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.