Tuesday 26 February 2008

Eva Orner's 2UE interview on Oscar triumph and how to make a prize-winning documentary reveals some basic truths not only about filmmaking but also about journalism. So much of the latter is poor in these days of ordinary violence.

A transcript of the interview follows.


It's a very very harsh critique of the current administration's torture policies post-9/11.

And it's told - sort of metaphoically - through the story of a young Afghani taxi driver called Dilawar who was falsely picked up an tortured and ultimately killed at Baghram Prison in Afghanistan.

And we shot in Guantanamo and we shot in Afghanistan. You know, we do a lot of interviews around the country and throughout Europe. We use a lot of archival material which it's, you know, hard and complicated to get.

So it's a long process and our researchers had to do painstaking work. And, you know, people don't necessarily want to talk to you.

It's about being really brave and tenacious. Just being really dogged about trying to find information when you make these sort of films.

It's an important film and the point of the film is to make people angry, to make them enraged and to get dialogue happening about what's going on in this country.

And, you know, I think to some degree it's working. People are angry here.


I saw Orner walking on the red carpet in Hollywood on Monday night. And I saw her flushed and happy face as she stood to approach the stage, to receive her prize.

Note, furthermore, the graffito backdrop to the photo of Orner (at top). It puts me in mind of George Gittoes' film about Iraq.

Gittoes, too, is carrying a bright torch for liberal values and dialogue.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Stefan Klein looks remarkably like Martin Luther, the Renaissance spokesman for the oppressed who, drawing on the early mission statement of John Wycliff and the political implosion of Jan Huss and the utraquists, helped to rearrange the social fabric in Europe.

A science graduate who also studied philosophy Klein, profiled yesterday in the Review supplement to The Weekend Australian, is also a latter-day Coleridge.

Coleridge's own implosion -- into laudanum addiction -- was caused by his inability to escape from the dominant narrative of his era. While he was alive, most British subjects considered themselves Christians and the religion was woven tightly into the social fabric. Dissent was tolerated but atheism was not.

When Wordsworth and Coleridge argued, they both lost an important support. Reviewers' disdain for Lyrical Ballads and everything Coleridge produced in its wake, was a series of heavy blows to his frail psyche.

Contemporaries often noted Coleridge's ability to philosophise extempore. He was, said one, "inspired by heaven" (this could be wrong) and he "sang" rather than just talked. Continued repulse determined his fate, and he stopped writing poetry.

Klein would say that he stopped existing as a social being because of this. The silence imposed on him was the silence the ignorant themselves experienced when faced with the realities of life. It was the silence the intolerant demand of those who do not concur with their every utterance. It was the silence of totalitarianism.

The dominant narrative of the day was the sermon, which proscribes and threatens. Coleridge could not but subscribe to it and the anger of the reviewers was, to him, as a sign from god: stop.

Today, when the dominant narrative is built around the structure of the novel, the possibility for empathy is greater. In fact, often the mere fact of weakness will attract support, regardless of how correct or false the position the individual - the one who is being oppressed - is.

We may, in other words, have gone too far the other way. Perhaps the Nabokovian Apollonian stick is required. I suspect it is, though the struggle for dominance between, say, Nabokov and his Dionysian predecessor (Dostoyevski) is ongoing.

"Humans are creatures with brains built for processing stories rather than facts," says Klein, who appears this weekend at the Perth Writers Festival.

I feel like suing this Austrian interloper, who brings such wisdom to our dry expanses (I hesitate to call them plains; that word belongs to the American midwest).

Some time ago I was at a party and I introduced my quaternal maxim of 'progress' to a neighbour.

Here it is:

  1. Language is an innate instinct in humans; we must talk and will regardless of the company, and
  2. Humans are social animals, therefore
  3. We live by narratives, furthermore
  4. The history of progress is the history of the competition between strong narratives.

I wonder if Klein sometimes feels, like me, that he is surrounded by aliens. Possibly he feels that he has been selected by the gods for some higher purpose. In fact, going back to Luther, it seems as though the only kind of narrative that can prevail in society is one that satisfies a deeper urge: to fight.

The Sun-Herald's Sunday Life supplement today suggests this is true. In an article starting on page 20 Paige Kilponen cavasses experts to identify the benefit of a good stoush. Passive-aggressive behaviour is, she suggests, not good for the soul.

Barring resort to physical violence (I assume, though she doesn't actually touch on this terrible fact), she quotes Michael Burge, who says that

the absence of conflict can be an indication of a much more dysfunctional relationship. "If everything is stiff upper lip, there is suppression of identity. An absence of fighting suggests avoidance and can mean neither party cares about the relationship."

Australian Institute of Family Studies researcher Robyn Parker says

The benefits of a good fight ... include "fostering an open and honest communication, establishing boundaries and learning to choose our battles."

Burge again:

"It's unavoidable. If we don't fight, we become suppressed. We try to assert our ideas to maintain our identity."

Which suggests that those with strong identities and correct opinions are often shunned by the less capable, who fear they will drown in the ocean of another's will.

This could also answer the question of why alcohol is so popular. If the only way to honestly and forcefully express an opinion is under the influence we may have a biological cause for drunkenness. The by-products of this state of being are, however, often to be regretted.

The solution is resort to an alternative locus of transgression: culture. Even in third-world Asia, this is possible. See Orhan Pamuk's heroic attempt to reconcile Nabokov and Dostoyevski in his recent book of journalism and occasional pieces, Other Colours.

For many, however, this is difficult. Racism continues to be dominant. And long-held narratives (north v south, for example; or Protestant v Catholic) continue to hold sway. As we should know:

Culture is a locus of transgression,
And as the road is a crowded zone,
Control's the manifestation of joy.

Absent joy, energies are easily dissipated in the kind of deft and delicate qualifiers we prize in fiction, but which, in the world of non-fiction, are, as Calvino said, like "the flapping bat wings of the devil".

Saturday 23 February 2008

'Two major writers protect their distinctive brands.'

Brand Power is a marketing firm producing ads for Australian grocery retailers. The distinctive 'bee' logo and the apparently ad-hoc consumer vox pops it shows to buttress value claims, are well-known to Sydneysiders.

I hesitate to speak for Australians living in the other major conurbations.

Two recent stories show that writers, too, are very conscious of the value of their brands, and will always work strenuously to protect it.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Susan Wyndham has done something interesting today. In a week in which the news has been dominated by the Wollongong councillor corruption scandal (which threatens to unseat a state government minister), Wyndham has noticed a piece of corruption by our leading poet, Les Murray.

Murray is the fiction editor of monthly serious magazine Quadrant.

In the article Murray complains about how Australian poetry publishers routinely pester him for endorsements, for 'blurbs' as he terms them. These are the back-cover clips attributed to a notable figure.

This time, publisher Puncher & Wattmann asked for a blurb and Murray replied to the effect that one would be forthcoming if they published his wife's book, Flight From The Brothers Grimm.

Confronted, Murray told Wyndham that the offer was a joke. He said that "his intention was to say no to the publisher, "but I said it in a baroque way". Told it did not read like a joke, he replied, 'It reads like, 'Piss off', actually.'"

The disputed letter also contains a phrase to the effect that Murray is aware of the 'clout' his name carries in Australia.

A few days ago, The Australian carried a fascinating story about the notorious 'final novel', unfinished at the time of his death in 1977, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov is widely recognised as one of the premier literary talents of last century.

His son Dmitri, now 73 "and in poor health", has not decided what to do with the manuscript, which he praises (in his typically aggressive and proprietorial fashion). Academics caught in an epic battle for ownership (which will have consequences reaching into the coming millenium) note that significant quantities of work by Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson and Edward Elgar were published for the first time posthumously.

In fact, anyone who has read Stacy Schiff's excellent book on Nabokov's wife, Vera, will know that this dedicated woman prevented her husband from burning a manuscript of Lolita when they lived in Ithaca, New York. He was on his way to the steel drum in the back yard when she intercepted him, knowing of his indecision and uncertainty.

The novel catapaulted Nabokov into the highest levels of world publishing within a year of its publication.

Nabokov taught literature at Cornell University, which is located in the upstate town, for 20 years. Following the success of the novel, the couple relocated to Switzerland, where they both died.

The Original of Laura may be published, or it may not. John Banville's opinion is the same as mine.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

John McDonald says that Sydney Harbour "is at once too complex a subject and too ubiquitous a presence in Sydney to be summed up in a collection of 42 items" regardless of "the ingenuity expended on selection and presentation" of the show he comments on.

The show is on at Macquarie University Art Museum and ends on 8 March. I will try to see it. The John Olsen etching below is included. I think it is lovely. Olsen, whose son I went to school with, and who lived at that time in a renovated fisherman's cottage in Watson's Bay, captures something of the frenzy of movement that characterises the start and end of each week day.

Sydney is a working city and the bridge is a major traffic conduit, linking the aesthetically-pleasing north side with the teeming eccentricites of the east and west. Olsen sees the chaos of cars and exhaust as a blot on the landscape, whereas in reality it is due to this frantic rushing of bodies and machines, that artists such as he is, live in comfort.

Slow drips of cash seep through the cracks of the carved bowl of capital, located atop its iron plinth. Small cascades run over the lips and into the mouths of the culturati, waiting patiently (like penitents in an earlier age - shamed by their rudeness and by the hideous implications of truth) below.

Whiteley fares not well at all. He is classed among those who provide a "more straight-forward appeal". This is required because (as McDonald correctly observes) "On the whole, we like nothing better than those things we already know."

Curiously, a Chinese friend, who didn't know Whiteley from a bag of cement, stood transfixed before the above canvas when we visited the Art Gallery of NSW recently. The Asian influence is obvious, she said, and we admired the dead man's clever use of negative space.

This kind of work is akin to the extraordinary and sensuous calligraphic elements North Asians use to communicate with, on a daily basis. We forget how close to real objects these 'characters' (called 'kanji' in Japan) are. They are still linked to the concrete object: the snail, the man, the mountain, the woman.

Or, indeed, the silicone chip ('semiconductor' translates neatly into three specific characters, in Japanese).

What strikes one when viewing the two images above are their different approaches to an identical object: the Harbour Bridge. Whiteley's classical elegance contrasts strongly with Olsen's left-brained squiggles and dense diagonals.

McDonald also gives the nod (in the 'straight' camp) to Lloyd Rees. Rees' etchings of Sydney Harbour remain some of my favourite images of this body of water, on whose lush and fickle shores I grew up.

Monday 18 February 2008

eBay is addictive and because of other expenses I must not avoid, there's no excuse for my recent buying frenzy except that, finally, I've worked out the secret.

For almost a year I avoided eBay. The items bid for went elsewhere and, dispirited, I felt the risk was not worth the reward. In my case, this was a resounding 'zero' because I did not understand the psychology of online bidding. Now I know and I should be happy.

But the sheer volume of purchases means my credit card looks set to be maxed out for some time. Take this print, for example. Raoul, the seller, says it is an original, early-twentieth century photographic print. I've no way to know but the money's been paid ($32) and the package sent.

The description is delicious: "Vintage Antique Sepia Risque Lady Print 1800's 1900's". Even the redundant apostrophes contain a measure of charm and, in fact, function as a sort of guarantee of authenticity. I figure that it is good. It is also a lot of fun to own this sort of thing. I can easily imagine my grandmother (born 1906, died 1996) striking such a pose.

Then there's this.

I freely admit to being a map freak. It's sort of like being the guy who collects pre-WWII lunch boxes. Except, in this case, there's an intrinsic value that anyone can participate in enjoying.

A map, after all, is a political statement. As for this exemplum, the only query is whether the f**king thing was actually printed in the late 18th century. I sort of doubt it. It is more probably a 19th century copy of an 18th century engraving.

I retain doubts in this direction, though. I mean, would a self-respecting Victorian buy a (decadent) pre-Romantic print? It's counter-intuitive to think he (less likely she) would do so.

Further heartache is pending in the guise of additional expenditure for framing services. My preferred provider is ASA Anderson in Annandale. They're bloody good but never cheap and my innate bent (to collect images of unique appeal) means I'll be driving around that part of the inner west in the immediate future.

When buying on eBay it is critical to have some idea of the price an item should go for. This can take only a few hours spent looking in second-hand shops and antique dealers' showrooms. Given this information, it is relatively easy to aim, at about 10 minutes before the end of bidding, at the right target.

I generally (if I really want an item) immediately raise my first bid by some measure. I then usually raise it again. There's always a frenzy of activity in the last minute. If my third bid is accurate, I should be safe.

On occasion, it takes a further bid at about 30 seconds before the end, to secure the item. It's quite exciting and I will be back.

Thursday 14 February 2008

Sappho Poetry reading tonight was a success as the guest reader highlighted a line of the sonnet I read. I won a DVD set.

The DVD packaging is very neat. The box contains six disks, mounted on the plastic interior. But the configuration is strange. One disk is mounted on the inside of both the front and back covers. Welded inside the box, however, is a pair of plastic, moulded leaves. Each side of each leaf holds a disk: on one side (recto) it is toward the top of the case and on the verso it is near the bottom.

The ingenuity displayed in this set-up is satisfying.

The poem I read is part of a sonnet sequence that begins on 13 December with 'How many years have passed in your absence'. This line, however, did not match the rest of the poem, said Martin Harrison.

A Canterbury graduate (oddly, he did not complete a BA prior to starting an MA), Harrison is English and teaches at UTS, which is located opposite Central Station, on Broadway. He runs the creative writing program.

The evening's schedule started with him reading some work. A poem about the landscape, which used an effective image of a wild beehive, was the opening item. Unfortunately, Harrison subscribes to the 'dun school' (my coinage) which is the dominant orthodoxy today.

Free verse has reached an end-point but nobody will admit it. Harrison is not free of irony but it is less visible in his work, than it is in the work of other poets writing today. Modernism has run its course but there is currently no viable alternative. And Modernism demands free verse.

The main element characteristic of the 'dun school' is a lack of striking imagery. These poets also borrow heavily from one another. In another item Harrison read, which included lines describing currawongs (a sort of native Australian crow), the same words you read elsewhere appeared. Things like 'skein' (to describe the bird's beautiful cry), and 'purling' (same), emerge, as they do, as part of the standard 'package' of tropes that are associated with the bird.

He described the sound of cicadas as a 'single breathing sound', which was quite nice. Overall I'd say that half of his lines contained viable imagery. The other half attempt to depress the tone to a level that is audible to the great unwashed.

In my poem, he said that the tone of the first (triumphant) line was not equalled in the remainder of the lines. This is probably correct, but I will not change a line.

I guess my system is to deploy the sonnet in a way that resembles the deployment of haiku by Japanese poets. The haiku is a single-image, high-impact unit that gratifies the desire of Japanese readers for a concrete, simple aesthetic moment. Such a moment is valued because it is quickly assimilated and does not tolerate development.

Development is not valued because it implies polemic, and this is not valued because it is antithetical to Oriental culture. A sonnet, comprising 14 lines of metrical verse, demands development.

More, the final couplet of a sonnet must contain a fresh angle, related to the themes within the preceding 12 lines, but that leads to a new place. Here is mine:

13 December 2007

How many years have passed in your absence?
Eternity obeys your pounding heart.
The sudden changes of your countenance
Ratify this moment, in which I start

Like the wild jerboa, lithe kangaroo
Of another desert, millennial
Denizen with an equal urge to woo
And win, and wean off desire.

Admiring yourself (seemly reticence!),
In me you find much to admire: curtains
Kept closed must strengthen desire; absence
A breeze that keeps kissing these rock-strewn plains.

You reached inside and broke off a corner
Of your heart, and placed it in my palm, girl.

The italicised segment is, thinks Harrison, not equal to the clarity inherent in the opening line. He's not the only one to criticise the segment. But it is necessary, given my artistic pose, to include something like this. It refers directly and explicitly to the object of my esteem.

The bold-text segment (the final couplet) is derived from popular culture. These two lines were praised by another friend. So we have some agreement and some disagreement. Which is as it should be, I suppose. Possibly I am being lazy. Should I rewrite?

There is a viable poetry scene in Sydney and I wonder if there is elsewhere in Australia. Possibly. But there seems to be something every week here. Which is nice.

Monday 11 February 2008

Having problems with Windows Vista? I have a few and they are not trivial. It only takes a few days to resolve them, but they demonstrate that Microsoft takes its customers' goodwill for granted because they don't alert you to the dangers and inconveniences before you install.

Installation is not trivial. Mine took over two hours. During this time the computer reboots multiple times. This means that most people would want to wait until the weekend before installing. But caution is required: Microsoft's help line is not staffed on weekends.

The main problem is that Vista deletes your Internet provider's settings in the version of IE included on the operating system DVD. In my case, this meant a call to Optus in order to retrieve critical POP3 details: a twenty-minute delay prior to use.

The old email client is deleted, too. Microsoft has a new default email client called Windows Mail which, when activated inside Vista, knows where to find the old files, but it's not an expected feature. Microsoft should tell Vista buyers beforehand that this change will be made regardless of user preference.

Worse, especially for those, like me, whose computer may routinely be used by another individual, is the 'Welcome Center'. This cheerful little viewer is 'on' by default and appears when you start the computer after Vista finishes its installation sequence. Note the handy drop-down that shows all recently-visited websites:

Yikes!! Some of these new features are decidedly anti-marriage ...

Just imagine what would happen if your wife happened to fire up the PC one day while you were not present and was able to scroll, at leisure, through all the 'unsavoury' sites you'd visited over the past week!

The little red arrow pointing down in the picture shows where you can elect not to display the Welcome Center on start-up. This is OK, but ... it should not be an 'opt-out' feature. It should be something you elect to show, not the other way round. And it gets worse.

A little 'sidebar' feature that is switched 'on' by default is the 'Slide Show' gadget. The gadget controller sits in the top-right of the screen and, for my part, I'm yet to find the control that lets me hide it. Which I'm eager to do. That's because the Slide Show gadget displays a random sampling of stored pictures in an inch-wide viewer that sits on the desktop.

More opportunity for embarrassment. In fact, it's not just the Welcome Center that allows an unwary user to access all URLs stored during an earlier user's session online. Any panel in the new Control Panel will make this information public. It's too easy to see this stuff.

I guess the corollary to these gripes is to use a personal login. For me, living alone, this may not be necessary. A parent would want to be very sure that his or her personal settings were not visible to a child.

If the only benefit to the user from purchasing Vista is the sexy new skin, then I suggest not to buy. Rather, spend the hundreds of dollars it costs on more useful options, such as more RAM or some glossy photo paper for your inkjet printer.

Another negative, for me, was that installing Vista caused Norton Anti-Virus to be turned off. I'm not sure how I'll deal with this issue, but I do not think it should have become one.

Vista buyers: beware!!

Sunday 10 February 2008

To hang two Japanese paper fans on a wall has taken me all morning, including two trips to Bunnings in Ashfield. The fans are not in themselves particularly spectacular or valuable.

One was given to me by a friend of my wife's who was remarkable for having three children as well as for putting up with my wife's odd moods. The other one landed in my possession at some point during my decade in Tokyo.

To get this result, I started out in the car at around 9am. I completed the business about half an hour ago. It took this long despite the fact that the total concept was crystal clear in my mind from the get-go: I knew I wanted to use angle hooks and since the wall is double-brick, I knew a drill would be required.

Bunnings' tool shop on a Sunday morning is very busy and there's only one sales guy who knows all the details of the hundreds of models they sell. A queue quickly formed. I stood to one side until the cashier interrupted the expert.

He flashed me a quick look, as if to say 'greenhorn', and airily bid me buy a Bosch or a Makita unit.

I looked about me, saw endless rows of cordless and mains-powered electric drills and quickly deserted the post. I decided to do something useful, and made for the aisle displaying hooks and screws.

Here I felt in better company. I quickly selected the size and shape of hook I wanted. I also took some larger hooks for hanging a Japanese printer's block, which is a wooden slab about twenty centimetres long and half as much wide.

I then went to the place for masonry plugs and got the smallest type available: 5mm.

These critical items in my possession, I returned to the drills but asked a different sales person for help. Since he could not tell me precisely what type of drill I'd need, however, I started inspecting packaging and the marketing copy printed on it.

Since my maximum hole size would be 5mm, I gauged that a drill capable of punching a 10mm hole into metal would be good enough, if not over-spec. I took a box to the counter and asked the expert if this would be true. "Not necessarily," he answered.

"So what kind of drill do I need to put a 5mm hole into brick?" I asked. He was clearly not grasping my situation. So I asked him if a cordless would, perhaps, be inadequate.

"Yes," he said. "Get this." I looked at the box labelled 'ozito' and the $30 price and pressed, again: "Will this work?"

With a positive answer occupying a multitude of synapses in my frontal cortex, I took my selections off home and inserted the 5mm masonry bit into the drill's chuck, which is tightened manually.

I plugged the cord into a double-adapter underneath my window case and, having marked with a pencil the location on the wall for each hole, placed the tungsten tip against it and started drilling one of them.

After making two, I inserted a 5mm plug into one. Useless. It slipped in with no friction holding it at a place where a hook could screw in. Bugger.

I got back in the car and returned to Bunnings.

I wasn't happy. The guy who was lucky enough to serve me this time apologised profusely (this unlikely outcome is solely attributable to the fact that he is North American). He also took the time to help, thus averting future complaint.

He took me through the process from the beginning. This way, he reckoned, any other issues could be identified before I again drove off. He took on-board the fact that a 5mm plug is too small if a 5mm drill bit is used.

But he also (luckily) noted clearly that a plug larger than 5mm would be too big for the hooks I'd chosen. With a 7mm plug, for example, they would uselessly twist around endlessly.

The solution was to buy a packet of 'Fix-it' plaster-impregnated cloth patches. These are separated, soaked in water, moulded around the plug, left to dry for three minutes, and inserted with the plug into the hole.

This worked, although I had to snip off excess cloth with scissors (see bottom photo for a full catalogue of tools and consumables required).

I had learned a few lessons during the morning, so when preparing the second fan's mounting holes I chose a 4mm drill bit.

This worked perfectly. I knew this because I needed a hammer to sink the plugs into the holes. Note: when using a 4mm bit, you can twist the bit around in the hole as you finish it. This makes the diameter slightly larger than 4mm, and ideal for a 5mm plastic plug.

So while the morning's work demanded an unexpected amount of time as well as mental application by four individuals, the result is ideal. As you can see (above).

Here are the items required (from top left):
  • 'Fix-it' plaster-impregnated cloth patches
  • Angle hooks for mounting fans
  • Mains-powered hand drill
  • Scissors
  • Philips-head screwdriver
  • Hammer
  • Pliers
  • 4mm drill bit (also used 5mm bit, not shown)
  • Screw (for removing the 5mm plug that uselessly disappeared into the first hole)
  • 5mm masonry plugs

Thursday 7 February 2008

Selected Stories of Shen Congwen was first translated into English by Jeffrey K. Kinkley for University of Hawai'i Press in 1995.

The date is significant, he says in his introduction. He works in the Department of History at St John's University, New York. To say that Shen's "road was not easy" is to point at how significant, in fact, the date is.

The literary scene during his creative heyday, 1924-1948, was querulous and faction-ridden, but despite ideological rifts, most authors back then were fairly civil with each other, and friendships often crossed ideological divides.

But during the revolution Shen's reputation was 'eclipsed' and his works "virtually banned in China" for 40 years. The writer gave up trying to make a living from his craft and studied museology, first as "a mere docent". He catalogued items and did tours of the museum.

"During the Cultural Revolution, his house was raided by Red Guards, and he was sent down to the countryside, but his hardship was less than that of many other intellectuals." As a 'dead tiger', however, he posed no threat to the Party. Even in the early 1980s, many students had never heard his name.

Even in Taiwan his works were banned officially because he did not go to the island with the Nationalists in 1949. The situation changed, apparently, in the 1980s.

In both markets, his books began to be read again. Kinkley avers that a Nobel was in the offing but unfortunately the writer died in 1988. It is significant that the current publisher (The Chinese University Press) "was established in 1977 as the publishing house of The Chinese University of Hong Kong".

The press aims to add "five to six titles" to its list each year.

I won't quote from Kinkley's analysis of the stories in this fabulous book. He is, after all, an historian, not a literature scholar. His concepts are very stale and block-like. What we do have in common, however, is a deep admiration for this subtle writer. The writer who most closely resembles him, I guess, is Chekhov.

This is partly because of the bucolic themes. But also it is due to the very dry-eyed gaze. In both authors' work this clear vision is powerful because married to a soft heart.

A heart that remembers.

The historical period touched on in the stories is clear due to Western cognates used (tung oil is harvested by rich landowners and sold to Westerners who use it to make anti-fouling paint for warships; in another story there's talk of a magnificent fountain pen).

The ambience is distinctly Chinese, as is the cruelty (a woman a clan head dislikes is first raped by a mob then pushed over the side of a dinghy with a millstone around her neck).

The class situation is also medieval. A government official (hujia) virtually rules his town single-handledly, handing out favours to cronies and taking multiple girls into his house as concubines. The rich live in heaven while the poor rely on what is dropped off the edge of that favoured locus.

Basta! with the political and economic discourse, though. Here, the magic is in the way Shen carries the narration across time -- effortlessly -- and gathers his favoured sons and daughters to his bosom in the motion.

Of particular note is Sansan, about an ignorant (but rich) country girl who becomes the object of interest of a sick city-dweller come to the countryside to recover (probably from tuberculosis). At first she is dismissive, but the existence of his desiring gaze impacts on her psyche until, at the end, she is a partner in the dance of love.

Also extremely good is The Husband. His wife works as a prostitute and he lives off her earnings until, at some point, the burden of shame and regret overpowers him. As in the case of Sansan, the denouement is delayed. Everything resolves itself in the final paragraph, until which point the outcome of the story is quite invisible to the reader.

This effect -- of a car racing toward an immovable object and swerving to miss it at precisely the final possible moment -- is delightful. It's surely a rare gift that Shen commands here.

Finally, Qiaoxiu and Dingsheng offers a superb, postmodern approach to an old story (old in China, I suspect). The relationship between the two characters whose names appear in the title, is tenuous. The presence of the narrator in the story as a character gives the story a very contemporary feel, and his musings go a long way toward resolving the meanings of the two intertwined stories that centre on the young woman and the young man.

Without doubt, Shen is the best Chinese writer I've read. Even better than Gao Xingjian.

Superb. Superb. Hooray for Hunan!

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Tom Heneghan, who teaches architecture at Sydney Uni, bemoans the difficulty confronting the foreigner who wants to live in North Asia: the wretched script. "After two years of study I knew just over 200, including numbers," he tells Elizabeth Farrelly, The Sydney Morning Herald's architecture critic-in-residence.

"As I learned new ones, the old ones I knew slipped out the back of my brain."

The newcomer is enchanted, as I was, with the spacial dynamics especially, as happened to me when I visited Japan in the winter of 1982, for a person with an inherent interest in the plastic arts. Here's me mimicking my host's wife's script (shodo):

This concern with form may be the reason for Asian reticence when faced with a confrontation. Farrelly writes that Oxford psychologist Michael Argyle finds Japanese faces "are still inscrutable, less legible - even to the Japanese - than English or Italian faces".

And the condition is common to Chinese people, too. The similarities are endless and hence are cause to regret the poor political link between the two countries which, it must honestly be said, know each other better than anyone else knows either.

Says Farrelly: "what really strikes you, on a first, fleeting Tokyo visit, is just how Japanese it still is". But the next bit is really beautiful:

Japaneseness infuses everything, from the way the buildings collude in their space-making to the extraordinary quietness of the streets, where the dominant sound is the soft, insistent rain of a trillion footsteps.

As even the train trip from Narita airport shows you something quite different is happening here. Tokyo's wan industrial suburbs are themselves oddly picturesque. Almost nothing is brick or concrete. All is light and timbery, textual and textural, settling to the ground in a loose, ordered chaos that makes a place of every street and a joke of the entire Western edifice of urban design.

It's true. There is truly a "loose, ordered chaos" in Tokyo and any other large city in Japan. What needs to be stressed, however, in "the soft, insistent rain" is the second qualifier.

The press of people in the world's largest city means that 'insistent' is a negative quantity. And this may also be a reason for Asian reticence: so many people living in such close quarters for such a long time. The Chinese influence, however, is really, yet to be adequately chronicled.

A friend tells me that Japanese traditional kimono (the garish, but lovely dress the women are most famous for) is highly reminiscent of T'ang Dynasty dress (circa 700 CE, when Buddhism and the script migrated across from Korea to the archipelago).

The little wave of the hand, in declining something, that is so characteristic of Japanese women (the men would never do this), is also common to the Chinese. My friend does it all the time.

And covering the mouth, when laughing is, it transpires, another point of commonality linking Japanese and Chinese women. It signifies good breeding.

My friend, however, laughs with her mouth open.

Farrelly ends her interesting article by pointing to "a palpable thoughtfulness" that inheres in what a Japanese person does. "Not just politeness, which suggests a kind of fraud. More a zennish mindfulness, a concentrated energy beneath the calm."

"[E]ven the young mother taking three smartly uniformed under-fives to the temple school by bike." Oh, what a feeling!

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Nightwords Festival, Sydney, is to take place on 6, 7 and 8 March at the Sydney Opera House. Visit the site linked here and you'll encounter the face of Miles Merrill but the event promises a lot more.

Actually, this kind of grandstanding gets my goat, but competitiveness among poets is legendary, so this attitude should be taken with a grain of salt.

The event contains several elements, one of which ('Legends of the Word'), interestingly, is a retrospective of performance poetry in Sydney "from 60's beginnings to slamming present". Cool.

It may be a good idea to book early as I suspect space will be limited ("maximum seating capacity ranges from 220 to 350").

The flyer is bent. This is Peter's fault. Peter is a poet who reads regularly (the next event is on Wednesday 13 February at Sappho Books in Glebe).

Peter, Matt and I were talking outside The Friend In Hand tonight and Peter folded the flyer in two (you can see the creases if you click on an image). This is the kind of absent-minded act poets are prone to, especially when discussing weighty matters.

Peter and I disagree on many things but he read a wonderful poem tonight that originated in his youth. He started the poem 30 years ago and it chronicles an erotic moment, one of those plastic spaces that are available to all.

Sunday 3 February 2008

Apocalypse Now Redux, released in 2001, is the extended version of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 war movie and it is ideally summarised by Paul Byrnes, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday while reviewing a more recent film (There Will Be Blood starring Daniel Day-Lewis): it "has an overwhelming presumption of its own greatness".

Lewis is possibly the equivalent, today, of Marlon Brando, who made Apocalypse Now (the original, better version; Owen Gleiberman was correct to say the new version is a "meandering, indulgent art project that [Coppola] was still enough of a craftsman, in 1979, to avoid") a success. So a film with him in it that is about the sins of the American fathers, is bound to become Oscar material.

But this ray of sunshine is accorded by pure default. I'm not the only viewer to think the pace of Apocalypse Now Redux is slow. The Wikipedia page rightly points to the French plantation sequence among the chief offenders.

Another scene without merit shows the helicopter badged with the Playboy logo, adrift in the confusion and madness of war. Inside it, the bunnies give sexual favours to select soldiers. The only merit of this scene is to show that Lance, the surfer, has a kind heart. He puts makeup on one of the girls, a dreaming blonde who talks non-stop, oblivious, it seems, to the part she is expected to play. Her dream is to be (an actress? it's not clear) but certainly not simply to be the fuck-bucket of stir-crazy marines.

But we would anyway know Lance is kind. Later, he will snatch a puppy from the Chef's hands following the nasty slaughter of a boat-full of Vietnamese farmers. And when Clean is shot while listening to an audio cassette sent by his mother, it is the puppy Lance frets about, not the young, black 19-year old soldier. "Where's the puppy? We've gotta go back!" he screams as he flails around the plastic gunboat, hundreds of miles from civilisation.

The French heavies, in any case, are unconvincing from the start: more like a street gang than a group of farmers intent on retaining their land in the face of overwhelming social change. At the well-appointed table, the chief of them lists the losses in war suffered by the French, only to finish (striking the table so the glasses rattle): "We will never leave! Never!" Are the French always (at least since the memorable successes of the Napoleonic years) presuming as to their own greatness?

This thought brings me to ponder the fashions of youth, particularly the retro-chic valued today by 18- to 21-year-olds. Is this new conservatism a sign of incipient downfall? Is it not, perhaps, true that war is always (pace predictable pronouncements of such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright that it is "never justified - there is no just war") a catalyst?

Touring the Australian War Memorial on 28 January, it struck me that the changes made possible by war (Indian emancipation, the Roaring Twenties, American triumphalism since 1775; the list is endless) are not able to be achieved any other way. Somebody (not always the son of god, it would seem) must make the 'supreme sacrifice'.

On 26 January, I attended, with a Chinese friend (for whom I had to explain the meaning of 'supreme sacrifice'), a small ceremony at the corner of Sussex Street, near Darling Harbour. There, an ascending spiral of horizontal slats commemorates the war service of Chinese-Australians.

One woman, with red hair and the green suit of the Lions Club, by the name of Denise, told a little story of a sniper at Gallipoli named The Assassin. His real name was Tpr William Edward (Billy) Sing.

This also brings me to contemplate, especially now (the other day, shopping at Woolworths, I saw the shelf of check-out mags all showed Heath Ledger on their covers), how death enables a set of words, otherwise never heard, to emerge in the public sphere.

Words such as 'generous', 'kind', 'unforgettable', 'wonderful' seem always (and without exception) to attach themselves to individuals who, should they have been mentioned in the press while still alive, could not have had such words associated with their names.

As Camus endearingly wrote, when producing an introduction to the reprint of a youthful work: "everything must be done so that men can escape the double humiliation of poverty and ugliness" (Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage edition, 1970).

Poverty leads to war. But do we not nevertheless need to experience periodically the richness of language produced by war: to revitalise a culture exhausted by the demands of the pursuit of capital?

Is it possible to achieve such a revitalisation without death? I suggest this question should be posed to a devout Christian, the religion whose founding narrative (expulsion from heaven) was buttressed by a "superiority of belief, not superiority of people" (Michael Galak, Anti-Semitism, Its Origins and Prognosis, Quadrant, January-February 2008, p. 22).