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.