The Constant Gardener
Since the Cold War ended, John le Carré’s novels have moved beyond the closed world of spies, intrigue and duplicity, tackling the far more interesting subjects of global power and the behaviour of the institutions that ostensibly act in our name.
In The Constant Gardener, Tessa Quayle, the young wife of Justin, a British diplomat in the Kenyan High Commission, has been found brutally murdered in northern Kenya. Her colleague, Dr Arnold Bluhm, a Belgian aid worker, has disappeared. Tessa and Arnold were investigating evidence that KVH, a multinational pharmaceutical company, was testing Dypraxa, a TB drug with fatal side-effects, on African patients.
Dismissing official suggestions that Bluhm killed Tessa, Justin Quayle sets out to discover the truth behind his wife’s murder. The search leads him from a corrupt and bankrupt Kenya through Europe and Canada to a final shattering confrontation in the relief camps of Southern Sudan. His political awakening comes when he discovers why his brave campaigning wife died and how far those who wield power are prepared to go to protect their position. Behind the smooth diplomatic murmurings about ethics, the system’s imperatives remain unchanged: protection of greedy corporations and the great god profit. As one character says, ‘Trade isn’t making the poor rich. Profits don’t buy reforms. They buy corrupt government officials and Swiss bank accounts.’
Le Carré triumphantly combines a moving love story with a searing polemic against the incestuous embrace of state and corporate power. Both thought-provoking and supremely entertaining, this is his most ambitious and perhaps his best work to date.
Delhi-based artist and cartoonist Manjula Padmanabhan has structured her first novel around events in her own past. Getting There is set in the late-1970s as our heroine, Manjula, an affluent, overweight and rootless twenty-something, is agonizing about what to do with a life that seems to be passing her by.
Her routine of lunches at her brother’s house in Bombay and attendance at Dr Prasad’s diet clinic is disrupted by the arrival of two Dutch visitors, Piet and Jaap, who are touring India seeking spiritual enlightenment. Manjula feels her own awakening may be sparked by time abroad. She resolves to go to the United States and, together with her long-suffering boyfriend Prashant, flies to New York. However, despite relishing the freedom to express her feminist sentiments at dinner parties, she finds that the constant pressure to consume is turning her into a rapidly expanding couch potato.
Europe, Manjula decides, is the place for her. After a brief flirtation with communal living in Munich, she arrives in Holland, installing herself in Piet’s extended household and conducting teasingly ambiguous relationships with him and his unpredictable friend Jaap. Here, despite being ‘…covered in fleabites, incompetent at romance, unattractively fat, unbathed, penniless, ticket-less and visa-free’ she feels she is, finally, discovering her true self.
This story of one Indian girl’s progression from girlhood to a wry, insightful maturity is peppered with sprightly dialogue and displays a refreshing aversion to cant and humbug. Getting There is an entertaining read; honest, unsentimental and a very promising debut.
Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain
Why do corporations need the state at all? The way they tell it, Government is the enemy of the people, of liberty, enterprise and good business. But without the state to prop them up corporations would collapse immediately. What they’re really after is powerful, ‘stable’ states that operate exclusively in corporate interests – and in Britain they’ve come within a hair’s breadth of success. Their chosen enemy is democratically accountable governments in general, and the likes of George Monbiot in particular, who seek to bring them to account.
‘Business now stands as a guard dog at the gates of perception,’ he writes. ‘Only the enquiries which suit its needs are allowed to pass.’ This wonderful, troublesome book then slips you very neatly under the wire. From unlikely places in Britain it retrieves extraordinary human stories told with such clarity and narrative skill that the book can easily be read as a thriller. It also packs a formidable factual punch, crammed as it is with meticulous research, which provides a powerful antidote to political ‘spin’.
Not since George Orwell has pure humbug been punctured to quite such good effect. In its refusal to be intimidated by the bleakness of the truth, there is here an outlook as courageous, urgent and distinctive as Orwell’s. Monbiot, like Orwell, is an important actor in the drama he portrays. Both men’s perceptions have been sharpened by their knowledge of a wider world: Orwell of Burma and the Spanish Civil War; Monbiot of West Papua, the Amazon, and East Africa. Both have an instinct for the jugular but leave plenty of space for dispute. Monbiot offers no trite consolations, no ready-made alternatives beyond restless, creative resistance. Anyone with a trace of imagination will find this book disturbing and inspiring in equal measure – a rare, original and absolutely vital read.
Tuvan composer and singer Sainkho Namtchylak – often hailed as an eastern equivalent of Björk – never makes clear exactly where her personal ‘stepmother city’ is located. But then, listening to this extraordinary record, she doesn’t have to. Haunting and mesmerizing by turn, this is an album that speaks of many things: of tradition, fusion, the shamanic power of music and, ultimately, exile. Namtchylak left Russia for the last time in 1997 after sustaining a savage and politically inspired physical attack. Her ‘stepmother city’ may now be Vienna, where she currently lives, but the phrase speaks volumes about the ambivalence between longing and belonging.
Namtchylak’s practice has its basis in traditional Tuvan techniques – her particular emphasis is on overtone or khöömii play – but that’s really only a starting point. Stepmother City utilizes an impressive and far-ranging set of influences and ideas within a context that has a specific leaning towards a – well, if not transcendental realm – certainly something beyond the mundane.
It’s surprising how immediately effective the album is. An opening throaty growl is softened by some loose treatments – there’s nothing cluttered here – and arrangements weighted towards an eclectic array of traditional instrumentation, percussion and, at times, generous helpings of digital dirt. ‘Lonely Soul’, progresses from a delicately picked-out intro into a swooping, looped vocal that speeds up into a manic cut-up fest which leaves the whole thing humming like a forestful of crickets. Namtchylak’s vocalizing moves from drones to chord-stretching shrieks in a manner that locates her more recent methods within a natural continuum. Stepmother City challenges the listener in all the right places: one can be locked into the mountain-trail groove of ‘Dance of Eagle’ or the rubbery bass lines of ‘Boomerang’, but it’s the newly wrought soul of ‘Old Melodie’ or ‘Tuva Blues’ that teases out tantalizing directions for the future. Absolutely bewitching.
The NuYorican Funk Experience
Unlike many urban sprawls, New York City is alone in being able to offer up any number of soundtracks that define its population. But while much of the music one immediately thinks of – be it Afrika Bambaataa’s original hip-hop explosion or, especially in the last 20 years, a home-grown Spanish pop scene – delineates a particular territory, there are others that make a delicious job of boundary-crossing. Such antics are commemorated on The NuYorican Funk Experience, a 16-track compilation that charts the intersections between salsa, blues and funk.
Collecting together artists such as Tito Puente, Bobby Rodriguez and the mighty Fania All Stars (it goes without saying that the incomparable Celia Cruz makes an appearance with a gracious, glissandi-slipping ‘Gracia Divina’), The NuYorican Funk Experience is a homage to the Fania record label’s 1970s heyday. An important period – pre-dating disco and the development of electro and turntable styles – the stylistic blur here not only makes vibrant dance music where snappy deep funk bass infiltrates the twisting wit of Latin rhythms; it also reflects the city’s social climate. Fania All-Star’s ‘Smoke’ is a driving funk fusion (the band would later go on to cover Manu Dibango) while the Lebron Brothers semi-psychedelic ‘Summertime Blues’ opens up a space that’s as mysterious as the Temptations’ ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’. And like the best of dance music, these tunes recycle themselves. You may be familiar with later versions, sampled or complete, in recent club tunes; you may recognize, say Louie Ramirez’s ‘Salsa Vibes’ as part of a retro-groove scene. Proof – if proof were needed – that these tunes just don’t age.
The Last Resort
A woman flees eastern Europe with her young son in pursuit of love instead finds herself trapped in a God-forsaken English coastal town and at the mercy of the kindness – or otherwise – of strangers. Her British fiancé proving elusive, Tanya (Dina Korzum) claims political asylum, to buy time to track him down, and is impounded in Stonehaven, a boarded-up end-of-the-line for all who live there. Grinding bureaucracy, the lack of choice bestowed by poverty, and the sheer bleakness of an unforgiving England weigh heavily on Tanya’s life. Only when one of the locals (Paddy Constantine) befriends her is she set free.
Pawel Pawlinowski’s semi-autobiographical The Last Resort is both fairy tale and nightmare vision shot in grainy realist style. It conveys the sheer horror – the vouchers, the waiting in line, the poor housing – of life on the breadline for asylum seekers in the Britain, yet incorporates it into a Truman Show-like town complete with all- seeing CCTVs and a railway station that is forever closed. Women are preyed on and tempted into cyberspace prostitution, and blood is sold in the back of a van to make ends meet. A seam of black humour runs throughout. Tanya’s son proves more worldly-wise than his mum ( ‘This fish has no fish in it’ he moans over an over-priced chip supper). A huge billboard declares ‘Dreamland welcomes you’ to the drab inhabitants of the shoddy breezebrick tower next door. Yet the dignity of simple kindness shines through. Given its humanity and social understanding, The Last Resort could be an episode from Krystof Kieslowski’s Dekalog.
Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan makes a powerful impact with this film about a girl raised by guerrillas after her family has been decimated by government forces. In the opening scene, Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) coldly executes a traitor. At 19, she’s already a remorseless killer, but when she is chosen to be a ‘thinking bomb’, a heroic martyr that will lace herself with explosives to assassinate a ‘VIP’, her beliefs get put to a rough test.
Santosh, who said the film was inspired by Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, wanted to understand how someone could commit such an incomprehensible act. The Terrorist, hence, is a journey into the tortured psyche of a suicide bomber. References to a political context are kept vague and universal. The guerrillas claim they are fighting for ‘justice’ and ‘the future of our country’. The man to eliminate is ‘an obstacle’ simply known as ‘The VIP’. Even the extreme violence that permeates the film is never graphic.
Shot in 17 days with $50,000, Sivan’s film is visually stunning, sensual and rich with symbolism. Dharkar’s superbly expressive face makes her near-silent rendition of the terrorist’s dilemma deeply troubling. In the few days leading to the assassination, Malli meets people that make her question her mission. For her training, she is sent away and stays with an unsuspecting farmer, a tender and poetic old man who reconnects her with the beauty of life. And as her day nears, the thought of her duty becomes impossibly painful.
Louise Gray on the rocker they blamed for killing kids
Is adult entertainment killing our children,’ asks an introductory question that flashes up on the website for rock group Marilyn Manson, ‘or is killing our children entertaining adults?’ It is, perhaps, an apposite question, not least because few rock stars get blamed for killings that they didn’t commit.
The killings were, of course, the 1999 massacre carried out by two disaffected teenagers at Columbine High School, Colorado. Twelve pupils died, their lives wasted in an idiotic act made more terrible – if such a thing is possible – by its utter meaninglessness. In the frantic need to make any sense of the deaths, US moral authorities – and one uses a phrase like that with caution – have focused much of their fury on a vague collection of ‘degenerate’ values, epitomized, they say, by the rock band and its eponymous singer.
Marilyn Manson is an easy target – and he likes the limelight it affords him. Born in Florida, the young Brian Warner grew up to a be tall, gangling man with an articulateness rare in rock music – and in techno-driven goth rock rarer still. Taking his nom de plume from Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson, he makes a ready conflation between the media’s omnivorous appetite for stars and anti-stars. And he knows which buttons to press to get a result: he’s candid about the rock ’n’ roll excesses of his past. Songs on the band’s new album, Holy Wood include such tasty tempters as ‘Godeatgod’, ‘The Death Song’ and ‘Burning Flag’. Manson’s even on record suggesting everyone should vote Republican – not for any great love of George W Bush but because art thrives in conditions of adversity. And if that’s not enough to get even the defenders of free speech choking, Manson’s also a satanist. Or so he says.
All this might be passed off as some overgrown adolescent angst – Manson is now in his early thirties – were it not that he so clearly strikes a (dis)chord. The band’s previous album Antichrist Superstar sold several million copies in the US alone and the release of Holy Wood was timed to coincide with the presidential election. One might say that Manson’s particular brand of cynicism over American mores is one to be welcomed. Certainly, a country which can’t make a direct link between the ready availability of guns and the fact that – hey! – innocent people might get shot, is in dire need of cranking up its level of political debate.
But this is not the first time that rock stars have been scapegoated for society’s ills and it won’t be the last. The implicit racial crossover that Elvis Presley implied appalled many in the 1950s, while, more recently, rappers like Eminen (incidentally, Manson’s labelmate on Interscope), have been subject to a lesser scrutiny. However, in the latter, there is at least a difference. Eminem is a homophobic misogynist who targets people who lack power. Manson, on the other hand, goes straight for the jugular of people with power. There’s little subtlety in his method, but there aren’t many others questioning the links between organized religion and politics in America. And if one reflects for a moment on the continuing US debates surrounding issues such as pro-choice and gay rights, one quickly realizes that Manson has a point. It may be his strength and a focus, but it’s also one that many would like to deny him.
Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood (in the Shadow of the Valley of Death) is released by Nothing/Interscope. www.marilynmanson.com