Sunday, 26 February 2006

Review: Fima, Amos Oz (1991)

The story opens with Efraim, 54, getting ready for his shift at the gynaecological clinic where he works. His shift starts at 1:00 p.m. The morning is spent in a cloud of dissatisfaction and small vexations. His dream-book, which he writes in, conscientiously, every morning, suggests a history, however, and before we launch into the story of how he got married, the day is a bit of a mess. Efraim, or Fima, as his friends call him, is a dreamer, both awake and asleep, a man pursued by his own doubts through the winter streets of Jerusalem, pursued by the shadows of his past. And he pursues others, pursues love and companionship, yearns for compassion. He is not an easy person to know, it seems, but his intentions, clear to us, are good.

The story about how Yael and Fima got married is spectacular, like a monologue by a dumb comedian. The speed of the narrative is stunning. This little fable could be entitled ‘how Efraim chose his wife’:

Less than a month after the conclusion of this trip Fima went to Yavne’el to look for the third girl. He discovered that Yael Levin was a graduate of the aeronautical engineering department of the Haifa Technicon and worked in a top-secret air force installation in the hills west of Jerusalem. After a few meetings he found that her presence made him feel restful, while his presence amused her in her placid way. When he asked her, hesitantly, whether she thought they were suited to each other, she replied, ‘I quite like the way you talk.’ He thought this indicated a hint of affection. Which he treasured. Next he sought out Liat Sirkin and sat with her for half an hour in a little seaside café, simply to make certain he had not made her pregnant. But afterwards he allowed himself to sleep with her again in a cheap hotel in Bat Yam, so he wasn’t certain any more.

The novel is humorous, always sliding onto irony, never satire. The humour is in keeping with the sleepy tone of the story. Oz’s description of Dr Wahrhaftig is a tiny capsule of the humour that animates this novel:

He was a stocky man with the build of a basso profundo, and his face had the florid, flabby look of an alcoholic, crisscrossed with an unhealthy network of blood vessels that were so near the surface, you could almost take his pulse by their throbbing. He had a joke for every occasion, invariably introduced with the phrase ‘There is a well-known story about.’ And he always burst out laughing when he got close to the punch line. Fima, who had already heard ad nauseam why the dead man was late for his own funeral, nevertheless let out a faint laugh, because he was fond of this tender-hearted tyrant. Wahrhaftig was constantly delivering long lectures in his stentorian voice about such subjects as the connection between your eating habits and your world-view, or about the ‘socialistic’ economy and how it encouraged idleness and fraud and was therefore unsuited to a civilised country. Wahrhaftig would utter these last words in a tone of mystical pathos, like a true believer praising the works of the Almighty.

Baruch Nomberg, Fima’s father, appears out of the cloud of uncertainty that shrouds Fima’s mornings:

His father was bending over the window of the taxi, apparently lecturing the driver, with his white hair waving in the breeze, his hat in his left hand and his carved stick with the silver band in the other. Fima knew that the old man was not haggling about the fare or waiting for his change; he was finishing an anecdote he had started telling on the way. For fifty years now he had been conducting an extended seminar with Jerusalem taxi drivers on Hasidic tales and pious stories. He was a dedicated storyteller. And he had a fixed habit of commenting on every anecdote and pointing up the moral lesson. Whenever he told a joke, he would follow it by explaining what the point was. Sometimes he would carry on and explain both the apparent point and the real point. His commentaries always made his listeners laugh, which encouraged the old man to tell more stories and explain them too. He was convinced that the point of the stories had escaped everybody, and that it was his duty to open their eyes.

He is a settled character, a point of fixity. Fima is different. His laxity with domestic chores is rendered as a concomitant of his mental habits. He cannot organise his life because he is ground down by politics into a wavering mass of opinions.

The infected apple rolled off the top of the heap and managed to find itself a hiding place among the old canisters and bottles of cleaning fluid. It could only be reached by getting down on all fours. Fima made up his mind that this time there would be no compromise, he would not give up as usual, he would recapture the fugitive at all costs. If he succeeded, he would take it as a green light, and he would maintain the momentum by taking the bin downstairs to empty it. On the way back he would remember to fish the newspaper and his post out of the letter box at last. He would continue by washing up and tidying the refrigerator, and at the risk of making himself late he would even change the sheets.

We never feel that Fima’s father, the rich industrialist, would have these problems. He’d just get his maid to tidy up for him.

As Fima goes about his daily tasks the political situation of Israel confounds and obsesses him. Notions of futurity cause him to invent a fictitious person who will inhabit his flat in a hundred years’ time. He even given this personage a name: Yoezer.

The Syrians will invade the Golan Heights with a thousand tanks, we’ll bomb Damascus, they’ll fire a salvo of missiles at the coastal towns, and then we’ll set off the doomsday mushroom. In a hundred years there won’t be a living soul here. No Yoezer, no lizard, no cockroach.
  but Fima rejected the word ‘holocaust’ because it could also be associated with natural disasters such as floods, epidemics, and earthquakes. What the Nazis did, by contrast, was an organised, premeditated crime that ought to be called by its proper name: murder. And nuclear war will also be a criminal act. Neither ‘holocaust’ nor ‘doomsday’. Fima also ruled out the word ‘conflict’, which might describe the business of Annette and her husband, or Tsvi Kropotkin and his teaching assistant, but not the bloody war between us and the Arabs. In fact, even the sad case of Annette and Yuri could hardly be categorised with such a sterile term as ‘conflict’. As for the expression ‘bloody war’, it was a tired cliché. Even ‘tired cliché’ was a tired cliché. You’ve got yourself into a muddle, pal.

Oz’s humour is pervasive and glimmers when it doesn’t gleam. It kicks in at odd moments, shifting attention from the action at hand to the recurring sub-themes that are threaded through the narrative like occasional traffic outside the windows.

Even though it was only half past three, the room was growing so dark that Tamar had to switch the light on to see her crossword puzzle. As she stood there with her back to him, Fima made up his mind to stand behind her and hug her, to bury her weary head in the hollow of his neck and switch off their thoughts, to sprinkle kisses on the nape of her neck and the roots of her lovely hair gathered up into such a neat little bun, which could be undone for once and set free. But he thought better of this, and they spent a little while together trying to discover the identity of a famous Finnish general, ten letters. At that moment Fima resigned himself to the realisation that, when all was said and done, he was not made of the stuff of great leaders who have the power to make history, to end wars, to heal the hearts of the masses consumed by suspicion and despair. He derived some comfort from the thought that the present political leaders were not made of this stuff either. Less so, if anything.

Like most people, Fima is looking for love and finds it in the arms of various women, even though — needless to say — their sessions are not always satisfactory. Fima’s thoughts fill up the pages like piles of poker chips won from the fictive gamble: but here it is the reader who wins most often.

A couple of nights ago he had let Nina down, on the rug at her home, and this morning, thanks to Annette, he had let her down again in his own bed. His heart shrank as he remembered how she had stroked his forehead with her wonderfully shaped fingers and whispered to him that like this, with his limp cock, he was penetrating her more deeply than during intercourse. How rare, almost mystical, those words seemed now; they seemed to glow with a precious radiance as he recalled them, and he craved to mend what he had spoiled, to give her and Annette and also Tamar and Yael and every woman in the world, including the plain and unwanted ones, a proper carnal love, and a fatherly and brotherly love, and a spiritual love too.

Every now and then Fima tries to imagine another Fima, in a different, more ordered and happier life. Fima is a dreamer, a lover of words and a romantic who asks what can be done about society. But he is also like a child, needing help from others. But giving back his own precious essence.

The policeman sitting in the sentry box in front of the residence poked his head out and asked:
  ‘Hey, you: are you looking for something?’
  Fima replied:
  ‘Yes. I’m looking for tomorrow.’
  ‘Well, go and look for it somewhere else, sir. Move along please. You can’t wait here.’
  Fima decided to take his advice. To move along. Keep going. Not give up. Go on struggling as long as he had the strength to fit one word to another and to discriminate between ideas.

And in the background there are the troubles of Israel, the history of the pogroms, the darkness of Jerusalem:

And indeed, at that moment Fima sensed the full weight of the darkness lying over Jerusalem. Darkness on steeples and domes, darkness on walls and towers, darkness on stone-walled yards and on the groves of ancient pines, on convents and olive trees, on mosques and caves and sepulchres, on tombs of kings and of true and false prophets, darkness on winding alleys, darkness on government buildings and on ruins and gates and on stony fields and thistle-strewn waste plots, darkness on schemes and desires and lunatic visions, darkness on the hills and on the desert.

Taking a break from polemics, Fima takes the air — the view from his balcony stimulates his mystical side, and he daydreams in the cold air:

The ancient Aramaic phrases, such as ‘days of yore’, ‘not of the world’, ‘the concealed side’, filled Fima with a sense of mystery and awe. For a moment he asked himself if it was not possible after all that the light and the mud, the glow-worms in the almond tree and the radiant sky, the arid land extending eastwards from here to Mesopotamia and southwards to Bab el-Mandeb at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and indeed his shabby flat and his ageing body and even his broken telephone, were all nothing but different expressions of the same being, condemned to be dissolved into countless flawed, perishable embodiments, even though in itself it is whole and eternal and one. Only on a winter morning like this, under the nuptial veil of limpid light, which is perhaps what is meant by the ancient Aramaic phrase ‘supernal radiance', does the earth along with your watching eyes recover the thrill of that primordial touch. And everything returns to its state of original innocence. As on the day of its creation. For an instant the constant murky cloak of dreariness and lying is removed.
Review: Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison (1977)

It’s clear why this book is titled Song of Solomon, but I’m loath to go into details lest I spoil things for someone who is yet to read it. Let it be said from the outset that reading this was a revelation of sorts — how could a U.S. writer produce something so Marquezian but in her own inimitable style? Morrison teaches creative writing, and I’d very much like to be one of her pupils.

Because I was so bowled away by this novel and because there’s so much that happens after certain facts are revealed, this review will necessarily be short. Just a couple of quotes to whet the appetite of the curious. I’ll restrict myself to the beginning of the book.

In the beginning, Morrison’s rapid-fire prose makes it difficult to concentrate on the characters long enough to get a mental picture of the plot. The events fly past. It’s a restless prose, full of fire and brimstone. You’re not able to ‘place’ the characters, get an image of them, because as soon as you try, there’s a new one before you.

Something else is needed to get from sunup to sundown: a balm, a gentle touch or nuzzling of some sort. So Ruth rose up and out of her guileless inefficiency to claim her bit of balm right after the preparation of dinner and just before the return of her husband from his office. It was one of her two secret indulgences—the one that involved her son—and part of the pleasure it gave her came from the room in which she did it. A damp greenness lived there, made by the evergreen that pressed against the window and filtered the light. It was just a little room that Doctor had called a study, and aside from a sewing machine that stood in the corner along with a dress form, there was only a rocker and a tiny footstool. She sat in this room holding her son on her lap, staring at his closed eyelids and listening to the sound of his sucking. Staring not so much from maternal joy as from a wish to avoid seeing his legs dangling almost to the floor.

Finally, the characters come into focus: Macon Dead, his sister Pilate, his father and Freddie the flunky. The music of her rapid prose is quite mesmerising.

Surrendering to the sound, Macon moved closer. He wanted no conversation, no witness, only to listen and perhaps to see the three of them, the source of that music that made him think of fields and wild turkey and calico. Treading as lightly as he could, he crept up to the side window where the candlelight flickered lowest, and peeped in. Reba was cutting her toenails with a kitchen knife or a switchblade, her long neck bent almost to her knees. The girl, Hagar, was braiding her hair, while Pilate, whose face he could not see because her back was to the window, was stirring something in a pot. Wine pulp, perhaps. Macon knew it was not food she was stirring, for she and her daughters ate like children. Whatever they had a taste for. No meal was ever planned or balanced or served. Nor was there any gathering at the table. Pilate might bake hot bread and each one of them would eat it with butter whenever she felt like it. Or there might be grapes, left over from the winemaking, or peaches for days on end. If one of them bought a gallon of milk they drank it until it was gone. If another got a half bushel of tomatoes or a dozen ears of corn, they ate them until they were gone too. They ate what they had or came across or had a craving for. Profits from their wine-selling evaporated like sea water in a hot wind—going for junk jewellery for Hagar, Reba’s gifts to men, and he didn’t know what all.
  Near the window, hidden by the dark, he felt the irritability of the day drain from him and relished the effortless beauty of the women singing in the candlelight. Reba’s soft profile, Hagar’s hands moving, moving in her heavy hair, and Pilate. He knew her face better than he knew his own. Singing now, her face would be a mask; all emotion and passion would have left her features and entered her voice. But he knew that when she was neither singing nor talking, her face was animated by her constantly moving lips. She chewed things. As a baby, as a very young girl, she kept things in her mouth—straw from brooms, gristle, buttons seeds, leaves, string, and her favorite, when he could find some for her, rubber bands and India rubber erasers. Her lips were alive with small movements. If you were close to her, you wondered if she was about to smile or was she merely shifting a straw from the baseline of her gums to her tongue. Perhaps she was dislodging a curl of rubber band from inside her cheek, or was she really smiling? From a distance she appeared to be whispering to herself, when she was only nibbling or splitting seeds with her front teeth. Her lips were darker then her skin, wine-stained, blueberry-died, so her face had a cosmetic look—as though she had applied a very dark lipstick neatly and blotted away its shine on a scrap of newspaper.
  As Macon felt himself softening under the weight of memory and music, the song died down. The air was quiet and yet Macon Dead could not leave. He liked looking at them freely this way. They didn’t move. They simply stopped singing and Reba went on pairing her toenails, Hagar threaded and unthreaded her hair, and Pilate swayed like a willow over her stirring.

Friday, 24 February 2006

I watched a new drama on SBS last week called Jammin’ in the Middle E. I’m not sure if they’re going to serialise it. I also read a review of the program in the local paper. Living in the part of Sydney that I do, multiculturalism is important for me.
The story in The Torch that I reported on earlier in this blog (a 31 January piece) is a case in point. In that story, an Anglo man, a retired sailor who is affiliated with a Christian church, complained to Canterbury Municipal Council about the signage visible along Beamish Street — the main drag in Campsie, where I live.

The TV drama that screened on the Special Broadcasting Service — a service implemented under the Fraser Liberal government in the late 1970s — starred a family of Muslims living in an inner city suburb — actually Bankstown, near here — and showed their adventures. Ishak and Naima are brother and sister. Ishak contemplates the possibility of torching his clapped out sedan. Naima is studying at university — a fact that her father insists on reminding her of. Seems he thinks she thinks she’s better than she should be, although we're not quite sure if she really thinks this. In fact, it's really her father's personal obsession. But when Ishak's friend wants to ask her out, she tells him to ask her father first. He doesn't, and they go out anyway.

In the story's mildly disharmonious world, this family is assimilated, but still unquestionably Muslim. Ishak and Naima tend to socialise mainly with friends who are also Muslim. We don’t see Naima at university. We only see Ishak with his car-mechanic Muslim friend and his petrol-headed enemies. Ishak is heavily into rap, and composes his own songs. Their father runs a company that organises wedding ceremonies — all his customers seem also to be Muslims. It appears, at first glance, to be a fairly insular world, a place where socialising with people from other walks of life constitutes a rare opportunity.

Now, the Treasurer, Peter Costello, has aimed some potentially inflammatory barbs at the Muslim community, telling them to assimilate or get lost. Leave their cultural baggage at the door when they enter the country or face the wrath of all good Australians. A few days earlier the Prime Minister, John Howard, made similar comments. The NSW Premier, Morris Iemma — a second-generation Australian of Italian extraction — has endorsed Costello’s comments. Iemma’s electorate of Lakemba is one of the country’s most heavily Muslim areas. Clearly, he believes what he is saying. As the child of migrants himself, and the political leader of the country’s most populous state, Iemma should be listened to. What do ethnic Muslims feel about these comments? No use looking to The Torch — committed as it is to dousing the flames of sectarianism, given its position as the enthusiastic mouthpiece of the multicultural aspirations of this part of Sydney — but rather the main organs of the media, which are committed to scourging wayward politicos and riotous ethnics alike.

Jammin’ in the Middle E was mildly entertaining. Apparently the program developed out of youth workshops conducted in Bankstown last year. The ending was not entirely satisfactory, an upbeat, comfortable finish to a program that never really “addressed” the issues it could have, very thoroughly. The father appears to acquiesce in the face of his children’s interests in boys and loud music. The mother is virtually non-existent. There’s a loud grandmother who encourages the children, while at the same time dressing Ishak down when the police give him a talking to. It’s all about aspiration, in the end. And we can all understand and endorse that. More of this sort of aspiration would certainly please the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and the NSW Premier. Keeps 'em out of trouble. Keeps 'em honest. Naima’s a student. She’ll be right. Ishak wants to be a rap singer. He’ll be right.

Right on.

Thursday, 23 February 2006

Review: Farewell Waltz, Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a delightful book, but one that is not without irregular features — but we know that often the most beautiful face is less than geometrically perfect. Kundera writes passionately, like a drunk whispering banalities into your ear. As the whispering grows softer you strain to hear what is being said. It is not an easy book to read, but repays diligence generously. The last time I read a book that gave so much attention to a pill, it was Lolita — another uneven masterpiece. I’m not sure that this book fully deserves that epithet, but it contains some memorable events.

The characters seem to divide and multiply like single-cell organisms, but they are actually quite few. Their interrelationships are unnerving and possess an uncanny similarity to those found in real life, again like those in a Nabokov novel, such as King, Queen, Knave.

Klima is distressed. He does not believe that he is the father of Ruzena’s unborn child. Ruzena, stubborn and somewhat unpleasant, threatens to disturb the balance of Klima’s life with a revelation. Klima’s beautiful wife is jealous, suspecting that his visits to the spa town are related to another woman. On the other hand there is Jakub, older guardian of Olga, the willowy child of his old nemesis. We are in Czechoslovakia. Politics are dangerous and their consequences can ruin a child’s life. The spa also holds Bertlef, a rich, religious and spiritual American who can speak the language and is ill.

The way Kundera manages these individuals is masterful. Jakub is slightly poetic and muses on the meaning of life. His pill has given him a certain outlook on life that precludes dread and, now that he is about to leave the country for good, he rids himself of it. But his act has unforseen consequences, and drives the narrative through the second part of the book strongly. With deft strokes Kundera paints his scenarios. The hungry music of this prose resembles that of Saramago: a clean movement and one motivated by comedy.

If the treacherous world of women frightened her so, could she not find solace in the world of men?
  Hardly. Jealousy has the amazing power to illuminate a single person in an intense beam of light, keeping the multitude of others in total darkness. Mrs. Klima’s thoughts could go only in the direction of that painful beam, and her husband became the only man in the world.
  Now she heard the key in the lock, and then she saw the trumpeter with a bouquet of roses.
  At first she was pleased, but doubts immediately arose: Why was he bringing her flowers this evening, when her birthday was not until tomorrow? What could this mean?

Kundera mixes business with pleasure. But this novel, which starts as almost a romantic comedy, shifts gears and becomes something else. A meeting between Olga and Jakub is only one way the shadows emerge from the surrounding darkness.

“But Jakub! Nevertheless a hundred thousand people were put in prison! And thousands never came back! And not a single one of those responsible was ever punished! This desire for revenge is really just an unsatisfied desire for justice!”

The spell of the book is broken, as it seems intended, by the rather clumsy metaphoric use Ruzena makes of the band of old dog-catchers. This failure brings back the feeling that the story is not up to the mystery it purports to carry.

For Ruzena what she was seeing was merely a component of her own story: she was an unhappy woman caught between two worlds: Klima’s world rejected her, and Frantisek’s world, from which she wanted to escape (the world of banality and boredom, the world of failure and capitulation), had come to look for her here in the guise of this assault team as if it were trying to drag her away by a wire loop.

No doubt Czechoslovakia under communism was a terrible place, but the rather heavy-handed approach Kundera takes detracts from the immediacy of the message, which he must fork out at length and explicitly.

He scratched the dog’s back and thought about the scene he had just witnessed. The old men armed with long poles merged in his mind with prison guards, examining magistrates, and informers who spied on neighbours to see if they talked politics while shopping. What drove such people to their sinister occupations? Spite? Certainly, but also the desire for order. Because the desire for order tries to transform the human world into an inorganic reign in which everything goes well, everything functions as a subject of an impersonal will. The desire for order is at the same time a desire for death, because life is a perpetual violation of order. Or, inversely, the desire for order is the virtuous pretext by which man’s hatred for man justifies its crimes.

But what started out expressed as if whispered into your ear becomes a sad, idiosyncratic lament at the poverty of the human soul, like a sorrowful country-and-western song. However, Kundera manages to keep his sense of humour alive:

Old men are recognizable by their habit of bragging about past sufferings and making a museum of them (ah, these sad museums have so few visitors!). Olga realized that she was the most important living object in Jakub’s museum and that Jakub’s generously altruistic attitude toward her was meant to move visitors to tears.

The story is sometimes so amusing that you forget there was an author — as if it had emerged complete at the top of a flower’s stem. But the rigour of the fact that there are only five days in total is always there in the background, like a line of trees on the horizon, demarcating it clearly.

You’re not always sure how seriously Kundera takes himself. At other times his sincerity is overwhelming. In this case, you’re not sure:

The joyful shamelessness of the fat women in the pool was a necrophiliac ring dance around the transience of youth, a ring dance made all the more joyful by the presence in the pool of a young woman to serve as sacrificial victim. When Olga wrapped herself in the sheet they interpreted the gesture as sabotage of their cruel rite, and thus were furious.

The quiet irony of the book is not constant, but not less delightful for that. In another passage, the dispassionate eloquence is laced with humour and the enjoyment of an over-extended metaphor:

[Ruzena] felt she was a fugitive pursued by time. She realized that by tomorrow she would have to know what she wanted, and she knew nothing. In the whole world there was not one person she trusted. Her own family was alien to her. Frantisek loved her, but that was just why she mistrusted him (as the doe mistrusts the hunter). She mistrusted Klima (as the hunter mistrusts the doe). She liked her colleagues well enough, but she did not quite trust them (as the hunter mistrusts other hunters). She was alone in life, and for the past few weeks she had been carrying in her womb a strange companion who some maintained was her greatest chance and others completely the opposite, a companion toward whom she herself felt only indifference.
Event: Zaki Chehab on Iraq

Tonight I returned home from work and left again within half an hour to be on time to hear an Arab journalist talk about Iraq. Zaki Chehab spoke for about 45 minutes at a lecture hall at Sydney University, starting at 6:30 p.m. I was on time to park the car just down the street and to walk in the entrance to buy a copy of the Green Left Weekly newspaper — usually a bit left-wing for my tastes, but I like to support all strands of the media, and this type of occasion is usually the only opportunity I get.

The fee for Chehab of about $1500 — I was told — is being covered by gold-coin (i.e. $1 or $2) donations at the door and by the Search Foundation. The venue and security was covered by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. Although a gold coin was the only requirement of entrance I saw many people donate notes, including a slim, elegant, young woman who gave $10. Towards the end of question time they passed around several big, pink buckets for those who hadn’t had a chance to donate at the entrance — many arrived after the 6:30 start.

I would say that about 100 people attended. Half the time was a talk by Chehab, with the remainder of the time given to questions from the floor. Stuart Rees, from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, took on the role of master of ceremonies.

Chehab has been a political editor for about 25 years and is affiliated with the London-based Al Hayat Arabic newspaper. He also contributes to The Guardian and CNN. He looks somewhat like Harrison Ford, only slightly darker-hued.

He has a strong accent but his delivery is accomplished in fluent English.

The strongest point he made was about the likelihood of civil war in Iraq should the coalition forces leave now. In his opinion civil war is unlikely. This is due, he stressed, to the large number of intermarriages between Sunni and Shia populations — about 30% of marriages are of this nature. He also pointed to the large number of “wise” leaders in each of the camps.

Ninety-nine percent of the insurgency is related to al-Qa'ida in Iraq, he opined, although “the insurgency started in the shape of something tribal” immediately after the old regime was put down. I wished that I had taken along a recording device, as he said many interesting things that I’ve now forgotten.

Apparently John Abizaid visited Australia recently, when he said that they estimated there to be about 20,000 insurgents operating in the country, and the U.S. didn’t expect to defeat them in 2006. Two weeks ago there occurred the first attempt by the U.S. forces to have a dialog with the insurgents; the talks included top Iraqi government people as well as U.S. military people.

Chehab was not optimistic about the potential for security. Iraqi policemen often go masked, he said, afraid of reprisals. How can you expect the people to feel secure when the security forces themselves are afraid. The Iraqis are not “capable of looking after their own security”, he said. Although he estimated that about 85% of Iraqis want the coalition forces to leave the country immediately, he said they are also afraid of what would happen once that event occurred. This, despite his comments on the unlikelihood of civil war.

He also had comments to make about the level of media coverage of the situation. At least 16 Arab journalists were killed in 2005, he asserted, although one never hears of these deaths. We only hear about what happens to Westerners. The Iraqi Sunday Times correspondent received a bullet in the mail. He took notice of the threat and stopped contributing to that newspaper.

Chehab also talked about the elections. Iraqis, he said, had really enjoyed the experience of voting. Even though they often didn’t care about who they would vote for, the act of going to the polling booth and inserting the ballot into the box was interesting for them. He saw crowds of people at the voting stations, like the crowds to be seen at football matches.

The questions he answered were often long-winded. Some were quite wide of the topic. Bob Gould, of course, was there, denigrating the Americans.

I also met a co-worker there — Jock. We chatted for half an hour before the talk started. He took a picture with his digital camera. The man on the right is Chehab with Stuart Rees on the left.



Chehab also signed copies of his book at the exit, at a table manned by staff from Gleebooks. The book is titled Iraq Ablaze – Inside the Insurgency (2005).

Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Review: Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003)

Atwood’s future world is the stuff of science fiction, but not the often alienated stuff of airport bookshelves and best-seller lists. Her prose has a warmth and heat that insinuates the message past the bull-barriers that keep out fraudulent notions. There’s nothing in here that isn’t demanded by the story, you feel. Nothing extraneous or futile.

Snowman is stranded, alone, in a post-apocalyptic future populated by humanoids with whom he has a thin dialog, due to their lack of sophistication. Who are these people? Why is Snowman alone? What will happen to him if he finds no one else to share his plight? What is he afraid of that causes him to sleep in a tree? Why is he called Snowman?

All these questions, and more, are answered in the course of the novel. And the answers are satisfactory, but to go into them here would spoil the book for future readers.

As to Atwood’s style, it visits the realms of science fiction with it’s guard up.

When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old travelling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two stray. It must have got tired of the soul’s constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it had made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays. Sublimation, all of it; nothing but sublimation, according to the body. Why not cut to the chase?
  But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance.

Satire of such an elevated kind is not normally found in science fiction, although the genre might have changed significantly since I last tasted its pleasures, which admittedly was quite some time ago. But this is satire of a high accomplishment, and it is accompanied by strong irony and delicate humour. Atwood has all the registers at her disposal, and she uses them to good effect.

Sometimes her prose is decidedly spooky as Jimmy — who we early start to identify with Snowman, putting two and two together — attempts to get the truth from Oryx — a truth that is too harsh for mortal hearing. Very spare prose, pared down to bare essentials, but still with that trademark warmth, like a poultice on a wound it has itself made:

Oryx said that Uncle En really knew his business, because children would believe other children about punishments more readily than they would believe adults. Adults threatened to do things they never did, but children told what would happen. Or what they were afraid would happen. Or what had happened already, to them or to other children they’d known.

Snowman’s predicament is quite unsalvageable. He tries to look into the future, but it is too bleak even for a glimpse.

Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks as it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.

Jimmy collect arcane words — just to even out the calculation — and when he visits Crake’s institution he finds that the geeks are cruel.

So all of that was a welcome change from Martha Graham, though Crake’s fellow students tended to forget about cutlery and eat with their hands, and wipe their mouths on their sleeves. Jimmy wasn’t picky, but this verged on gross. Also they talked all the time, whether anyone was listening or not, always about the ideas they were developing. Once they found Jimmy wasn’t working on a space — was attending, in fact, an institution they clearly regarded as a mere puddle — they lost any interest in him. They referred to other students in their own faculties as their conspecifics, and to all other human beings as nonspecifics. It was a running joke.

Atwood’s use of language is always entertaining and fresh:
He knew he was faltering, trying to keep his footing. Everything in his life was temporary, ungrounded. Language itself had lost its solidity; it had become thin, contingent, slippery, a viscid film on which he was sliding around like an eyeball on a plate. An eyeball that could still see, however. That was the trouble.

But sometimes her prose jumps the fence into the land of jargon. It fits with the tone of the novel, however, and, anyway, it’s not absolutely necessary to understand in detail every nuance that appears to us. As long as we appreciate the tone, it is often enough.

The BlyssPluss Pill was designed to take a set of givens, namely the nature of human nature, and steer these givens in a more beneficial direction than the ones hitherto taken. It was based on studies of the now unfortunately extinct pygmy or bonobo chimpanzee, a close relative of Homo sapiens sapiens. Unlike the latter species, the bonobo had not been partially monogamous with polygamous and polyandrous tendencies. Instead it had been indiscriminately promiscuous, had not pair-bonded, and had spent most of its waking life, when it wasn’t eating, engaged in copulation. Its intraspecific aggression factor had been very low.

Atwood’s sense of fun is also of a very high order. Deism seems a big risk when you’re inventing a new species:

Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view. Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war. Snowman longs to question them — who first had the idea of making a reasonable facsimile of him, of Snowman, out of a jar lid and a mop? But that will have to wait.

This is a Very Good Book, a literary sci-fi thriller that ends on a high note, but one that the totality of the narrative can sustain. We finish on the brink of discovery — perhaps. But also on the edge of despair and the end of innocence.

The question is: what will happen?

Sunday, 19 February 2006

Review: On the Road, Jack Kerouac (1957)

While a lot seems to happen due to all the travelling and moving around, our interest in the conversations or meetings with people in the various parts of the U.S. Sal visits is tempered by the knowledge that it is all essentially pointless. The restlessness that accompanies the travelling is also present in the conversations. Rencontres with people in New York, Denver, San Francisco and places in between are rather flat and unrevealing. Dean, of course, is a disaster waiting for a place to happen.

The surroundings wherever they stay — the narrator’s name is Sal Paradise — are not illuminating in any conventional sense, and rarely illuminate the nature of the people who live within them. Sal and Dean move from place to place but nothing substantial is pinned down in a strict novelistic way, so that the movement itself becomes the purveyor of meaning. With Kerouac, you dread the sedentary because the characters dread it also. This is slightly comic in itself, and completely unintended by the author.

It was a completely meaningless set of circumstances that made Dean come, and similarly I went off with him for no reason.

Dean is supposed to be a completely ferocious father figure who makes great talk at high speed, but nothing he says is of any consequence or meaning to the reader. We can only guess at the profundities he produces.

And Dean talked, no one else talked. He gestured furiously, he leaned as far as me sometimes to make a point, sometimes he had no hands on the wheel and yet the car went as straight as an arrow, not for once deviating from the white line in the middle of the road that unwound, kissing our left front tire.

What is it about Dean that is so magnetic?

I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ‘49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
  “But what’s the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
  “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling—ah—hem—Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to—but we won’t go into all these explanations—and I’ll tell you why . . . No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.

But we’re not told, and perhaps miss out on some of Dean’s famous charm. We could do with something, I’ll tell you. But there’s nothing, nothing at all.

Carlo came back at dawn and put on his bathrobe. He wasn’t sleeping any more those days. “Ech!” he screamed. He was going out of his mind from the confusion of jam on the floor, pants, dresses thrown around, cigarette butts, dirty dishes, open books—it was a great forum we were having. Every day the world groaned to turn and we were making our appalling studies of the night. Marylou was black and blue from a fight with Dean about something; his face was scratched. It was time to go.

Why not tell us about the fight? What about the reasons for the fight? Why is Carlo just pushed aside like this as these adult children go about making a mess? Spending money when they have it, fighting when they don’t.

What are “appalling studies of the night”? What is said, what actually goes on, where are the revelations that are promised again and again in this novel?

The flat, ‘beat’ (tr. 'defeated') tone is ideal for the story because nothing gets done, there’s no character development — the only character worth saving is Sal’s aunt.

“Whooee!” yelled Dean. “Here we go!” and he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move.

The “confusion and nonsense” is actually what they had made of their surroundings themselves, and they need to keep moving, like crazed, modern-day hunter-gatherers, to a new place — any new place — so that they can repeat the pattern again: make more confusion and nonsense.

At ten I took the wheel—Dean was out for hours—and drove several hundred dreary miles across the bushy snows and ragged sage hills. Cowboys went by in baseball caps and earmuffs, looking for cows. Comfortable little homes with chimneys smoking appeared along the road at intervals. I wished we could go in for buttermilk and beans in front of the fireplace.

This yearning for normalcy is part of the charm of the novel, but you know it would turn out to be a debâcle. These overgrown children, who steal, beg and whine would turn the house into a pigsty within hours, and then just roar off in the Hudson in search of another place to destroy.

They get to San Francisco and immediately Dean, the hero, is off on his own private tangent:

Suddenly Dean was saying good-by. He was bursting to see Camille and find out what had happened. Marylou and I stood dumbly in the street and watched him drive away. “You see what a bastard he is?” said Marylou. “Dean will leave you out in the cold any time it’s in his interest.”
  “I know,” I said, and I looked back east and sighed. We had no money. Dean hadn’t mentioned money. “Where are we going to stay?” We wandered around, carrying our bundles of rags in the narrow romantic streets.

As long as the streets are romantic, Sal can stand the pressure of destitution. He manages to get by, but eventually has to leave for the east again.

At dawn I got my New York bus and said good-by to Dean and Marylou. They wanted some of my sandwiches. I told them no. It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we’d never see one another again and we didn’t care.

Thus ends another trip to the west. Another cheque, another set of meaningless circumstances and a few days lolling around jazz bars. But Sal nevertheless goes back to San Francisco, and this time Dean’s wife Camille kicks Sal out. Their friends try to tell them the truth about themselves.

  “I think Marylou was very, very wise leaving you, Dean,” said Galatea. “For years now you haven’t had any sense of responsibility for anyone. You’ve done so many awful things I don’t know what to say to you.”
  And in fact that was the point, and they all sat around looking at Dean with lowered and hating eyes, and he stood on the carpet in the middle of them and giggled—he just giggled. He made a little dance.

It’s really quite charming that Kerouac is able to put this type of encounter in his book. It almost makes up to the reader for the idiocy of much of the rest, although it doesn’t make up to Marylou and Camille and all the other people Dean has been letting down for so many years. Sal finds that Dean really needs him this time. In fact, it was Sal who had sought out Dean, reversing the usual pattern of their encounters. So Sal feels responsible, and that makes him happy. Despite the hopelessness of the movement of these characters as they trundle around the country in cars and without the means to support themselves, the book is quietly captivating, charming in a pathetic way. We just hope that we’ll never have to be stuck with characters like these in our real lives. And maybe that’s the allure of this book — that it can make the reader feel safer who is willing to make peace with the world.

These people are certainly damaged. Dean is clearly traumatised by life and cannot sustain a real relationship with anyone for long. The demons keep pursuing him. It is arguable whether Kerouac suffered some trauma in childhood that he never recovered from.

This is supposed to be a classic book, a piece of publishing history, written by one of the “fathers of the Beat Generation”, as one Web site puts it. But the shortcomings of the characters in this autobiographical novel are so pronounced you feel they should be receiving counselling to cope with their problems, or some sort of chemical treatment. They are monsters who don't feel the need to change, but their charm is never explained by Kerouac. It is hard to apologise for the poverty of the characterisation on account of an acceptable style. Kerouac’s rants on anthropology are beyond understanding and his ecstasies over jazz are simply tiresome.

Something would come of it yet. There’s always more, a little further—it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after Shearing’s explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned—and Dean sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go.

Saturday, 18 February 2006

Review: The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (2004)

Nick is gay and living in the Kensington Park Gardens house of the Feddens, whose son Toby he had befriended (without getting to know erotically) at Oxford, where Nick took a First in literature. He is now undertaking post-graduate studies at University College London, focusing on style and with much of his attention directed at Henry James. Nick has a small room at the very top of the large mansion. The head of the family in Nick’s new home is Gerald, a rich MP whose constituency of Berwick includes the area where Nick grew up and where Nick’s parents still live. Nick’s father is an antiques dealer and his mother is a worrier. Gerald is married to an elegant lady named Rachel (who never really comes alive until the end of the book) and they also have a daughter, Catherine, a manic-depressive who manages throughout the novel to have a string of short-term boyfriends. Nick and Catherine have a special friendship and Catherine detests so much of her father‘s life that the final rift that splits this ménage apart seems almost inevitable. But nothing is really inevitable in this novel, although Hollinghurst sometimes paints the beginning of a revelation in bright colours, so that you can feel something about to happen. The novel opens in 1983. The second section is dated 1986, and the last 1987. AIDS is a threat that is only too real.

First discussion of Nick’s sexuality comes on page 26 — Hollinghurst isn’t in a hurry, clearly, and prepares his offerings well. This is in chapter 2 — the languorous speed of the book is perfect.

Nick had never been on a date with a man before, and was much less experienced than Catherine imagined. In the course of their long conversations about men he had let one or two of his fantasies assume the status of fact, had lied a little, and had left some of Catherine’s assumptions about him unchallenged. His confessed but entirely imagined seductions took on — partly through the special effort required to invent them and repeat them consistently — the quality of real memories. He sometimes had the sense, from a hint of reserve in people he was talking to, that while they didn’t believe him they saw he was beginning to believe himself. He had only come out fully in his last year at Oxford, and had used his new license mainly to flirt with straight boys. His heart was given to Toby, with whom flirting would have been inappropriate, almost sacrilegious. He wasn’t quite ready to accept the fact that if he was going to have a lover it wouldn’t be Toby, or any other drunk straight boy hopping the fence, it would be a gay lover — that compromised thing that he himself would then become.

Why compromised? Because gay men live a shadow existence on the periphery of society? Because ‘real’ life takes place in the heterosexual mainstream? Because the life of a gay man is full of subterfuges and evasions, reflected in the eye of scorn that is held firmly in the skull of respectable society? Nick and Catherine had, we feel, many such conversations as the ones described here. As a gay man he is her equal. With her disability always to the fore, she is equal to him, as his comes to the fore with experience.

The novel is peppered with bons mots, such as this one:

He loved the hard self-confidence of his date [Leo, the black man with the bicycle]; and at the same time, in his silent, superior way, he thought he heard how each little brag [of Leo’s] was the outward denial of an inner doubt.

And again:

It was one of those inevitable but still surprising moments when mere wishful thinking was held to account by the truth.

But there’s something exhausting, too, about this novel. As soon as a new scene opens you know that the author will explore every facet utterly, and that can sometimes dampen your enthusiasm for the story. He could, at times, one feels, move a little faster than he does. Hollinghurst explores his themes intimately. The Love-Chord — the title of the first book of this novel — is actually an inner sensation that Nick first feels when thinking about Leo during a dinner party at Kensington Park Gardens.
When he thought of Leo after not thinking about him for a minute or two he heard a big orchestral sound in his head. He saw Leo lying on his coat under a bush, his shirt and jersey pushed up under his armpits, his jeans and pants around his knees, small dead leaves sticking to his thighs — and he heard the astonishing chord. It was high and low at once, an abysmal pizzicato, a pounce of the darkest brass, and above it a hair-raising sheen of strings. It seemed to knock him down and fling him up all in one unresisting gesture. He couldn’t repeat it immediately, but after a while he could see Leo rising to kiss him, and the love-chord would shiver his skin again. It startled him while Penny was describing the enormous interest of working for Gerald, and he jumped, and smiled at his invisible friend, so that Penny worried that she’d been funny.

There is much talk about peoples’ feelings in this novel. Which is, after all, what a novel’s supposed to have.

Now perhaps he could really go upstairs, and taste the freedom of being the odd man. He didn’t have a place in either of the two parties. It was bad form to go away, it admitted a prior desire to do so; but he couldn’t go back and sit with Harry Groom. He thought Gerald might be angry with him too, but he would surely be glad of his taking an interest in Catherine.

The ogee curves in Wani’s apartment constitute the first appearance of the line of beauty, which is, of course, also the novel’s name.

Nick looked for reassurance in remembering social triumphs he had had, clever things he had said. He expounded the ogee to an appreciative friend, who was briefly the Duchess, and then Catharine, and then a different lover from Wani. The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani’s back.

My Macquarie Dictionary has this definition of an ogee: “a double curve (like the letter S) formed by the union of a concave and a convex line”.

The above quote comes from the second book of the novel — ‘To Whom Do You Beautifully Belong’ — by which time Nick has become addicted to the demands and satisfactions of the drug cocaine. He now relies on it to buoy him through social occasions, such as the time he sits among the other diners at Kensington Park Gardens.

  ‘I’d be happy to,’ said Nick; ‘by all means.’ The black-jacketed man removed the plates, and just then Nick felt the steady power of the coke begin to fade, it was something else taken away, the elation grew patchy and dubious. In four or five minutes it would yield to a flatness bleaker than the one it had replaced. However, the wine was served soon after, so there was an amusing sense of relief and dependency. Bertrand himself, Nick noted, drank only Malvern water.

The novel is structured as a series of discrete but elegant vignettes, so the pace is steady, sometimes relying on transition scenes, other times stopping and restarting after a caesura. A scene in book 2 is typical. It describes an interlude at a musical soiree from the top of page 237 to half-way down page 238. To read it, you’ll have to buy or borrow this excellent novel.

When Hollinghurst wants to build a scene for an important finale, he does it thoroughly; he places people exactly and sets the stage for a purposeful dénouement. The couples patting their pockets and the receptionist who thinks Gerald had just gone out the back for a breath of fresh air are rendered effectively, adding positively to the drama of the moment. But still, as this scene starts, you feel immediately that something momentous is about to occur — and it does, about a page and a half later. The scene opens with a discovery — fairly minor but as discrete and shining as a special event — and then builds until the real discovery is made at the end of the scene.

He started the car, and craning round to reverse into the road he saw the folder with Gerald’s speech in it lying on the back seat.

That sets the scene.

In the crowded hall he was still the driver, the messenger, and if any of the guests recognized him, members of the Operatic, men who had filled his teeth and fitted him for school blazers, they didn’t show it. If it was a snub it was also a relief. He asked at reception, and the girl thought Gerald had gone out to the car park at the rear — she thought he wanted some air.

So Nick turns down a hallway toward that part of the building that leads out back.

The sign said ‘Staff Only’, so that Nick looked round too — it was probably a back way through to the Fairfax suite. Inside there was a service passage, less glaringly lit, and he saw Gerald’s head through the small wired window in another swing door — and Penny’s too, giggling; that was good, it meant things were under control.

Then he makes his discovery. This section of drama is very writerly and slightly contrived. There will be another such scene toward the end of the novel when another disclosure is made — this time much more publicly — which leads to the final dénouement of the novel. Despite the dry aesthetic of the novel, there is drama, of an active kind, as well as the smaller, more ironic dramas of sentiment. Wani’s father bears the brunt of much disapprobation, and the scenes on the hustings in Berwick are fraught with irony and satire.

A little on from this first big discovery, Hollinghurst describes, himself, the method and the intended effect of the cunning dénouement:

He sat back, smiling tolerantly, loving the heat and the sunlight through the huge old roadside oaks and chestnuts, and the sense of a prepared surprise, of being led through screened back ways toward a view.

The novel has its rhythms. After the first flush of London life at Kensington Park Gardens, we move forwards to 1986. Soon, Nick tries to regain lost innocence:

  ‘It’s fabulous to be here,’ said Nick, with just a shiver, as they turned in between urn-crowned gate-piers, of the old feeling, from the first day at Oxford, the first morning at Kensington Park Gardens, of innocence and longing.

Although at 501 pages this is quite a long novel, it reads like a much shorter one. But the quick reminiscences and elisions of time remind you that time has passed by, and brisk associations bridge the years.

‘Champagne for now,’ Nick drawled, ‘and something stronger later.’ The view of pleasure deepened in front of him, the lovely teamwork of drugs and drink, the sense of risk nonsensically heightening the sense of security, the new conviction he could do what he wanted with Tristão, after all these years. Tristão himself merely nodded, but as he stooped to reach an empty glass he leant quickly and heavily on Nick’s knee. Nick watched him going away through the crowded room and for several long seconds it was all one perspective, here and Hawkeswood, the gilt, the mirrors, room after room, the glimpsed coat-tails of a fugitive idea: which then came to you, by itself, and it was what you wanted. The pursuit was nothing but a restless way of waiting. All shall have prizes: Gerald was right. When Tristão came back and bowed their drinks on their tray towards them, Nick plucked up his glass in a toast that was both general and secret. ‘To us,’ he said.
  ‘To us,’ said Catherine. ‘Do stop flirting with that waiter.’

Thursday, 16 February 2006

I've been reading a lot of 'gay' fiction recently. It's not a conscious choice. Just that the good writers who've come my way of late have been gay. There's Christos Tsiolkas, whose books Loaded (1995), The Jesus Man (1999) and Dead Europe (2005) are all reviewed on this blog for anyone wishing an introduction to this outrageously talented author. He currently works as a nurse to supplement his income from publishing, and thoroughly deserves to be better known and supported.

Now I'm reading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (2004), which won the Man Booker Prize — that U.K. touchstone for good fiction. Hollinghurst's book is clearly 'gay' in tendency. But it's more than that. It's also quality fiction. Not that one should feel the need to apologise for reading gay fiction. We're altogether past that point, now, one would have thought. I'll be reviewing The Line of Beauty in a few days, when I finish the book.

Monday, 13 February 2006

Review: Loaded, Christos Tsiolkas (1995)

Ari seems rootless — no job, no plans to study, doesn’t like his father, doesn’t have a girlfriend, doesn’t have a boyfriend. He seems unworried about his future. He’s 20 and he’s ready to party. In Loaded, Ari’s Walkman accompanies him around the city:

On this tape I’m listening to I have the Jackson Five doing ‘I want you back’. This is a supreme moment in music history, even if I’m the only one in the world who knows it. On one of my tapes I have one side of the tape only playing that song. When things aren’t going so well I play that cassette over and over and just walk around the city or walk around Richmond. I sit on a rock by the river throwing bread to the ducks, letting a young Michael Jackson cheer me up. In the three minutes it takes the song to play I’m caught in a magic world of harmony and joy, a truly ecstatic joy, where the aching longing to be somewhere else, out of this city, out of this country, out of this body and out of this life, is kept at bay. I relive these three minutes again and again till I’m calm enough to walk back into life again. I can’t meditate in silence, I haven’t got the patience. I meditate to music; I need something else going on.

This is a first novel. Christos Tsiolkas makes much of being ‘a wog’ — the scene with the two Anglo women and the tram is heavy with irony, some of it unintended. But, serious when under scrutiny himself, Ari sometimes wants to subvert glib clichés, and can refuse to buy into the naming game that is the cause of so much meaning elsewhere in the novel:

  —I don’t thing you’re a dag. She smiles back but I don’t let her off the hook completely. I do think you’re a wog.
  —So what, I’m proud of it. And what are you? I don’t answer. I’m not a wog. I’m not sure what I am but I’m not a wog. Not the way she means. Mick Jagger’s voice comes on rough and soulful, the opening verse to You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Dina starts to sway to the song: she’s enjoying being stoned to it.

He does get irritated by the labels that are so easily applied, but the politics of the city mean so much to Tsiolkas that Ari's assertions sometimes struggle against the strength of the claustrophobia that these labels generate:

Ethnicity is a scam, a bullshit, a piece of crock. The fortresses of the rich wogs on the hill are there not to keep the Australezo out, but to refuse entry to the uneducated-long-haired-bleached-blonde-no-money wog. No matter what the roots of the rich wogs, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Arab, whatever, I’d like to get a gun and shoot them all. Bang bang. The East is hell. Designed by Americans.

Ari escapes into a Saturday-night debauch, buoyed by drugs:

My breathing seems loud to my ears. I allow the night breeze to tease my body, to cool me down, and I piss against the alley wall. I tuck my T-shirt into my jeans, tread on the cigarette, mixing the tobacco in with the come and piss on the ground and walk back through the car park and into the backyard of the pub.

The politics of sex and of the city dominate the narrative, but the characters outlive the length of the novel by demonstrating how real they are, how they are trying to break free of such constraints.

I have no interest, she tells them, in involving myself with progressive, so-called left-wing Greeks if it is the same faces, the same conservative mob of wogs, married, bourgeois, living in the suburbs, who happen to be able to spout Marx and Lenin. The woman across from me flinches. Ariadne continues: I want to be involved with the deviants, the mad, the creative, all those people that the Greek community despises, that the general Australian community despises. For Christ sake, she screams at them, communism is dead. She walks off.

In the immigrant suburbs, Ari finds his epiphany — he faces down the desire for his own life:

I hate it, but the North is temptation. I take the bus from the city and roam the ovals and parks and river banks, searching out fat Arab men and chain-smoking Greek men who stand with their dicks out at urinals, cigarette in their mouths, waiting for you. A defiant stance, for I am a wog myself, and I have to force myself to my knees before another wog. I have to force my desire to take precedence over my honour. It is in the North where I search for the body, the smile, the skin that will ease the strain on my groin, that will take away the burning compulsion and terror of my desire. In the North I find myself, find shadows that recall my shadow. I roam the North so I can come face to face with the future that is being prepared for me.

The politics of the city morph into the politics of sex. The earlier political discussions in the Greek club named Retreat (quoted above) don’t stand a chance beside Tsiolkas’ ethnocentrically subversive examinations of ‘the scene’:

The club is now crammed tight with people, mostly men. The music is a savage ceremony, men walking around each other, making eye contact, flirting, but flirting in a detached, cynical manner, to avoid the humiliation of rejection. The women are mostly on the dance floor, thrusting their hips to one another, oblivious to the games of male sexual conquest around them. A few very drunken men, or out-of-it men are putting on an aggressive manner and asking for sex from strangers, loudly and insistently.

This is a short, satisfying book that manages to cover about eighteen hours of life in 151 pages of dense prose. Tsiolkas runs dialog together with narrative in a way that is reminiscent of Saramago. His low-key drama presents actions in a tone that avoids theatrics and keeps the most outrageous events on an even keel. Ari even has a love affair, but it doesn't seem forced or unusual, just slightly sad.

Sunday, 12 February 2006

Review: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)

There’s no way at all to write this review without spoiling the plot of Mitchell's book. Which is a relief, but there will be fewer quotes than usual, as his style is at once regular and unsurprising. What is surprising is the plot.

The novel is broken into discrete sections that appear at first to bear no relation to each other. Hence the warning — the reader of the first section will have no idea that suddenly it will break off in mid-sentence, at the bottom of the page, and a new section will begin.

CAUTION - SPOILER - CLOUD ATLAS

The first narrative — The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing — delineates the adventures of an American lawyer on Chatham Island around the middle of the nineteenth century. He leaves the island on a boat and finds that he has a castaway in his cabin, a Moriori native named Autua, who he had seen being flogged on Chatham by his Maori masters. This narrative is a diary recounted in demotic style, i.e. it uses speech patterns typical of its time.

The second narrative is set around 1931 in Belgium, where a young, English adventurer named Robert Frobisher with a bent for music is trying to ingratiate himself into the good offices of an aging composer named Vyvyan Ayres and his Belgian family, who live in a crumbling chateau in the countryside surrounded by farms. He succeeds in gaining employment as Ayres’ amanuensis and they collaborate. Meanwhile, Frobisher begins an affair with Ayres’ wife and a sultry feud with his daughter. To tie this narrative with the first, Frobisher, who is stealing books from Ayres’ library for personal gain, finds an old, damaged book containing The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing in the library and asks his correspondent to try to find a better copy. This narrative is told in the epistolatory style and the correspondent’s name is Rufus Sixsmith, of Cambridge.

The third narrative is in the form of a crime novel with Rufus Sixsmith as an unfortunate physicist involved through his work with the Seabord Corporation on its Swanneke atomic energy plant outside Buenas Yerbas, California. The heroine of this part of Mitchell’s novel is Louisa Rey, the daughter of a famous journalist, who works at Spyglass magazine in Buenas Yerbas. There is an elusive, written report that Sixsmith worked on dealing with the design safety of the plant, and a highly paranoid CEO named Grimaldi, as well as an employee named Smoke who is an assassin of some talent. There is also a comet-shaped birthmark (that appeared in the first narrative), back here to tease us, on the shoulder of Louisa Rey. There is also the fact that Sixsmith had been reading the letters of Frobisher just before he’d died.

The fourth narrative details the downfall of Timothy Cavendish whose publisher’s desk holds a manuscript of a novel by Hilary V. Hush called Half-lives — The First Louisa Rey Mystery, which was the title in Mitchell’s book of the third narrative. Cavendish has published the memoirs of a thug named Dermot ‘Duster’ Hoggins, who manages to kill a literary critic at a swank party by throwing him off the balcony. In the aftermath of the notorious crime, his memoirs are suddenly in great demand and Cavendish is flush with cash — until his creditors get wind of the windfall. Thinking along the same lines, Hoggins’ thuggish brothers pay Cavendish a visit with a view to sharing in the profits coming out of Cavendish Publishing. Timothy, desperate and lacking access to the £50,000 the boys are demanding, goes cap-in-hand to his once-wealthy brother’s house and ends up with a consolation prize — free accommodation outside London for the immediate future, until things settle down. He travels to Hull by public transport — an amusing set of vignettes aimed to please Mitchell’s readers. Arrived at Aurora House he finds himself, in the morning, having committed himself to an old-people’s home with no recourse to justice. The narrative ends.

The fifth narrative is set in the future — a future of genomics gone wild, where Hokkaido is in east Korea and the clone Sonmi~451 is recounting her adventures to an Archivist’s ‘orison’, an “egg-shaped device” that “records both an image of your face and your words” which will be archived at the Ministry of Testaments. Shades of Murakami here. Yoona~939 has been killed after her deviancy becomes apparent and she tries to escape from the restaurant where she works with Sonmi~451. But Sonmi~451 is also undergoing ascension, and is spirited away from the restaurant to a university campus where she eventually comes to lie under the protection of Boardman Mephi, who discovers traces of her ascension via library records — she has been downloading vast numbers of works to her sony and reading them in her eagerness for knowledge. She also watches an old 21st century movie entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which links this story to the previous narrative.

The sixth narrative is set in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the god of the Valleymen is Sonmi. A boy of the village, Zachary, suspects foul play when a Prescient — guardians of civilisation in the new world — comes to study their culture. But Zachary’s concerns are stilled when Meronym, the Prescient, saves the life of his sister by administering a drug that cures her of the sting of a scorpionfish. When Zachary guides Meronym up the sides of Mauna Kea to the abandoned observatory at its peak, they have more adventures. Finally, Meronym saves Zachary from the outlaw Kona tribe, who had raided the bartering at Honokaa. Eventually, Zachary and Meronym escape from the Big Isle in kayaks, for a better life away from the Kona. Before they leave the island, Zachary discovers the comet-shaped birthmark on Meronym’s shoulder.

The seventh narrative returns us to the story of Sonmi~451 who, rescued from a Unanimity (government) plot, falls into the capable hands of Hae-Joo Im, a Union agent who had infiltrated the university. The reason for Sonmi’s value is not yet revealed, but she is given a new identity, for the first time becoming a pureblood, and undergoing facescaping. They flee the capital of New So Copros under the guise of a young couple making their way to a love hotel. Hiking in the hills during their flight to Pusan, Hae-Joo points out the form of Timothy Cavendish carved into a rock face. It becomes clear during the interview with the Archivist that the Union was fomenting a revolution against the state using ascended fabricants — those fabricants who have been dosed with the special, secret formula developed by Dr. Suleiman that had led to the ascensions of both Yoona~939 and Sonmi~451. But all is not as it seems. Sonmi~451 has been duped, as she tells the Archivist:

Union pre-exists me, but its raisons d’être are not to foment revolution. First, it attracts social malcontents like Xi-Li and keeps them where Unanimity can watch them; second, it provides New So Copros with the enemy required by any hierarchical state for social cohesion.

Her last request is to watch the Cavendish movie again.

The eighth narrative returns us to the saga of Timothy Cavendish in Aurora House, and the story of his escape from that place by impersonating a doctor and tricking an unwary relative to come to the deathbed of their dying mother. The escaping oldies crash through the gates in a red Range Rover and foil their pursuers by conscripting the support of the denizens of the local pub, who beat them down. After the escape, a movie deal for the Hoggins memoirs comes through and Cavendish also plans to have his own memoirs published. Things are looking up.

The ninth narrative is, not surprisingly, the story of how Louisa Rey foils the snares of the Seabord Corporation. The new CEO is crushed and the U.S. President denounces their evil doings. All is revealed.

The tenth recaps the story of Robert Frobisher in Belgium, with a reformed, charming Eva to accompany him. He falls in love with Eva, leaves the Ayres house after the composer tries to steal his ideas, composes Cloud Atlas Sextet — which Louisa Rey will come across in her adventures — and commits suicide.

The eleventh narrative ends the story of the sick Adam Ewing onboard the Prophetess. They arrive at the Society Islands, where a collection of whites lives alongside the native population in an unequal symbiosis: the natives work and the whites administer. The unhappy Wagstaff appears, whose arranged marriage to a local widow has turned out badly. But his unhappiness is not entirely governed by domestic worries:

Mr Wagstaff was less inclined to conversation than yesterday & let my pleasantries lapse into silence broken only by sounds of the jungle & labourers. ‘You’re thinking, aren’t you, that we’ve made slaves out of these peoples?’
  I avoided the question by saying Mr Horrox had explained their labours paid for the benefits of Progress brought by the Mission. Mr Wagstaff did not hear me. ‘There exists a tribe of ants, called the slave-maker. These insects raid the colonies of common ants, steal eggs back to their own nests, & after they hatch, why, the stolen slaves become workers of the greater empire, & never even dream they were once stolen. Now if you ask me, Lord Jehovah crafted these ants as a model, Mr Ewing.’ Mr Wagstaff’s gaze was gravid with the ancient future. ‘For them with the eyes to see it.’

END CAUTION

Saturday, 11 February 2006

Review: Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

Fitzgerald takes us into the story with no preamble, no prelude, no imprecision. Immediately submerged in the waters of the Mediterranean, stretched out under the hot sun, surrounded by the bodies of Rosemary's interlocutors, the only mystery is the obvious one: what will happen to this young girl and her mother in a novel entitled Tender is the Night?

The rush of the prose is similar to that which appears in Marquez. A trilling of ideas around a single theme, a building-up of intangibles that solidifies into a sensation just at the end of the paragraph. The pace is mesmerising and rapid, swift but sure-footed, like an adolescent skateboarder or a good tennis rally:

But to be included in Dick Diver's world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world. So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done.

Fitzgerald can be scathing and unforgiving when roused:

There she was — the schoolgirl of a year ago, hair down her back and rippling out stiffly like the solid hair of a Tanagra figure; there she was — so young and innocent — the produce of her mother's loving care; there she was — embodying all the immaturity of the race, cutting a new cardboard paper doll to pass before its empty harlot's mind.

That "empty harlot's mind" of the race (Americans) comes at the end of a complex sentence like the promise of a secret fulfilled.

This is an ambitous novel, one suffused with the mysteries of modernism without sacrificing all to it. Occasionally, Fitzgerald tries out a system of speech that doesn't quite work. At one stage he repeats a snippet of conversation at various times throughout a single chapter, the trope becoming indecipherable out of the context in which it was first used. It's not clear what he wants us to think when he repeats "— Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?" but it is clearly a refrain that relates to Dick's predicament while, in Paris, he negotiates his feelings. But this unsuccessful ploy underlines, as much as the historical references that are opaque now, the period of the book's inception. A conspicuious effort on the part of the author to elicit modernity.

But this is an ambitous novel. The narrative focalisation transfers from Rosemary to Dick. But the narrator keeps us at a distance that is as broad as the author's ambition.

As he sat on the side of his bed, he felt the room, the house and the night as empty. In the next room Nicole muttered something desolate and he felt sorry for whatever loneliness she was feeling in her sleep. For him time stood still and then every few years accelerated in a rush, like the quick re-wind of a film, but for Nicole the years slipped away by clock and calendar and birthday, with the added poignance of her perishable beauty.

The chronology is sometimes confusing, and the shifts in narrative time are not signposted adequately. Suddenly there's talk of death, and the significance of the title is not yet apparent. It soon becomes clear that four years have passed. Who knew? The story doesn't easily sustain such powerful shifts. But the mere fact of four years having passed enables one to catch a glimpse, again, of Fitzgerald's ambition — a need to span time as well as the truth about people, their wills and ability to judge correctly the paths they are taking. It is significant that the truth of the shift is revealed just after a boat trip.

But Dick had come away for his soul's sake, and he began thinking about that. He had lost himself — he could not tell the hour when, or the day or the week, the month or the year. Once he had cut through things, solving the most complicated equations as the simplest problems of his simplest patients. Between the time that he had found Nicole flowering under a stone on the Zurichsee and the moment of his meeting with Rosemary the spear had been blunted.

So, the novel is really about Dick, but to tell his story (as the saying goes) Fitzgerald has to tell the stories of the others, at least insofar as they touch his:

The chauffeur who brought the message was gone; the concierge hailed another one and told him the location of the jail. As they rode, the darkness lifted and thinned outside and Baby's nerves, scarcely awake, cringed faintly at the unstable balance between night and day. She began to race against the day; sometimes on the broad avenues she gained but whenever the thing that was pushing up paused for a moment, gusts of wind blew here and there impatiently and the slow creep of light began once more.

Fitzgerald always tries to bring matters to a close in a single paragraph. This tendency makes the narrative whip along, as there is always a void to be filled, the next paragraph to write:

The sisters sat in silence; Nicole wondering in a tired way about things; baby considering whether or not to marry the latest candidate for her hand and money, an authentic Hapsburg. She was not quite thinking about it. Her affairs had long shared such a sameness, that, as she dried out, they were more important for their conversational value than for themselves. Her emotions had their truest existence in the telling of them.

Friday, 10 February 2006

Ad-hoc road crossings by pedestrians can be classified into three categories. Naturally, these categories do not include crossings at legitimate pedestrian crossings such as traffic lights or zebra crossings.

1) Crossings of one-way streets
A mild saunter across the road with minimal fuss, only requiring watching traffic that comes in one direction. These crossings are fairly safe and can be attempted during off-peak periods or at peak hour. Little danger for the pedestrian. Typical of inner-city streets like Castlereagh Street.

2) Crossings of two-way streets at off-peak periods
Judgement is required for this type of crossing, but the danger is minimal. The walker saunters across the street with little fuss, and reaches the other side without interfering with the traffic flow.

3) Crossings of two-way streets at peak periods
Dangerous but in some areas common, especially around King Street, Newtown, and Enmore Road. The pedestrian may walk or run. Running is a frequent option and requires considerable agility and skill. Walking is actually just as popular, but requires that the pedestrian linger in the middle of the road until the on-coming traffic clears. Often seen: pedestrians standing on the twin, white lines running down the middle of King Street. Tempting fate. Either standing on the line or slightly behind it, the pedestrian is exposed to the glares of drivers and the danger of collision, and possible physical damage. This method, especially, incurs the absolute wrath of automobile drivers.

It's much better to just wait for the lights and cross legally. But, then, life is short. Of course, it could get a lot shorter under these conditions.

Wednesday, 8 February 2006

The Chaser is a TV comedy show that focuses its full, sarcastic attention on political events here. It has been around for a while. Their Web site contains a spoof interview with the foreign minister that's quite amusing. Today, to cap it all off, they waylaid Charles Stott, a witness to the Cole inquiry into the AWB kickbacks, and asked him to sign an enormous, cardboard cheque (such as those used by politicians on the hustings to score points with the public) for $300 million toward Saddam Hussein's defense fund. "You won't do it?" they asked the poor man who, poker-faced, navigated pedestrian traffic in Sydney's city centre, dodging the mock cheque and trying to dodge his tormentor. Why not? would be the next question... "Same old same old" surely, the guy from The Chaser prodded the obviously enraged man. With cameras pointing at him from all sides, there wasn't much he could do in defense. His barrister, however, has referred the incident to the Australian Federal Police, alleging that Stott had been "assaulted". It's unlikely anything will come of their enquiries, I warrant, there being little offense to be taken. Makes for good television, though. To follow it up on the free-to-air news was Norm Coleman, the U.S. senator who has been throwing challenges at the Australian government, saying that he's satisfied with the nature of the Cole enquiry, and would await its findings. Patiently, one hopes.

A government that went to war against Iraq is found to have possibly known of trade breaches leading up to the conflict, under the auspices of the UN's Oil-for-Food Programme, which transferred billions of dollars into a UN escrow account between April 1995 and November 2003 to facilitate transactions between suppliers on both sides. Can't get any more embarrassing than the current situation. Prime Minister Howard and Deputy Prime Minister Vaile had big, sour frowns on their faces in Parliament today. We'll see what comes of all this, as not only AWB but the mining and energy giant BHP Billiton is also implicated.

AWB's Web site says nothing about the Cole inquiry, while BHP's has several posts about it. A different culture, clearly. AWB, previously a government-owned entity called the Australian Wheat Board, was privatised in 1999. BHP Billiton is the world's largest mining company, and its BHP component was incorporated in 1885.

Monday, 6 February 2006

Review: Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1989)

His enthusiasm for the Plan came from his ambition to write a book. No matter if the book were made entirely of errors, intentional, deadly errors. As long as you remain in your private vacuum, you can pretend you are in harmony with the One. But the moment you pick up the clay, electronic or otherwise, you become a demiurge, and he who embarks on the creation of worlds is already tainted with corruption and evil.

(Sounds like the dilemma facing the author of a blog: to write or not to write…)

Jacopo Belbo, the would-be writer referred to in the above passage (his writing is, actually, not very good), is employed by a publishing house — a perfect place to find in abundance the kind of esoteric material this novel's author clearly relishes. The novel also opens in a museum — again, an ideal location for the author to indulge in his favourite pastime. Umberto Eco is a learned man, and Foucault's Pendulum is a structure that is stuffed to the rafters with arcana of a highly specialised kind. But while it is often humorous and entertaining in the end it goes off like a damp squib.

The publishing firm is headed by a caricature of a philistine named Garamond who decides, for purely commercial reasons, to encourage the submission of manuscripts dealing with the history of magic. Belbo makes friends with the narrator, a PhD student named Casaubon, who writes his thesis on the subject of the Knights Templar. Everything follows from these simple ingredients. The mystery accumulates in a barrage of theories as the protagonists work their own magic upon the problem: what eventually happened to the Templars and their ancient wisdom? There are other characters in this story, of course, but they rarely and faintly impinge upon Eco's consciousness. If you are interested in the history of the Illuminati or the Rosicrucians, then this book contains a little bit of everything that you will like.

There's also a cop named De Angelis and a taxidermist named Salon who pop up periodically to keep the drama alive.

The prose can often be blithe and haughty:

In Milan, Amparo's disenchantment had been one of her most desirable traits. But in Brazil, reacting to the chemistry of her native land, she became elusive, a visionary capable of subterranean rationality. Stirred by ancient passions, she was careful to keep them in check; but the asceticism which made her reject their seduction was not convincing.

Eco attempts to keep our interest not only through the dramatic mechanism of the crime and the plot line that the policeman is associated with — the 'serious' aspect of the tale that the narrator cannot ignore, regardless of his personal antipathy to this aspect of his life — but also by writing memorably:

In time I lost any sense of contradiction, just as I gradually abandoned any attempt to distinguish the different races in that land of age-old, unbridled hybridization [Brazil]. I gave up trying to establish where progress lay, and where revolution, or to see the plot — as Amparo's comrades expressed it — of capitalism. How could I continue to think like a European once I learned that the hopes of the far left were kept alive by a Nordeste bishop suspected of having harboured Nazi sympathies in his youth but who now faithfully and fearlessly held high the torch of revolt, upsetting the wary Vatican and the barracudas of Wall Street, and joyfully inflaming the atheism of the proletarian mystics won over by the tender yet menacing banner of a Beautiful Lady who, pierced by seven sorrows, gazed down on the sufferings of her people?

With a light touch, Eco often deflates the pomposity that creeps into the narrative in its endless pursuit of knowledge by employing rapid shifts in tone, and by introducing incongruities; the shift from ancient to modern can be sudden and humorous:

The Breaking of the Vessels. Diotallevi was to talk to us often about the late cabalism of Isaac Luria, in which the orderly articulation of the Sefirot was lost. Creation, Luria held, was a process of divine inhalation and exhalation, like anxious breathing or the action of a bellow.
  "God's asthma," Belbo glossed.
  "You try creating from nothing. It’s something you do once in your life. God blows the world as you would blow a glass bubble, and to do that He takes a deep breath, holds it, and emits the long luminous hiss of the ten Sefirot."
  "A hiss of light?"
  "Multimedia."

Accompanying this tendency to humour and lightness of tone, however, is a feeling that the novel lacks a solid centre. The dominance of the publishing-house ambience in the book is rarely broken by any other setting, any other colour. The ambience of the bar Pilade is hardly broached. Minor characters are rarely employed except to further the erudite disquisitions that make up the greater part of the novel. As a result, the construction is rather loose. A publishing house is a weak centre around which to build a mystery. It's a convenient portal for all kinds of arcane visitations but it lacks specific gravity. The main characters don’t grow or develop along a discernable line of progression, and remain 'types' to the end.

Also, the dialog can sometimes be very writerly and unnatural — a symptom of Eco's broad scholarship — as if, regardless of the character speaking at any moment, we can always hear his authorial voice in the background. When he does try to use a different voice — as he does when depicting Amparo — the effect is unconvincing and strained; a false note in the unbroken recitation of highfalutin jargon. When Lia suddenly breaks out into a long monologue, having been silent for so long, it is hard to view the words as her own, rather than the author's. Half-way through the book I felt that the Boy’s-Own glamour of Eco's endeavour had begun to wear a bit thin. There’s little suspense despite new clues to the larger puzzle coming to light. Little suspense and little drama.

Sometimes Eco makes connections that the reader cannot feel to be natural nor can the reader remember the past moment in the narrative that is being referred to. This is sad, but inevitable when the writer's focus remains fixed, as it does in this novel, on the utterances of a small number of characters inhabiting a restricted world. Transitions such as the following stifle the reader’s interest: "When I got back, I told the story to Belbo and Diavoletti, and we ventured various hypotheses." But this sentence is typical of the kind of fictional device the author prefers, as if he could not think of anything more compelling to push the plot along.

As he approaches the finale, Eco's judgement becomes slack and he sometimes abandons the long sentences of his expository style for the short bursts characteristic of bad crime novels:

Unexpectedly, I found the staircase. I went down, with increasing caution. Midnight was approaching. I had to hide in my observation post before They arrived.

The short sentences can't still his insistence on naming things. As the tension of the final chapters attempts to increase, the narrator names everything that happens to him, everything he sees. The tension dissipates in the effluvia of Eco's obsession with lists:

At the corner of the rue de Birague, I see the line of arcades, infinite, without a living soul. I want darkness, not these yellow street lamps. I could cry out, but no one would hear me. Behind all the closed windows, through which not a thread of light escapes, the taxidermists in their yellow smocks will snicker.

Sunday, 5 February 2006

Calls from mum yesterday and today. She hasn't yet received The Double which I mailed last week, but she has found the acrylic painting I made of my grandmother so many years ago. Yesterday I drove down to Studio 275 in Earlwood to pick up my four identical prints — now framed — of a Japanese temple. After I made them, they were hand-coloured individually, each in a different hue. The temple is located outside Osaka, at Nara. I can still remember walking up the hillside with the young woman who showed me around the region, playing 'rock, paper, scissors' as we climbed. The frame has parallel cuts all around the dark wood, and now hangs above the TV, opposite my red vinyl couch. The daughter of the Argentinian owner served me, a tall, handsome, blonde girl. Much of the shop's stock is in the form of Greek Orthodox icons — there's a Greek church just across the street — which are made to look ancient but only succeed in looking fake.

I noticed in the Herald yesterday that Tash Aw is shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, having won the Best First Book Award for the South-East Asia and South Pacific region, for The Harmony Silk Factory.

On the way back down Beamish Street yesterday I stopped to chat with a friendly chap in a blue shirt standing on the lawn in front of his house. On a whim I asked if he had received his copy of the Bankstown Canterbury Torch, as they haven't been delivering it to our block of flats. He went into his house and kindly returned with his own copy, which he gave to me. His name is Gerald.