Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (Review)

If I could give an alternative name to Kiran Desai's second novel, I would call it 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Immigrant'. Because it centres on the solitude faced by many of its characters. Not only geographical isolation, mind, but also a mental one. However, 'The Inheritance of Loss' is just an apt a title because it deals with themes like dislocation and dispossession.

Biju is a young, recent émigré to the US where he can barely sustain himself through a mix of meagre, low-paid jobs. Back in India, though, his father delights in telling stories about how well his son is doing. Sai is barely out of her teens when she arrives at her grandfather's house after both her parents are killed in an accident in Russia. Her grandad is a retired judge, who worked in the Indian Civil Service and former student at Cambridge. Gyan, Sai's tutor and later her lover, is a Nepalese young man who gradually reveals a fervent patriotism towards his native land causing frictions between Sai and him. The peripheral roles fall to Biju's father, the cook, Lola and Noni, two elderly ladies who befriend Sai and love all things English, Uncle Potty and Father Booty.

'The Inheritance...' is a novel with a very distinctive trait: the richness of its language. And that's both from a literary and linguistic point of view. The former is represented by frequent page-breaks which convey a sense of intimacy and hearsay. We're often allowed to roam freely in a character's mind and be almost an active participant of his or her inner world. Moreover, this device is redolent of the ancient art of story-telling, where the narrators would usually have the opportunity to take a detour from the initial tale and end up recounting a whole different, though still amusing, story. Not that Kiran deviates from the plot too much. But it's still a pleasure to find a writer who likes telling stories as well as paying attention to mood, setting and period. The linguistic factor is provided by the mix of English, Hindi and Nepali in the novel. Desai's characters are constantly moving between languages, in the same way that they are also moving between countries, even if the latter happens only in the mind occasionally (for instance the judge lying on his bed at night, reminiscing about his time in Britain). The Hindi and Nepali words and phrases are italicised and highlight the sense of belonging and dislocation of Sai, her grandfather, Biju et al.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed thoroughly was the humour. Satirical, witty and sometimes politically incorrect. The author is very careful when she addresses the ethnic divisions in India and you can't help thinking that she must have eavesdropped on many a conversation during her time there in order to come up with such an accurate portrayal of how the various ethnic and religious groups talk about each other. What could have been contemptuous recklessness in a different context, it's transformed into very well-written passages in the novel.

However, I was not prepared for the impact 'The Inheritance...' had on me personally, beyond its literary merit. There were two scenes that will stick in mind forever. The first one was during Biju's second attempt to go to the US. The description of the queue outside the American embassy and the reigning atmosphere reminded me of my own situation when I applied for a permit to the Cuban Immigration Service to visit the UK, minus the air-con:

'Outside, a crowd of shabby people had been camping, it appeared, for days on end. Whole families that had travelled from distant villages, eating food packed and brought with them; some individuals with no shoes, some with cracked plastic ones; all smelling already of the ancient sweat of a never-ending journey. Once you got inside, it was air-conditioned and you could wait in rows of orange bucket chairs that shook if anyone along the length began to bop their knees up and down.'

The description is so vivid that I could smell the sweat to which Desai refers in the scene. The despair and hopelessness are there, if not overtly shown, at least hinted at.

The second passage brought back memories galore of me sitting in a room at a neighbour's or a friend's, waiting for an incoming call from my then girlfriend, now wife. The same feelings of angst and forlornness that overcome Biju and his father are ones I recognise myself as I spent many an hour expecting the phone to ring any minute:

'The phone sat squat in the drawing room of the guesthouse encircled by a lock and chain so the thieving servants might only receive phone calls and not make them. When it rang again, the watchman leapt at the it, saying, "Phone, la! Phone! La mai!" and his whole family came running from their hut outside. Every time the phone rang, they ran with committed loyalty. Upkeepers of modern novelties, they would not, would not, let it fall to ordinariness.'

'The Inheritance...' is above all a book about the migrant experience. And unlike other novels where there's a happy ending or a predictable one, in Desai's book, the dénouement caught me by surprise, even if she prepares the reader for it several pages before. This might be the reason why some readers have felt cheated - besides alleged inaccuracies in Kiran's descriptions of places, people and some of the idioms she uses, especially the Nepali ones. In my opinion, the ending more than justifies the plot, which is about disorientation, lack of sympathy and empathy and displacement. Combined with running themes such as food, language, nationalism and attitudes to colonialism and supported by a beautiful poetic prose, Kiran Desai's 'The Inheritance of Loss' is a novel I will be re-reading in the near future.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 1st July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As I write these lines two thousand people are believed to have been killed and forty thousand displaced by the conflict in Kyrgystan. A few weeks ago, Israel's raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla caused the death of eight Turkish activists. And David Cameron's recent apology to the victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre caused a veteran correspondent, who covered the event, to claim that the Prime Minister would be a worthy recipient of the Freedom of Derry tartan. In a bookshop, in Kuala Lumpur, I held Amartya Sen's 'The Idea of Justice' in my hands, wondering whether to buy it or not.

The first three events are linked. The fourth one is not prima facie. But it is indeed, and I will explain to you how.

Amartya Sen is a name that has cropped up very often in articles I've read in The Economist magazine, The Guardian and The New Statesman. Although I had never thought of buying any of his books, a recent feature by this Nobel Prize winner on how justice can address powerlessness made me think a great deal about that subject and ultimately hold his 'The Idea of Justice' in a bookshop at the airport on the day (or night, rather) I was coming back from Malaysia.

For Sen the hypothetical contract entered by the state and its people in which both parties are involved in identifying the institutions they need is flawed. In contrast, he believes that it's people's actual lives and circumstances that ought to shape up the justice system.

This is where the first of the three examples I mentioned before comes in. Is justice a byword for fairness, too? The crisis in Kyrgystan is not rooted in the violence unleashed by the pro-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev brigade, but in the ethnic carving up in which Stalin indulged right after Lenin kicked the bucket in 1924. After the disintegration of the ex-Soviet Union, the justice system was modified, but ethnic divisions were not addressed. The question is, then, can there be a structure based on moral principles that ignores - or even encourages, sometimes - bias and prejudice?

This is where the Gaza flotilla raid comes into the picture. And no, I'm not interested in whether you, reader, are pro-Israeli or Palestinian, but rather in whether you think there can ever be a body of laws that seeks to enforce the moral principles I mentioned before whilst atempting to be fair. When the Israeli forces attacked the Free Gaza Movement's boat, they claimed the organisers' intent was violent. Ties with global terrorist groups were given as the justification for their actions. But was their excessive use of force fair? Even if we take their excuse that they were acting in self-defence at face value, their response looked disproportionate. This is where Amartya Sen's assertion that 'If our concentration has to be on the actual lives of people, the question that immediately arises is how to understand the richness and poverty of human lives. The approach I have tried to pursue has largely focused on the freedoms, in various forms, that people enjoy' comes into play. The problem is when people have been denied that freedom for a long time.

Enter then, the Saville inquiry. Justice was finally done. And Sen would be happy, because it was the powerless, in this case the families of those killed on that fatal day ('Sunday, Bloody Sunday', remember that song by U2?), who benefited more from this significant victory. The hurdle was overcome. However, the relatives of those murdered and injured on the streets of Derry had to wait thirty-two years to see a prime minister making the following statement to the House of Commons: 'On behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry'. Is it fair? Thirty-two years? Is that with what the family of Ian Tomlinson will have to contend?

Justice, fairness, powerlessness, freedom. Big, abstract words, but terms with which we come into contact very often. As a parent, I've had to mete out punishment to one or both my children every now and then, only for one party to retort: "It's not fair". Do you recognise the scenario, fellow parents? In this case, I think, the course of action to take is not to highlight distinction ('your action was different') but remark on the quality and equality of punitive measures ('why do you think I did this?'). The goal would be to eliminate any persistent notion of deprivation or low self-esteem.

It is those two last symptoms to which Amartya Sen refers in his piece. The Uzbeks fleeing southern Kyrgystan were already suffering deprivation of freedom, denied to them both by the former Soviet Union and by their current government. The Palestinians living in Gaza are caught in a crossfire between Israel and Hamas. The families of those killed on Bloody Sunday have had to wait for more than three decades to see their claims vindicated.

That's why I half-agree with Amartya. Half, because I do believe that the hypothetical contract entered by state and people ought not to be severed. A body of laws and the means to enforce them are necessary not just to safeguard democratic principles, but also to avoid an abrupt descent into chaos. However, when this system of moral codes does not work, or works only for a selected group, we need, then, to look closer to people's behaviour and their demands. It's one of the ways of reversing powerlessness, giving people the freedom (even if it's relative) they ask for, strengthening justice and acting fairly.

Pandora's World Cup Box

Madame Tussauds moment of the tournament so far: French coach Raymond Domenech in the game between his team and Mexico. Pandora had to pinch herself several times to make sure she wasn't dreaming and that the beleaguered manager was not the latest wax addition to the aforementioned museum. But no, everytime the camera zoomed in on him, there was the same 'Je ne sais pas quoi faire' expression on his stony, immobile face. It was only when Nicolas Anelka buzzed past him shouting out: 'Eppur si muove' that Domenech came out of his stupor, but by then it was too late. France had lost. Pandora believes that as she writes this post Raymond's measures are being taken so that he can take his place alongside the likes of Shrek and Tony Blair (please, insert your own joke here).

Eagle hats, feathered serpents and faces covered in green and white paint. And that's just the Mexican fans. Really, who needs Milan and New York when we have the World Cup, Pandora asks? Rumours that catwalks from London to Paris will emulate the once-every-four-years tournament and look to stage their shows in a similar way are not unfounded. South Africa 2010 has set the bar really high for the fashion world (and that includes the Bavaria brigade, who would have thought that orange was such a fun colour?). No wonder Lady Gaga is nowhere to be seen. Upstaged doesn't even begin to explain it.

Best fans of the tournament so far? Not the loud Brazilians, Portuguese and Argentinians, goalfest notwithstanding. Or the crafty Dutch. No, the best supporters this cup has seen, ipho (that means In Pandora's Humble Opinion), are the Bafana Bafana brigade. Rain or shine, hot or cold, the South Africans have come out en masse to cheer on every team. Even if they have set the uncomfortable record of being the first host nation not to have qualified for the last sixteen. Pandora cannot have been the only one who heard vuvuzelas being blown in unison as the Mexicans scored the equaliser in the opening game against the Safa team. And no, the horns were not coloured green and white. The South African football fans remind me of the drunkard one meets at a dinner party and who's so jolly and inebriated with happiness that he won't leave you alone until you see the scar from his hernia operation. Likewise, the cacophony of cheers and vuvuzelas around stadia is impartial. Which goes to show how mighty the English fans' boos were when they showed their disgust at their national team after the disappointing goalless draw with Algeria. To shout down one vuvuzela is impressive, to overpower a whole symphony orchestra of lepatatas is Herculean.

Pandora's good luck sees no signs of abating. Accidentally (well, these things happen), she was Cced into a recent message from the Queen to Fabio Capello: 'One has already had one's seat booked. I'll be playing midfield on Sunday'.

Memo to Norah Jones re today's clip: that's how you sing the blues, dear. Thanks and have a nice week.

© 2010

Next Post: 'The Inheritance of Loss' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 29th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

One of the first major changes I noticed in my life after settling in London was my exposure to different kinds of food. With so many cultures painting the British capital in various colours and giving it diverse flavours, it wasn't hard to imagine that my palate would also widen up with time. And widen up it did.

Hot (as in spicy) food was not my cup of tea at the beginning, however. There probably still exists a photo of me and two other Cubans at an Indian restaurant with my then colleagues from the travel agency for which I used to work where my dark features were given a rouge makeover; a consequence of the herbs and spices combination. No amount of milk and/or Naan bread could put out the fire. That curry was hot, my brethren and sisters.

But over the last few years I've become keener on the 'chillier' side of food. And not a day goes by, provided it's my turn to cook at home, when I don't put a dollop of chilli sauce on some stew or hotpot I'm cooking. It shouldn't, then, come as a surprise, that this section has seen the temperature rise (at least, palatewise) in the last few months.

The following recipe (by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) works wonders for a winter's evening meal, or a British summer's afternoon lunch. I tend to serve it with Basmati rice, though, my family prefers to have chapatis.

Chickpea, potato and kale curry

340g dried chickpeas (or 2 400g tins, drained and rinsed)
1 tsp cumin seeds, plus a little ­extra to garnish
1 tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp mustard seeds
1 hot, dried red chilli, crumbled
1 tsp ground turmeric
2.5cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 tbsp groundnut or sunflower oil
1 large onion, peeled, halved and finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
700ml chicken or vegetable stock
250g potatoes, peeled and cut into 3cm dice
150g kale (or cabbage), finely shredded
Yogurt, to serve
2 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped

Soak the chickpeas overnight in plenty of cold water. Next day, drain, rinse and simmer them for about an hour and a half in fresh ­water, until tender, then drain. (If using tinned, just drain and rinse.)

Put a dry frying pan over a medium heat and, when hot, toast the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds and the chilli for a couple of minutes ­until they smell ­really fragrant and the mustard starts to pop. Grind to a powder in a coffee grinder, spice mill or with a pestle and mortar, and mix in the turmeric and ginger.

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat, and fry the onion, stirring regularly, until soft and golden brown. Stir in the garlic and spices, leave to cook for a minute or two, and add the stock. Simmer for five minutes, then add the chickpeas and potatoes. Cook until the spuds are tender, then add the kale. Cook for a few minutes, until the greens are tender, then serve with a dollop of thick yogurt on top, along with a ­sprinkling of toasted cumin seeds and some coriander leaves.

The playlist to go with this dish should have a kick to it, too. That's why I open with a classic Ray Charles's track, 'Drown In My Own Tears'. And lacrimal glands are also part of the curry experience. But a cautious note about the clip below. I'm not entirely satisfied with Ms Jones reworking such a heart-felt song. Don't get me wrong, Norah is pitch-perfect in her version, but in order to sing the blues, you have to feel the blues, you have to let rip, man. And I don't think she does. It's not the first time that I've felt short-changed by Ravi Shankar's daughter. It's almost as if the woman has the capability of taking you places, but she'd rather not take the chance to do it. Anyway, it's just my opinion. Rest assured, though, that my curry does have a lot of bluesy soul in it.

A blast from the past. That's all I can say about the next video. Tracey Thorn's voice is as tender as those chickpeas left in cold water overnight. Sizzling.

Carol Welsman comes back to my blog after I uploaded another clip of her duetting with Herbie Hancock some weeks ago. This time she sings with Djavan, a Brazilian music legend in his own right. This is a fabulous concoction, just like my curry. Enjoy.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 27th June at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Pull out a dictionary from your bookself. Open it up, face down, and shake it up until all the letters come out. Line them all up on the mantelpiece. Call the fusiliers and shout out: 'Fire!'. See all the vowels and consonants tumbling down in an amalgam of ink and shapes. Now, from the resulting debris, pick out the survivors. Those are the ones that will make it to your final draft.

If sometimes writers resemble descendants of Sir Francis Galton, is because of their obsession over getting the language right. However, their interest is not selective literary breeding with the aim of improving their early drafts, but the development of their initial idea into a coherent passage (or coherent passages). Eugenicists wanted to get rid of 'undesired' population groups. Writers, on the other hand, sacrifice words for the sake of a novel or poem, but come back to their rescue when they need them for the novel's follow-up or the second collection of poems. In writing, words never stay in their graves, long and forgotten. Like traditional ghosts in a castle, they come back to haunt the writer. Or rather the writer brings them back to haunt him/herself.

And it's all there, in that dictionary. Have you, writer, ever stood in the middle of a carriage, on a busy train, peak-hour and wondered how many of your fellow passengers have picked up pen and paper (or used a keyboard, rather, after all this is the 21st century) and made a stab at writing a novel, a short story or a poem? Have you ever asked yourself what their work would read like? After all, and as long as we're talking about an average western country, the majority of the population will be literate. We are all equipped with the same weaponry from an early age: illustration books and their captions, an alphabet, a Thesaurus, grammar rules, syntax, a dictionary. Unlike painting where technique is de rigueur (although, as I explained in my previous post, that might not always be the case) and dancing, where training lasts many years before it can turn out a well-rounded performer, writing should come as easily as breathing. At the end of the day, we all do it.

But that's a simplistic theory. Good writing calls to a part of us of which sometimes we're not even aware. Yes, you can shoot down as many letters as you like on that mantelpiece, but if the stew you knock up afterwards lacks the necessary spices, your grub will be just that, stale and tasteless grub. Reading and writing regularly (and in the case of the latter, I'm referring to the non-creative variety), then, are not necessarily conducive to constructing multiple-stories settings or carving out a period drama.

Which is why the first excerpt I'll use tonight to illustrate how difficult it is to write fiction, is a good example of literature where the detritus from a glossary decimation provides one of the most vivid passages I've ever read in my life:

'A weak watery moon filtered through the clouds and revealed a young man sitting on the topmost of thirteen stones steps that led into the water. (…) In a while he stood up, took off the white mundu he was wearing, squeezed the water from it and twisted it around his head like a turban. Naked now, he walked down the thirteen stone steps into the water and further, until the river was chest high. Then he began to swim with easy, powerful strokes, striking out towards where the current was swift and certain, where the Really Deep began. The moonlit river fell from his swimming arms like sleeves of silver. It took him only a few minutes to make the crossing.


He stepped on the path that led through the swamp to the History House.

He left no ripples in the water.

No footprints on the shore.

He held his mundu spread above his head head to dry. The wind lifted it like a sail. He was suddenly happy.
Things will get worse, he thought to himself. Then better. He was walking swiftly now, towards the Heart of Darkness. As lonely as a wolf.

The God of Loss.

The God of Small Things.

Naked but for his nail varnish.'

'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy

Words slaughter doesn't come any finer than this. Darkness, water and the moonlight join forces together to give us a feeling of freedom that the protagonist of this scene, Velutha, is unfortunately denied. An untouchable himself, Velutha swims across the river to meet Ammu, the woman he loves, but with whom he knows he will never be allowed to live under the same roof on account of his lower-caste status. Roy is a master at the art of picking up the debris from the onslaught she herself causes. Alas, she must have used up all her arsenal in 'The God of Small Things', because she hasn't written another novel since.

In contrast, Anaïs Nin famously explored a woman's inner life - especially her erotic fantasies - at great length. There's no shortage of material from which to pick. But the main reason I chose the excerpt below is because it also deals with freedom. The difference with Roy's text is, though, that in Nin's short story 'Stella', the main character - a film star - thinks herself free when she is not. She is a captive of the men who imprint their dirty thoughts on her, she has a lover who is married and her father's figure looms large over her:

'What Stella whispered in the dark with her foreign accent enhancing strongly, markedly the cruelty of the sound was:

ma soch ism

Soch! Och! It was the och which stood out, not ma or ism but the och! which was like some primitive exclamation of pain. Am, am I , am I, am I, am I, whispered Stell, am I a masochist?

She knew nothing about the word except its current meaning: ‘voluntary seeking of pain’. She could go no further into her exploration of the confused pattern of her life and detect the origin of the suffering. She could not, alone, catch the inception of the pattern, and therefore gain power over this enemy. The night could not bring her one step nearer to freedom….

A few hours later she watched on the screen the story of Atlantis accompanied by the music of Stravinski.'

It's telling that a word can confine someone so much. Stella's behaviour is so disturbing that it doesn't surprise me that she chooses to watch a programme about an island that might or might not have existed set to a score by one of the most influential and polarising composers of the 20th century. Myth and musical revolution as antidotes against bewilderment.

Was Anaïs in the same predicament? I'm not implying that a writer's work is a faithful representation of his or her life. But in Nin's case a lot of her oeuvre was based on her personal circumstances. Did 'Stella' spring up from fragments of a vowel/consonant massacre or was it the first and only draft from the remains of a sad episode in her life?

That to me it's the big difference between those you see around you (many of them engrossed in their books) in that carriage, and you, writer. You know what to do with the debris. Because really and truly, writers, they shoot letters, don't they?

© 2010

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 24th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

'It was rubbish! Just a huge pile of crap!'. At the risk of making it sound like an understatement, I would dare to say that my wife has a very strong opinion about modern art. We had just visited an exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre (which, by the way, is not in Camden as such, but on the border of Hampstead and West Hampstead, still, though, the borough is Camden, so, let's not get too pedantic about it) and my other half was giving me the rundown on what she thought about the mano-a-mano displays by the artists Angela de la Cruz and Anna Maria Maiolino.

I could, though, see where my wife was coming from. She was not being a philistine, no way, what with being a dancer for many years, teaching creative dance to children and having two brothers who are very good artists themselves (one of them had a highly successful exhibition last year). No, my consort's opinion might have been strong but not unfounded.

Because if there's a subject that gets up people's noses and makes them regurgitate last night's dinner it is visual pieces from the second half of the nineteenth century up until now. More pertinently the period comprising Dadaism with its anti-cultural works (Monsieur Duchamp, c'est avec vous qu'on parle),

abstract expressionism and postmodernism. The intention behind these movements was to explore art's relation to architecture, advertising and urban design whilst at the same time rejecting the dominant standards in art.

I admit that of all modern art trends the ones I always found more appealing were impressionism and surrealism. The former because of the effect of the brush strokes, the fact there's no clear demarcation and how all colours fade into or merge with each other. The latter because of the unexpected juxtapositions, which, once you get over the initial surprise begins to make sense in the same way a dream does. Sometimes.

However, occasionally you come across works like those on display by the likes of de la Cruz and Maiolino and your mind goes into overdrive. In the case of the former, her pieces sit somewhere between painting and scultpure. Her 'starting point was deconstructing painting... One day I took the cross bar out and the painting bent. From that moment on, I looked at the painting as an object'. De la Cruz's work carries a lot of emotions and even if I had not read the leaflet I would still have felt somewhat disoriented as I did. There's some humour, too, in that some of her pieces (left) are criticisms against the art world for being unsympathetic. The contradiction is, though, that her work is being exhibited at a first-rate arts centre. That was one of the issues that upset my consort, the fact that here was an artist enjoying the privilege of showing her art at a popular venue, however she was still critical of the system that allowed her to be commercially successful. 'Why not give the opportunity to someone else who would really appreciate it?' my wife asked.

But at least de la Cruz's display made sense somehow. By contrast, Maiolino's work (right) was conceptual to the nth degree. Her theme focused on the creative and destructive processes in art. Besides her clay pieces, there was also a selection of short films made over the last thirty years that dealt with various topics such as identity, society and language. I admit that I was baffled by the explanation our enthusiastic guide gave us about the meaning behind Anna Maria's art. Which is not to say that it was not relevant.

Or was it? Recently David Hare pointed out the difference between daily life objects and art thus: 'You must not think that I sharpen all my aesthetic thinking by attending to Norman Tebbit, but on another occasion, Tebbit showed impatience with some fellow guests in a radio studio by declaring that he was tired of hearing about the claims of art. In his view, a Rolls-Royce aeroplane engine was far more beautiful than most things living artists had created. Why was an engine not a work of art? There are certainly many different answers to his question – plenty of people would say it was – but my personal response would be that an aeroplane engine is an object without metaphor, and without metaphor we have no art.' (The Guardian Review, Saturday 17th April).

Obviously David has never seen Emin's 'My Bed', Warhol's 'Empire' or Daniel Spoerri's banquet from 1983. The problem here is not the pieces themselves, relevance notwithstanding, or whether they have any value (artistic, monetary, sentimental, you decide) but whether they are a metaphor for something. And there's still another dilemma: that of the artist's intention. Sometimes I feel as if I'm part of a big, massive unfunny joke on the creator's part. How else to explain Martin Creed's 'The Lights Going On and Off' which won him the Turner prize and twenty grand in 2001? If I had a penny for everytime someone told me after the ceremony that they could have made the same installation ('and I would have put on nicer lights, too, mate, even strobe flashing ones) I would be rich by now. In order to reproduce Martin's piece, all you need to do is pop by your local cornershop and buy a few lightbulbs. Where's my grand, guv?

My wife's reaction was not exceptional amongst the people who attended the exhibition, especially in regards to Maiolino's work. If truth be told, after seeing so many kilogrammes of clay of different sizes and shapes scattered around the room, the The Rolling Stones's song 'Turd On the Run' made an unwelcome cameo in my head. It probably shows how challenged and baffled both my spouse and I felt by the pieces on display (although, I still maintain that Angela de la Cruz's exhibition was very good and its message quite apposite for our modern times) that we both reached the conclusion that the outing (sans enfants, they were both camping) was far more enjoyable than the actual event. Now, could I possibly create a piece of artwork from that short excursion to the Camden Arts Centre? How about 'The Preservation of Small Moments on a Sunday Afternoon by Mr Cuban In London and His Wife'? Turner prize, here I come.

Pandora's World Cup Box

Thanks for your encouraging words about this short-lived new section whose lifespan will be exactly the duration of the World Cup.

And in a very strange case of butterfly effect (you know the one that states that Tom Cruise's recent booty-shaking at the MTV Movie Awards will very likely cause the ozone layer to crack, the ice caps to melt and polar bears to man telephones at call centres in Delhi) we have news that the recent oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico has finally reached the tournament being held in South Africa. How else to explain Rob Green's howler against the USA or Faouzi Chaouchi's, the Algerian goalkeeper, against Slovenia? But despair not, my dear football fans, Pandora reckons that since Tony Hayward, the BP boss has described the Gulf of Mexico as 'a big ocean' (he didn't say which one, Pacific, Indian, Atlantic? let's go with the latter) there's still hope of further gifts by goalies' slipppery hands as the dark, compact, oily mass moves slowly eastwards and downwards. Not even the mighty vuvuzella will be able to stop it.

Maybe it's the general, skewed perception of Africa as a vast savannah. Or maybe, Pandora reckons, Saint Bob Geldoff had something to do with it, you know, the drought, the flies on children's faces, the swelled bellies. But this World Cup - at the time of writing - has seen the lowest goal tally ever at this stage. Is it solidarity with the desert people? Or is it a (mis)conception of Africa as arid land and nothing else? To fix what could be teething problems (all projects have them, and this is a major tournament, c'mon, guys, we're hosting the 2012 Olympics here and Tessa Jowell still doesn't know what to do with Stratford after the Games finish), Pandora suggests as compulsory reading for players and managers alike 'The Rough Guide to South Africa' by Barbara McCrea, Tony Pinchuck, Donald Reid, Greg Salter. Its fantastic cover features a beach and lush vegetation nearby. Pandora thinks that after reading a few pages, goals will gush out in games like paps' photographs of a knickerless Paris Hilton on a night out.

Baseball play of the tournament so far: Maicon, one of Brazil's fullbacks, throwing a screwball at the Nort Korean team. Only that he used his feet instead. But the famous baseball pitch, favoured by just a handful of pitchers (it can cause injury), was there: pointed finger (toe, sorry) on the seam, pronation of ankle and the result is a reverse curveball. Christy Matthewson would have been proud.

© 2010

Thursday, 17 June 2010

El Violín (The Violin) - Review

Rebellion comes in different guises. There are those who take to the mountains to fight government forces. There are others who carry out terrorist attacks on city centres. Others choose more peaceful methods, like marching down a main thoroughfare bearing placards that proclaim their political allegiance. But then you have the type of rebel who defies stereotypes, mainly by staging his or her protest in more circumspect and inconspicuous ways.

This last category is the one that fits Don Plutarco, the leading character of 'El Violín', a Mexican film directed by Francisco Vargas. Shot entirely in black and white, this elegant film tells the story of a family caught up in the maelstrom of politics and insurgence. In an unnamed Latin American country - although most people seem to agree that the nation depicted in the film is Mexico and the period sketched out is that of the peasants' revolts in the 70s - the government is trying to contain a rural upheaval. The first scene shows a group of soldiers raping a peasant woman. Only later do we realise that she might be the wife of one of the main characters in the movie. The government forces loot, torture and murder as they wish. The rebels fight back but suddenly find themselves severed from their cache of ammunition. Don Plutarco (superb performance by Ángel Tavira, who I believe did not have much thespian experience before), a reputable, elderly patriarch, comes up with an ingenious way to smuggle the ammo under the soldier's noses: his violin case. He is helped, inadvertently, by the captain of a small platoon based at a checkpoint near Don Plutarco's farm. The officer (played excellently by Dagoberto Gama) asks the old man to play the violin to him. In exchange Don Plutarco is allowed to tend to his corn crop. But his intentions are not of the agricultural kind. Buried in the soil is his desired goal: the bullets for the insurgents.

In 'El Violín' Francisco Vargas builds a cogent narrative bereft of cheap sentimentality or tacky, romantic discourses. Although the soldiers are shown at their worst, the captain displays signs of a sensitive, artistic bent, probably masqueraded by his army life. In a poignant scene where the officer confides in Don Plutarco some of the dreams he had when he was younger he declares that he'd rather be somewhere else. He also confesses to the elderly farmer that he would have loved to learn how to play a musical instrument. On the other hand, Don Plutarco is the antithesis of the popular Latin America hero of lore: the bandana-wearing, Che Guevara firebrand. He avoids the conflict at first and concentrates on his music, which he performs with his son and his grandson. It's only when his offspring is dragged into the struggle and joins the rebels that the elderly farmer decides to act.

The photography is magnificent and Vargas uses it to good effect, especially the close-ups that show Don Plutarco's dignified stand. It's ironic that a black-and-white film that lasts roughly an hour and forty minutes tells more about the history of a particular period in Mexico - or Latin America, if we go by the film's tagline - than Mel Gibson's two-and-half-hour gorefest 'Apocalypto'.

Ángel Tavira died in 2008. 'El Violín' was the only movie in which he took part since he was a musician by profession. May this review be a tribute to his memory and a commendation to Francisco Vargas for making such a brilliant film.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 20th June at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Killer Opening Songs ('Girls and Boys' by Blur)

The worldwide success achieved by the band Gorillaz is welcome news for those of us who are still enamoured of good, meaningul pop. Killer Opening Songs, always, the eternal optimist, has the first two albums by this eclectic British band and is intent on buying the third one, 'Plastic Beach'. However, one of the reasons why Gorillaz has become a byword for cool, innovative pop is because the driving force behind them is the erstwhile frontman of Blur, Damon Albarn.

It's strange to see a five-o'-clock-shadowed Damon nowadays dancing 'locamente' to the Orquesta Aragon (true story) at the Barbican. Especially when you take into account that it was Albarn's smooth, clean-shaven face that made him a poster boy for Britpop. But unbeknownst even to his fans there was always a latent, hidden and restless inquisitiveness in the young Damon that has yielded a very diverse and creative oeuvre in the last decade.

For K.O.S, the genesis of that original output can be found in this gem of a Killer Opening Song. Riding on the back of below-par sales for their previous effort, 'Modern Life is Rubbish', 'Parklife' was the shot in the arm that Blur needed to get back to their prominent spot in British music. The album has an observational air to it and 'Girls and Boys' is the first indication of this distinctive quality. The track chronicles what was at the time the experience of the short-haul, hedonistic, British holidaymaker, aged between eighteen and thirty years old. This is a phenomenon that reached its apotheosis in the late 90s and early noughties when a combination of cheap flights, abundant booze and disposable income turned Greek and Spanish tourist resorts into the equivalent of Roman orgies. And Blur had already predicted it with its talk of how the 'Street’s like a jungle/So call the police/Following the herd/Down to Greece - on holiday/Love in the nineties/Is paranoid/On sunny beaches/Take your chances - looking for...'

The chorus sounds like a tongue-twister, which is very apposite for the debauchery that ruled the type of holiday to which Damon and co were referring where the alliteration of arms, legs and similar haircuts made it difficult to figure out who was who: 'Girls who are boys/Who like boys to be girls/Who do boys like they’re girls/Who do girls like they’re boys/Always should be someone you really love'. And K.O.S. can helpt thinking that that 'love' at the end is a little sarky remark, Damon's very own signature.

Although hard to envisage at the time, it is now easier to understand that the author of 'Girls and Boys' would one day mutate into the man behind such dissimilar but highly original projects such as: Mali Music; The Good, the Bad and the Queen and the aforementioned Gorillaz. And that's because most people thought Blur was just a fad for a bunch of art college kids, when in reality one of the distinguishing features that separated them from other bands was their endless creativity. Whereas Oasis (to be featured on this blog soon) were happy to be called Beatles 2, Blur, specifically in 'Parklife', experimented with synth-pop and LSD-fuelled melodies.

Blur reformed last year for a one-off concert at Glastonbury that defied all expectations and for a while there was talk of a formal reunion and a proper album release. But with one of the former members involved in politics and Gorillaz getting the praise they thoroughly deserve, K.O.S. is of the opinion that time has been called on one of the landmarks of British pop in the 90s. Luckily we still have 'Girls and Boys': a superb Killer Opening Song.

© 2010

Next Post: 'El Violin/The Violin (Review)', to be published on Thursday 17th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

How old was I at the time? Maybe sixteen or seventeen. Although, taking into account that the event happened during my final year in college (year 12), I was probably seventeen. The age is irrelevant, however, because what has lingered in my mind for the two decades since is my memory of that night.

The Grand Theatre of Havana is an impressive building. Architecturally speaking, it's probably one of my favourite constructions in my hometown. But I don't recall having set a foot inside it before my teens. What led me to it on that occasion?

A ballet show.

Up until then this art form had eluded me. In fact, despite having performed in primary school when I was a child (dance, theatre, poetry, singing), dance was not a genre with which I wanted to get acquainted in my early to mid teens. There were many reasons for that, but one of them stands out the most when I look back on those years: it was the fear of being thought a 'softie' (although others would probably use a stronger and more offensive term like 'poof', not a word that, luckily, graces my vocabulary). Yes, I read, but that was a pleasure in which I engaged in private. My piano years were well behind me by then and theatre was not still the attractive option that became in later years. Cinema was my other leisure activity but that was mainly action flicks and the odd art-house movie (which, by the way, I rarely talked about in public).

But in 198_? I made my way to one of the oldest, colonial buildings in Havana to enjoy a performance by none other than Loipa Araújo, who at the time, was prima ballerina of the Cuban National Ballet Company. Of course, I didn't know who she was. The inspiration to go to see her came from one of the programmes on which I was very keen in those years: 'De la Gran Escena' (loosely translated as 'Grand Stage'). A clip of a performance of the 'Swan Lake' awakened my curiosity. And so I made my way to the Gran Teatro de la Habana.

I remember arriving at the theatre on my own and checking all around me to make sure that there was no one who could recognise me. I don't recall the clothes I was wearing, but compared with the other spectators, who were dressed to the nines, I probably came across quite scruffy. What I do remember clearly was the reaction from my fellow attendees.

I bought a ticket for the orchestra seating section (although the piece was performed to recorded music) and the minute I came into the well-lit auditorium all eyes fixed on me. No, I wasn't being paranoid. People were staring at me. And their gazes seemed to say: You don't belong here. I took my seat and slid down on it, until my shoulder blades touched the lower back of it.

At this point you're probably wondering why I'm writing about such a personal experience on a public platform. The reason is that I recently read an excellent article by the artist Grayson Perry (I used to have a quote by him on my blog: The best view is from the mountain you've climbed) about the same feeling that overcame me that night: that of not belonging. Not belonging to a particular setting, not belonging to a particular group, not belonging to a particular class. Not belonging. You can read Perry's column here. In my case it was also not belonging to a particular race.

In order to understand why the audience reacted so strongly to my presence at that theatre that night I have to provide you, my fellow bloggers and followers with a few details of Cuban society circa the mid-to-late 80s when I was an adolescent.

Like in any other country around the world, there were tribes in Cuba, more specifically amongst the Cuban youth. And without being too dense or deep about it there were many reasons for their existence, government policy being one of them. I could say, at the risk of being corrected by a fellow countryman or woman, that there were four distinct tribes in the Havana of 1988-9: the pepillos (mainly into pop music, think of the New Romantics in terms of look, but please, please, bear in mind the big differences between the UK post-punk Spandau Ballet-devotees and Cuban Miami Sound Machine-enthusiasts ), the guapos (literally 'tough guys', mainly into salsa [or casino as we call it], funk, disco and Michael Jackson), the friquis or friqui-friquis (rockers, with their own subdivisions: punks, heavy metal fans) and trovas (the name comes from Nueva Trova, or New Song Movement). Except for the 'guapos', I alternated between the other three groups. Those who were into ballet, jazz and any other art form were a tribe apart.

And that was the main reason why I was given such an unwelcome reception at the Grand Theatre of Havana that night. I had trespassed, strayed into a land that was off-limits to the likes of me, a young, black, scruffy lad from a rough part of town. I was a persona non grata. As Grayson says in his article (à propos de the film 'Precious') in relation to his upbringing 'I felt echoes of a sentiment perhaps never even voiced in my family of origin but which I have inherited. The message said: "Not for the likes of us."'

Not for the likes of us. How many of you have had the same feeling? Especially as some of you, readers and fellow bloggers, are also writers and artists in your own right and it is that world on which Grayson focuses in his column. In my case, unlike Perry, I did have a cultured background. My dad, a professional pianist, always instilled in me the urge to go and find out, ask questions, visit galleries, listen to music, see plays. My mum, on the other hand, taught me how to read and write in a hospital bed when I was five. And yet, when I made my way into that theatre that night, and all eyes were on me, I felt like a charlatan. Who did I think I was, coming to see the great Loipa?

You're probably thinking that a situation like mine in a country like Cuba, with its reputation for fairness and egalitarianism, was a one-off. To which my reply is: It was anything but. It's true that after Alicia Alonso was given the green light by Fidel Castro and co. to carry on expanding and developing Cuba's National Ballet Company, access became less of a problem for people who wouldn't so much get a look-in years before, namely, blacks and the great unwashed. The effect, nevertheless, was similar to papering the cracks of a big, marble tower. What the Cuban government did not solve and has never been able to sort out is the deep-seated racial and class divisions that preceded Fidel and his bevy of merry, bearded men. The mother who hides the expensive crockery when her daughter's black boyfriend comes to visit. The Communist Party member whose arm is around the older, sun-kissed, humble farmer but who shuns him the minute the cameras are switched off. The university lecturer who favours and gives higher grades to those students from wealthier backgrounds. Likewise, audiences at ballet shows remained pretty much the same in the intervening decades (and the few black faces in the public that night belonged mainly to gay men who were wondering, too, what I was doing there) until the 90s when the economic crisis forced the closures of many nightclubs and cabarets in Havana, driving their regulars to other spots where they could find their much sought-after entertainment, for example, ballet shows.

To my credit, I didn't pack it in that night and carried on attending the Cuban National Ballet Company's seasons after that initial traumatic evening. However, it was a few years before I got rid of what Perry calls in his article 'impostor syndrome'. It's strange and ironic, too, that when I began my own dancing career with the Havana University Folkloric Ensemble in the mid 90s, the friends and acquaintances I had by then made in the ballet world turned their noses up at my choice of genre: too black, too primitive, too... uncouth. There were a few exceptions, for instance, Lorna Feijóo, a very versatile and nimble ballet dancer, with whom I discussed Afro-Cuban dance and who happened to be a student of mine when I used to teach English.

Perry also writes about the dichotomy that affects those of us who come from working-class backgrounds (although even that word, 'working class' is debatable in some contexts) once we get over our first-hand experience of social snobbery. Some go on to become socials snobs themselves, whilst others are caught in the middle of an uncomfortable axis: you feel like an exotic rara avis amongst the posh, whilst not being totally at ease with hoi polloi.

At almost forty now, I feel comfortable with who I am but I can't stop thinking of those kids I run into (for instance my son's friends) and proclaim that they don't like this or that activity, which eventually translates as this activity is not for the likes of them. I'm not supposed to like ballet, or classical music, or abstract art, they seem to say. I realise that this attitude is as dependent on socio-economic factors as it is on parental guidance. Ultimately, though, and it's always been my advice to the younger generations (including my children), it's about you and what you want to do, not what people tell you to do. After all, that first time at the ballet didn't deter me from coming back every season. And if the others wanted to stare, let them stare, they were the ones missing out on the great spectacle before their eyes.

Pandora's World Cup Box

Now that the World Cup is well and truly underway, it's time to bring back to life Hephaestus's creation to regale us with tales of the zeniths or nadirs the beautiful game has reached. Which one is which is entirely up to you, my dear readers.

And so, first we have the most sought-after cuddly toy in stores now: a replica, not of Rooney, or Ronaldo, not even Messi, but the ah!-so affable and bubbly Adrian Chiles, a man so watered-down that he was, apocryphally mind, banned from the BBC's Blue Peter garden for misusing the hose. Adrian's amorphous shape is ideal for goal celebrations or penalty shoot-outs angst.

Afraid that your team might lose? 5-0 down and two minutes of added time to go and playing with only eight men on the pitch? Fear not, for Matrix Cool Chair is here to help. All you need to do is take the blue pill. And everything will be different. Your team will recover and in less than thirty seconds (that's the official allocated time for Wayne Rooney at press conferences) they will overcome the deficit and win. Oh, I forgot to mention that the Matrix comes with an automatic channel flicker in case the tablet doesn't work.

Did you know that refs will be equipped with swearword detectors in various languages? Alas, North Korea did not submit its list of profanities. They allegedly said that they were too pure to indulge in foul language. They also added that if the South African authorities kept going on about it they were going to nuke the living s**t out of their World Cup facilities. At which point South African president Jacob Zuma enquired about the marrying age for North Korean women and what the alimony requirements involved. It's believed that a kit containing the most popular swearwords from the northern part of the Korean peninsula is on its way to Jo'burg.

Ornette Coleman Award of the Tournament so far: the vuvuzela.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 15th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Waltz with Bashir (Review)

Sometimes I think that our memory is a capricious device inserted in human beings at some point during our evolution to act as a "Je t'accuse" tool. A reminder that no matter what we get up to in our life, there will always be a possibility that our mental capacity to revive facts will unearth an unwelcome one. From our past, for instance.

That is the thesis that runs through 'Waltz with Bashir', a feature-length animated documentary that focuses on a man's recurring nightmare connected to the time he spent in the Israeli army in the first Lebanon War in 1982. In the dream the man is being chased by twenty-six feisty dogs, a number that remains unaltered whenever he has this nightmare. Encouraged by his friend, Ari Folman (who is also the writer and director of the film) the man sets out to meet old friends around the world who were also involved in the military conflict. What he finds is disturbing to say the least. Slowly, images from the war creep up, mixed with other visions that he is not sure of having experienced. Did everything he imagines happen exactly as his dreams appear to dictate? Could his memory be tricking him, or could it be the effect of having fought a war where the civilian death toll was huge, especially in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps?

What director Ari Folman also addresses is how memory can be a selective tool to discriminate against unwanted, intrusive elements that might pollute our reputation at a moment in our lives when stability and domestic bliss are the goals desired. The nameless man in the film acts as a gigantic metaphor for the Israeli forces whose decision to allow Christian Phalangist militia into the Palestinian camps ultimately proved fatal for the civilians based there.

The movie benefits from a combination of dark colours, minimalist music and comic-like animation. The effect is like walking on a wide wooden plank above a precipice, with the board eventually getting narrower and narrower without us realising it. The atmosphere is stifling and almost claustrophobic, not just for the main character, the nameless man, but also for those around him. Even Folman doesn't escape this collective amnesia. When confronted by the man's nightmare and the spectre of the war looming large over it, he baffles his interlocutor by claiming that he cannot remember if he was near the camps at the time. The man's meetings with his ex-comrades yield some of the most beautiful moments in the movie, from an aesthetic point of view. One recalls being ambushed and escaping by swimming out to sea in the moonlit night. Another one remembers having an erotic fantasy of an enormous naked woman towing him away whilst his confreres are getting killed. The nameless man himself has a quasi/faux memory of emerging from the sea completely naked with his fellow soldiers and wading on the beach at Beirut. The macabre dance-effect of the latter scene could well have been drawn from the stable of the late Pina Bausch. And dance is even present in the movie's title, named after a scene in which a machine gun-toting commander executes a waltz in front of one of the posters of Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese president murdered in East Beirut.

'Waltz with Bashir' is a film about the reality of war from a dream-like perspective. One of the reasons why this approach works is because the director avoids pointing his finger at anyone in particular, except for at the Israeli Defence Forces for their role in the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. In what I can only call a 'snap of the fingers to wake the viewer up' moment, Ari Folman includes real TV news footage of the slaughter at the camps. To me the message is clear: it's OK to feel dreamy, and be intelectual and rational about it, but people did get killed. And no matter where you hide or how many years go by, your memory will hunt you down in the end.


Next post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 13th June at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Multilinguals Are...? (Review)

I'm sure that in years to come people all over the world will come to appreciate the efforts made by the likes of Madalena Cruz-Ferreira to raise awareness of multilingualism. And I know that I am not alone in thinking that as the global population becomes savvier in linguistic matters (alas, less so in cultural ones sometimes), this will have been made possible thanks to books such as 'Multilinguals Are...?' (Battlebridge Publications).

I must, however, declare, in the interest of fairness, that this review is impartial and unbiased. The reason for this clarification is that my blog was referenced in the illustration credits on account of one of the images Madalena used in her book. It was a cartoon drawn by my fellow Cuban blogger and long-time collaborator, Garrincha and you can read the original post here.

As readers and followers of this blog know, I have been an advocate of multilingualism for a long time, both from a professional perspective (I studied linguistics in university, in Havana) and from a personal point of view since my two children and my wife are all fluent in Spanish and English. In that respect Madalena's book provided answers to many of the questions I had asked myself many times.

'Multilinguals Are...?' is a fun, practical and unpretentious dissertation on the benefits, myths and misconceptions of multilinguals. The first element that caught my attention was Madalena's writing style: not confrontational, yet adamant and firm. Very early on in the book, she turns the tables on those who criticise multilingualism by asking a series of questions normally posed to people who use more than one lingo: 'Can monolingualism affect language development? Can monolingual development affect the development of a child's single language? Is monolingualism an advantage or disadvantage? What are the reasons to nurture monolingualism? How do people become monolingual?'

I confess that I'd never asked myself these questions because I had always assumed that monolinguals outnumbered multilinguals. This is not the case, as Madalena correctly states, and the truth becomes more obvious when you take into account that a person born in India, Kenya or Norway will be exposed to a myriad languages both in their immediate surroundings and in school from a very early age. When I worked in the travel sector, the company was owned by two brothers born in Kenya and fluent in Gujarati, Urdu, Swahili and, of course, English. They could switch from one language to the other effortlessly. Far from them being the exception to the rule, they were rather the norm. Most Scandinavians I've met can converse in English (learnt at school when they're very young), French, Spanish or German. Or in all of them. However, even in what Madalena considers to be a standard linguistic setting, the effect of acquiring a new language is seen as a miracle and the author is well aware of the danger this laudatory attitude poses. In her own words, 'Multilinguals should be wary of taking these kinds of comments as flattering because the problem here is of course that what is awe-inspiring cannot be normal'.

The book is divided in thirteen chapters with thought-provoking titles such as 'Multilinguals have no mother tongue, because they are not native speakers of any language', 'Multilinguals don't have many languages, they have many half-languages' and 'Multilingualism should be encouraged, but only in languages that matter'. The purpose of these eye-catching captions, in my opinion, is to shift the responsibility from the multilingual person, who has to put up with plenty of misconceptions about his or her 'gift', to the monolingual one.

Take Chapter 10, for instance: 'In order to raise multilingual children, you must speak to them in only one language'. It brought to mind the time when my son was born and my wife began to speak to him in Spanish, despite the fact that she herself had been born in the UK. We were under the - wrong - impression that if the two of us did not talk to him in my mother tongue he would never learn it. This approach, however, did the opposite. My wife is British, she learnt Spanish whilst doing her degree in university (although her dad comes from Gibraltar and his family from southern Spain), so therefore many of the phrases that I used with my son, expressions with which I had grown up, were beyond her reach. A few months after our son was born, my consort decided to switch to English and I agreed with her, and also thanked her for making the effort. Madalena puts this situation in context in the book. Here's an excerpt:

'We may start by asking ourselves why no monolingual family worries about the best way of raising their child monolingually. The issue doesn't arise in monolingual families because their use of language will, expectedly, be natural: the parents will speak to their child the (one) language that comes naturally to them, and the child will naturally learn it. In contrast, families, who decide to raise their children multilingually are bound to start at once seeking information and advice about what exactly should be done to achieve this purpose successfully. We may go on wondering why is it that multilingual should worry about this at all. In other words, what is it that makes multilingual hesitate to resort to what must come naturally to them to, as far as uses of language are concerned?'

Such a short book (my copy is eighty-six pages long) will not be able to cover everything related to linguistics. I would like, then, to add two more factors to the whole monolingual/multilingual entente (or discord, your choice). One is culture. It's not strange that monolingualism usually translates as monoculturalism, although many monolinguals are well-versed in multicultural matters. However, in my opinion, they are in the minority. Based on my personal experience, the more an individual retreats into his/her own - sole - language without attempting to reach out, the more his or her cultural perspective narrows. There's mention of this phenomenon in the book, but it is very brief.

The second factor is the relationship between parents/carers and their offspring. My wife's and mine biggest achievement in the linguistic area has been to raise two children who can speak fluently two of the most popular languages in the world: English and Spanish (number two and three, respectively, behind Mandarin at number one). For me this accomplishment is even more rewarding when one takes into account that in a foreign land the sound of one's children speaking one's native tongue and discussing their personal problems (grammatical and syntactical gaffes notwithstanding, and who cares about them, really?) in a frank and open way beats any academic feat they might carry through in school. It's one of the essential rungs on the ladder of respect, trust and friendship that lies at the heart of any parent/children relationship. Again, there's very little of that in the book.

But such observations are mere droplets in the vast ocean of wisdom and common sense Madalena navigates. I laughed out loud when I read her views on people who compare the human brain with a computer. Yes, Your Honour, I used to be one such culprit. Cruz-Ferreira states that: 'If you assume that the brain works like a hard disk, its contents get stored in more or less neat compartments. There must therefore be physical brain space dedicated to language too. You then assume, with the mainstream, that the "normal" language compartment fills to capacity with just one single language (...) And if you further assume, to complete the analogy, that the disk/brain needs some free space to be able to go about its housekeeping tasks properly, we have the ideal conditions that explain the havoc that multilingualism is said to wreak "normal" brains. Symptoms of "Warning: disk full!" crop up through, say, a child's refusal to use one language, adults' difficulties with learning new languages or language mixes from speakers of any age. Whichever the case may be, the error message is ascribed to glitches in language warehousing, where the little grey cells struggle about and waste precious brain energy to defend the territorial rights of their one brain-one language.'

Thorough thinking as demonstrated in the excerpt above is one of the reasons why 'Multilinguals Are...?' deserves more attention. I will be e-mailing publishers and editors in the UK, who, I gather, might be interested in promoting such an impressive book. For the record, I will be doing this without pursuing any financial interest whatsoever. If you're an editor or a publisher and receive an e-missive from me, please, do contact the author directly. As for you, dear fellow bloggers and followers, it doesn't matter whether you're monolingual or multilingual, go and buy this book. It will give you a powerful insight into a fascinating world, one of which you might already be part, or are thinking of joining: multilingualism.

Note: At the author's request, I have included the following links, a couple of which have already made it into the post.

The Publisher:
Battle Bridge


Multilingual Living

Multilingual Mania

In addition, all profits from the sale of the book go to Yuti (meaning 'unity'), a trilingual children's magazine in Sinhala, Tamil and English. This publication is distributed, free of charge, to Sri Lankan children, ages eight to fourteen, three times a year. For more information, click


Next Post: 'Waltz with Bashir (Review)', to be published on Thursday 10th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

When Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, announced recently her decision to stand for the Labour Leadership contest, the sighs of both relief and disappointment could be heard all the way from Brixton to Enfield.

To say that the response was mixed would be the biggest understatement of the century. Diane Abbott is a polarising figure. On the one hand her supporters point at a long political career based on grassroots activism. Diane also opposed the invasion of Iraq, one of New Labour's bugbears, took an earlier stand against the erosion of civil liberties and has campaigned to raise minority representation in politics. On the other hand her detractors will cry: 'Hypocrite!' following her decision to send her son to a private school. Her weekly slot on 'This Week', a late-night political programme on BBC1, has brought her closer to Michael Portillo, a former Tory MP; too close for comfort some would say.

I admit that I was chuffed when she finally came clear about running for the Labour leadership on Radio Four's Today programme. Not least, because she rendered a usually vocal James Naughtie, one of the presenters, speechless. Not an easy task, as regular listeners of that programme will aver. But it was what came after that made me wonder whether Diane herself was going a little bit over the top in her enthusiasm to explain why she had put her hat in the ring.

'I followed the Obama campaign and it seemed strange that when the US has a black president, we didn't even have a black candidate for our leadership', she told Hugh Muir of The Guardian straight after. The half cynical part of me was expecting the 'O' word to come out any minute; the romantic one was still hoping that wouldn't be the case.

No, Diane, you're not Barack Obama. And neither is any politician in the UK. And furthermore, we're as far from an 'Obama moment' on these shores as we are from developing artificial life (synthetic DNA, notwithstanding).

I had so far resisted writing about the current president of the USA, not out of fear or reverence, but because so much has been said, argued and counter-argued that one more comment would merely roll off into the vacuum of oblivion. However a recent essay by Naomi Klein ('Branding America', The Guardian Review, Saturday 16th January) made me aware of the perils that await any politician - from the US or elsewhere - that attempts to jump on the 'O' bandwagon.

This is not a post about Obama. It's rather a column about the effect his electoral campaign marketing strategy had in the rest of the world - and it still has. In her fine piece, Naomi dissects the process that made Obama electable. Note that word: electable. And I would like to add, if I may, a few more elements of my own.

The first one is an external factor that was briefly referred to but was quickly overshadowed by Obamamania. Without a George W Bush there wouldn't be a Barack in the White House now. That might seem a bit harsh, but, please, bear in mind that Bush outsourced almost the whole operational side of government to the private sector. In Naomi's own words, 'this hollowing out was not a side project of the Bush years; it was a central mission, reaching into every field of governance. And though the Bush clan was often ridiculed for its incompetence, the process of auctioning off the state, leaving behind only a shell – or a brand – was approached with tremendous focus and precision.' In the UK, on the other hand, this 'hollowing out' has not been as thorough as on the other side of the Atlantic. Therefore the catalyst needed to trigger off a radical overhaul of the political system is not ripe yet. In fact, it has not even been planted.

That leads me to the second element. As much as I celebrated Obama's victory, caution never abandoned me. At some point I remember thinking that one of the reasons why I wanted to see him in the White House (besides his stand on the Iraq war and his plans for healthcare reform) was the fact that had Hillary been elected instead we would have been staring at the following dynastic structure: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton. Bro, can you spare a dime?

For the third factor I quote Naomi again on the fundamental principle of branding: ‘find your message, trademark and protect it and repeat yourself ad nauseam through as many synergised platforms as possible.’ In Obama’s case that was rebranding the US under the ‘Yes, We Can!’ slogan. In Diane’s case, or any other politician looking to exploit a similar gap in the market the possibilities are narrower because this coalition government has conquered that indispensable middle ground on which its future existence will depend but also from which it will fend off any opposition. The first measures taken by the new government in the UK were aimed at dispelling any doubts that this would be a lukewarm administration: the scrapping of the ID cards programme, downsizing or getting rid of useless quangos, school reform and devolution of power (policing amongst other services). This middle-of-the-road approach will make it very difficult for any future opponent to introduce their own version of ‘Change We Can Believe In’. One of the salient aspects of marketing is how a brand trascends the function of the product it promotes. People don’t just buy Nike because the company makes good trainers, but also because they want to trascend their own lives (especially the less well-off) through the brand, hence the effectiveness of their ‘Just Do It’ campaign. Likewise, people - especially youngsters - bought into the Obama brand, mainly, although not exclusively, because he became the canvas on which they projected their innermost desires. All the efforts that have followed thereafter (including The Sun's idiotic Photoshopped cover likening David Cameron to Barack) have been excrucitiangly awful and unimaginative.

I’ve left for the end of this column the most obvious element of why Diane's 'O' moment is unlikely to materialise and yet I was at pains trying to figure out how to write about it. But it’s better to face up to the proverbial elephant in the room head on. Diane Abbott is a black woman of a certain age and weight. Yes, I know that we’re in the 21st century but we’re not in a post-racial era. Nor did Obama usher in one. What he did provide was a temporary solution to the damage inflicted on the US reputation abroad by the Bush administration. And Obama did not hesitate to become the spokesperson for the youtube, facebook generation. As Naomi excellently describes, Barack Obama and his team used every single available tool in the New Gadgets Bible to ram their message home: Change. Logos, expert viral marketing, product placement and choice of strategic alliances (Klein mentions Oprah, the Kennedy family and many hip-hop stars), there was never a shortage of ideas. Unlike the US president, Abbott comes across more like the auntie who tells you off when you don’t show your face around her house for a long time.

I would also like to add that even Obama couldn’t have foreseen that the best weapon for his never-ending arsenal was provided by the Republicans themselves: Sarah Palin. Never have I seen more political incompetence and incoherence than that displayed by Palin. Even Tina Fey, in her famous sketches of the vice-presidential candidate, was far too lenient on Sarah. In fact it wouldn't be far-fetched to imagine that many self-avowed right-wingers would have preferred the writer and star of the American sitcom 30 Rock to run alongside senator John McCain, rather than the Alaskan version of Xena the Warrior Princess. And I still believe that that factor was what finally tipped the scales in Obama’s favour. Unfortunately for Diane Abbott, unless the ‘Cameron/Clegg’ double act starts spewing out nonsense about Britain sharing a border with Russia, there’s not much to galvanise Labour voters, let alone the British electorate to take her up to the next level.

And yet, I support Diane's decision to join the fray for the Labour leadership. Because she will force the other candidates to adopt a more radical position. Diane is fighting a battle on the grounds of better housing, more female and ethnic minority representation in government (there are only four women in the current cabinet) and stronger trade unions. If she can add a cohesive economic agenda to the impressive array of issues she is bringing to the Labour leadership battle, she could be the Wild Card who gets to play in the final of the World Series.

As for whether we need an 'O' moment in the UK or not, I will borrow again Naomi Klein's words on Barack and the effect he's had on the various movements that exist worldwide and that are making demands of the elites that rule them: "What the election and the global embrace of Obama's brand proved decisively is that there is a tremendous appetite for progressive change – that many, many people do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves." Forget about the 'O' moment, Diane, you just need us, the people.

Photo taken from Diane Abbott's website.


Next Post: 'Multilinguals Are...? (Review)', to be published on Tuesday 8th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Review)

The most outstanding element of 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is, that a movie which primarily takes place inside someone's head (and someone who's just had a stroke to cap it all) can be so dynamic. Movement in this film is not restricted to the doctors and nurses who swarm around Jean-Dominique Bauby's bed, coming into and out of focus, but it also involves the patient's vivid inner world.

Whereas in 'Basquiat' he painted a portrait of a self-destructive but highly talented artist and in 'Before Night Falls' he detailed the harassment to which the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas was subjected by the Castro government, in 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' director Julian Schnabel focuses on the trauma suffered by a man who is used to living 'la dolce vita'. Elle magazine's editor-in-chief Jean-Dominique Bauby is at the height of his physical and mental powers when he falls victim to what is known in the medical profession as 'locked-in syndrome'. His whole body is paralysed except for his left eye. Battling against the odds, he learns how to communicate using both that organ of sight and a special code developed by his therapist and his publisher.

'The Diving...' is a film about human resilience, misgivings and challenges. The resilience is provided by Jean-Do's U-turn after initial disappointment in his condition and despair. The ex-editor eventually changes his mind in regards to the possibilities his therapy offers and becomes more cooperative with his speech specialist. The anxiety is displayed mainly by Dominique's friends and his estranged wife, who don't know how to deal with this delicate situation. In one poignant scene and before his volte-face, Jean-Do gets his speech therapist to write: 'I want to die'. On reading these words she storms out of the room and although she apologises after, she realises that her reaction has more to do with her feelings than his. The challenges are various, not least his physical ones, but to Jean-Do's credit he does manage to face up to them.

The movie is also a good opportunity to see director Julian Schnabel at his artistic best, visually speaking. I always felt when I saw both 'Basquiat' and 'Before the Night Falls' that Schnabel was excluding from his movies the genre that brought him fame in the first place: painting. In the eighties he was known for his neo-expressionist work and several galleries around the world have exhibited his art. In 'The Diving...', luckily he doesn't hold back and gives us scenes that could only have been carved out by a visual artist in touch with his creative self. For instance the title of the film is based on an image of a diving bell symbolising imprisonment, whilst the butterfly is a metaphor for freedom, the freedom Jean-Do had but which is now denied to him by his present condition.

There's a lot of humour in the film from the outset. And it's the type of warped facetiousness that is shaped by a sudden upheaval of a person's circumstances. But it is also the type of gaiety that conveys sadness. From that perspective, 'The Diving...' might be a tough film to watch if the main character's plight is too close to home for the viewer.

My only disappointment is the movie trailer (clip below). For some strange reason the producers decided to arrange all the scenes in what would be the chronological and logical order. But that's not how it happens in the film. We come across Jean-Do's thoughts first as he is lying in bed. He tries to talk to the doctors but they cannot hear him. Slowly we find out why and what's happened. The end of the film is the beginning of the trailer. Whereas Julian Schnabel's movie is all about disorientation, trauma and loss, the trailer tries to give a coherent narrative to what is fundamentally an irrational and disjointed situation - not least for Jean-Do. Healthy today, bed-ridden tomorrow.

Yet, don't let that cautionary note put you off this film. It is superbly acted, the script is very strong and the direction flawless. I hope you enjoy it.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 6th June at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

The opening page of a book is the equivalent of being given a ticket to work on a strange land. Similar to the first notes of a song we've never heard before, there's a sense of anticipation and excitement. I lap up those introductory lines like a man drinks water after he has travelled through the desert. And as in music, where you go back to the same track if you like it, I return to that first page long after I've finished reading the book. One of my favourite openings in literature is that of the main character in 'Invisible Man', the famous novel written by Ralph Ellison:

'I am an invisible man. 
No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids
- and I might even be said to possess a mind. 
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed, everything and anything except me.'

Read one of those lines again. '...it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass'. When I open the first page of a book I feel as if I was standing in the middle of a room crowded with words, where each and every one of them is looking at me, trying to catch my attention. To me, Ellison's text rings out like the bell they used to use in ships in gone-by days to call for lunch. Literary hunger. Satiated by the author. His opening is concise, brief and to the point. Do not confuse him with Poe. No, that would be a gross mistake. Here, look at me, I'm writing about the experience of being black in the US. Of being invisible.

But there's also a universal aspect to that excerpt. Even if you didn't know who Ralph Ellison was, even if you were not familiar with his political, social and critical essays, you would probably feel included in his main character's invisibility. Because that's the common denominator of many minority groups: their imperceptibility. And that opening page goes to great length to sum up briefly the effects of it.

Ellison's novel was a way of conveying the sense of disappointment of a black man who feels cheated by a society whose raison d'être is the pursuit of the 'American dream'. In contrast, in "My Son's Story", Nadine Gordimer swaps the roles of the cheat and the cheated from the first line:

'How did I find out?

I was deceiving him.

November. I was on study leave – for two weeks before the exams pupils in the senior classes were allowed to stay home to prepare themselves. I would I was going to work with a friend at a friend’s house, and then I’d slip off to a cinema. Cinemas had been open to us only a year or so; it was a double freedom I took: to bunk study and to sit in the maroon nylon velvet seat of a cinema in a suburb where whites live. My father was not well off but my parents wanted my sister and me to have a youth less stunted by the limits of an empty pocket than their precocious position, at the time, warranted. So I was in the foyer waiting to get into a five o’clock performance at one of the cinemas in a new complex and my father and a woman came out of the earlier performance in another.'

There was my father; the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, not he me.

If Ellison's narrative reminds me of a lunch bell ringing out, Gordimer's calls to mind a fishing boat moored to a pier. And how in a split second the ropes that were fastened before are let loose and a fifteen-year-old sees his life fading away in the distance as his boat sets sail on uncharted waters. The father who spots him playing truant is himself cheating on the boy's mother. Nadine presents a conflict between father and son and father and wife and mistress. It doesn't help that the father's lover is a white woman in apartheid-ridden South Africa. And the clincher in that first page is the phrase 'the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, not he me'.

Good opening passages are not just the province of prose. Poetry has many good examples, too. Even short poems, which sometimes are dismissed haughtily for their brevity, can provide one or two intensely emotional line(s). One of my favourite authors is Chicago-born, Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros, whose humour and perspicacity are omnipresent in her work. Take the opening lines of 'Original Sin', a poem included in 'Loose Woman', a collection of her poems:

Before Mexicana flight #729
en route to Mexico City departs
from San Antonio International Airport
I buy a 69¢ disposable razor at
the gift shop because I forgot
in Mexico they don't like hair
under your arms only
on your legs and plan to

shave before landing but
the stewardess handing out declaration
forms has given me the wrong
one assuming I'm Mexican but I am!
and I have to run up the aisle and ask
for a US citizen form instead because
I'm well how do I explain?

Is the author's apprehension to fall from divine grace related to hirsute armpits or her dual cultural heritage? Is the biblical apple presented to her, a hairy one or does it carry a label reading 'Hecha en Méjico'? As we read on, we get a snippet of the poet's internal struggle, the battle to get rid of the unwanted tuft.

Although the three examples above were chosen randomly, only now, as I write this post, do I realise that they were all written in the first person singular. A common trait that underlines the allure of them all. That first contact with the author's world; a world of sowing, growing, ripening and harvesting in which once we give our ticket at the entrance, we're invited to work on this strange land.

© 2010

Next Post: 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly(Review)', to be published on Thursday 3rd June at 11:50pm (GMT)


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