in as negotiator.
The plot of A Hole in the Head, occasionally drifts into absurdity, but like many Stuart's novels it is more a vehicle for him to explore an isolated individual who finds himself cut adrift from the world in which he lives.
It is one of Stuarts most satisfying novels and one that confirms for me why he is my favourite writer whose novels I keep returning to and finding something new in each rereading.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


I have a new short story called 'Distraction' published in Verbal Magazine.
You can read the story online by clicking here. Alternatively you can visit the Verbal website here and download a pdf version. The magazine is also distributed free in Ireland and is available in a bookshops and various cultural venues.
Another short story is due to be published next year in a crime fiction anthology by Morrigan Books. The book will be called Red Hand of Crime -- The Irish Mythology Anthology and contains some of Ireland top writers and has made me feel very humble to be included among them. More details here on Gerard Brennan's Crimescene NI blog.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Candle of Vision by George Russell (AE)

It was a seemingly disparaging and throw-away line in Samuel Beckett's Murphy in which a minor character was reading The Candle of Vision by George (AE) Russell that led me to this 1919 publication.
Russell was a contemporary and confident of WB Yeats and one of the leading figures of the Celtic Twilight, a literary movement which Beckett's mentor James Joyce derided in Finnegan's Wake as the 'cultic twalette'.
There is scant reference to Russell in the various Beckett biographies I have, mostly name checks, and one instance when Russell, as editor of a magazine, rejected a poem submitted by Beckett early in his writing career.
In terms of subject material and style the two would seem to be miles apart - Beckett's stripped down prose depicting alienated characters who become increasingly detached from the physical world with little evidence of anything beyond that, while Russell uses flowery language to retell the other-worldly visions he says he experienced.
The Candle of Vision is Russell's account of his life as a mystic and recounts many of his visions.
Russell, possibly aware of the distrust of a self-styled mystic that many people will feel, outlines his case for belief in visions.
"We experience the romance and delight of voyaging upon uncharted seas when the imagination is released from the foolish notion that the images seen in reverie and dream are merely the images of memory refashioned; and in tracking to their originals the forms seen in vision we discover for them a varied ancestry, as that some come from the minds of others, and of some we cannot surmise another origin that they are portions of the memory of Earth which is accessible to us. We soon grow to think our memory but a portion of that eternal memory and that we in our lives are gathering an innumerable experience for a mightier being than our own. The more vividly we see with the inner eye the more swiftly do we come to this conviction." (P56)
In many ways I found his thinking and reference to an 'eternal memory' to be quite Jungian and his mysticism seemed to echo the Swiss psychologists' theories about the unconsciousness and the 'collective unconsciousness'.
And like Jung, Russell seemed to have arrived at a basically gnostic world view
"I cannot assume that the sudden consciousness of being in the air was absolutely the beginning of that episode any more than I can imagine a flower suddenly appearing without plant or root or prior growth; nor can I think that blind motions of the brain, in blank unconsciousness of what they tend to, suddenly flame in to a consciousness instinct with wild beauty. To assume that would be a freak of reasoning. (P82)
The Candle of Vision should come with a reality warning for those of a sceptical nature who will find their eyes rolling repeatedly but I found this to be a fascinating insight into the minds of a character whose name is often mentioned along with Joyce, Yeats and Beckett but who remained as a footnote in history.
Russell was also a poet and I remember seeing a dusty but beautifully bound collection of his poems in a secondhand bookshop for £10, which I wish I'd bought because the following day the shop was burned down.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Sphinx by DM Thomas

Sphinx is the third novel in a quartet and while some familiarity with the earlier two – Ararat and Swallow – might clarify some of the referrences and recurring themes it can be read on its own.
While mostly set in early 1980s USSR, the action flits back and forward in time from the days of Pushkin to the 1917 Revolution and to the 1930s.
Characters are often just that – characters in novels, poems and plays (often improvised) – and Thomas blurs the lines between what is real and what is fiction.
characters who the reader presumed were in a play turn out to be real while trusted narrators are actually fictional representations of a writers imagination.
Often the stories within stories are in the form of an improvisation where someone is given a theme and has to construct a story or poem on the spot.
The plot is often convoluted and involves espionage, betrayals, madness and - being a DM Thomas novel - sex.
The novels are as much about the way a writer uses real life situations to create fiction and how real people become a distorted representation of themselves in a piece of writing.
The opening section, written in the style of a television script, is the most appealing and stylistic piece with some great images, the second part concerning a rather dull English journalist travelling in Soviet Russia is written as a straightforward narrative, while part three is written in rhyming verse.
In my review of Ararat (see here) I compared it to a Russian doll where storys are embedded in other stories and narrators who created characters turn out to actually be a fiction created by another narrator.
Taken as a series the three novels interact with characters reoccuring, stories morphing and being retold as fact and fiction merge and then suddenly snap apart to leave the reader floundering and unsettled.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

The eponymous anti-hero is a dysfunctional Irishman living in London with a prostitute. He is more obsessed with his inner self than with the reality and is barely able to function in society. He cuts himself off from the world best when he ties himself, naked, to a rocking chair and rocks himself into a transcendental meditative state. However, Murphy agrees to seek work so that his lover, Celia, can come off the streets.
Other characters come to London seeking Murphy, including a woman who believes she is engaged to him and that he is working hard to make a better life for them, and Murphy’s former teacher. These characters provide a slapstick element to the novel.
Murphy finds work in a mental institution where is in awe of the patients who he treats with “respect and unworthiness”. He admires them because they have cut themselves off from the absurdity of the modern world.
Beckett writes: “The nature of outer reality remained obscure… The definition of outer reality, or of reality short and simple, varied according to the sensibility of the definer. But all seemed agreed that contact with it, even the layman’s muzzy contact, was a rare privilege. On this basis the patients were described as ‘cut off’ from reality, from the rudimentary blessings of the layman’s reality, if not altogether in the severer cases, then in certain fundamental respects. The function of the treatment was to bridge the gulf, translate the sufferer from his own pernicious little private dungheap to the glorious world of discrete particles, where it would be his inestimable prerogative once again to wonder, love, hate, desire, rejoice and howl in a reasonable balanced manner, and comfort himself with the society of others in the same predicament.” (Murphy p101).
According to one of Beckett’s biographers, Deirdre Bair, he was struggling to find a direction for the novel until October 1935 when he attended a lecture by Carl Jung where the psychologist said that a poet had the capacity to dramatize and personify his mental contents
Quoting from Jung’s lecture Bair writes: “When he creates a character on a stage, or in his poems or drama or novel, he thinks it is merely a product of his imagination; but that character in a certain secret way has made itself. Any novelist or writer will deny that these characters have a psychological meaning, but as a matter of fact you know as well as I do that they have one. Therefore you can read a writer’s mind when you study the characters that he creates.”
(Samuel Beckett by Deirdre Bair (P181).
That could go a long way to explaining Beckett’s intense obsession in Murphy and more starkly in his later novels with the inner worlds of his characters who are alienated from society.
In Murphy it appears that Beckett wants to disguise his insights and darker preoccupations by padding them out with a series of slapstick set pieces and comic asides. A swami who cast’s Murphy’s horoscope for him is described as being “famous throughout the civilized world and the Irish Free State”.
And at the end, following Murphy’s death – by accident or suicide is never made clear – he leaves instructions that his ashes should be brought back to Dublin and flushed down the toilet in the Abbey Theatre. However, the man carrying his ashes instead goes to a pub and gets drunk and ends up throwing the ashes at someone during a brawl.
“By closing time, the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.”
(Murphy p154)
This early novel maybe suffers from having too many superfluous characters and smart-arse prose but at its core there is deeply disturbing insight into Beckett’s mind.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Canone Inverso by Paolo Maurensig

There is distinct Gothic and Mitteleuropean feel to this short readable novel by Austrian Paolo Maurensig. He manages to set a scenario where you think you know what is going on so that when he drops in a dramatic twist you are left floundering and wondering how you didn’t see it coming all along.
There is some clever story telling going on here – a seemingly independent narrator telling a story told to him by a second narrator who recounts a story told to him by a street musician in Vienna.
However, as the novel unfurls it emerges that those who seem to have a major role are side players while those who appear to be mere observers are a key part of the story.
At the centre is a valuable violin bought at an auction in London in modern times.
The story flashes back to post-First World War Austria/Hungary, following the fragmentation of the old order in Europe.
A talented boy, Jeno, inherits the violin from his father, who he never knew and earns a scholarship at a prestigious music school.
Maurensig has a great understanding of the technicalities of music but also an appreciation of how it can have a profound impact on people’s lives and raise them to a higher state of consciousness.
Jeno meets an equally talented musician at the school, Kuno, who despite an aristocratic background reminds Jeno of himself. The two are the most talented musicians at the school but somehow remain friends without succumbing to rivalry.
Jeno is so obsessed with his music that events in the wider world fail to make much impact on him, even as all the pupils and teachers with Jewish names are suddenly removed from the school.
When his studies are complete he accepts and invitation to stay with Kuno at his father’s country estate but the change of territory and the relationship of former musical equals in a harsh academic environment to poor country boy staying with his privileged friend changes the dynamic of the relationship.
Jeno feels that Kuno is constantly trying to assert his seniority and dominate him to the point that he ultimately wants Jeno’s precious violin.
Kuno’s aristocratic family have secrets. His father’s brother is believed to taken his own life but rumours persist that he is living in South America.
There are also philosophical discourses on immortality, the nature of talent
and genetics. Maurensig also manages to depict a sense of being caught up in an intense drama against the backdrop of vast world-changing events going all around the central action.
Canone Inverso is a richly layered novel that deserves a second reading, purely to enjoy the false and genuine trails laid by the author and to admire how he so subtly planted information along the way that the surprise twist at the end seemed frustratingly obvious all along.

Thursday, 30 July 2009


One of the pleasures of being a journalist is going on the occasional press trip where a company or organisation will fly you off somewhere in return for some coverage. In the past this has meant trips to Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Denmark, New York, Paris and Turkey to write travel features, to Strasbourg to report on the European Parliament and to Nicaragua to cover the work of the Irish charity Trocaire.
These trips can be challenging, as in my visit to Central America and fairly monotonous as with Strasbourg, but always rewarding.
The press trips to write a travel feature are more fun as journalists tend to be well indulged, taken to all the major sights and the best restaurants so when I was given an opportunity to go to Malaga to research a feature on the Andalucian city's 'cultural tourism' I thought great.
Malaga is a city I've visited often, twice in the last two years. This trip includes visits to the Picassso Museum, Cathedral, castle, gardens and Moorish ruins as well as scheduled stops at tapas bars, top restaurants and winery... yes I'll write that last word again - a winery.
It was an early start this morning, up at 3am, on the road for 3.30 to catch a 6am flight.
By 4.40 I was in the check-in queue and had clocked the two other journos on the trip, by 4.41 I was looking at Sinead's passport in my hands and wondering how the hell I had been so stupid not check that I had lifted the right one.
A quick phone call to Sinead and she was on the road and I was back out of the airport and speeding to a midway point to swap passports and then a mad dash back to Belfast International Airport, back to the carpark, into the terminal building only to be told that the check in had closed and there was no way I was going to catch the flight, even though I was flying at the invitation of the airline.
When I got home I emailed a very grovelling email to the PR company which organised the trip and got a more than sympathetic hearing and and a few hours later confirmation that I have been rebooked to go out tomorrow - although I will be returning late on Saturday.
Anyway as a great philosopher once said 'shit happens'. It will be another early start tomorrow and hanging out in departure lounges and a three-hour flight each way to get there for just over 36 hours in Malaga. But I still regard Spain as a second homeland so hopefully it should be worth it.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

U2 - Croke Park (Saturday July 25)

IT’S 1982 and the roadies have just hoisted four white flags onto flagpoles as the young Dublin band run onto stage at the Maysfield Leisure Centre in Belfast and launched into their set in front of about 1,500 people.
The theatrics are gimmicky and the singer is a bit of a show off as he clambers on to stack of amps to serenade the audience from on high now and again but there is something infectious about this band with the singer’s earnest, falsetto voice and the guitarists searing, echoing guitar riffs.
Forward 27 years and the same band are playing below a sixty-metre-high space rocket, surrounded by huge girders in the shape of the claw in front of 80,000 people.
There are movable bridges jutting out from the stage that allows the band to promenade into the heart of the audience in Croke Park and a dazzling light show that probably uses up more electricity than a small city.
From the moment that drummer Larry Mullen strode on to the stage and started pounding at his kit a collective adulation gripped the Croke Park audience, which intensified to devotion as bass player Adam Clayton and guitarist The Edge joined in and then rose to all-out worship as singer Bono joined the band
U2 are a genuine phenomenon and probably the most successful band in the world but beneath all the hi-tech gimmickry and strutting about the place there was still that distinctive guitar sound and warbling voice.
When I first went to see them at Maysfield Leisure Centre it was to hear songs from their early albums – I Will Follow, Eleven O’Clock Tick Tock, Gloria, Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Electric Co.
In the years since then most of those early songs have been dumped from their set list to be replaced by some of the most iconic tracks in rock music – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Pride, With or Without You, Elevation, Vertigo, The Unforgettable Fire, One, Where the Streets Have No Name, and Angel of Harlem were all played on Saturday as well as three or four tracks from their new album No Line on the Horizon.
There were occasional musical diversions when Beautiful Day segued into the chorus of the Beatles Here Comes the Sun, and Bono paid tribute to Michael Jackson with an impromptu version of Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough.
U2 have always used their huge popularity to draw attention to global poverty and human rights abuses and on this tour it is the continued captivity of Burmese prime minister-elect Aung San Suu Kyi who has been held captive by the country’s military for most of the past 20 years.
As U2 played the song Walk On, 100 or so people holding Aung San Suu Kyi masks in front of them paraded in front of the audience and her face was flashed onto the huge overhead screen.
There were also video messages from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the astronauts on the International Space Station.
It was a long way from the days when the edgy, post punk quartet played in a Belfast leisure centre and while I departed musically from U2 some time in the mid-1980s it was still a hell of a show.
(This review was puyblished in The Irish News on Monday.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Murder in the Central Committee by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

This is the second Pepe Carvalho mystery I have read, and I have another one sitting and ready to go. The Barcelona-based detective travels to Madrid at the request of the Spanish Communist Party to investigate the murder of the party's general secretary Fernando Garrido.
On the downside there are too many characters who drift in for a few paragraphs and who are never seen again. It is also quite heavy on geography and at times I found myself turning to a map of Madrid to keep track of Carvalho's peregrinations, although as a former resident I quite enjoyed picturing once familiar streets and landmarks.
Montalbán was a former communist and was imprisoned for four years under Franco's fascist regime and so Carvalho's memories of a similar fate and knowledge of Spanish left-wing politics ring true.
His fictional detective finds himself liaising with a senior policeman who interrogated him 25 years earlier and threatened to kill him by dropping him from a window. Other characters muse on their own involvement and the way it turned them into fugitives purely because of political beliefs and shaped the lives of their families.
There is slightly more detective work in Murder in the Central Committee than in The Man of My Life and Montalbán plants little nuggets along the way to exercise the reader's mind although the actual revelation of the murderer is more of a 'da da' moment that a gradual exposition.
Once again food plays a major part with saliva-inducing descriptions of meal and at least one recipe.
However, less well written was a set-piece sex scene, which was almost laughable, although it paved the way for a betrayal and a significant twist in the plot.
Like the previous Montalbán novel that I read he uses a fairly straightforward detective story as a vehicle for exploring a politically-edged theme and a commentary on contemporary Spanish life (at least contemporary in the early 1980s when the novel was published and Spain was still emerging from the Franco years into a fledgling democracy).
There is enough going on here to read this as a straight forward detective novel but I think you'd have to 'know' Spain – at least in terms of history and the regional tensions that exist there – to properly 'get' this novel.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Alternative Ulster

Yesterday was a strange day which came at the end of a stressful week where I found myself getting caught up in all sorts of meetings and huddled conversations in my role as a union representative (for the National Union of Journalists) over various shifts in working patterns in the paper where I work.
Anyway I was feeling drained after forcing myself to be a conduit for other people’s worries and preoccupations and often finding my own analysis of things being totally ignored and so was just looking forward to getting Saturday’s paper off to the printers and coming home for a glass of wine.
Then at about 5.30pm we were told to evacuate our city centre offices because there was a suspected bomb close by. It was a throw back to a 20 years ago when such things were not that uncommon in Belfast but which now seems outrageously shocking.
After about 10 minutes standing outside we were told it would be at least 45 minutes before the bomb squad arrived and so split up in to various groups to go off to shopping, to pubs and in my case to a venue called The Black Box, where I had my book launch a few years ago.
I’d merely suggested it as a place to go for a coffee but when I and a few colleagues got in I saw Terri Hooley, ‘the godfather of Northern Ireland punk’ sitting talking to someone who I vaguely recognized but couldn’t quite place who turned out to be Don Letts.
Letts is an iconic figure in punk mythology, a ‘black English man’ who is credited with instigating the cross fertilisation between punk and reggae which so influenced The Clash.
It turned out that he was doing a question and answer session with Terri, in front of a modest audience of about 40 people. Within a few minutes Terri and Don were in full flow and reminiscences and names were being bandied about – Terri’s of Belfast, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, The Outcasts and Rudi and Shane MacGowan. Don’s involvement was in London – Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, John Lydon and the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash, Bob Marley and The Slits.
Don Letts became involved in the Punk scene through a shop, Acme, he ran in the mid-70s and by becoming a DJ at the Roxy where many of the early punk bands played. He later turned his hand to filmmaking and his footage of The Sex Pistols and The Clash in 1976 and 77 provides some of the most iconic moments of that era.
He filmed many of the best-known punk bands and was later a member of Big Audio Dynamite, along with former Clash guitarist Mick Jones.
Unfortunately just as the conversation was getting interesting I had to make my way back to work, although when I got there I ended up standing outside The Irish News for another hour while a controlled explosion was carried out in a neighbouring street before we were allowed back in to the office to finish off producing the paper.
Anyway, by the time I was back at my desk I felt fully reinvigorated by the little interlude and my brief brush with punk history.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

H. Manice

Has anyone ever heard of a Croatian writer called H. Manice? I have one of his novels and saw another seven or eight titles during my recent visit to Dubrovnik.
His books were on a shelf in the apartment where we stayed. There were more copies stashed on book shelves and piled in alcoves along the stairs and twisting corridors that led to our front door.
I flicked through them and settled on one called The Master’s Box. There were two copies in the apartment and I saw another couple scattered about the place and so thought there would be no harm in taking one.
The Master’s Box and all the other novels by H. Manice that I saw were professionally printed but had no ISBN numbers – maybe they don’t subscribe to that system in Croatia. Anyway that suggests that they may have been self-published, atlthough on the flyleaf it says “Publisher: Galerija Stradun, For the Publisher Galerija Stradun’. It also gives the copyright date as 2000.
Other novels by H. Manice are Anna Cardea, The Flat Room, Soledad and Java Luck.
However, despite this fairly prolific output I can not find any online references to H. Manice or any of his novels. All the ones that I saw were written in English, although the books were published in Croatia.
The Master’s Box is a short novel - running to about 150 pages - and is set in the Balkans, with fairly clear descriptions of Dubrovnik, although the city is never named.
Many of the the characters were participants in the wars that broke out following the break-up of Yugoslavia, with one portrayed as a military fugitive (a sort of Ratko Mladic or Radovan Kradzic figure).
The plot is vaguely science fictionish – a psychologist who has discovered a device/formula that makes people appear or disappear, which the military character wants to get hold of to further his evil plans.
That science fiction element isn’t overplayed and the novel is more focused on the search for this device/formula as various characters form alliances, betray each other, have affairs, get captured and escape – all against the backdrop of the coast of Croatia and in and around Dubrovnik.
It wasn’t a particularly good novel, but wasn’t bad either, with the loose plot used as a launching pad for ruminations on the effects of war, betrayal, shifting loyalties. It reminded me a bit of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels, non-linear narratives, peppered with esoteric musings.
What intriques me now is not so much the novel itself as the H. Manice phenomena. The way the novels were placed around the apartment, clearly inviting residents to take one or more.
The fact that Dubrovnik and coastal Croatia featured encourages the reader to imaginatively participate in an adventure featuring landmarks that become familiar to them during their stay and the novelist H. Manice entres their psyche and becomes synonymous with the region.
That scenario I’ve just outlined reminds me slightly of a story by Jorge Luis Borges, or if not an actual story, the sort of one that he might have written.
The meta tags that I attach to this entry will ensure that google now deliveres a result for H. Manice. Maybe I’ve become caught up in the plot.