Thursday, 30 April 2015

The French Revolution à la Jean-Claude Carrière

Full title: The Sky over the Louvre
Author: Jean-Claude Carrière
Genre: Graphic Novel
Attributes: 72 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Louvre (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The French Revolution is the backdrop of this first attempt by Jean-Claude Carriere at writing a script for a graphic novel. The book starts with Robespierre visiting the painter Jacques-Louis David while the latter was perfecting his famous Marat Assassinated. David thinks he’s brought religious art to a standstill by making Marat play the role of what had previously been considered the monopoly of the Christ. The wounds, the naked body, the head tilted to one side – all of this brings back the central image of Christianity, piety and heroism and all. But there's a problem in the painting. A problem quickly noticed by Robespierre who, riding the wave of the Revolution, has been left with an emptiness to fill, as well as with a fullness to empty. Unlike Christian icons, where the background is filled by swarms of angels beating their wings to revitalize the air, in David's painting nothing work to bring life back, nothing promises to lift the martyr to the Heavens. "The new Heaven is empty, Maximilien," explains David. At which Robespierre answers with a doubt that doesn't quite belong in any revolution: "Too empty."
August 1793, which coincides with the opening of the Louvre, is also the time when this little boy from distant Khazaria, Jules Stern, arrives in Paris slightly disoriented, searching for his mother. He sees Robespierre delivering a speech, and then he hears David, the painter, who fires a speech at the official opening of the Louvre:
"To paint the energy of a people that has burst from the bonds of humankind, we must have proud colors, a vigorous style, a bold brush, a volcanic genius!"
In this rhythm of change, art is made anew with the same passion with which heads fall by the guillotine (the Widow, the beheader).
The young Khazar, the stranger who comes to see the truth of the Revolution before its materialization, turns out to be the perfect model for a symbolic project. As everything is new and without beginning, the Revolution needs symbols. The Revolution needs an image to stand for its newness. Jules’ perfect, androgynous beauty causes David to lose his focus. The artist immerses himself in this project to the detriment of other, more “revolutionary” projects, which would have required his verve and his talent with much more force.

Jean-Claude Carrière. Source: Quobuz
Based on Carrière's erudition, the book explores the time of the French Revolution by singling out a set of events (some real, some fictional) and by combing through concepts to find the ones that fit the narrative ambition of the book.
This is no place to provide spoilers, so I won’t dwell into that. The book in itself is rather brief. It doesn't take long to read it cover to cover. Its brevity, though, allows for surprise to settle in with violence. Suffice it to say that death and life (first the one, than the other) meet on the page as they met in history. The characters partake in both of them with equal passion, children of one great revolution, victim of its own voracity.
The Cult of the Supreme Being, the creation of Robespierre and his idea of a Revolution, is perhaps the most prominent element in the book. David, the artist, wants it to be a representation of beauty; Robespierre, the ideologue, wants it as a representation of power. The two ideals clash with the force of aesthetics opposing politics. In fact, they seem to be the same thing every now and then, as art creates the icons needed for the adoration of political idols.
The Sky over the Louvre discusses utopias as well as more feasible, if hurtful, ideals. It talks about beauty and about terror, about the symbolic order and about the mechanics of ideology. It is a book of monsters and a book of historical fictions. It is, in other words, an encyclopedic take on one of Europe’s most important events. And it is, for these reasons at least, a book of admirable beauty.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Kim Thúy’s second novel is a chronicle of fragments

Full title: Mãn
Author: Kim Thúy
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 160 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Clerkenwell Press (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Mãn is a chronicle of fragments. The protagonist-narrator, also the title character, is herself a person made from bits and pieces, a puzzle continuously rearranged, an identity in the process of being reshaped. She was born in a Vietnam torn apart by war. This is, perhaps, the first layer of fragmentation a Western reader (in Canada or elsewhere) is likely to spot.
Political division, a form of taking-apart, a form of cutting into pieces, is the backdrop of the novel as a whole. Kim Thúy makes repeated references to this political tearing-apart, to the severing of lives and destinies. Starting from Vietnam and going further, to Mãn's immigration, to her new place in Canada, to her new status, to her new identities, the novel takes her apart and glues her together again. Mãn's trajectory is built with the help of her memory. She remembers things because there's another life that she needs to keep alive; and by remembering she puts herself together – piece by piece, story by story.
She remembers because through memory she is able to conceptualise episodes too disparate to be unified under the cover of the same story. Her remembering, therefore, is a narrative exercise. This is why she is so skilled in storytelling. Things Mãn recalls are little stories shaped according to the elusive model of the tableau – each piece capable of standing alone, offering a different flavour, a different object for the senses.
At the level of structure too, what is immediately noticeable is this chopping-up of the overall story into small slices, between which words are left like wedges, to fill the gaps. Words and phrases forming a vocabulary of rupture. These words that sew the narrative together are like spices flavouring a large piece of meat: they appear here and there, inflict their punch, then disappear, leaving behind nothing but the memory of their sounds and the barbaric reconstitution of their translations (from Vietnamese into French, from French into English).

Kim Thúy. Source: La Presse
The analogy between words and spices isn't made here just for the sake of analogy. Mãn is a cook. She works in her husband's restaurant and experiences, through food, leaps of identity. When she meets Julie, a Canadian enthusiast who introduces her to the world of fine cuisine, Mãn learns how to speak of her food in aesthetic terms. She learns how to be enthusiastic about food the way Westerners grow enthusiastic about things Oriental in general. Her relocation is, therefore, a re-membering, a putting of things together so as to build a new Mãn: one who starts looking at the Vietnamese values of her early life with the eye of the connoisseur (a Western concept in itself).
Becoming an expert (a kind of celebrity who gets invited by TV stations, and who travels the world to learn new recipes) marks a drastic change; a change that affects not only Mãn’s rapport to her past but also her response to the present. Married, with two children, she finds love outside marriage, the way she'd found a new identity by leaving Vietnam. The man she falls in love with is himself a person made of fragments. Luc, a Paris chef she met during a trip to France, brings up again the issue of fragmentation. When he declares his love he does so by pointing out Mãn's body, a collection of parts that he separates in order to admire individually.
Mãn's response is similar. She falls in love with Luc, but most importantly, with his ability to transform her:
"If I were a photo, Luc would be the developer and the fixer of my face, which until that day existed only in negative."
Prior to Luc, love had been indistinguishable from duty. Mãn had had a moral obligation to remember the women who had repeatedly played the role of the mother when she was an orphaned child. They had initiated her in the language of submission, a language of disappearance:
"Maman had taught me very early to avoid conflicts, to breathe without existing, to melt into the landscape."
Mãn also has a strong sense of respect for her husband. She had learned, it seems, through her Vietnamese legacy, to become invisible, to fade in the shadow of a culturally-induced topos of deference. She says:
"I had learned to glide silently both inside and outside the covers because my husband was a very light sleeper."
She also says (and again, in relation to the way she relates to her husband, a silent man who seems, nevertheless, to carry with him the attributes of authority):
"I anticipated, I foresaw, I prepared, my hands as invisible as Eleanor Roosevelt’s, who filled her husband’s fountain pen every morning before putting it back in his jacket pocket."
Given this domestic congealment of the self, Mãn finds in love and in cooking two ways of evading what seems to be destiny. With the dishes she makes, she puts together a cultural past; with love, she reassembles a sentimental present.
Mãn’s relationship to Luc gives Kim Thúy the opportunity to finish the novel with a reference to yet another memorable re-membering: the reconstruction of the lover's body. Mãn had fallen in love with the beauty spots on Luc's body. She’d counted them, she’d stroked them, she’d kissed them, she’d experienced them as another aesthetic ecstasy. And when the inevitable separation takes place (another fragmentation, of course!) and Luc is about to become just another memory, Mãn does what she has always been good at: re-member the lover, create him again from recollections. She decides to decorate her own body with replicas of Luc's beauty spots. She pays a beautician to do the job, and the beautician does it masterfully.
"Those visits to the beautician allowed me to reproduce on my body those red dots of Luc’s that I knew by heart. I think that on the day when I have all those red dots tattooed, if I were to join them, I would be drawing the map of his destiny on my body."
Mãn recreates the body of the lover in a truly intimate way: inked on her own body, copied, re-produced, re-acknowledged. Fragment upon fragment, the work of the puzzle is now turned into a thing of the future.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ben Okri’s ecology of the fantastic

Full title: The Age of Magic
Author: Ben Okri
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 287 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Head of Zeus (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

There’s poetry in high proportion in Ben Okri’s latest novel, The Age of Magic, as it has been in all his texts so far. A crew of filmmakers traveling to shoot a documentary about Arcadia stop in a Swiss town and experience things that transgress the realm of the real.
One thing that stands out immediately is that these characters are nocturnal creatures. They inhabit the night and the night inhabits their dreams, their fantasies and their hopes. They feel an unnatural attraction towards shadows, towards demons, towards the Devil himself. To these characters, night is not only a background canvas; it also acts as an organizing principle, a form of building. As one description suggests,
"The architect of the dark had redesigned all the houses with night-substance."
As is the case in Okri’s texts, the distinction between reality and fantasy is blurred within this all-encompassing night. This is why the novel is a book of contrasts. Filmmakers deprived of light, their essential element, is one example. But then there are dreams and dream-like realities, portals that transform the palpable into possible. With so much going on in the shadows of the Swiss mountains, it makes sense to conclude, with one of the protagonists, that "most places look better and truer at night."
The night breeds creatures of its own. Of them, the one that stands out – precisely because it is absent, never seen but vividly imagined – is the one called Malasso. The name is already known from Okri’s 2002 In Arcadia, where, like here, he is the object of questions and of interdictions.
“Malasso  was not a name to mention at all, if it could be helped.”
Here, in The Age of Magic, Malasso is a collective creation. He seems to have sprung out of the minds of all the crew members, to haunt them afterwards, like a series of questions again, but also like real, palpable fears:
"Had they all created him? Was it true that he was a group entity? Whatever he was, they had empowered him. They endowed him with influence, nourished his personality, enriched his agency. They made him the deity of their journey. Through their fears, fantasies, secrets, and undefined creativity they made him a minor demiurge."
A diabolical creature, Malasso never appears as such. He dwells in the minds of those who know of his existence; and they obey the one crucial rule of avoiding to pronounce his name.
And so, the characters in the novel are such creatures of darkness that light, when it comes, encounters them like a surprise:
"Sunlight streamed through the stained-glass window of their awakening. They rose like dolphins from the blue depths of sleep."
Accommodating ambiguity at a slow pace, we, readers, come to realize what the characters, caught up in their narrative business, only suspect to be true:
"Lao wondered if the world wasn’t an analogy for a world not seen."
Okri makes sure we don’t get to the point of having to ask the same question. He populates the novel with an impressive range of things that support analogy. But most importantly, he articulates a world of elements associated with traditional magical realism: illusory circuses, surreal fairgrounds, dubious music parties, fabulous landscapes, surprising people. The presence (like an absence not yet revealed) of Malasso strengthens this impression of a parallel world unfolding its painful secrets. Everything is a dream, everything is, as one character says at some point, a play in which the stage is the characters' minds, and where they are actors as well as spectators.

Ben Okri. Source: The Irish Times
And then the mountain and the lake nearby, acting like drugs, inducing oneiric states, need to be mentioned. There's not a single character who doesn't have their share of the Swiss landscape, which happens to act like a supply of portals to different dimensions: a bridge, a parallel town, a tavern caught in perpetual Bacchanalia, a lake that gives off demons, a hotel with the air of eternity, and even books opening to swallow the readers and suck them into a world of wonder: Camus' essay "The Desert" stands out and oh, of course, the much more fertile Faust Part Two; and to add to the Arcadian theme, Virgil’s Eclogues have their mention too.
With the help of texts, dreams, and rich imaginations, an ecology of the fantastic is born and kept alive throughout the book. Sometimes (especially towards the end) the contact with reality is almost completely lost. That’s when the novel turns into something else: a universe with it own logic, where distinctions no longer matter, and where it makes no sense to act by means of reason. Instead of going on, the narrative stops here. The protagonists behave as if floating in a state devoid of gravitation. It appears natural, in such moments, to turn to the mode of meditations. Okri does an excellent job there as well, especially when dealing with the problem of the senses, a fitting topic given the general tone and the general instability of the novel’s world.
"Seeing is believing, they say. But what is seeing? Do we see with the eyes only? Do we not only see the effects of light? The eyes are imprecise instruments of complete vision, he thought. We need higher instruments. The instrument of poetry, the organ of intuition, which could supply to consciousness the highest data."
There's plenty of poetry in the book, alright. So much of it, the reader's world itself becomes a dizzying circus. To Okri's characters, this Arcadia that’s never truly reached is a place between places, an intermediary stage between here and there, between now and then. This Arcadia is a perpetual trip; a never-ending iteration.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Haruki Murakami’s novel that should have been a short story

Full title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Author: Haruki Murakami; translated by Philip Gabriel
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 400 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Knopf (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Everything in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage revolves around characters. Big or small, they take up the forefront of the entire narrative exercise. Minor characters are passers-by within the story. You get to know what they wear, what they look like, how their hairdo behaves, how tall they are, how they hold their hands and how they blink, but you get to know nothing of their psyche. One of Haruki Murakami’s favourite techniques, this outsider’s look at people who don’t matter much stands up against the protagonist’s intense interiority. Tsukuru Tazaki, the title character and main player in the narrative game of the novel, is so deeply and exclusively immersed in his own mental life that the reader is left wondering if there has ever been a physical description of him along the way. Of course, Murakami being Murakami, Tsukuru has his share of physical description; and not just once. But somehow, in the context of these detailed descriptions of others, he loses his physical significance. He becomes an idea – a pilgrim of sorts.
Indeed, Tsukuru Tazaki has a lot on his plate. On his mental plate, to be more precise. Once part of a very tight group of five high-school friends, he is one day rejected by the others, and for a reason that stays hidden for sixteen years. All this time, he turns his life on all sides, trying to figure out where he’d erred, always on the brink of psychosis. But the other four had shrouded their complicit silence in a thick layer of mystery.
A very Kafkian mystery, to be true.
The entire novel is the story of Tsukuru’s journey of discovery: his repeated attempts at making sense of the absurd rejection. And since his fixation offers fertile ground for introspections, the novel builds up a list of obsessive repetitions. There are dreams repeatedly mentioned, for instance; very vivid dreams, which wake the protagonist up in the middle of the night, frighten or inspire him, make him do things. The sexual dreams are especially strong: intense, as well as memorable. Then there is the constant reference to Franz Liszt and his Years of Pilgrimage – obviously, the source of the novel’s title. Almost all major characters have come across this compilation; some of them have played it, a lot of them have listened to it with religiosity, a few of them have had their lives shaped by one outstanding piece: “Le Mal du Pays,” a quite haunting piece of orchestration, minimalist and discreet perhaps just like Murakami’s prose.

Haruki Murakami. Source: Pure M Magazine
And since we’re here, let’s say that Murakami’s style is, as always, disarmingly simple. Minimalism is his weapon of choice, lightness-of-tone his trademark. So much lack of complication, that when you stumble upon a heavy metaphor you take your time to savor it while it lasts. The metaphors that involve the sky are quite memorable. Take this, for instance:
“A distinct half-moon hung above, like a battered piece of pumice stone that had been tossed by someone and gotten stuck in the sky.”
Or this:
“[T]he sun a blurred orange silhouette halfway up the sky.”
The simple facts of style are mirrored by the simplicity of narration and the simplicity of the characters’ interactions.
Simple, simple, simple, but there’s a thing about this simplicity that’s likely to raise an eyebrow or two, as it’s already done. I don’t think I can put it just as efficiently as Mark Lawson in The Guardian last year, so I’m just going to quote:
“A reader without Japanese is completely at the mercy of Murakami’s translators; when the prose lowers to cliché or commonplace – as it seems to do surprisingly often in this novel – there is no way of knowing if Philip Gabriel is accurately representing his client or letting him down.”
That’s, indeed, the case, in many situations: when the language seems to be too hurried, when the difference between draft and manuscript is left to linger perhaps too thinly, or when dialogues seem to take into account a lot of the unnecessaries (the Yes’s and No’s that make up the fabric of daily chit-chats but which look awful on the lips of fictional people). The same happens when the characters talk to each other in overly-formal ways, even though they were supposed to be friends, or even lovers. All these give the impression that the novel is saying more than it should have said, that it peers, curiously, in more than a reader would be interested to know. So one wonders if this is not a novel that should have remained a short story.
Anyway, Murakami distributes his talents as well as he does his drawbacks, so bringing back the figure of Tsukuru Tazaki one would have to point out the suggestive dimensions of his presence. Reading his character is like reading through the structure of networks. He is a solitary node, constantly rejected from the fusion party. First the four friends tell him off for no apparent reason; then he feels rejected from all sorts of company: having experienced some scattered sexual encounters, he has never been able to settle on one relationship.
But Tsukuru Tazaki is networked in a different way. Rejected from human companionship, he indulges in his life’s passion: the passion for trains. He is a builder of train stations. In doing this he is fulfilling a high-school dream (and this is another thing that sets him apart in a world of aspirations modeled on the inhospitable logic of profit). Always a lover of trains, he has moments of aesthetic rapture in scenes where departing cars compete for attention with hurried human beings taking care of their daily business. Trains give him the possibility of networking. Contemplating trains, Tsukuru is able to imagine diagrams, relationships, associations, maps, affairs.
And so, when his moment of revelation comes, when Tsukuru finds the way to connect with his fellow humans, he realizes that this connection has always been possible, but only through the agency of pain:
“One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.”

his is where Murakami is at his most philosophical: in the way he scans the inner life of his protagonist, rummaging through every corner of his history for a way out of the central dilemma. The denouement may not be spectacular, but it does provide a closure that satisfies the protagonist; who, at the end of the day, is the only person who seems to have mattered.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière: A case of binge reading

Full title: This Is Not the End of the Book
Author: Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière; conversations curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac; translated from the French by Polly McLean
Genre: Interview
Attributes: 320 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Harvill Secker (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The destiny of the book is, as Jacques Derrida said at one point, to be always a book-to-come. There’s no such thing as the end of it, no farewell, no famous last words, no goodbyes, no funeral orations. If that is hard to believe, it might be a good idea to read This Is Not the End of the Book. A work that doesn’t quite promise a luminous future but one that reflects on a glorious past, this volume of conversations between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière makes apparent the continuity that Derrida spoke about.
Readers in the old, solid, encyclopedic sense of the word, Eco and Carrière perform incredible feats of recollection. The reader is in for some serious delight, pleased to see that the way they treat the topic is not the snobbish, look-how-much-I-know type of chit-chat. They know a lot because they’ve read a lot. And they’ve read a lot precisely with the intention to create private networks of references; networks joined into a single archipelago of erudition.
Umberto Eco, semiotician, aesthetician, philosopher, has been using in his novels a lot of the stuff that books are made of. Read The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before etc. to see what that means. The same goes with Carrière, screenwriter and actor, writer of scripts for equally encyclopedic films such as Danton, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Cyrano de Bergerac, Goya’s Ghosts, not to mention the ambitious adaptation, along with Peter Brook, of the Indian epic, Mahabharata.
There are too many titles to mention in relation to each of the two protagonists of this conversational feat. Citing them, alone, would dwarf the reader no end. As is, perhaps, the case of the curator of the conversations, Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. He may be playing the game of the attentive journalist, who disappears behind the curtain to let the show go on by itself, but his interventions are so brief and so scattered through the book, the general impression is that he is like the cleaner apologizing for having disturbed an after-hours conversation at the office. Of course, de Tonnac has a great merit in all this, as well as in the other similar conversations he has curated. But seriously, the deluge of erudition launched by Eco and Carrière is sometimes impossible to stop.

Jean-Claude Carrière (standing) and Umberto Eco. Source: L'Express
When put together, Eco and Carrière make an impressive body of oral work. It’s obvious from the outset that they know books inside out. Having collected them and having used them massively for research purposes, they take the word bibliophile in its most etymological sense. It’s such a pity Carrière hasn’t been translated into English as much as he should have. The span of his erudition goes well beyond cinematography. The Secret Language of Film, Violence and Compassion (a book-length interview with the Dalai Lama), Dictionary of Stupidity, to mention only three of his numerous titles, launch into discussions that transgress the limits of simple disciplines.
As a general method of distribution of knowledge, a lot of anecdotes get ping-ponged between the collocutors, while the readers stare in awe. They must love this kind of cultural prestidigitation, where ideas, quotes, and rich references pop out at every page like white rabbits from tall hats in a magic show.
The pendulum of erudition is very well balanced. When Carrière says, for instance,
“We can see that all the great civilizations asked themselves the same question: what to do with a culture under threat? How to save it? And what to save?”
... Eco intervenes in a hopeful tone, to explain that books are perhaps the object of choice in the development of any honest cultural eschatology:
“[W]hen people do have time to carry the emblems of their civilization to safety, it is easier to save scrolls, codices, incunabula and books than sculptures or paintings.”
There’s a feeling throughout that the object called book is about to be built up, piece by piece, right here and right now. A kind of return before the departure. But this return is not the nostalgic one you normally get from the snobs who praise the smell of old books or the tactile orgasm they get at contact with an old page. No, the two conversationists know better. They know, for instance, that reading cannot be thought of in absolute terms. As Eco recalls a debate he had with Pierre Bayard, the author of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, one needs to be honest about all this business:
“We are deeply influenced by books that we haven’t read, that we haven’t had the time to read. Who has actually read Finnegans Wake – I mean from beginning to end? Who has read the Bible properly, from Genesis to the Apocalypse? If I were to combine all the sections I’ve read, I could boast of about one-third. But no more.”
Says Eco, who also admits that he’s never read the Mahabharata, in spite of owning “three editions, in three different languages” (!), and who also confesses that he’s read War and Peace when he was 40. Carrière backs him up with a thought that might cause pain in some readers when he speaks of
“The terrible grief of the dying as they realize their last hour is upon them and they still haven’t read Proust.”
So it’s not only the beauty of the smooth conversations that stands out in the volume. There is humour too (jokes and anecdotes abound), the sense of disarming honesty, and the ability to reflect on minute things as well as on gigantic cultural topoi. All of the above gives the conversational adventure an air of dialogue well done, a symposium, a feast of the erudites, a culture binge.