Ahab’s Wife or The Star-Gazer
From one brief mention in Moby Dick of the home-life of the Pequod’s captain, Sena Jeter Naslund has spun an epic of astonishing scope and ambition. ‘Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,’ says Una Spenser at the novel’s opening and, indeed, he plays only a supporting role in this distaff side of Melville’s classic.
Beginning in a freezing log cabin as Una gives birth to Ahab’s son, only to lose both the child and her own mother, we flash back to the beginning of her harrowing story. Banished as a child from her Kentucky home after rejecting her father’s religion and raised by relatives in a New Bedford lighthouse, she runs away to sea aged 16, disguised as a cabin boy, and survives a dramatic shipwreck. Marriage to one of her fellow survivors ends when he goes insane.
She meets and marries Ahab and their life together is described with rhapsodic tenderness; a meeting of intellectual and spiritual equals. Then, of course, comes Ahab’s fateful confrontation with Moby Dick and Una is a widow. Her life after Ahab involves many characters drawn from life such as the ‘transcendentalist’ Margaret Fuller and astronomer Maria Mitchell. Even Halley’s Comet puts in a guest appearance!
This is a thoroughly old-fashioned yarn in which the narrative rolls on, relentless as the sea, carrying the exhausted reader in its wake. Although over-long and too self-consciously literary, Ahab’s Wife combines a striking portrait of a remarkable character with a compelling woman’s-eye view of the world of whaling.
Arrows of Rain
Arrows of Rain is a brooding and powerful first novel from Nigerian Okey Ndibe, founding editor of the respected African Commentary magazine. The book is set in the fictional African state of Madia, suffering under its despotic ruler, Life-President General Isa Palat Bello. When a young woman runs into the sea and drowns, the police question the last man to see her alive, the eccentric vagrant known as Bukuru. What Bukuru reveals illuminates not just an army beyond control and a disintegrating country but also how his own tragic history is intertwined with the murderous past of Isa Palat Bello.
Incarcerated and his sanity in question, Bukuru ponders how much of the truth to reveal and to whom. Can he trust the psychiatrist examining him or the journalist investigating his story? Will they have the courage to follow his tale to its terrifying conclusion? And finally, how does he weigh the doubtful benefits of silence against the certainty of death if he speaks out? Despite the consequences, he ploughs on with his revelations: ‘Against the power of the state, I can only throw this story. I know it is a feeble weapon. But it is the only weapon I have. A time shall come when those who today sit on the heads of others will themselves be called to account.’
This is a superb debut; a gritty political thriller with real emotional depth which poses vital questions about our responsibility to bear witness; to be the custodian of ‘stories which must be told’.
My Year of Meat
Writing an engaging and captivating book that examines the politics and science of the American meat industry, growing up in a mixed-race family, sexuality, adoption, rape, abortion and African-American spirituality sounds impossible. But Ruth L Ozeki’s My Year of Meat covers all of the above and still manages to include a recipe for ‘Beef Fudge’.
American Ozeki’s first novel follows a year in the life of Jane Takagi-Little, documentary- maker and Akiko Ueno, a Japanese housewife whose husband is Jane’s boss. Jane combs the US looking for perfect wives to cook perfect meals for the Japanese documentary series ‘My American Wife!’ In Japan, Akiko, under the orders of her producer-husband, struggles to prepare each of the series’ meals – including a rump roast marinated in Coca-Cola and pasta primavera, a recipe Jane has succeeded in including in the all-beef show only because it is prepared by a mixed-race lesbian couple.
Although the novel is packed with politics and education it never veers into the dogmatic. Just when you think Ozeki’s book is starting to sound more like a pamphlet for the American Vegetarian Society she produces pages of jocular conversation or intimate observations. Each character is given an identity: even Suzuki, her porn-loving camera operator, is afforded a tender moment with Christina, the lambchop-loving young girl hit by a truck which was turning into the local Wal-Mart parking lot.
Ozeki’s seemingly humorous novel is full of pathos, the reader laughs and later cringes at the thought of America’s love of meat. My Year of Meat is an absorbing novel that, as the cover states, is suitable for vegetarians, as well as anyone looking for a fantastic, hilariously funny and thoughtful read.
Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis
Now that the emotive cheerleading of the press has subsided, the truth about NATO’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ is emerging. This illegal bombing campaign, which over-rode the authority of the United Nations, looks likely to have killed more civilians during 78 days than were killed by either side in the year leading up to the campaign. It has severely damaged the infrastructure of Kosovo and Serbia, created a massive refugee crisis and an excuse for the Kosovo Liberation Army to perpetrate their own current campaign of ethnic terror.
John Pilger and other experts in the field provide a rigorously researched exposé of the many fictions of the ‘war’ and the mechanisms by which they were maintained. Demonization of the enemy – a tactic common to all military campaigns of the last century – provided a justification for the suspension of the critical and independent coverage which should be fundamental in a democracy. The illusion of saturation coverage disguised the fact that no real information was being given out and that the source of news was almost exclusively NATO.
By providing the background and context that was so badly missing in the coverage of the Kosovo campaign, Degraded Capability suggests that Kosovo is the latest installment in a ten-year history of intervention in Yugoslavia – which has hastened its break-up and indeed may be the first step in a post-Cold War offensive in the Ukraine and Caspian region. Meanwhile the heads of NATO are evading accountability for their actions because, as this book explains, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has effectively ‘served as an arm of NATO’. Required reading for anyone wishing to understand the war and the media’s crucial role in it.
Well before singers such as Archie Roach or Kev Carmody or groups like Yothu Yindi or the Warumpi Band put Australian Aboriginal sounds on the musical map, there was Jimmy Little. Born in 1937 on the Cummeragunja mission, Little first came to public prominence in the early 1960s. Wrapping his light tenor voice around mainstream gospel songs – and regarded, perhaps, as something of a novelty to white Australia at the time – there was a haunting purity about his material and delivery that lingered well after the verse itself had ended.
Yet, interestingly, Little’s choice of songs has nearly always been by other writers and in a style that has its roots in a Sinatra-like interpretative virtuosity. Much of his career predates the more overtly political work of such bands as No Fixed Abode – an Aboriginal group who embraced Marley’s mellifluous reggae as the source of their militant rhythms. But Messenger, an album of 11 covers of songs by such luminaries as Nick Cave, Crowded House and the Cruel Sea, is an apt title. In a word, it conveys the musician’s freedom to choose his own material, to break boundaries and, by the very act of performing, to make a statement about Aboriginal rights. Listening to Messenger’s open arrangements, it’s clear that Little has found his own voice through the words of other writers and, in the process, enriched both their work and his. The singer’s floating tones are the real revelation, teasing a passion out of understated music. Even on the Warumpi Band’s ‘Black Fella/White Fella’, a singular statement about racial tolerance, there’s a quiet dignity that’s comparable to some of America’s soul greats. In short, an album that breathes authority.
Heading for the Door
Considerably aided by the rhyming talents of dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah, Back to Base offer an altogether different experience. Described as ‘live-wire dub’, Heading for the Door infuses the spaciousness of reggae with the tight, curling sounds of funk and, unforgettably, Zephaniah’s astute, witty and politically focused lyrics.
The fit between word and music is apparent from the off. ‘One Day (in Babylon)’ weds Zephaniah’s compelling song about loneliness with a riff constructed around a slide guitar that serves to emphasize the ache at its heart. From a bluesy funk that echoes the Stones’ ‘Tumbling Dice’ days, ‘Nu Blue Suede Shoes’ injects a rock-steady reggae rhythm into Zephaniah’s persuasive declamations against a litany of consumer products – including those suede shoes. ‘The President is Dead Again’, dedicated to Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his comrades, turns the record’s attentions to the community that’s unbounded by national concerns. It’s a shocking song, almost a curse. But there’s also a freshness and pleasure in Heading for the Door that’s reminiscent of the heady collaborations that resulted between punk and reggae or, more recently, rap, ragga and raga. ‘We are Tribes’ offers an infectious mix of sampledelic dance track, delightfully cheesy electronics and cut-up poems, but its title sums up the imaginative direction that Heading for the Door is aiming at.
How can one behave compassionately when forced to submerge one’s identity as an ethical person? Is it possible for one to administer justice under an oppressive government? This film chronicles several generations of a Jewish Hungarian family as it grapples with such issues.
Made by the award-winning director of Mephisto, Sunshine focuses on a family called Sonnenschein – or ‘Sunshine’. Ivan, the narrator, relates how his great-grandparents adopt young orphaned cousin Valarie and raise her with their sons Gustav and Ignatz. Despite parental disapproval, Ignatz and Valarie allow love to blossom and eventually they marry. Ignatz becomes a respected lawyer, then a judge, but not without first changing his obviously Jewish name to the neutral ‘Sors’. The passionate and independent Valarie accuses him of collaborating with a tyrannical government and losing his soul.
The erosion of Jewish identity and ethics continue into the next generation when their son, Adam, converts to Catholicism. ‘Assimilation is the only possible way,’ he insists, basking in public acclaim as an Olympic fencing champion and blind to the dangers of Hitler’s emerging Germany.
The betrayal of identity culminates when his son, Ivan, after 1945 accepts a job to locate and prosecute Nazi sympathizers – and discovers widespread anti-Semitism in the Hungarian Communist Party that has hired him. He becomes an accessory to the killing of a friend for alleged Zionist crimes against the State.
The ongoing collapse of family identity is paralleled in the lovemaking of the three generations of men – Ignatz, Adam and Ivan, all beautifully played by Ralph Fiennes. Ignatz is erotic and tender, deteriorating only when he becomes professionally powerful; Adam displays a macho, conquering mentality; and Ivan can only perform brutal sex without warmth.
Interspersed throughout the film is newsreel footage of Hitler, the 1936 Berlin Olympics and concentration camp victims – underscoring the violent sex, economic exploitation and war that inevitably arise when spiritual connection declines. But when Ivan accepts his Jewish heritage – which includes a moral code of accountability – he can finally stop hating himself and others and find a peace that eluded his family for generations.
Complex, provocative, excellent.
REVIEWS EDITOR: Vanessa Baird, email: [email protected]
on lannis Xenakis
'Music is not a language: it doesn’t have the task of expressing something through sounds and symbols. Music stands by itself, there’s nothing beyond it.’
Accustomed as we are to using music both as means and end, such a statement is a formidable challenge, asking us to engage without simultaneously striving after meaning. It suggests an impossible abstraction – the value of music being in the music itself, not in the subjective props one normally uses to enjoy it.
But listen to the music of Iannis Xenakis and you will be struck by its otherness, as autonomous and distinct as a drop of water. ‘I am not interested in repeating myself or other people’s music.’ He has also said: ‘When you are trying to do something you should feel absolutely alone, like a spark in the blackness of the universe.’ This reveals much about the primal force of Xenakis’ compositions. Despite having little bearing on ‘tradition’ there’s something instantly recognizable in the sounds. The intention is to grip the listener without recourse to background or familiarity with musical conventions. There’s a heroic egalitarianism at work – one loves or loathes this music on its own terms, not via the social filters of class and education.
Born in Romania to Greek parents, Xenakis’ family moved back to Greece shortly before World War Two erupted. He became actively involved in the Greek resistance, suffering imprisonment and losing an eye in battle. The Germans met with mass resistance to their attempts to take Greek workers to the Third Reich. Out of this tumult came a unique perception of sound. ‘I listened to the sound of the masses marching towards the centre of Athens, the shouting of slogans and then, when they came upon Nazi tanks, the intermittent shooting of the machine guns, the chaos. I shall never forget the transformation of the regular, rhythmic noise of a hundred thousand people into some fantastic disorder.’
Exiled in France and working as an architect under Le Corbusier, Xenakis’ first major composition Metastasis (1953-54) brought the idea of mass and chaos to the stage – a 60-piece orchestra plays largely solo parts, unleashing a cloud of glissandi in which hundreds of micro events occur simultaneously. Xenakis was employing computers and mathematical algorithms at this early stage to create what he called ‘stochastic’ music – a music that was unpredictable yet patterned like forms in nature. The influence of this approach to music as sound first and foremost has been enormous, spreading right across the electronic music spectrum.
But beyond the maths and the innovation there is a very real, almost physical charge to the work that hits the diaphragm, a sense of an epic struggle being fought and completed. Xenakis has related his constant grappling with elemental, universal problems to his exile. ‘For years I was tormented by guilt at having left the country for which I’d fought. I left my friends – some were in prison, others were dead, some had managed to escape. I felt I was in debt to them and that I had to repay that debt. And I felt I had a mission. I had to do something important to regain the right to live.’
This mission is realized in his uncompromising pursuit of the never-before heard. Musicians are required to abandon preconceptions and coax sounds from their instruments they didn’t know existed. Nuits (1968) for 12 mixed voices, dedicated to political detainees, with its jackal cries and swirls of sound, gives the appearance of emerging from much larger forces. La légende d’Eer (1977-78) is an electronic tape composition aimed directly at the physicality of the human ear – playing with the effect of sound waves on the tympanum that are just below the threshold of distinction. From the high tones of its beginning, the sound accumulates layer upon layer, until one feels caught in the explosion of some gigantic star. Harsh, tense, compelling, this, one feels, is surely the music of survival.
La légende d'Eer is on Auvidis Montaigne (MO 782058 CD);
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.