directed by Jan Sverak
Set in a resplendent Prague on the eve of the bloodless Velvet Revolution, Kolya has been lauded as the Czech Republic’s most critically and commercially successful film since that event. It’s not hard to see why.
At its centre is a performance of startling virtuosity by the five-year-old Russian boy who plays Kolya. No less convincing is Zdenek Sverak as middle-aged Louka, the ex-Philharmonic cellist and roguish bachelor who becomes his father by accident. The two come together when Louka, driven by economic desperation, reluctantly enters into an arranged marriage with Kolya’s mother. She wants Czech papers – but almost immediately after the wedding decamps to West Germany and her real lover, leaving little Kolya behind. Since neither speaks the other’s language, they grudgingly communicate across scraps of a shared Slavic heritage.
As political events unfold – largely unheeded – over the radio, Russian armoured vehicles patrol the city streets and the relationship between the new father and son develops into a touching inter-dependency. Both are stranded between language, territorial and emotional barriers; and the film makes subtle play of the way Russia – having imposed itself on the Czech landscape and institutions – has only made a partial incursion into the national heart.
Though manipulative in parts, it is to be applauded for putting tender male relations at the centre. However, while the little boy’s sweetness evades gender stereotypes, the same cannot be said for Louka, whose seeming ability to bed any number of willing, mostly married, women smacks of authorial wish-fulfilment.
Domestic details form the centre, but the political background is intriguing too. Czechoslovakia is presented as a kind of gateway between East and West, between old and new regimes.
Kolya has won armfuls of international prizes, including the Oscars for best film in a foreign language, and it brings Czech cinema back to a prominence rarely enjoyed since the 1960s. It’s unusual in having a father-and-son team at the helm. At 32 director Jan Sverak is one of his country’s brightest talents. His father Zdenek – highly respected as an actor and screenwriter – wrote the screenplay and starred as Louka.
One cavil, however. Although the film manages to skirt sentimentality throughout, and is never less than charming, its main drawback is in the way some of the women cameos fail to rise above sexual and maternal stereotypes. It’s a shame, because in all other respects Kolya is hugely enjoyable, and a none-too-treacly variant on the kind of large-scale domestic comedy dramas Hollywood loves to get its hands on.
The Guns in the Closet
by Jose Yglesias
(Arte Publico Press, University of Houston, ISBN 1 55885 162 3)
The Fabulous Sinkhole and Other Stories
by Jesus Salvador Trevino
(Arte Publico Press, University of Houston, ISBN 1 55885 129 1)
The fraught relationship between the majority population of the United States and its Hispanic minority has latterly come to the fore in US political discourse. On one side, racist slurs jostle with lurid scenarios of a Spanish-speaking takeover by sheer weight of numbers. On the other, the desire to pursue the American Dream is undercut by the feared loss of cultural identity if too much is ceded to mainstream society.
The Spanish-Cuban journalist Jose Yglesias has called his new collection of stories The Guns in the Closet – a fitting image for this stand-off between the dominant and rising cultures. The title story is set squarely on the rumbling faultline of the American nation: collective identity versus individual aspirations. Tony, a senior editor in a New York publishing house, is an affluent middle-class Hispanic who believes he has successfully integrated while preserving his heritage. All his certainties are challenged when his son, a member of a radical group, asks him to hide guns for ‘the struggle’. The choices Tony is forced to make between kin and class gnaw at the accommodations and evasions which have underpinned his comfortable life.
Yglesias’ stories create wry family tableaux, such as The Place I was Born in which two brothers struggle to understand their aged mother’s decision to buy back the family home in an attempt to reconnect to a remembered history.
If I have a criticism of these stories it is that they are, on occasion, rather arid and journalistic, the writing plodding and descriptive when a lighter, more personal touch would have worked better.
The film director Jesus Salvador Trevino has mixed just such a cocktail in The Fabulous Sinkhole and Other Stories. His collection of linked narratives set in the barrios of the fictional Texan town of Arroyo Grande begins with the appearance of a huge hole in the front yard of Mrs Romero. As this wondrous ‘sinkhole’ grows and begins to spew out objects large and small, it touches the lives of an ever-widening circle of the town’s inhabitants, taking in everyone from a love-smitten boy determined to become a writer to win the heart of a local actress, to an ageing and threadbare Mariachi Band playing their final gig.
Trevino combines compact plotting with a judicious use of magical realism and, as the characters weave in and out of each other’s tales, we come to know their fears and foibles and to be deeply concerned for their welfare. Several stories follow characters in their travels beyond Arroyo Grande. Attack of the Lowrider Zombies is a hugely entertaining satire on Hollywood’s addiction to the endless portrayal of stereotypical Hispanic characters. The final story The Great Pyramid of Aztlán is a devastating polemic in which limitless funds are found to build a huge but useless pyramid in the middle of the desert, but money is never available for healthcare or education for Hispanics or to fight drugs or gangs in the barrios. Trevino channels his indignation at this manifest injustice into a subtle and ingenious ending which manages to subvert the whole notion of capitalist enterprise while singing the praises of self-help and collective endeavour. This is a first-rate collection which moves effortlessly from high comedy to righteous anger and stitches its disparate tales together with novelistic skill of the highest order.
Greenwash - The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism
by Jed Greer and Kenny Bruno
(The Apex Press and Third World Network ISBN 0 945 257 77 5)
Slow Reckoning / The Divided Planet
by Tom Athanasiou
(Britain: Secker & Warburg ISBN 0-436-20282-4; North America: Little, Brown ISBN 0-316-05635-9)
It’s hard for today’s average citizen to assess fairly the ‘green’ claims of big business. Are the villains seeing the errors of their ways and genuinely trying to reform? Or is it all just another elaborate con trick? How are we to know?
In Greenwash Jed Greer and Kenny Bruno have done some of the work for us by putting corporate environmentalism under the microscope. Twenty major transnational corporations including Shell, Mobil, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Mitsubishi, General Motors and Imperial Chemical are profiled and their green claims examined. Much of the evidence is pretty damning, revealing biodegradability scams, sham recycling schemes, clean technology repression and co-option of prominent environmentalists.
Written in a scientific yet accessible style, this book is packed with valuable information. It is meticulously researched and does not sensationalize incidents. And it suggests positive tactics for controlling transnationals by means of grassroots activism, participatory governmental processes, local and national laws, and commitment to international agreements.
All too often people wanting change in the world divide themselves into Green or Red camps: socialists dismiss eco-campaigners’ political innocence while Greens even-handedly sweep Left away with Right – a plague on both your houses! Tom Athanasiou’s insightful, profoundly useful book, Slow Reckoning / The Divided Planet, makes you realize how much the world has changed in the last feverish decade – and how much the two wings of political protest have had to learn as a result. His own background is in the US environmental movement. But his case that in the post-Cold War era of globalization ecological sense and social justice have no alternative but to go hand-in-hand has never been put more articulately or convincingly.
by Cesaria Evora
by Paulo Bragança
(Warners/Luaka Bop 9362-46334-2CD)
Reviewed in this column a year or so ago was a women’s world music compilation album. Its outstanding contribution was one song from an extraordinary source: Cesaria Evora. A whisky-drinking, cigarette-smoking 60-year-old grandmother from Cape Verde, Evora was a revelation. A star of the clubs and bars of Cape Verde’s island of Sao Vicente. it seemed incredible that she had only started recording songs in 1988. Her morna style song, a version of the blues often linked to traditional Portuguese fado, galvanized audiences and Evora was quickly seen as the African Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf. With the release of Cabo Verde it’s possible to hear the great woman with all her nuances. Singing in a Creole-Portuguese, her music represents a place where Portuguese and European styles intersect with Brazilian and African sounds. The album’s 14 songs can appear quite jaunty, the accordion and light guitars cantering on at a fair pace. It’s only when one checks the lyrics of, say, Sangue de Beirona that one sees that the song’s happy chorus is all about blood. Evora’s subject matter is remorselessly, profoundly miserable and all the more glorious for it. Her work communicates a sense that only through full exposure to the blues can one’s own troubles be exorcised. But while much of Evora’s subject matter has a universally personal appeal – who hasn’t suffered from one type of loss or another? – there are other aspects of her work which are specifically related to the tradition of both fado and morna as being the song of the dispossessed. Long-known as the ‘barefoot diva’, Evora always performs without shoes as a way of accentuating this link. The blues, after all, must always belong somewhere to make sense.
Altogether less traditional in his approach to fado is Paulo Bragança, the Angolan-born Portuguese singer-songwriter who has in a single stroke infuriated older fadistas while also gaining an entirely new audience for the style. Amai (Be Fond Of) is the work of someone who might be termed a ‘new traditionalist’. The young singer – Bragança is only 24 years old – has all the intense qualities of earlier fadistas, the songs addressing standard issues like love and sin. But if Bragança’s adherence to set styles is marked, then so too are his departures. And his sound-management – complete with bells, whisperings and even cock crows – can only be described as theatrical.
Reviewers: Esi Eshun, Louise Gray, Peter Whittaker, Sara Chamberlain, Chris Brazier
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
Curiosities is discontinued.
Ninety-seven per cent of all the water on the planet is contained in the oceans. Seventy per cent of the globe is covered by ocean. Our ancestors emerged from the water and seventy per cent of the human body is water. On such simple premises James Hamilton-Paterson has founded this elegant and acute exposition on the centrality of H2O in the life of the planet. The author’s fascination with the sea is well known; his previous works include Playing with Water, an account of his life on a remote Philippine island, and Gerontius, a fictional narrative of a sea-voyage by the composer Edward Elgar.
Seven-Tenths is about islands and reefs, coasts and the abyssal depths. It is about the actual existing sea and the one created by our imagination; the swirling cross-currents of facts and ideas; physical laws and inchoate hopes and fears. Hamilton-Paterson binds together his disparate currents of thought with a serial drama which laps through the more factual narrative of the book: the story of a swimmer lost and adrift at sea, searching for his boat and listening desperately to the messages the ocean is transmitting. In sounding our deeply ambiguous relationship with the sea, this book throws into question humanity’s presumed pivotal place in the web of life. The book’s subtitle – The Sea and its Thresholds – is particularly apt; viewed from the perspective of the oceans, we are literally a marginal species.
Omnivorous in scope, Seven-Tenths defies pigeon-holing, ranging restlessly across the territories of science, discovery, topology, history, autobiography, ecology, literary interpretation, and economic ex-ploitation. Emphatically not a travel book or a marine science primer, it partakes of an almost lost tradition which is unafraid to speak equally of the two cultures – art and science – to the benefit of both. Thus the author is able to move from an account of an oceanographic survey of the Pacific to a discussion of the beleaguered lives of the nomadic people of the Sulu Archipelago.
A heartfelt appreciation of the exploring pioneer William Beebe, inventor of the bathysphere, sits easily beside a fascinating history of the pseudo-science of zetetics, belief in a flat earth.
Central to Hamilton-Paterson’s arguments are the themes of discovery and loss: mapping, understanding and, nevertheless, destroying. Early mapmakers filled the unknown oceanic void with innumerable imaginary islands in an attempt to order and control a worrying metaphysical blank. These islands then retreated before the onward march of discovery and cartography.
This is, however, no weighty and ponderous tome. Despite the seriousness of the subject and the philosophical depth of the writing, the prose sparkles with wit and whimsy – and much of the sheer joy of reading lies in the author’s eagerness to strike off on wild tangents. Often he is motivated by a capricious curiosity, as when, attempting to understand what happens to sound underwater, he conducts a gloriously cack-handed experiment involving condoms and a cassette-player swathed in plastic bags. Admitting failure he concludes wryly: ‘Anyone who has tried swimming under water holding an inflated condom will appreciate the difficulties.’ But often the anecdotes have a sting in the tail, as with the desperate and costly attempts by the Japanese Government to shore up the tiny and fast-eroding islet of Okinotorishima at the extreme southern tip of the Japanese archipelago. Without this insignificant lump of coral Japan’s territory would end at Iwo Jima and it would lose exclusive fishing and mineral rights in 154,440 square miles of ocean.
Equally ecologically ludicrous and far more disastrous is what the author calls the ‘conspiracy of depletion’ in the fishing industry. An approach which allies agribusiness techniques to cutting-edge technology is producing ecosystem collapse and turning vast areas of the seabed into an underwater wasteland. Huge fleets in which each boat can lay 50 miles of mono-filament net per night, vast tonnages of ‘discards’ – undersize or unsaleable fish – and self-destructive overfishing for short-term profit is resulting in hideously effective ‘strip-mining’ of the oceans. Unrealistic quotas and half-hearted attempts at piecemeal regulation are woefully inadequate responses to such devastation.
Thus we come full circle; we are, as a species, willy-nilly turning our habitat into a collection of more or less exploitable entities where, as Hamilton-Paterson says, ‘the sun is just a noun, a hot and dazzling object rising with the Nikkei and setting with the Dow Jones’. Whether we continue on this suicidal path or attempt to place our relationship with our original home, the sea, on a more solid basis of understanding and respect is the subject of this original, beautiful and profoundly haunting book.
Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds by James Hamilton-Paterson is published by Hutchinson, London, 1992.