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 th 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.