New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 295

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Books

Benjamin
by Chico Buarque (translated by Clifford E. Landers)
(Bloomsbury, ISBN 0 7475 3015 7)

The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
(Flamingo, ISBN 0 00 225586 3)

Facing Out to Sea
by Peter Adamson
(Spectre, ISBN 0 340 69564 1)

Books For Francisco (‘Chico’) Buarque de Hollanda the description multi-talented seems hopelessly inadequate. A singer, composer, dramatist and novelist, for over 30 years he has played a central role in the cultural life of Brazil while commanding adulation as a superstar of the music scene. Together with other artists of the Musica Popular Brasileira movement, he was vocal in opposition to the military regime in the 1960s and 1970s and was censored and exiled for his pains. Although acutely uncomfortable in a political role, Buarque has spent much of his career in the thick of campaigns for democracy and justice. A staunch supporter of the Brazilian Workers Party, he has produced many songs which have become anthems in the struggle against dictatorship.

In recent years, Buarque has eased back on the recordings and concerts and concentrated more on his writing. His first novel Turbulence was a dark and complex study of urban terrors. The city again looms large in his new book, Benjamin, an enthralling and baffling tale of obsession and thwarted ambition. Benjamin Zambraia is a minor actor and commercial model, possessed of a shallow celebrity; people recognize him on the street but can’t quite place him. He is ‘a ubiquitous citizen who radiated health, fortune and agreeableness and had no name’. However, for Benjamin life is neither so simple nor so agreeable as the film loops he constantly runs in his head. For 30 years, he has pursued a lost love, Castana Beatriz, whom he inadvertently betrayed to the military authorities, along with her revolutionary lover. Increasingly, Benjamin is shadowed by a figure resembling Castana. Who is this person dogging his steps around a violent and corrupt Rio, from high-class café to political rally? Is she perhaps the lost daughter of Castana Beatriz? Is it Benjamin’s guilt that drives him to his nemesis before the guns of the political police? What, finally, are we to make of an individual able to relate to the world only through movie clichés? These questions interest Chico Buarque more than any answers that the tide of the story may throw up. Rhythm, rich imagery and the endless echoes of the characters’ thoughts matter as much as formal narrative threads as we hop back and forth in time and place, following the loops of Benjamin’s dying thoughts. This is an intriguing, dreamlike and original novel from a writer of real imaginative power. Buarque brilliantly succeeds – as he does in his songs – in making the highly personal resonate with a universal political charge and significance.

Entertainment [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Politics [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]     PW

 

Take a massive, newsworthy, royalty advance, mix in a bit of high-profile media campaigning, season with a sprinkling of controversy – and you have the perfect recipe for publisher’s vol au vent, all air and little substance. But actually, in spite of all this, Arundhati Roy thoroughly deserves recognition for her first novel The God of Small Things. I read this cunningly interwoven narrative thinking: ‘Mmmm. Original, imaginative, thrilling, sparklingly well-written – but where is it all leading to? How is she going to pull it all together in the end?’

She does. And it becomes apparent that the dark shadowy hints that underscore the lightness of her comic touch are there for good reason. It’s a family story, as many of the best novels are. A family with its quirky bits that have you chuckling out loud; a family with a secret that unravels into a devastating trauma. The drama takes place mostly in 1969 in Arundhati Roy’s native Kerala, the Indian state that surprised the world by electing a Communist Government. The family are upper-caste Syrian Christians who own a pickle factory. Events are seen mainly through the eyes of two children, a twin sister and brother. Most of the big themes are in there: love, religion, class, caste, sexual taboo, revolutionary politics, gender – and the damage wrought by hypocrisy in relation to each of these. But these issues are woven in so effortlessly, and the book is experienced so much through the thoughts and feelings of the children, that there is no trace of didacticism. You get the message, but emotionally – without the soapbox. It’s a feat – and one that she’ll be under considerable pressure to repeat.

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Politics [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]     VB

 

Facing out to Sea Also dealing with class, poverty and an attempt at love across boundaries, is Peter Adamson’s Facing Out to Sea. Set across the sea from India, in Sri Lanka, it’s the story of a relationship between Clara, an attractive English businesswoman on holiday, and Vijay, a waiter in her hotel. It is also the story of the people of the Garden slums in the capital Colombo. There is little indication of the volatile political situation in Sri Lanka but Adamson has an eye for detail which brings the colours and the sounds, the sights and the smells, of the slum vividly to life.

Clara and Vijay come together through a mixture of chance and mutual dissatisfaction. And their relationship throws into relief the similarities of their search for fulfilment while at the same time showing the gulf of expectation and experience between them. Their very different worlds meet, somewhat awkwardly, and then part in a moving dénouement as Clara frantically searches the slums in order to find Vijay and give him the money to pull himself out of poverty. But life – real life, which is what this novel is about – does not always have happy endings. And solutions to poverty, whether individual or collective, are never easy, as Adamson’s novel so clearly points out.

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Politics [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]     NG

 

Music

Arkology
by Lee Scratch Perry
(Island Jamaica CRNCD 6)

Arkology Just who is Lee Scratch Perry? For many, a crazy guy who gives ‘outerviews’, not interviews; a man who plants records in his garden and whose masterly studio technique is shrouded in mystery. Is he just – to use his own words – the ‘original upsetter’, the ‘dub-shepherd’?

Now in his early sixties and still going strong, Perry is the maverick musician who not only put reggae on the world map but stretched its limits and capacities to embrace new sounds, rhythms and techniques. His influence continues to inspire countless others. Arkology is a three-CD set which chronicles the history of Perry’s own Black Ark studio in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s not so much the catalogue of an extraordinarily productive producer and musician as a history of reggae itself, borne out by some of the names that appear – there’s Perry’s Upsetters, Junior Murvin, Augustus Pablo, Max Romeo.

The Black Ark years were formative ones for Perry. He already had a reputation for creative spontaneity, but at Black Ark he was able to free his talent to a greater extent than ever before. The density of Perry’s production is amazing; he was using the most basic recording equipment available. A laboriously inspired series of over-dubs created the spatial effects he wanted. ‘It was only four tracks on the machine, but I was picking up twenty from the extra-terrestrial squad,’ Perry – no stranger to Jamaica’s rum or super-strength ganja – commented.

The darkest, eeriest material is contained on the third CD of the set. Coming into play are the huge clear vistas of reggae’s dub mood – a style in which everything superfluous is stripped away leaving a space glittering with constellations of single reverberating bass notes. Be warned: it’s music that will blow up the bass speakers of the unwary listener. But it’s also invigorating stuff whose slow tempo invites pause for thought.

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Politics [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]     LG

 

Film

Temptress Moon
directed by Chen Kaige

Temptress Moon Visually Chen Kaige’s new film is as sumptuous as one might expect from the director of Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine. But perhaps his remarkable legacy makes this latest work, for all its flair, seem disappointing – as insubstantial as the paper lanterns or wisps of opium smoke that decorate its fictional interiors.

This is Chen’s first original script since The Big Parade and it sees him discarding questions of politics and nationhood for a more intimate psychological terrain. The background is 1920s China some ten years after the fall of the empire and prior to the advent of communism. A quartet of interrelated characters negotiate their way around themes of sexuality, desire and gender roles. There’s plenty of potential for intrigue – particularly where the film pits the vibrant debauched atmosphere of Westernised Shanghai against the stately continuity of an ancestral provincial household.

With the death of feudal landlord Old Master Pang, his estate is handed over to his unworldly daughter Ruyi. She owes her unprecedented succession to her drug-addicted brother’s brain damage. As the unlikely standard bearer of tradition though, she is not allowed total independence and has to manage the household alongside her adoring but gormless distant male cousin Duanwu. Gong Li plays opium-user Ruyi as a powerful but unerringly tranquil and dreamy young woman. Although she’s reluctantly unmarried she has a quasi-feminist streak and a sexual curiosity sparked into life by the arrival of the handsome Zhongliang, her sister-in-law’s brother. He is a sophisticated gigolo sent by his Shanghai gangland boss to seduce and extort money from her. Their entanglement – eager on her side, reluctant on his – leads to eventual tragedy.

As the emotionally cauterised Zhongliang, Leslie Cheung – so excellent as the more sensitive of the two opera singers in Farewell My Concubine – has less room for manoeuvre here. His character’s coldness stems from the reasons for his escape from the household several years earlier amid suggestions of an incestuous longing for his sister. But despite the director’s intentions Temptress Moon remains an emotionally cautious affair, lacking in dramatic momentum, hampered by a script that aims for more than it can achieve and by a directing style accustomed to conveying emotional reserve rather than its opposite

A word must be said, though, for the innovative contribution from Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle. His fluid camera work lends a languid interiority to the piece, very different from the grand sweep favoured by classical Chinese cinema. Sometimes it almost succeeds in convincing us that the film is more than the sum of its parts.

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Entertainment [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]     EE

Reviewers: Peter Whittaker, Esi Eshun, Nikki van der Gaag, Louise Gray, Vanessa Baird
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
The Gâthâsaptasatî
(or The Absent Traveller)
...being the frank gems from second-century India which deal with real sex.

The Classic When the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra published a selection of translations of the Gâthâsaptaúatî, an anthology of Prâkrit love poetry compiled around the second century AD, it was a revelation to me. Here was a work that dealt with real sex and love (albeit, only heterosexual) as opposed to the coyness of contemporary Indian culture and the unreal athleticism of ancient celebrations such as the Kama Sutra or the temples at Khajurao. For decades now Indian commentators have had a nostalgia for the presumed sexual freedoms of a bygone age. Sex remains something of an unmentionable in Indian society, so much so that directors used to include an obligatory rape scene in their films to pull in the crowds. Sex as pain got past the censors, but sex as pleasure didn’t stand a hope in hell. This was a reflection of widespread hypocrisy — such sex could be condemned while being consumed, whereas straightforward fun was something no ‘normal’ person could condone. To contrast such double-standards with orgiastic descriptions from ancient times seemed to me only to seal the pastness of the past ever more firmly.

The terse little poems of the Gâthâsaptaúatî (literally 700 ‘gathas’, a short two-line verse form) were different. They envisaged sex and love within a social matrix, constrained by the strictures of marriage, that ultimate dead-weight of social organization. The poems spoke from the woman’s viewpoint, poking holes in the prevailing patriarchal status quo by giving voice to real longings and frustrations. Lest I mislead you into thinking this is a forgotten feminist classic, it isn’t. There is no outright condemnation of polygamy (prevalent then), arranged marriages, or social gender roles. What the authors of the collection (mostly men of whom nothing is known, though there are six or seven women) managed to do instead was arrive at a kind of frankness about matters of the heart that reaches out across the centuries and rings true today.

Several poems play with social expectations of women’s chastity. An inexperienced bride finds the man’s performance a bit on the short side because she has only her own sexual capacity to compare it with.

Ignorant of how it ends,
The bride, having come,
Looks up as if to say
‘Go on’.

Another poem rebukes chastity as downright unnatural.

Tight lads in fields,
A month in spring,
A cuss for a husband,
Liquor in the rack,
And she young, free-hearted:
Asking her to be faithful
Is asking her to die.

Playing the chaste wife can also be problematic, when faced with an unimaginative husband:

He finds the missionary position
Tiresome, and grows suspicious
If I suggest another:
Friend, what’s the way out?

In another poem a mother rejoices having caught a glimpse of a bite-mark near her daughter’s crotch. Or take this lively character who knows just how to handle a youthful chancer –

He groped me
For the underwear
That wasn’t
There:
I saw the boy’s
Fluster
And embraced him
More tightly.

Perhaps some would say this is just male fantasy about women’s sexuality. However, if it is, it comes remarkably free from virgin-slut judgmental attitudes and seems genuinely to value women’s pleasure. It is also refreshingly honest about domestic drudgery and marital unfulfilment.

Several of the poems view love as something quite distinct from socially sanctioned marriage. Trysting places and secret meetings abound. Sometimes a little ingenuity is called for:

‘A scorpion’s bitten her,’ they cried,
And as she thrashed about,
Her shrewd friends in her husband’s
presence
Rushed her to her physician-lover.

In a stroke of comic genius the heroine’s thrashing about echoes the anticipated lovemaking. Not all the poems are such miraculously captured moments. The ones that I find myself returning to are more lyrical, poems that accept the gift of love with all its faults and which find love in reciprocity. Such as:

Standing
Near water
And thirsty,
The stag
Wants the doe
To drink first,
The doe
The stag.

Dinyar Godrej

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translations of poems from the Gâthâsaptaúatî were published in 1991 as The Absent Traveller (Ravi Dayal Publisher, 51 E Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi 110003; distributed by Orient Longman Ltd.)

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