Tuesday, 22 November 2011

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón

Icelandic magic realism, sinister comedy, and dark deeds unfold in a series of vignettes and set pieces in From the Mouth of the Whale. Natural historian, runic scholar, poet, and healer Jónas Pálmason has been exiled to a remote island in 1635 as the Protestant Reformation sweeps Catholicism and pagan superstitions underground. Literally.
In an early tale Jónas, aged five, is swept along with his family and the people of his village to a mound where spirits are said to live. The earth is cleared from the side of the hill to reveal a buried statue of the Virgin Mary, still venerated by the older people who have been forced to abandon their former faith and its icons.
As he grows older Jónas gains a reputation as a healer and a shamanic figure, an animist who seems to share a psychic link with the naked Iceland landscape in which he travels. But from early on he arouses suspicion.
Sjón—deftly translated into English by Victoria Cribb—writes a rich layered prose that, like his protagonist, seems to spring from the extremes of Icelandic dark and light.
Describing Jónas composing a poem on Iceland’s birds with a youthful accomplice Sjón writes: “Láfi had begun the poem, the first three stanzas were his, but had run out of birds and inspiration by the time I turned up. As we walked from farm to farm we took to chanting the poem together. He recited the first verses, which he had knocked together with some skill, and I slid into the metre—slipped into like a tongue into the socket of a well-boiled sheep.”
From early on we know that Jónas has been exiled with just his wife for company. She constantly berates him for “that sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place.”
“That sort of nonsense” is Jónas’s apparent mastery of dark arts, his reputation as an exorcist and healing skills that are rooted in the folklore of his country and pagan rites.
He admits himself that he brought unwelcome attention to himself by “meddling in affairs too deep for a poor poet, by which I had provoked enmity of powerful men with who I could not contend, failing to realize they were jackals, not lions, that they would not be satisfied until they had severed my head from my body.”
Jónas seems at times to live in a hinterland between the harsh reality of his life in 17th century Iceland—the deaths of three of his children and the communal frenzy that resulted in the slaughter of a group of Basque fishermen—and an esoteric hinterland, grounded in nature but which shimmers into other worldliness.
These experiences define him and draw down the antagonism of the puritanical Christians who now control his country, who burn books and execute heretics, and who want to impose their worldview on those who do not share it.
Switching from first to third-person narrative, From the Mouth of the Whale is a story of a man out of sync with the time in which he lives but whose very sense of being is wired into the physical environment into which he was born.
Beautiful prose, sharp observation of nature, folklore, poetry, grotesque violence, human loss, and outright comic chaos weave in and out of this confidently written novel in which the narrative tone is in perfect pitch with the story being told.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Acid Mothers Temple - Auntie Annie's, Belfast

Driving guitar noodles built around a single chord, aural landscapes layered in real time, bird calls, manic chuckles and all-out over-the-top explosive guitar.
An evening in the company of Acid Mother's Temple and the Melting Paraiso UFO takes you through gently nodding, hypnotic trance to moments when, if you’re that way inclined, you can headbang your way into head-rush ecstasy.
Yet somehow in the middle of the sonic chaos that they are producing the band members seem to be just outside of it all, gently swaying during even the most feedback driven frenzies.
This laidback attitude was evident from the point of entry into the upstairs venue at Auntie Annie’s in Belfast's Dublin road where drummer Shimura Koji and guitarist/synthesizer (and according to the album notes on their latest album) dancing king Higashi Hiroshi, sprawled at the door beside a table laid out with a dozen or so albums, including their just released The Ripper At the Heavens Gate of Dark.
Lead guitarist and band founder Kawabata Makoto was also wandering round with a glass of red wine in his hand being ignored, or perhaps simply unfazed, by those who had paid to see him play.
The audience of a 100 or so mixed serious musos, people about town, students, hippies, metallers, grunge kids - nearly all male.
The band ambled on stage and spent about 10 minutes messing around with equipment before Hiroshi began twiddling his keyboard to produce those '50s B-movie sci-fi screeches which somehow define AMT's 'space rock' credentials.
The Led Zepplinesque Chinese Flying Saucer from their new album was given a good 10-minute workout, allowing Makoto to flay at his guitar while not seeming to move very much.
Hiroshi seemed to sway, as if slightly out of time - not in rhythmical sense but as if he was in fact chronologically out of time, in a different dimension - to the frantic rhythms in whose production he was taking part.
Bassist Tsuyama Atsushi took on most of the lead vocals and, from where I was, seemed to be in control of the loop programme that allowed the band to record different noises, both vocal and instrumental, that were then banked and replayed and added to, to create an aural collage over which hypnotic guitar and bass riffs were laid.
Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix all suggested themselves as big time influences (tracks on the new album include Back Door Man of Ghost Rails, Shine On You Crazy Dynamite and Electric Death Manta, the clues are writ large for those who don't twig on musically).
Yet there is also something indefinable about AMT, I hate to say it, but a Zen-like quality, a musical Koan in which the absurdity of the sonic chaos and apparent stillness of the band shocks the audience in to a state of enlightenment.
Or maybe, as for the two headbangers who spent much of the evening in front of the stage, it was just pure kick-ass metal to swing your head to and occasionally raise a single-fingered insult towards the band.
If I was writing this review as a Haiku it would read:
Loud guitars screeching
reeds in rivers sway.
Acid Mothers Temple.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Vilnius, Lithuania

Getting lost in a strange city can be unnerving, especially when you find yourself in the less salubrious areas, but having survived the experience it can be quite invigorating and leave you feeling that you have peered behind the tourist façade.
The centre of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius oozes quaintness: narrow cobbled streets, crumbling buildings, baroque churches – both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox – tavern-style bars and restaurants and even clanking armoured guards outside the presidential palace.
Surrounding the old city is a more functional belt of late 19th/early 20th century buildings rising three to four storeys and it was in this area that we ended up staying – a good 20 minute walk to the more picturesque part.
However, Lithuania is a former region of the USSR and that legacy is evident in the outlying suburbs where functional blocks of flats and industrial estates sprawl.
Most Lithuanian street names seem to have five or six syllables which when squeezed into a map can make them difficult to read – well that’s my excuse for getting lost anyway.
The advantage was a long peregrination into areas which were well of the beaten tourist trail but left me with a smug feeling of having experienced Vilnius in a more intimate way than if I had simply traipsed the cobbled roads and the not unpleasant streets leading back to the apartment where I was staying.
Although there is a distinct Lithuanian national identity the country has had historical ties with Poland and been claimed as part of Russia at various periods in its history. The onion-towered Orthodox churches stand testament to that legacy.
Lithuania’s 50-year membership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is grimly marked by The Museum of Genocide Victims located in the former headquarters of the KGB. Its main purpose is to remember the country’s partisans who resisted Soviet occupation until the mid-1950s. Tens of thousands were arrested and sent to gulags thousands of miles away, often with their entire families and their stories are told in words and pictures.
In the cellars below are dozens of prison cells where the dissidents were kept before being deported and where others, even deeper underground in a sinister bunker, were executed.
During the Second World War Lithuania was occupied by Nazi Germany and the country’s Jews were gathered into ghettos in Vilnius and murdered there or sent to concentration camps. Their fate is commemorated in a small but poignant museum and the former ghettos are close to the city centre.
There are more than 30 museums and art galleries listed on the tattered tourist map which led me astray but quite often these seemed to have disappeared or to be inexplicably closed.
A museum of Russian Art was closed on the two days that I tried to get in to it and a long trek – four kilometers each way – outside the city to visit a museum dedicated to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin also proved fruitless. There were signposts, but no museum, or at least I didn't see it.
Pushkin never actually visited Vilnius, although his grandfather lived there and one of his sons did as well. Neither did Californian psychedelic jazz-fusion guru Frank Zappa, but there is a statue to him in Vilnius anyway which, after a fair bit of searching I did manage to track down.
A 30-minute bus trip took us to the small town of Trakai on Galvė Lake, where a 16th century castle overlooks the surrounding lush green countryside and five linked lakes.
The architecture here is unique and refelcts the history of many of Trakai’s residents whose ancestors were brought from Crimea 700 years ago.
I was expecting the food to be stodgy – blood sausages and cabbage with a side of gherkins and stubborn black bread – and to be fair it was there if you wanted it. However, the menus in the restaurants that I visited were varied and surpsingly fresh and healthy.
A Ukrainian restaurant close to our apartment was a highlight with superb borscht and some excellent fish dishes. The surprise treat was a bowl of cold beetroot soup, served with a hard-boiled egg and a dollop of sour cream. It shouldn’t work but somehow it did.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Tres by Roberto Bolaño

A series of prose vignettes, an extended verse poem and a sequence of short meditations form the three sections of this bilingual collection.
The first and longest section, Prose from the Autumn in Gerona, reads like a series of scenes in a movie—an experimental European one—in which a narrator living in the Catalonia region of Spain reflects on his life and a nameless woman.
The narrator is a familiar Bolaño creation that, as with so many of his literary personas, reflects the life of the author: a Chilean who has come to Spain via Mexico, an illegal immigrant, a poet imbued with a sense of alienation.
Words, phrases, and images repeat themselves to create a shifting verbal “kaleidoscope” (one of the recurring words) that draws the reader inward.
“Paradise, at times, appears in the general arrangement of the kaleidoscope. A vertical structure covered in grey blotches. If I close my eyes I’ll see dancing in my head the reflections of helmets, the quaking of a field of spears, that thing you called jet. Also, if I cut the dramatic effects, I’ll see myself walking through the plaza by the cinema towards the post office, where I won’t find any letters.”
The next section, The Neochilians, is a verse narrative telling the adventures of a young band traveling through Chile and across the border into Peru.
It is peppered with proper names of band members and those they encounter and the place names of the towns they visit. Straightforward narrative is interwoven with philosophical musing.
It opens with the lines:
“The trip began one happy day in November,/But in a sense the trip was over/When we started./ All times coexist, said Pancho Ferri,/ the lead singer. Or they converge.”
Finally, A Stroll Through Literature is the most uneven section of Tres, burdened by an aimlessness that makes it seem as if it was just thrown together—a few lines on each page that are sometimes not all that interesting.
However, there are moments:
“In these ruins, father, where archeological remains are all that’s left of your laughter.”
Señor Bolaño’s writing can haunt, exposing tears in reality and shifts in perspective and there is plenty in this collection to satisfy those who have already been hooked by the late Chilean’s occasionally flawed but always stimulating output.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Declan keeps his cool with twist of noir

Crime writer Declan Burke has introduced a surreal twist into the genre for his new novel Absolute Zero Cool that is earning him comparisons to an Irish literary legend. The Co Sligo-born novelist talks about murder, philosophy and washing his laundry....
A psycopathic mass murderer who plans to blow up the hospital where he works is fairly standard fare in a crime novel, but when he steps out of an abandoned manuscript to confront the author who created him we are in to new territory.
Declan Burke’s surreal take on the noir genre is generating rave reviews – including thumbs up from John Banville, Ken Bruen, John Connolly and Colin Bateman – and the character-confronting-the-author twist has seen Burke being compared to Flann O’Brien.
“I’m a big fan of Flann O’Brien, and particularly At-Swim-Two-Birds – I’ve always loved that idea of messing about with the way you can tell a story and especially the idea that the characters in a book are entitled to have their say about how the story is going,” Burke says.
“You can get a bit heavy about it and talk about how it’s an expression of free will, with the writer being ‘God’ and the characters ‘human beings’ – I mean, if your life is a story, don’t you feel like you’re entitled to have some say in how it‘ll work out?
“I didn’t sit down and say, ‘Right, I’m going to write a Flann O’Brien book.’
“The way the story came out is the way it needed to be to tell this particular story.
“And besides, that kind of narrative playfulness is far older than Flann O’Brien. It’s nearly as old as the novel itself, going all the way back to Tristram Shandy.”
Absolute Zero Cool is splattered with literary and philosophical references, with Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and even Nietzsche being namechecked.
“To be honest, all that literary stuff is part of the book being a bit of a spoof on literature, and especially literature with a capital ‘L’, Taking the wee out of the ‘literary establishment,’” Burke says.
“Again, it comes down to people taking things too seriously. I mean, Beckett especially, he can be a very funny writer, even if it’s a black kind of humour he uses.
“At one point the two main characters get into an argument as to whether the story is a crime novel or a literary novel and it becomes a big issue between them. But I don’t buy into that rubbish. As Raymond Chandler once said, there’s only two kinds of books, good books and bad books.
“Any other distinction is just marketing and snobbery.”
Despite the literary references and distrubing plot Burke spices his writing with dark humour and one-liners.
“It’s probably fair to say that the plot and the comedy fed off each other,” he says.
“I mean, it’s a serious enough story if you read a short synopsis – a deranged hospital porter sets out to blow up his hospital.
“But maybe I’m a bit strange because that story idea occurred to me as something funny, especially as the hospital porter is deranged by logic.
“Things that can seem very straightforward can very quickly get blackly funny if you push them to their extremes.
“I find it hard to write without injecting humour into the proceedings here and there, mainly because it can be very easy to take yourself too seriously if you don’t lighten up once in a while.”
Burke is well known to the Irish crime fiction fraternity – writers and readers – through his crimealwayspays blog.
It is the first point of call for fans of the genre from throughout the world. It was also a platform for airing Absolute Zero Cool as a work in progress.
“It was great to get feedback on the story from people who were reading it on the blog,” Burke says.
“Writing can be a bit of a solitary gig and there are times when you feel you’re just shouting down a well.
“So it was nice to know that people were paying attention and felt engaged enough to react to what they were reading.
“I know a lot of writers say they’re only writing for themselves but I don’t know about that.
“If you were only writing for yourself, you wouldn’t bother trying to get the book published once it was written, would you?
“That said, it did feel a bit odd at first, because you’re making your mistakes in public – it’s a bit like washing your laundry in the town square. It was a good experiment, though.”
And the writer in the novel who is confronted by his abandoned fictional creation is called Declan Burke. So, any resemblance?
“It was just a bit of fun to put ‘Declan Burke’ into the story, especially as the character is a writer, because the fact of the matter is that the real Declan Burke isn’t really a writer, he’s a freelance journalist who gets to write a couple of hours a day, if he’s lucky.
“And I should probably stop referring to myself in the third person, or I’ll be locked up.”
Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke is published in paperback and as an e-book by Liberties Press.

This interview was written for an first appeared in The Irish News.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

New adventures in Cambodian psychedelia

The Cambodian Space Project are a combination of Cambodian and Australian musicians playing psychedelic rock, sung in Khmer with a distinct Asian twist.
Similar to, and possibly inspired by, their Californian counterparts Dengue Fever there is a whimsical infectiousness to their music.
The Cambodian Space Project tend to a slightly more rhythm and blues sound, although there is a charming smaltzy pop feel to some tracks.
Their first album, 2011: A Space Odyssey, includes a mix of Cambodian ‘pop classics’ from the 1960s and self-penned songs in Khmer by singer Srey Thy. There is also a Khmer version of Venus.
Stand-out track is Ban Juarp Pros Snae (I’ve Met My Love) – click here for a live version – and for the annoyingly infectious try out Pros Kangaroo (Kangaroo Boy).
Cannibal Courtship is the newest release by Dengue Fever and again combines 1960s Cambodian psychedelic rock with a Californian surf-music sensibility.
As with their earlier release Venus on Earth, some of the best songs involve a vocal interplay between Cambodian-born singer Chhom Nimo and guitarist Zac Holtzman.
However, the defining sound is Farfisa organ played by the other Holtzman brother in the band, Ethan – a swirling aural collage that conjours up trippy lights and out-of-body experiences.
Listen to a live version of Uku here.
There are more songs sung in English this time round – a mixture of geek humour “My boyfriend loves everything about bars, except the crowds, the smoke and the booze” from the song Cement Slippers and political commentary as in Family Business which critiques the arms trade.
Sister in the Radio is sung in Khmer and is a direct reference to the years of the Khmer Rouge when music was banned and thousands of musicians were murdered.
That is the dark current behind both albums, that a country that produced and inspired such endearing and layered music in the 1960s would be plunged just a few years later into the politics of Year Zero.
Read my experiences of travelling in Cambodia here.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Submergence by J.M Ledgard

An English spy kidnapped by jihadists, his French-Australian lover who dives to the most inaccessible parts of the ocean, meditations on literature and art, religion and mathematics—all weave themselves into an intricate pattern in this dense novel.
James More lives a double life, posing as a water engineer in Africa but spying for the British secret service. He is kidnapped in Somalia where he is first locked in a fetid room, dragged to the sea where his kidnappers point a gun at him only to fire in the air at the last minute before being taken to parched “badlands” where he is routinely beaten.
During his incarceration and confrontations with imminent death he reflects on his life as a spy, the art he has seen, novels he has read, philosophies he has pondered, and a love affair with Danielle, a French marine biologist and mathematician, during a Christmas in France.
Danielle is also a complex character who also lives a double life, a sociable and sexually promiscuous but emotionally disengaged one, and a deeper more meditative one carried out mentally and in actuality far beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Her area of expertise is the deepest ravines cut into the ocean floor plunging miles below the surface of the planet and where, astonishingly, forms of life exist in absolute darkness and under pressure that would crush humans to jelly.
She theorizes that it is from these depths that humanity ultimately emerged and where the atoms that give us physical form will inevitably return.
Danielle is scathing of how humanity has abused and is destroying the womb from which it emerged.
“The ocean was being fished out, poisoned and suffering acidification. Quite apart from the vessels there were sonar arrays and other electronics that ruptured the orientation of sea mammals. And if sea mammals could become so disorientated as to beach themselves, so could man exterminate himself. Man had hardly taken breath from the Stone Age and yet was altering the flow of rivers, cutting up hills and discarding the materials that would be easily identifiable to future geologists. The anthropocene: a geological age marked by plastic.”
At a symbolic level the ocean could be seen as metaphor for the human psyche whose true depths are hidden from everyday human contemplation but which James, during his captivity, is forced to confront and the ruptured orientation forced on it by the modern world.
And in his novel Mr. Ledgard takes on one of the most complicated and delicate political issue that faces that world: militant Islamism. He is a British journalist who lives in and reports from Africa and is bang up to date with current affairs— the body of Osama bin Laden floating beneath the waves drifts in and out of the narrative.
Author Ledgard has huge respect and admiration for Islam but is scathing in his criticism of the brainwashed fundamentalist mindset of those who hold James captive: jihadists from Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan.
“Their minds were weak. They misrepresented their religion. The jihad had trammeled them. They lied to others and to themselves. They had no strategy. Their choice was to fight and kill more innocents or be annihilated. It was obvious thhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifey would choose oblivion over surrender.”
However, the author contextualizes this fundamentalism in a broader context of a polluted global psyche. A few lines later he writes: “[The kidnappers] were copying the Heaven’s Gate cult in America, the first group to document suicides with video testimony. Its members found a collective determination to take their own lives having visited a funfair earlier in the day. They made their video testimony and jumped the earth to a shooting star, so they believed, while their bodies remained on the bunks in California . . .”
There are layers and depths to this short novel that only surface after the last page has been read, and it has been set aside and that leave you reaching for it to start reading again.
This review was written for and first published by the New York Journal of Books.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Seeing Stars poems by Simon Armitage

English poet Simon Armitage’s delivery is almost conversational, peppered with observations and asides—a raconteur who knows that the sound of his voice will hold an audience and that his stories will entertain.
On the page these poems have the appearance of formless bodies of text whose lines seem to ramble uncontrollably with random breaks.
They are like mini-short stories running over a page or two with only some of the more elongated forms resembling the traditional stanza poem; however, when read aloud there is a rhythm to them, a seasoned poetic sensibility with half-rhymes and assonances.
The narrators shape shift and change but all retain an essential “Armitageness”—loquacious, witty, and with an appreciation of the absurd, but then flung in to confusion by what they are experiencing. But the jaunty storytelling tone is deceptive.
Each poem reaches a moment when the mood changes, a moment of epiphany that jolts the reader out of his comfort zone and the everyday shimmers slightly as perspectives shift.
There is a dark humor here too, so dark that it can make you feel slightly uncomfortable.
It is not a flawless collection and there are moments when you feel that Armitage is merely writing for the sake of writing, letting an image run away with itself to see where it takes him.
The collection has a surreal, almost psychedelic feel, as if a stoned hippy felt an urge to write down all the images that came into his head because they seemed interesting but when read back are often just disconnected ramblings.
That aside there is much here to entertain and on occasions dazzle, with a phrase or image sending the reader hurtling into a fractured universe into which glimpses of another world come filtering through.
“I’ll Be There to Love and Comfort You” begins: “The couple next door were testing the structural fabric/ of the house with their differences of opinion.”
From a whimsically comic telling of a tale in which the narrator and his wife endure the noise of their neighbors arguing—“pounding and caterwauling carried on right in to the small hours”—the narrative becomes sinister as “a fist came thumping through the bedroom wall.”
From there on we fall into the twilight zone as the narrator pushes his hand through the hole in the wall:
“. . . slowly but slowly I opened my fist to the/unknown. And out of the void, slowly but slowly it/came: the pulsing starfish of a child’s hand, swimming/ and swimming and coming to settle on my upturned/palm.”
Welcome to the multiverse of Simon Armitage.
This review was written for an first published by the New York Journal of Books.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Outcasts - The Empire, Belfast

Of all the punk bands that came out of the north in the late 1970s The Outcasts were probably the hardest and edgiest.
Their song lyrics had a dark edge –You’re a Disease, Magnum Force and the catchy but distinctly sinister and perverted The Cops Are Coming.
More than 25 years after splitting up they were back on stage in Belfast on Saturday night at the Empire – well three of them anyway.
Singer Greg Cowan and his guitarist brother Martin, along with drummer Raymond Falls were from the original line up, which also included their late brother Colin also on drums and guitarist Getty.
The reformed Outcasts included former Rudi guitarist Brian Young (whose rockabilly band The Sabrejets provided support) and anarchist-about-town Petesy Burns on bass.
It was a superb, energetic performance that had men in their late forties and fifties, who should really know better, pogoing round the place and crashing in to one another.
There was also a fair smattering of younger people who were clearly not even born when The Outcasts were first on the go.
Greg Cowan – with spiked, bleached hair – is like a punk archetype, his snarling vocal delivery and singer-with-attitude stage presence make him a formidable front man.
The dual guitars of Martin Cowan and Young drove the sound, power chords with chunky but never overstated riffs
They pretty much covered their back catalogue and there were no ‘this is new song’ moments.http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif
A highlight was the dark and gothic Winter, from their second album Blood and Thunder.
A fitting touch was an introduction by Terri Hooley – lauded in a Guardian newspaper editorial last week as a man who deserves the freedom of Belfast – who managed The Outcasts and released their early singles and first album on the Good Vibrations record label.
The word legendary is overused when talking about bands and performers but The Outcasts were the real thing and Saturday night’s gig was a superb reminder of just why.
Footage of Terri's into and first song here.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Andy Kershaw’s passion for music developed into a compassion for humanity. A youthful devotion to the songs and social awareness of the early Bob Dylan set author Kershaw on a career path that would see him reporting on genocide in Rwanda, human rights violations in Haiti, and from the secretive totalitarian absurdity that is North Korea.
The British broadcaster’s biography veers from passionate and angry about global injustices to bewildered and contemptuous of the smug celebrities among whom he moves during his time as a DJ on BBC radio.
Many of his anecdotes are primarily pitched toward a British audience from age 35 to those in their 50s who listened to the BBC’s pop music radio station Radio 1 during the 1980s and early 90s and who will remember the self-important celebs Kershaw takes great pleasure in mocking.
From the start Andy Kershaw was an outsider who, along with the late John Peel, tried to create a counterculture among the bland pop and stadium rock that prevailed on the air.
American roots music — blues, country, soul, folk — and, most importantly, African music from the township jive of the south of the continent, to the desert blues of the west and Arabic influenced rai of the north—were his standard fare, while his contemporaries treated their listeners to Bon Jovi, Hall and Oates, and U2.
Although he is wary of the term world music Kershaw is regarded as one of its foremost champions. He has brought to the attention of western audiences such artists as Ali Farka Toure from Mali and the deliriously brilliant Bundhi Boys from Zimbabwe.
He is also obsessed with American roots music and takes us on his journeys as disparate as finding the grave of bluesman Blind Willie McTell to discovering neglected artists, such as Ted Hawkins, and securing them record contracts.
He is an obsessive traveler and seems to seek out the most obscure and often dangerous corners of the globe to visit, often at his own expense, to file reports from for the BBC and a range of British print outlets.
He visited Haiti more than 20 times in the 1990s; reported on wars, massacres and famines from throughout Africa; and in recent years made a series of radio documentaries on the “Axis-of-Evil:” Iran, Iraq (when Sadam Hussien was still in power), and North Korea.
Introducing us to North Korea he writes: “It is the most volatile place on earth. Panmunnjom, at the 38th Parallel, where North Korea meets South, is also the world’s last Cold War frontier. Here, the ancient tectonic plates of capitalism and communism still grind relentlessly and terrifyingly together. Concealed in the surrounding countryside, on both sides of the border, beyond the trim lawns, fragrant flowerbeds and ornamental shrubs, is rumored to be the deadliest arsenal in the world, a concentration of chemical, biological, conventional and nuclear weapons. And all just a minute or two from the gift shop.”
Things becomes personal toward the end of No Off Switch as Kershaw recounts the breakup of his 17-year relationship with the mother of his two children—one that saw him suffering a very public nervous breakdown and incarceration for contacting his ex-partner when a restraining order was in place.
His tone can often become flippant; and he interjects his life story with frequent asides and observations. He is probably trying to address too many audiences from those who are interested in celebrity gossip to serious music-heads to those who will be gripped by his insights as a foreign correspondent.
Although often self-centered and keen to make sure we know his opinion, Kerhsaw displays integrity in his journalism as well as a passion for music delivered from the heart—both of which lift this story well above the average celebrity bio.
This review was written for an first published by the New York Journal of Books.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Embers by Sándor Márai

A pivotal point is hinted at in this novel from the start but there is a slow build to it, a ratcheting up of tension before we get to its revelation.
From the first pages we know there has been a schism between the two main characters, Konrad and Henrik, two men who are in their mid-seventies at the start of the Second World War.
It is told mainly from the point-of-view of Henrik who was born into a wealthy family, a land-owning Hungarian father and aristocratic French mother.
From the first pages we find him living as a virtual recluse on his remote country estate, tended to by servants and his former nanny who is now in her nineties.
A letter telling of a visit sparks his reminiscences and sets the scene for the encounter that the first half of this novel builds up to.
The early chapters tell of Henrik's childhood and his coming of age in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a Europe that ceased to exist by 1918.
Konrad is from Galicia, a now extinct geographical entity which lies mostly in modern Ukraine but which has also been tied up into the history of Poland, Austria and Hungary.
Konrad and Henrik attend military school together in Vienna and become inseparable, with Konrad spending his summers on Henrik's family estate. But their difference in background create a friction, more from the perspective of the impoverished Galician than Konrad whose wealth blinds him to it.
Márai's lyrical evocation of this lost epoch fades in comparison with the second half which positively drips with layered prose depicting place, action, emotions and constantly preparing for his revelation.
We learn that Henrik and Konrad have not seen each other for 41 years, that Konrad travelled to the East while Henrik lived on his estate, estranged from his wife who died eight years after Konrad disappeared one day without explanation.
While the outside world may have changed, Henrik is steadfast in his ways, an Austro-Hungarian landowner living in a political climate where the empire no longer exists and where Europe is on the verge of being ripped apart once again.
As the two old men sit down to dinner Henrik tells his former friend: "The world holds no further threat for me. Some new world order may remove the way of life into which I was born and in which I have lived, forces of aggression may foment some revolution that will take away both my freedom and my life. None of it matters. What matters is that I do not make any compromises with a world that I have judged and banished from my existence. Without the aid of any modern appliances, I knew that one day you would come to me again. I waited you out, because everything that is worth waiting for has its own season and its own logic and now that moment has come." P123
Konrad who has travelled and seen the world comes across as the more complete and rounded character but the old landowner, who has not ventured from his estate in decades, challenges that, believing that he has been true to himself while Konrad compromised himself.
".... deep inside you was a fanatical longing to be something or someone other than you are. It is the greatest scourge a man can suffer, and the most painful. Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one's own eyes and in the eyes of the world. We all of us must come to terms with what and who we are, and recognise that this wisdom is not going to earn us any praise, that life is not going to pin a medal on us for recognising and enduring our own vanity or egoism or baldness or our potbelly. No, the secret is that there's no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, ourself-regard, or our cupidity. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character and intelligence." P157
Márai layers twists and revelations in a beautifully-paced piece of storytelling. The denouements at times seem almost understated. The well-flagged schism is much more complete than first suggested, its casual after-dinner retelling accentuating not just one, but a whole series of betrayals.
This is a subtle, nuanced novel - a translation of a translation (from Hungarian to German to English) - that could be read in a sitting but which deserves a slower absorbtion to fully appreciate its rich texture.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Richard “Diamond Dick” Jewell is found in his country home with his head blown off and a shotgun in his hands, but Dublin pathologist Quirke and the Detective Inspector Hackett quickly conclude it is a clumsy attempt to make the death look like suicide.
Benjamin Black quickly lines up a cast of suspects for the murder of the Dublin newspaper magnate and horse breeder in the fourth novel to feature Quirke.
A bitter business rival and his instantly dislikable and creepy son, a stablehand with a violent criminal record, a sullen housekeeper, the dead man’s deeply disturbed sister and his exotic French wife all enter the frame.
Quirke, as usual, is quickly out of his depth, not least because he begins an affair with the Gallic widow before her husband is even cold in his grave.
Again he is struggling with alcoholism, drinking but trying to control it, his entire body quivering for more each time he sips a glass of wine.
Over the previous novels Black has assembled a retinue of supporting players, including Hackett and Quirke’s daughter Phoebe. But stepping from the sidelines of two-dimensional bit-player to take second billing this time round emerges Quirke’s assistant pathologist, Sinclair, to become a fully rounded character with hidden depths.
Author Black spends less time than in his earlier Quirke novels establishing the time frame of 1950s Dublin, just an occasional reference to the location of a long-flattened building or now-defunct tram line.
But as before he paints a scathing picture of establishment corruption and an Ireland still dominated by the Catholic Church, which allows elements of its clergy to commit appalling crimes against children in its care.
Moreso than in his previous pseudonymously penned novels by Benjamin Black, the voice of Booker prizewinner John Banville, keeps emerging from the pages of A Death in Summer as if he wants to push aside his crime-writing alter ego and show him how things should be done.
“They left the kitchen and went back to the nook in the dining room. The night was pressing its glossy back against the window. The candle had burned halfway, and a knobbly trail of wax had dripped down the side and onto the table. Quirke lifted the bottle of Bordeaux.”
In four sentences the straightforward storytelling prose of the crimewriter Black morphs in the prosaic lyricism of Banville and back again to functional narrative.
This is an elegant novel, well-paced with dramatic twists, disturbing surprises and richly drawn characters whose actions and motives have a tangible psychological depth.
Black/Banville is well in form here, and this is probably the most assured of his Quirke novels. It can be either plunged into without any need to reference the previous three or else taken as a welcome new installment of a sequential quartet by one of Ireland’s leading contemporary novelists who barely disguises himself behind his crimewriter penname.

This review was written for an first published The New York Journal of Books.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011



This picture was the highlight of a visit to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin on Saturday where a selection of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera was showing.
This Kahlo painting, Autorretrato en la Frontera Entre El Abrazo de Amor de el Universo, la Tierra (México), Yo, Diego y el Señor Xólotl (The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl), left a huge impression.
It shows a universal goddess, holding an earth mother (Mexico) who holds Kahlo who in turn nurses a Hinduised version of Rivera (with a third eye in his forehead).
As well as Hinduism it has elements of Aztec and Christian iconography.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Blue Lough

A walk into the Mourne Mountains this morning brought home how bad last month's fires had been.
I'd seen the huge areas of scorch damage a few weeks ago when walking along the Brandy Pad, but this morning's walk past Annalong Wood was through some of the worst damage.
Much of the wood is now charcoal, large open spaces giving a clear view over to the other side where there used to be a curtain of forest.
Some of it has survived but the rest will have to be replanted, hopefully with native species this time rather than ubiquitous pines.
Further on up large tracts of scrubland are blackened and the recent heavy rains seem to have washed away the charred heather and even the topsoil in which it grew to expose the rocky ground beneath.
Even though I walk this route more than any other in the Mournes the landscape was a new one to me, the surrounding peaks were the same but the ground around them had physically changed.
The silence was more intense than ever, no crickets or bird song, just a couple of cawking ravens on the slopes of Slieve Binnian.
I went on up past a little mountain called Perscy Bysshe, past a cluster of bog cotton in one of the pockets of undamage heather and sat on the shore of the Blue Lough, pictured above.
On the opposite shore were the steeply inclining slabs of Slievelamagan but even up here there was evidence of scorch damage... and then among the charred soil I saw a couple of green shoots.
It might take a few years but the mountains will recover, despite the crisp packet-dropping, boot-eroding (my own included) and cigarette butt-incinerating efforts of those who come here.
Another encouraging thing was a small stunted tree that I always look out for along the path leading to Percy Bysshe was still there. I didn't see it on the way up, but its well off the path and hard to sight sometimes, camoflaged agains the surrounding heather.
But coming down again I saw that it was still there, like the only stage prop in Waiting For Godot, standing stunted but surviving in the fire-blasted mountain heather surrounding it.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Angels and Rabies by Manchán Magan

Manchán Magan graviates towards outsiders and drifters, people who by choice or for cultural reasons have been sidelined by society and hover at its perifiary.
He tends to be suspicious of those who have done so by choice but truly empathetic with the socially excluded.
When he comes across the remains of an Irish commune called the Screamers half way up a mountain in a Colombian jungle he is keen to visit but his inability to buy totally in to their philosophy leaves him isolated among the isolated.
I clearly remember passing a brightly painted house in Donegal during a family holiday in the 1970s and my parents saying that the house belonged to The Screamers, giving each other knowing nods as they did so.
The name stuck with me and an image of the house, although it was only years later that I discovered that the Screamers were a commune who practiced a form of group psychology by literally screaming their anger from them.
They scandalised Ireland at the time because of their communal living and gained a reputation as being a religious cult, eventually decamping across the Atlantic to South America.
When Magan meets them only a few of the original members remain and the group seems close to fracturing.
He earns their leader's wrath when he tells her that rather than ridding themselves of anger it seems to him that they have become addicted to it and he finds himself increasingly subject to it.
Magan portrays himself is a psychologically damaged person seeking healing, one of life's loners who doesn't seem to fit in with society but who wants to be accepted for who he is. He says that he doesn't fear death, that he sees it as simply passing into another way of existing.
However, his stoicism is pushed to a pragmatic battle for survival when he is bitten by a rabid dog in Equador.
The retelling is almost comical but the sense that he is facing a slow agonising death unless he finds expensive medication is tangible.
He survives and becomes a minor legend on the South America backpacker trail which is full of others who feel a similar outsiderness to him but who he seems unable to relate to.
There are some who he admires. Rory, a Welsh man who has fled civilization and bought 1,000 acres of mountain rain forest to try and create a utopia in Equador.
But farmers planting sugar cane are chopping down the forest all around him and encroaching closer and closer on his “temple” leaving it vulnerable to fire.
He also meets a number of indigenous tribes whose leaders seem to have message warning man kind of environmental devastation and particular insights into Magan’s condition.
He meets and falls in love, then separates with a Hollywood brat packer – all within three days – whose true identity he never reveals but drops enough hints for those care about these sort of things to deduct.
In the second half, and probably less interesting half, he travels to Canada where he becomes involved with militant conservationists, a drug dealer and takes part in a Native American pow wow. He ends this adventure in California where he has managed to track down his starlet.
Machan's travel books are much more than mere reportage, detailing offbeat adventures and quirky stories. There is a sense that the stripping bear of his psyche to be presented in such a public way is, or was, part of a healing process.
This is travel writing in both through the geographical terrains and those of the psyche.
For my review of Magan’s travels in Africa, which predate Angels and Rabies although were written more recently click here. For a review of his novel Oddballs click here.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Grá agus Bás - Donnacha Dennehy

The 24-minute title track on this album is the stand-out piece although the following song cycle is utterly memorable as well.
Grá agus Bás (Love and Death) features Sean-nós singer Iarla O Lionáird's hypnotic voice set against a an edgy, discordant score performed by the aptly-names Crash Ensemble.
Composed by Donnacha Dennehy, who co-founded the ensemble, the music seems to amble aimlessly as do O Lionáird's vocals.
It takes a couple of listens to ascertain the hidden patterns that undulate underneath the abstract meanderings of brass and strings.
Sean-nós singing is not to everyone's tatse, although O Lionáird has made a mission of popularising it, particularly with the Afro Celt Soundsystem.
It is a wavering, keening type of singing, traditionally unaccompanied. Sung in Irish the songs have an ancient, tribal feel to them.
The vocals surf along with the instrumentation and then drift off into their own pattern, sometimes causing the various instruments to do the same thing before they are all drawn together again into a loosely agreed structure.
This is music for late at night and listening to on your own. It demands attention and once you have tapped into its aural fractals it is hypnotically addictive.
That the Night Come is a series of six WB Yeats poems set to music by Dennehy and sung by Dawn Upshaw. Once again the music is discordant but less so than Grá agus Bás.
It is easier to find a hook here, less challenging but still rewarding and again slightly unnerving.
As a whole Grá agus Bás will either infuriate or entrance listeners. Visit the website here for sample tracks.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Nemonymous Night by DF Lewis

The act of reading any novel requires a willingness on the part of the reader to submit to the author’s vision, but this novel makes demands that go well beyond what is usually expected.
To “get it” you must be totally tuned in to the frequency on which author D. F. Lewis is working. Failure to do so will leave you floundering in an undulating sea of words.
Plot? Not so much.
A couple of kids turn up missing in an unnamed English city, but then they are found. Or maybe they aren’t. The entire population has been overcome by a dream sickness in which reality and time seem to warp. And then there’s this business about a carpet, which might or might not be magic?
Okay. But . . .
Then characters swap identities and are barely rooted in one another’s perceptions, while the time streams in which they exist undulate, cross over one another, and twist back in on themselves.
Any pretense at a linear narrative into which you can place events and relate them to one another has been abandoned. As such, the terrain of Nemonymous Night seems to be the unconsciousness where dreams intersect with reality.
But whose unconsciousness? Perhaps it is a matrix where the dreams and psychic flotsam of different people mingle in an attempt to construct an agreed-upon version of reality before drifting off?
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I never quite tuned in to D. F. Lewis’s frequency.
Comparisons with Douglas Adams, Philip K. Dick, and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake suggest themselves as literary reference points, but don’t let fmailiarity with those fool potential readers into a sense of complacency.
Nemonymous Night is not an easy read; however—and here’s the rub—it’s entirely
readable. If you got through Dylan’s Tarantula and thought it was a seamless masterpiece and that Beckett’s The Unnamable is a bit light for your tastes, then by all means, give this one a try.
If you have no idea what I’ve just spent many paragraphs attempting to express, perhaps you ought to move on to another book.
This review was written for an first published on the New York Journal of Books.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Brendan at the Chelsea

"If Jesus Christ was married to you, he'd be back up that cross within five minutes, banging in the fucking nails himself."
One of the more memorable lines from Brendan at the Chelsea, playing at the newly rebuilt Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
Brendan Behan is played by the normally lithe Adrian Dunbar, whose fake beer gut struck the only false note about this performance.
The sluggish hungover movements, the drunken slabbering, the acerbic wit and cutting put downs - as evidenced in the opening line - and an easy charm are brought to life by Dunbar.
Set in New York's Chelsea Hotel in 1963, the year before Behan died, it finds the Dublin writer unable to physically write and recording his thoughts into a tape recorder.
His publisher is on his back looking for the book he has paid an advance for out of which Behan's hotel bill is being paid and which Behan is unable to deliver.
His lover - who we never see - with whom he has had a child, is urging him to break up with his wife although from the snatches of phone conversation we hear from Behan's side it doesn't seem she is fully committed to him.
His wife, Beatrice, is due to arrive in New York after finally tracking him down there two months after he fled from Dublin without telling her that he was leaving.
Behan is living in an alcoholic fug, shifting between hangover, enebriation, all-out slabbering drunkeness and delerium tremens.
An assistant, Lianne, tries to encourage him to write, gives him his medecine and puts him to bed when he can't do it himself.
A composer, George lauds his genius and tries to encourage him to seek help for his alcoholism because he is literally pissing away his talent.
The set of a hotel room with a bed, desk - laden down with papers, tape recorder, half filled glasses and medecine - and a sofa is cleverly used to flashback to the highs and lows of Behan's life.
His triumphant arrival in New York on a ship a few years earlier for the Broadway production of The Hostage, his verbal sparring with journalists at a press conference and a surreal trip into deleririum.
There were strong suggestions of Behan's rumoured bisexuality and how fame had in some ways driven him off the wagon and back to drink.
Some of the scenes were truly heartbreaking as this character who within a few minutes had endeared himself with his self-deprecation, quick one-liners and edgy charm became a drunk-sodden, snarling demon.
His body siezes up and he curls in spasms of pain at one point falling onto the floor and throwing up green bile.
Dunbar - up close in the Lyric's smaller Naughton Studio - dominated the stage and immersed himself in the character of Behan, with subtle mannerisms, cackles of laughter and, more touchingly, slapping his numbed hands that are no longer able to hold a pen and trembling uncontrollably as he tries to sip from a jug of water.
Probaly the most moving scenes are in the second half of the play when Beatrice arrives in New York and realises that her husband is not only involved with another woman but that the rumours that he has fathered a child with her are true.
This was intimate portrait, written by Behan's niece Janet Behan, that was enhanced by an intimate setting and superb sensitive acting.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Hungry Ghosts: A Novel by Keith Kachtick

A womanising, drug-taking, hard drinking, materialist photographer has become interested in Buddhism.
His search for 'a path' is partly driven by a mid-life crisis and disillusion at how shallow he has become.
He surfs the net for porn, buys the latest gadgets at a whim and dresses in designer clothing.
Carter Cox is a travel and fashion photographer who lives in New York but who gets to visit some of the most exotic places in the world.
Yet he does have a social conscience and is moved by what he encounters when he works on an assignment to photograph street children in Guatemala.
Back in New York he offers himself as a volunteer and ends up becoming a weekly visitor to Christopher, an English Buddhist practitioner who is dying from Aids.
Although Christopher only strays into the story now and again his presence resonates throughout the novel, even after his death. His last words are: "This should be interesting."
Carter takes up meditation and mindfulness but struggles to shake off the materialistic aspects of his life, including his promiscuity.
Carter's behaviour can be cringe-inducing, but he is rounded character full of good intentions but undermined by human weakness.
His materialism and avowed determination to pursue a Buddhist path to enlgihtenment are challenged when he meets Mia at a retreat.
She is a devout Catholic, although open to other religions, and is 13 years younger than Carter.
Once again Kachtick creates a character with depth who once considered becoming a nun but who is as vulnerable to human frailties.
She is besotted with Carter and comes to stay in his Manhattan apartment and he is torn between a desire to revert to form and seduce her and to respect her vow of celibacy.
They travel to Morocco for a photo shoot, with Mia acting as Carter's assistant, and become both emotionally and increasingly physically involved.
Hungry Ghost works well in that it delivers a pacey story, with a number of surprising twists, while at the same time introducing some fairly in-depth Tibetan Buddhist doctrines.
It teeters on the verge of tweeness at times, but then rescues itself with some surprising diversions, including a glimpse into the afterlife from the perspective of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The ending, however. is slightly baffling and I'm not reallys sure what happens, if anything.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Bending The Boyne by JS Dunn

Irish folklore is full of giants, shapechangers, fearless warriors, sultry queens and mighty battles - yet it is possible that these stories could be huge exaggerations of real events.
Historically Ireland was settled by countless waves of invaders, many of whom have left their own mark or cultural strand.
The Celts are the best known, while the Vikings, Normans, English and Scots have all added their influences to the melting pot.
However, Ireland was inhabited long before the first Celts came around 2,000 years ago. The memories of these earliest settlers have been woven into Irish mythology and folklore and they have been personified as the Tuatha de Dannan, Firbolg and Fomarians.
JS Dunn goes back to fringes of Irish oral history and uses her background as an archaeologist to create a credible narrative of what may actually have taken place 4,000 years ago.
The Starwatchers have lived in Ireland for many hundreds of years and have built huge monuments at Newgrange to help monitor the subtle shift in the positions of stars over many lifetimes.
They are close to the land, living in harmony with nature, foraging for food and hunting in the forests and rivers.
However, their lifestyle is being endangered by the Invaders, who have set up camp on the banks of the River Boyne, close to Newgrange and its sister mounds Knowth and Dowth.
They are miners searching for copper and gold and have cut down huge swathes of forest to fuel the furnaces they use to smelt their metal to make artefacts, including swords.
Meanwhile the Starwatchers are protohippies, living off the land in small close-knit communes, close to nature, communing with their ancestors and deities.
They spend much of their time observing the night sky and the almost imperceptible shifts in the orbit of the stars and the sun, recording these movements in huge monuments.
Dunn convincingly recreates the societies in which her characters live in terms of food, clothing, housing, lifestyle and religious beliefs.
While the characters are firmly fixed in their milieu, the narrative is littered with knowing nods to the future, a word or phrase that will draw a link between evens 4,000 years ago and contemporary Ireland and western Europe.
The two main characters Cian and Boann are Starwatchers but their lives become entangled with the Invaders with Cian visiting their mines in Kerry and travelling to 'Seafarer' settlements in Europe - the Basque Country, where even then the inhabitants are distinct from their European neighbours - and along the Spanish coast into Asturias and Galicia and eventually the Loire Valley in modern day France.
Boann has been schooled in Starwatcher lore but is forced into a marriage with Elcmar, the Invader's High King and into the coarse materialism of Invader society.
The names of the characters all echo those familiar to us from Irish mythology - Connor, Dagda, Lir, Maebh and Bolg - and their characteristics or aspects of their lives foreshadow the exploits of their mythical namesakes.
One of the joys of this novel is that it can be read on various levels - a straightforward historical novel, a commentary on contemporary global politics, a parable of what happens when capitalism tries to impose itself on ancient tribal values.
It also carries a strong environmental message as the Invaders plunder Ireland's natural resources to create material wealth - copper and gold which require thousands of trees to be cut down and burnt before they can be melted and cast into elaborate ornaments and weapons.
It is a sad novel as we carry the foreknowledge that ultimately the Starwatchers way of life and their values will be lost and that their human, individual lives become a mere rumour that barely exist on in the echoes of myth.
But then equally the Invaders themselves who brought about that downfall would eventually succumb to future waves of invaders and they in turn would suffer the same fate as those they had usurped.
Vists JS Dunn's website here.

Pina

Wim Wenders biopic of the late choreographer Pina Bausch caused half a dozen people to walk out of the QFT in Belfast when I watched it this week.
There is a barely suppressed sexual energy, often violent, about many of Bausch's pieces but I also suspected that the walk-outs may have had more to do with people not really understanding what was happening. I certainly didn't.
The highly stylised movements and interactions between the dancers set to a mixture of classical, jazz and contemporary music defies interpretation.
Like abstract painting or avant garde music, contemporary dance is intended to express the inexpressible, to tug at some emotion that can not be articulated by mere words.
Bausch's best-know piece, Cafe Muller, involves women in clinging white chiffon dresses, with their eyes shut tight, seeming to be reluctantly dragged by some unseen force from one end of a stage to another, while a waiter hurls tables and chairs out of their way. It features as the opening scene of Pedro Almodovar's Hable Con Ella.
It is a Beckettian scenario, absurdist and non-sensical. I haven't a clue what is going on while watching it, what it is supposed to mean or symbolise, but it is strangely moving.
The film Pina was narrated by members of the German-based dance ensemble who worked with Bausch, some of them for more than two decades.
There was footage of Bausch herself, occasionally dancing or talking about her methodology, but Wender's, correctly concentrated on the dances she choreographed - visual representation of her psychic landscape.
There were generous extracts, sometime recreated in the urban setting of Wuppertal in northern Germany where Bausch's Tanztheatre company were based.
Even though the QFT screening was in 2D it was cinematographically stunning. I would love to see the three-D version but can't see it getting an airing somehow in our local moviehouse.
Pretentious? Probably, but a superb and inspiring 1hr 45min experience.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tree planting

One of Ireland's leading environmental activists has called on writers to take a leaf from the book of a Co Down novelist.
Tony Bailie’s second novel ecopunks is described as an “environmental parable for the 21st century” and features a troubled eco-warrior as its central character.
While the novel, published by Belfast Lagan Press, was printed on recycled paper Bailie decided to go one step further and has planted 20 native Irish trees to help offset the carbon footprint resulting from the production process.
Bailie said: “I felt that taking on an environmental theme for my fiction brought additional responsibilities to me as a writer and even when I was writing it I decided that I would have to do something more than making sure it was printed on recycled paper.
“While ecopunks is aimed at a general readership, I did not want to simply tap in to the green zeitgeist without making a genuine effort to be true to the principles espoused by my main characters and the ethos of the novel.”
Bailie, a journalist with the Belfast-based daily The Irish News, worked with the paper’s gardening columnist John Manley to identify a plot of unused land beside the Co Down coast and what trees to plant.
Mr Manley said: “We planted native species such as crab apple, beech, hawthorn, elder and birch – all sourced bare-root from Conservation Volunteers tree nursery at Clandeboye, just outside Belfast.
“The patch we planted is close to the sea, out on the edge of the Lecale peninsula. We hope this small copse will one day provide a welcome shelter and resting place for migrating birds as they come in off the Irish Sea.”
The initiative and the theme of the novel have been welcomed by Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland Director James Orr.
Mr Orr said: “This book is not just a great story but a parable for the way in which we need to stop taking our planet for granted.
“The interlocking themes of a road destroying ancient woodland and nuclear catastrophe is set against the context that our time on Earth is a fraction of geological or ecological time. This book reminds us of man’s hubris and short-sighted arrogance in assuming that we are not party of nature.
“This is an also international story but could easily have been set in Ireland given what is happening to the natural world.
“With this superb book, Tony Bailie has given us great literature with a powerful message that none of us can ignore.”
Ecopunks is part adventure story, part psychological thriller and part New Age philosophy that raises serious questions about the impact of modern living on the world’s climate.
It tells the interweaving stories of eco-warrior Wolf Cliss, alternative archaeologist Kei Yushiro and Irish musician Lorcan O’Malley. All three are troubled characters in this intimate story about principle and belief that stretches from Eastern Europe and the rain forests of Asia to South America.
ecopunks by Tony Bailie is available from Lagan Press or from Amazon.


Above press release went out to media in Ireland and Britain this week.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vázquez

This is a cleverly written novel, well structured, planting information and revisiting events from different perspectives to slowly unravel its story.
Although set in 1990s Colombia, its subject matter is the fate of the German immigrants who lived in the country during the Second World War.
When Colombia took the side of the Allies those who were born in Axis countries and their descendants immediately came under scrutiny.
This was a fairly arbitrary process and many ended up losing their homes and businesses because of rumours of Nazi sympathies.
The Informers of the title are those who reported their suspicion of German neighbours and even friends, but it also relates to the sources of information used by the narrator Gabriel Santoro to piece together his father's role in the betrayal of a German friend.
When Santoro, a journalist, writes a biography of a German Jew who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s he believes his father will be proud of him. The subject of the book, Sara Guterman, is one of his father's closest friends and she cooperates fully with the writer.
However, Santoro snr, a respected legal lecturer, denounces the book - "its tropes are cheap, its ethos questionable, and its emotions second-hand... as a whole it is a failure".
Of course rather than undermining his son's work the caustic verdict of his well-known academic father only draws more attention to it.
For years the father and son avoid discussing the book, mostly avoiding one another, but when the father has a stroke his son is drawn back into his life. And when Santos snr dies he begins to unravel the truth behind his father's harsh verdict.
Colombia's more recent political violence simmers close to the surface but is not a major theme.
I liked this novels sense of time place, the way it navigated its characters through Bogotá, other regions of the country and Colombia's recent history and allows you almost experience life there during the time that you live in its pages.
Juan Gabriel Vázquez uses a variety of narrative techniques - first person, question and answers, journalism and extended dialogue. Maybe that makes it a bit writerly and self-consciously clever but the shifts in perspective reflect life and how we gather information about a subject, add to our understanding of what has taken place and revaluate our judgments.
Not a particularly easy read, nor even that enjoyable, but this left me with a sense of being on a journey from which I emerged a bit older, wiser and sadder.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

This novel first published in 1951 gained a new lease of life in the sixties when it fell in to the canon of hippy literature and accompanied many an adventurer on the Hippy Trail from Europe to the East.
Set in India 2,500 years ago it tells the story of Siddhartha, the son of a Brahmin, who leaves the comforts of his family home to live the life of a wandering holy man.
It has biographical echoes of the story of the historical Prince Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha and who Hesse's fictional Siddhartha actually meets during his wandering.
It can be read at an allegorical level – the journey that its narrator takes is a symbolic journey through life, or even a series of
incarnations, as he lives at first as privileged young man, then as a wandering ascetic, then a life of materialism and sensual pleasures before becoming a meditative recluse once again.
From early on Siddhartha seems to be close to the sort of spiritual enlightenment that Buddha’s followers are seeking - begging for his food, living without possessions and meditating on the fragility of what we perceive as reality.
Yet after meeting Buddha, Siddhartha abandons that lifestyle and plunges in to the world of materialism, living as a merchant, becoming the lover of a courtesan, indulging in fine wines and rich foods.
He becomes so immersed in his materialistic existence that the spiritual being he once was is all-but forgotten.
But this existence is necessary to Siddhartha’s spiritual development as well. He needs raw experience rather than abstract philosophy to reconnect with his higher self.
It is only when he abandons his materialistic existence to work alongside a simple old man, ferrying travellers by raft across a river that he achieves true enlightenment.
It is easy to see why it appeals to the Hippy sensibilities as it combines, Eastern mysticism with materialistic abandonment but
suggests that life must be lived before it can be properly understood.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño

Another Roberto Bolaño novel, an early one, and another little gem to add to the Chilean writer's posthumous canon.
The themes, characters and locations will be familiar to those who have read his more mature works and in many ways you can see him rehearsing some of the narrative techniques he would later develop - particularly in The Savage Detectives.
Three characters, in alternating chapters, come at the same story from different angles, drifting in and out of each other's narratives, reflecting on the same incidents and secondary characters from alternative perspectives.
It is set in Catalunya in the town of Z which lies close to the coast and is busy in the summer months with an influx of tourists.
A senior official siphons of local council funds to build a skating rink in an abandoned mansion for a young champion skater he has become besotted with.
A Mexican businessman who has made good in Spain, who owns shops, hotels and a campsite and who becomes the skater's lover.
And then the Bolañoesque outsider, an illegal immigrant, working as a night watchman at the campsite, trying to stay below the radar of officialdom.
Bolaño maintains a tension throughout in the build-up to a murder, the body found on the secret rink.
He reports from there underbelly of society where it intersects with the comfortable 'respectable' world and occasionally breaks through like an irksome scab.
And as with other novels Bolaño often hints a more mysterious intersection, a slight fracturing in reality that allows an other-worldliness creeps in.
"Sometimes at night, as I walked through the darker parts of the campground, among empty sites and family-size tents strewn with pine needles, I thought of the skating rink and then I was afraid. Afraid that I might come across something from the rink, snagged, hidden in the darkness. Sometimes the air and rats scuttling along the branches of the trees almost made that presence visible..." P158
"... her eyes were covered by the blurry film that was a sign and agent of a force sucking her away toward another reality." P 172
Unsettling as always.
Other Bolaño reviews here.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Horslips/Ulster Orchestra - Irish News review

Horslips were musical pioneers in their 1970s heyday and last night they showed that they were still happy to meet new challenges.
It would be easy for a band of their stature, only recently re-formed after a 30-year break, to tour arenas and festivals and trot out their best-known songs to keep the punters happy.
But to agree to rearrange some of the most iconic tunes in Irish rock music and play them alongside the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Brian Byrne, was a bold move – particularly as their Waterfront Hall concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio Ulster.
They have a rich source of material to choose from but last night concentrated on their two epic concept albums The Book of Invasions and The Tain, which also contain their best-known songs – Trouble, Sword of Light, Power and the Glory and Dearg Doom.
There was plenty of scope to experiment as Horslips were always more than a three-chord band, combining Irish trad with psychedelic rock and mixing electric guitars with fiddles, mandolins and electric organs.
The original albums were layered works with musical motifs running through the tracks to reappear and morph in new settings.
The band and the orchestra played well off each other, with the orchestra creating a wall of sound – particularly effective during the surreal experience of seeing classical musicians play Dearg Doom.
If there was a criticism it would be that their audience seemed to be confined by the formal setting – have you ever tried tapping along with a 60-piece orchestra?
An interesting musical experiment, certainly, but perhaps Horslips diehards will be looking forward to the next full ‘rock-out’ gig.

This review was written for and first appeared in The Irish News on March 18 2011.

Ecopunks reviewed in Books Ireland

Belfast-based journalist Bailie has two poetry collections and another novel, The Lost Chord, to his name.
[ecopunks] may be viewed as a parable for our times. It is as much concerned with what humanity is doing to the planet as what is happening to the protagonists of the story.
The plot ranges accross the world taking in eastern Europe, the Sahara, South America, Asia and the Pacific as it follows the adventures of its three main characters.
Wolf Cliss is an ecowarrior on the run from a murder charge. Kei Yushiro is a troubled, unconventional archaeologist and Lorcan O'Malley an ageing Irish musician getting used to reality after decades on drugs.
Their three separate stories collide in an exciting finale against the backdrop of questions raised about climate change and its consequences.

This review appeared in the February 2011 of Books Ireland.

Ecopunks is available from Amazon.co.uk or direct from the publisher Lagan Press.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston

Novelist Jennifer Johnston is the daughter of playwright, broadcaster and journalist Denis Johnston who died in the 1980s and whose artistic peak came in the 1930s.
He worked as a BBC radio correspondent during the Second World War in the Middle East and mainland Europe - Italy, the Balkans, France, Austria and Germany - and was one of the first journalists to enter a liberated Nazi concentration camp.
He was also a philanderer, having numerous affairs and leaving Jennifer Johnston’s mother, when the future novelist was still a child, to marry another woman and start another family.
So there is no great mystery on who Desmond Fitzmaurice, the central character of Truth or Fiction is based on.
He is a former playwright who worked as a journalist in the Second World War and who left his first wife (he maintains that she kicked him out) and their young daughter for another woman and had a second family.
Caroline, a journalist, is sent from London to interview the ageing and long-forgotten writer at his Dublin home to dig up some juicy gossip and reassess his career.
She is a reluctant interrogator, going through a mid-life crisis, and quickly finds herself being dragged into Fitzmaurice’s domestic dramas and regaled with tales of past adultories and even a murder.
On reading this novel it would seem that Jennifer Johnston had a difficult relationship with her father. Fitzmaurice’s daugher from his first marriage, who seems to be the fictional counterpart of the novelist and who we hear about but never meet, is said to hate her father.
And the portrayal of Fitzmaurice is less than endearing as he comes across as selfish and only interested in how he will be remembered by history, displaying contempt for his various spouses and romanticising an affair that he said he once had.
There is a theatrical feel to the narrative with Fitzmaurice playing back tapes of himself recalling about his affair, a knowing nod to Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, a contemporary of Denis Johnston.
Caroline is skeptical about Fitzmaurice’s accounts of his past and begins to resent his confiding in her and being forced to become a participant in his domestic tribulations.
There isn’t really that much depth to this novel and most of its intrigue lies in the knowledge that Fitzmaurice is broadly based on Johnston’s late father.
Given the richness of Denis Johnston’s life and the plentiful source material that he left behind - particularly in his war memoir Nine Rivers From Jordan and the philosophical The Brazen Horn - his daughter could have produced a much more layered and interesting fictional portrayal.
But then maybe producing such a slight novel and unflattering central character is saying as much about her attitude to a father who it seems she didn’t really like.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Pictures at an Exhibition by DM Thomas

The early chapters of this novel are strong but it becomes overly complicated in subsequent sections and the plot increasingly convoluted.
Thomas is good at planting information and letting things slowly unravel so that the reader is constantly trying to second-guess him on the true identities of his key players.
Unfortunately the book's blurb tells you exactly what the big twist is in the first section so that Thomas's slow and careful scene-setting that should result in a jolt of horror as you realise what is happening and where is completely undermined.
Two men talking, one of them psychoanalysing the other. The analysts is clearly in a subservient position to his patient.
Visual clues, the smell of smoke constantly in the air and the names of characters - Galewski and Dr Lorenz - and Freudian analysis are all dropped in until about 20 pages in Thomas cranks up the gear and we realise that the action is taking part in Auschwitz, the analyst is a Jewish prisoner and that his patient is one of the commanders responsible for the ongoing massacre.
Thomas details the full litany of atrocities that took place there - the
production-line slaughter of men, women and children and the medical experiments on live humans.
Galewski, who is to an extent collaborating with the concentration camp authorities (soley in the name of staying alive) is not unsympathetic to Lorenz who is suffering from nightmares and a psychosomatic ailments. These turn out not to be the result of participation in the mass destruction of human beings but because of a childhood trauma.
When section one ends, we find ourselves in England in the early 1990s when a new ensemble of characters take up the narration through a series of first-person narratives in the form of letters and counselling sessions.
From the start (and because of the blurb of course) the reader is trying to work out which of them, if any, are Galewski and Lorenz, or one of the other characters we met in part one.
Thomas inserts a series of clues and false trails in against a background of
European high art - Edvard Munch and Gustav Mahler - and Freudian analysis.
Coming after the intensity of the first section the following chapters are soap
operish and sometimes just silly and the lives of the characters tedious. The dramas that the author creates for them are... well dramas, convoluted ones at that.
The combination of Freud and sex are nothing new in a DM Thomas novel. Pictures at an Exhibition has its moments and up until the very end the identities of its main protagonists are still only being hinted at. However, despite a strong start the narrative seems to run out of steam, regaining its momentum in a series of fits and spurts but never quite regaining its early promise.
For my other DM Thomas reviews click here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño

The story concerns Pierre Pain, a hypnotist and alternative doctor, who has been called in to treat the Peruvian poet César Vallejo who is dying of hiccups.
For most of the story Pain has no idea who Vallejo is, merely that he is South American and that his wife is close friend of a Madame Reynaud, who he is in love with.
The fact that Madame Reynaud called on him despite the fact that he was unable to save her husband's life six months earlier gives Pain hope that he might win her affections.
He is a lonely and introspective person but the world that he is drawn into by agreeing to treat Vallejo soon leaves him confused and alienated.
Bolaño is superb at portraying Pain's growing sense of paranoia as it seems that everyone he encounters knows exactly what is going on while he struggles to understand.
The streets of Paris in 1938, where the novel is set, are claustrophobic as Pain is followed by two Spaniards and told to stay away from Vallejo. The hospital where the poet is being treated is labyrinthine and Kafkaesque. Pain is shunned by the medical establishment and eventually evicted by a receptionist.
There are constant hints that something dark and sinister is going, for example when Madame Reynaud unexpectedly and without explanation leaves Paris for Lille, but while Pain seems to be constantly plagued with a sense of uneasiness he remains baffled as to exactly why and how he should react.
The longest scene in the novel takes place in a cinema where Pain narrates that what is happening on screen as well as what is happening to him, gradually the plot of the movie and the plot of the novel begin to intersect as Pain recognises one of the minor characters as former colleague.
Another former student, Plomeur-Boudou, who studied with Pain and the character in the movie is also in the cinema sitting beside one of the Spaniards who had been following Pain.
Plomeur-Boudou confesses that he is working for the Fascists in Spain and using his mesmeric skills to torture anti-Franco Republicans.
Patterns unfold in this novel, scenes or vignettes that seem to echo through later pages and fold back on themselves.
Monsieur Pain is a stylish tale that is effortless to read, yet richly layered, and left me feeling once again in awe of the late Chilean author.