Once Were Warriors
directed by Lee Tamahori
Adapted from Alan Duff’s controversial novel by playwright Riwia Brown, Once Were Warriors is a raw and bold tale of family life in contemporary urban Aotearoa/New Zealand. This is not the green forests of God’s own country, but a nicotine-yellow concrete wasteland of shanty-style houses. It is also very much a woman’s story, told mostly from the point of view of Beth Heke, a proud woman who left her Maori homelands to marry her husband Jake.
But eighteen years and five children later, the marriage is held together by some strange kind of love as Beth is subjected to Jake’s shockingly abusive behaviour. Unemployed, he drinks and gambles away the housekeeping money with his mates at the local roadhouse and turns upon Beth when she complains. As a result Beth invests all the more in her children and their future.
Duff’s novel received some criticism for its depiction of Maori men as lazy, drunken brutes. But this film comes up with no such simplistic pronouncements. Jake’s conduct towards Beth is connected to his own sense of desolation as the working-class Maori is seen to be well and truly abandoned by his or her country. Contrasted with Jake are his two eldest sons, Nig and Boogie.
Estranged from his father, Nig finds a new family when he joins a local gang – an urban tribe of leather-clad and tattooed warriors. Initiation rites include a punch-up with the leader of the pack. This ritualizing of an aspect of masculinity is also evident with the younger son Boogie, who is sent away to reform school for petty theft.
There, under the tutelage of a Maori social worker, he learns about the traditions of Maori culture: ‘You think that your fist is your weapon. When I finish with you, your mind will be your weapon that you carry inside you.’
Clearly, much has been sacrificed in contemporary culture and women seem to be the first to lose out. But this sense is swiftly re-addressed by Beth’s own sense of her cultural past and future. In a strong performance by Rena Owen, Beth walks tall. And ultimately the film is about her rite of passage as she learns to use her own spiritual armoury.
by Les Negresses Vertes
(Virgin/Delabel CDDLB12 CD only)
When, in 1989, Les Negresses Vertes were recording their first album, Mlah, they devised a uniquely instant form of road-testing their songs. The band, all 10 of them, would straggle to the nearest metro, set up their guitars and accordions and busk to the passers-by.
Blending flamenco guitars with ska horns, rai rhythms with vocals drawn straight from the French Cabaret tradition, there was always something about Les Negresses which was perfectly Parisian. In delivering a music that negotiated so many influences they championed not just their own visibility, but that of the Paris immigrants as well. Mlah is Algerian slang for ‘It’s okay’ and the area in which Les Negresses lived seethed with the conflicting cries of North African traders and the supporters of Le Pen’s ultra-rightists.
Zig Zague is the band’s third album and it appears after a tragic event. Lead singer Noel ‘Helno’ Rota died from an overdose in 1993 just as the second album, Famille Nombreuse, was released. Les Negresses have now regrouped themselves. Slimmed down to five members, vocals are shared by accordionist Mathieu Canavese, guitarist Stefane Mellino and bassist Paulo.
They may lack the darker nuances of Helno’s Pogue-ish delivery, but there is a more mature spirit in Zig Zague. And the overall sound remains big. Iza Mellino claps, shrieks and stamps her heels like a flamenco diva. And Mich Ochowiak’s ska-trombone lends a gloriously ramshackle feel to proceedings.
The band have always used their nominal blackness – and greenness and femaleness, for that matter – to signify their outsider status. Their politics on issues of race and nationality are expressed through a vivaciously woven musical tapestry. There are French-language songs on existential matters of the ‘drink, live, for tomorrow we die’ variety interspersed with sexy dance numbers filled with wild gypsy yells and jaunty accordion accompaniment.
Listening to Zig Zague is rather like wandering into a bazaar and experiencing a musical Babel of swerving rhythms and textures. More pertinently, it’s a vigorous and exhilarating celebration of multicultural life.
Return to Paradise
by Breyten Bretyenbach
(faber and faber ISBN 0 571 171796)
In 1975 Breyten Breytenbach was sentenced to seven years in solitary confinement by the South African Government for his activities on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC). Following his imprisonment Breytenbach lived in Paris as an exiled poet and painter.
In Return to Paradise, the journal of his homecoming, Breytenbach contemplates the changing political backdrop from a voyeur’s perspective. ‘I used to be part of the South African people,’ he says, but no longer even though ‘I still know them from within’.
In recalling numerous episodes of the grisly past, Breytenbach reveals his scepticism towards the tendency that ‘everybody who wants to be somebody in the country now lays claim to having been in the resistance movement’. He insists that ‘there are perceptions which we refuse to face’. Namely: What do whites really think of blacks? And blacks of whites? For him ‘reconciliation’ can only take place once we’re ready to lay these suppressed hind-thoughts on the table.
Even though Breytenbach’s view is submerged by the anguish of his personal experience, he still manages to unleash countless poetic images of Africa’s exquisite landscape. It is in ‘its bareness, its horizons burned clean of history and time’, that we sense Breytenbach rediscovering the essence of his country. As a cynical yet moving account, Return to Paradise reveals an impressionistic portrait of South Africa from someone who has suffered, seen and still feels.
It was a curious tome I became acquainted with long before I read it. The title alone – Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll – ignited sensations of incongruity, juxtaposing two names I knew alongside two I didn’t. Who exactly were Gödel and Escher, and what did they have to do with Bach and Carroll?
Inside, the book was littered with mesmerizing illustrations. These depicted staircases which seemed to go both up and down and yet had inconceivable meeting points; interiors in which ceilings were floors and floors ceilings. They turned out to be the work of MC Escher, a modern Dutch artist who specialized in ‘impossible’ constructions. I could see their relation to Lewis Carroll in that they cause exhilarating bafflement, just as the verbal conundrums of Alice in Wonderland do. One of the things Hofstadter’s book seemed to offer was what any viewer of Escher or reader of Carroll has felt the need of: an investigation into the contradictions we experience between our thoughts and our perceptions. Our minds say Escher’s Mobius Strips are impossible; our eyes say: ‘But there they are!’ How are these simultaneous reactions possible?
For a long time I didn’t try to find out. I regularly picked up Hofstadter’s book in bookshops, leafed through it in perplexity and admiration, and left without it, usually unnerved by the impression it had given of a mind much more adventurous and multi-dimensional than mine. The fact that it was 800 pages long increased my fear that the book was a labyrinth I would simply get lost in. But I had browsed enough to understand the title. Both a ‘braid’ and a ‘fugue’ are formed by weaving separate strands together into one, and what Hofstadter weaves together are the mental operations required to make sense of mathematics (Gödel), visual art (Escher), music (Bach), and literature (Carroll). The result is a ‘metaphorical fugue’. Furthermore, a ‘fugue’ in psychiatry designates an altered state of consciousness, often involving memory loss and wandering away from home. Hofstadter compels his readers to ‘lose their memory’ – in the sense of abandoning cherished common-sense thought processes – and ‘wander away from home’. That is, to explore unfamiliar mental regions.
And he succeeds. Ten minutes with Gödel, Escher, Bach is enough to induce a mild fugue in anybody. This has as much to do with its form as its content. Each of his 20 chapters is preceded by a philosophical dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise, and each is ‘patterned’ on a different Bach composition. Hofstadter calls this alternation between chapters and dialogues ‘counterpoint’: ‘Almost every new concept is first presented metaphorically in a Dialogue, yielding a set of concrete, visual images; then these serve, during the reading of the following Chapter, as an intuitive background for a more serious and abstract presentation of the same concept.’ Hofstadter is sensitive to the need to ‘weave together’ the differing mental predispositions of his readers. He consequently produces a formidable genre-buster which renounces the temptation to deal exclusively in either the ‘metaphorical’ language of art or the ‘abstract’ language of science. It is part of Hofstadter’s project to demonstrate the indissolubility of both kinds of thinking in the human mind.
I never bought Gödel, Escher, Bach. A friend eventually forced it upon me as a birthday gift. It sat on my small Vesuvius of books-to-read until about two years ago when I undertook to wrestle with it. I lost. I got as far as page 370, on which Hofstadter presents us with a drawing which he calls ‘a tiny portion of the author’s “semantic network”’ for the construction of the book. This looked like so much spaghetti that – my sense of information overload already acute – I allowed my endurance to collapse entirely. I began to suspect that Hofstadter had designed Gödel, Escher, Bach as a perverse experiential lesson to his readers about the limitations of their minds.
I’m proud to say that I’ve since had another tilt at it, jumping straight in at page 371 and trusting my memory to reconstruct enough of the book’s first half for me to cope with the second. The second half is a series of eloquent meditations on brain functioning and the possibility of ‘artificial intelligence’. The 16 years that have passed since this book’s first publication have seen a computer revolution which makes this debate hotter than ever. Its contribution to this dialogue is its attempt to understand what ‘real’ human intelligence is in the first place, and its concern with seeing the mind as a complicated whole.
Sometime in 1995 I am going to do my best to re-read Gödel, Escher, Bach as a whole rather than two halves, and thus pay back its compliment to my mind.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R Hofstadter is published by Penguin and Basic Books, 1979.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995