issue 262 - December 1994
by Guillermo del Toro
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s debut Cronos is a compelling and unusual take on the vampire genre, foregrounding much about attitudes to death in Mexican culture. The film starts – scene lit as yellow as parchment – in the sixteenth century with an alchemist working on a new invention: the Cronos. Resembling a gold scarab, the device is an intricate part-metal, part-organic mechanism that ticks away, granting its user eternal life but also the vampiric thirst for human blood required to sustain it. Centuries later this bizarre collector’s item turns up in Mexico City hidden inside an old statue that Jesus Gris, a veteran antique dealer, has just purchased for his shop. Curious about the object, Gris soon finds himself in its terrible grip, but also hounded by a Howard Hughes-like eccentric millionaire who is dying and wants the Cronos for his own purpose.
Light on gore, Cronos is a horror film with an emotional heart. A devout Catholic, Jesus Gris is appalled by the accidental pact he has made. The offer of eternal life is like some terrible and painful curse that separates him from those he loves, including his little grandchild Aurora who attempts, like some angel of mercy, to nurse him when he dies only to come back to a terrible flesh-crumbling half-life. Few vampire films could have a scene as poignant as when Aurora puts her grandfather to bed in a makeshift coffin, tucking him up with a blanket and putting her doll in with him for company. A less sensitive director might have played such a scene for laughs. Here del Toro intimates something of the terrible mourning and grief – the process of coming to terms with death that forms the basis of the vampire legend. In this respect it is like an alternative version of the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ festival when the living picnic on the tombs of their deceased relatives. Equally, del Toro suggests the awfulness of Gris’ predicament in the brief moment when he contemplates killing Aurora for her blood only to recoil in disgust with himself for the very idea. This is horror indeed. Del Toro gives one of cinema’s most rampant myths a necessary transfusion.
Everyone’s Got One
Since the release of their debut album Everyone’s Got One the acclaim surrounding Echobelly has reached exponential proportions. The young five-piece band’s brash, confident pop has the same classic, wordy feel as that of the Smiths. And their line-up is refreshingly multi-cultural, including Swedish guitarist Gellen Johansson and Debbie Smith, a black gay musician whose brittle textures in her former band Curve have drawn many a sigh of admiration.
But most attention has come to rest on vocalist and lyricist Sonya Aurora Madan. Elfin and photogenic, Echobelly’s Indian-born, British-raised leader has become the focus of those with an interest in assessing women’s place in the music industry. Madan is, after Sheila Chandra, the most visible Asian woman so far to penetrate the independent music scene’s white male bastion. And if her sweet, melodic voice belies her impact, her expressive lyrics do not. Her songs deal with contentious issues in a sparklingly undogmatic way. Father, Ruler, King, Computer is about arranged marriages and Bellyache was inspired by a friend’s reaction to an abortion. Two of the 11-track album’s most powerful songs – Give Her a Gun and Call Me Names – deal specifically with female status and racism.
Audiences have been delighted by the verve with which Madan delivers her forthright opinions. The presence of increasing numbers of Asian girls at Echobelly’s concerts testifies to Madan’s acceptance as an Anglo-Asian role model. This said, much of Echobelly’s album expresses the sheer exhilaration and speed of being young. Insomniac is as much about staying out late as it is about self-confidence in the face of confusion; while Cold Feet, Warm Heart and Scream are wry, modern love songs. It will be interesting to see how Echobelly develop; whether time will mitigate some of their sharper edge. What seems certain is that Madan and her crew will continue to attract plenty of interest.
A Chorus of Stones
by Susan Griffin
(The Women’s Press, ISBN 0-7043-4387-8)
This book was eight years in the making – and you can see why. It is an extraordinary feat which manages to dissolve the artificial boundaries between private and public, inner and outer, past and present, personal psychology and national history.
The descriptive subtitle is The Private Life of War and poet-philosopher Griffin starts by backtracking a couple of generations into her own family’s history and pulling out a few skeletons from the cupboard. While doing so she conveys the emotional and psychological effect on family members of the sad, destructive habits of secrecy and concealment.
Her idiosyncratic writing style enables her to move swiftly and easily between marine biology, her grand-father’s alcoholism, the bombing of Dresden, Himmler’s childhood, the paintings of Monet – and to make a coherent point about masculinity, repression and loss.
Griffin has unearthed some fascinating private and public stories. But it’s her poetic imagination that gives her instant access to some of the deep connections between areas of experience usually compartmentalized in our culture. This compartmentalizing has made possible the greatest horrors of the twentieth century, from concentration camps to the remote and sanitized ‘smart weapons’ warfare of recent years.
A Chorus of Stones is relevant because it deals with probably the most potent source of suffering that humankind inflicts upon itself. But more to the point, it reveals how we perpetuate war by hiding and denying its true nature.
Her narrative seems to fragment towards the end of the book, breaking up into small dazzling particles that read like disjointed diary entries. But perhaps this too makes an ideological point about writing and reading as continuing processes involving flashes of awareness rather than the production and consumption of a definite, finished article.
This is a book that bears reading right through – and dipping back into time and again for its emotional depth, psychological insights and wonderful writing.
A Burning Hunger
by Derrick Knight
(Panos/ Christian Aid ISBN 1-870670-32-9)
Back in 1965 Knight made a documentary film in Senegal. In this book he retraces his steps and finds out what has happened in the interim to a cross-section of peasant farmers, nomadic herders, health workers, labourers and their environment.
He finds the success of some small village projects is overshadowed by the failure of many large-scale, officially-backed attempts. His conclusion is that in the 1990s the average Senegalese is eating less, earning less and growing less than she was three decades earlier – reflecting the plight of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Knight points the finger of blame at ‘the miscalculations and lack of judgement of distant economists and politicians who see development as a formula’. The writing is vivid, the message crucial.
The Good Soldier Svejk (pronounced ‘Shvake’) is a comic odyssey for which its author, Jaroslav Hasek, had difficulty finding a publisher. Indeed, he financed the printing and distribution of the first volume himself in 1921. At first glance the novel seems to have weaknesses which offer an elementary explanation of his problems. This is one of those books in which one damn thing just seems to happen after another without any of the narrative logic or shaping we usually demand of fiction.
The story is that of Svejk, a citizen of Prague, told from the moment he is press-ganged into service in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the eve of the First World War. It documents his ludicrously delayed arrival at the Eastern Front and eventual ‘capture’ by his own side. There is a strong element of slapstick and a great deal of silliness. Moreover, the hero is not depicted as having any internal life. His main characteristics are a tendency to misinterpret orders, or to interpret them too literally; to abase himself to a degree which infuriates even his superior officers; to appear guileless, doing everything with a famously blank expression of equanimity; and to recount hugely digressive anecdotes at every turn (various counts have concluded that he tells between 180 and 200 such stories in the course of the novel). Hasek unfortunately died – of tuberculosis contracted during the war – before finishing the work. These combined features give a first impression of a humorous but uncrafted work, certainly not of a major artistic production.
‘Great times call for great men,’ Hasek explains in a brief, ironic preface, but goes on to state that ‘the great’ are the reverse of those who act with the precise intention of having their names in the history books. He describes his hero Svejk as ‘heroic and valiant’. But Svejk performs no actions which those two words are typically used to describe. It becomes clear that Hasek, by means of his enigmatic hero, is attempting to redefine certain key values. Svejk comes to be seen as a ‘good soldier’ in political rather than military terms because his stubborn incompetence has the effect of destabilizing and exposing the absurdities of imperial rule. The implication is that the form of political disruption adopted by people like Svejk – complete resistance which takes the form of utter compliance – has been instrumental in the post-war liberation of the Czechoslovak people after four centuries of imperial domination.
There is a curious contradiction, then, between the imputed historical importance of Svejk’s actions and the seeming imbecility of those actions themselves. The problem is resolved if we remind ourselves that Svejk is not a conscious political actor. The historical effect of his actions has nothing to do with a wish on his part to be historically effective. Svejk’s main motive is personal survival. But the wish to stay alive is by definition counter to the army’s need for willing cannon fodder. Svejk is thus a thoroughly destructive spanner in the works. Nothing proceeds smoothly when he is present. Even the story, of which he is the hero, cannot progress because he keeps dragging it down the cul-de-sacs of his interminable anecdotes.
This last observation suggests that there might be a connection between the apparent artlessness of Hasek’s novel and that of its hero. If individuals can be historically monumental without trying to be so, a novel can be great without showily displaying the torture marks of agonized literary creativity. Indeed, Hasek’s work effectively explodes conventional notions of what a ‘great novel’ is. Svejk’s unstoppable storytelling not only trips up and shoves aside the advancing narrative but injects a regular dose of oral culture into its literary world – and allows us glimpses into the lives of the ‘ordinary’ people whom it often seems to be the mission of ‘great’ literature to ignore. Indeed, the novel even contains a memorable minor character, Marek, who seems to unify the literary and oral concerns of its author by writing an imaginary future history of Svejk’s company, the chapters of which he reads aloud to his comrades.
The critic JP Stern has called The Good Soldier Svejk ‘the only genuine popular creation of modern European literature; popular in the sense of immediately appealing to unliterary and relatively unsophisticated readers; popular in the sense of being modelled on them; and popular in the sense of being the product of an unliterary, naive creative imagination’. Svejk’s immediate grip on the imagination of the new Czechoslovak Republic was revealed by a number of plays of the 1920s which stole the character and transplanted him to often bizarre new situations: Svejk Has Twins, Svejk as a Football Player, even Svejk on Mars! But Svejk endures transplantation across time as well as across space. In a Europe in which a major empire has so recently dissolved under the impetus of popular discontent, Hasek’s hero speaks to us of the value and importance of being ordinary. He teaches us that those who make history are usually not aiming to make history.
The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War by Jaroslav Hasek
(various editions in print including one published by Penguin, translated by Cecil Parrott).