Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Archive for March, 2010

Antichrist: Into (an) Eden

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 26, 2010

Originally published at PassionforCinema.

Antichrist, 2009, 104 min

Written and Directed by Lars von Trier

Muriel Award-Winning Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle

Story (taken from IMDb): A grieving couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreats to their cabin in the woods, hoping to repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage. But nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse.

An unforgettable moment; look closely at those in the background.

I started watching Antichrist with no expectations whatsoever about quality; I’d read that it was a beautiful movie, I’d read that it was a piece of tasteless porn, and I’d also read that it was nothing worth our time. The only expectation I had was that it would be sickeningly violent. Antichrist’s success, for me, lies in the fact that it belied all of the aforementioned opinions.

I’m convinced that my age had something to do with this. Being only eighteen, there are some aspects of the human experience that are yet beyond me, and probably this movie taps into some deep fears in that part, making the movie horrific – not too much of a wonder, it’s almost sitcommy how much the woman distrusts the man – rather than just plain dreadful like it was for me; I was thinking don’t do it but there was nothing like look away. If you actually count the acts of violence, there is a sum total of three, and only one of them is as horrific as some critics would have us believe.

To do with sitcoms, I’m actually beginning to see a deeper parallel now. If you’ve ever watched a sitcom, you’ll know that they are almost misogynistic in their portrayal of urban women as neurotic little upstarts out to rule the sensible even if flawed men. You’ll find the parallel to have a true enough ring if you ever watch the movie.

In fact, in that way, it’s also the opposite of noir. A sort of reverse noir, if you will. Noir is about men who don’t understand, and therefore trust, the world around them, a distrust the cherry on top of which is that of women – specifically, that of the femme fatale. Antichrist, in contrast, is about the woman’s distrust of a man who more than adequately understands her, but whom she has no capacity to understand.

If noir is from the point of view of the men, Antichrist is – as much as this movie can be said to have a point of view – from the point of view of the woman. The whole movie, Willem Dafoe’s man is distant and clinical, a two-dimensional piece. Poor Dafoe has little to do, but rarely has little been done this well. Charlotte Gainsbourg, by contrast, got a role complex enough to win a completely deserved 2009 Muriel Award for her portrayal of the woman.

But all that’s sideline. The real point of this movie is the death of humanity, the death of humanity by distrust, of others too but primarily of oneself. I said that the woman doesn’t understand the man. The truth is that she, more importantly, doesn’t have the slightest clue about herself either, just like the men in noir. That’s why the movie progresses the way it does; it’s the chronicle of a woman who has completely lost trust in herself.

That’s why it’s called Antichrist; these two are to the Antichrist as Adam and Eve are to the Christ. Adam and Eve (symbolically) begun humanity; these two (symbolically) end it.

Adam and Eve have no history. These two are completely history; he’s American, she’s English, suggesting a history of metaphorical colonisation and breaking free.

But that’s still not the most profoundly disturbing thing about the movie. That would be the fact that it tries to disguise itself under the form of a horror movie. A train journey flashes images of cruelty, most of the music is the tail end of a gong, the house in Eden is continuously bombarded by acorns, ears of corn spontaneously grow on the man’s hand … the list could go on. But the fact is that all this eeriness is but a sheer veneer, a cover for the real melancholy only allowed to come to fruition in the prologue and epilogue.

If there’s a problem with the movie, it’s that it fails to attain beauty. The meaning feels tacked on; it differentiates itself from reverse noir in only the name, two shots and an epilogue. Which is a pity, because here we have a movie that spells out for us what’s going to come to pass during the climax and then completely blindsides us after. Good enough, but not perfect like it would be if the blindside grew out of the movie.

No one seems to quite agree with me: Roger Ebert, James Berardinelli, S M Rana.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Movies, von Trier, Lars | Tagged: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

“The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was cerainly English.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 25, 2010

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
and
Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,
by Lewis Carroll

I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was really small, and forgot  everything about it, almost. I remembered the story of a rat prosecuting a cat written in the shape of a rat’s tail, Alice picking up a bottle on her way down the rabbit-hole, and the Mad Tea-Party. I also remember that I didn’t read the second book because I’d got bored. Having just read both books today, I can say with confidence that my child-self had much the same tastes I do; those three things are the exact things that stay with me from the first book. One mistake little Ronak made, however, was to stop reading, a mistake even this big Ronak almost made, for the second book is a truly beautiful one.

The two books, as you undoubtedly know, is a series of encounters with anthropomorphised animals — not exclusively animals, though, we even get cards and chess pieces and, believe it or not, ideas — that happen when a) Alice follows a rabbit nervous about the time down a rabbithole into Wonderland and b) Alice walks through a mirror into Looking-Glass land. Also, we learn that of the Cheshire Cat, who is a cat who always grins.

I loved the first half of the first book. The driving force behind everything seemed to be to challenge Alice’s preconceived notions of reality in every possible way, and it worked,  reaching its peak in a tea-party with a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse.

‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
‘Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.
‘It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.
‘I didn’t know it was YOUR table,’ said Alice; ‘it’s laid for a great many more than three.’
‘Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.
‘You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; ‘it’s very rude.’
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. ‘I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud. ‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.
‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’
‘It IS the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Sorry for the length of the excerpt, but it’s hard to both convey the charm and not cut off abruptly at the same time.

Well, as I’ve already said, from here it goes downhill; there’s the entrance of the Queen of Hearts, who’s just annoying. While every other character makes complex existential statements, her oddness is limited to ordering executions. And there’s a gryphon and a mock turtle — the latter learnt in school, among other similar things, “the different branches of Arithmetic–Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision” –, the vignette involving whom is unfortunately marred by substandard poetry. And, finally, there’s a courtroom sequence which acts as a pathetic stand-in (think, as a description of the problem, the Queen of Hearts) for a climax and end.

The second book is much of the same thing, except the momentum carries through to the end; Carroll is obviously much surer of his structure and form here. Everything is better integrated, and the queens (red and white) who take centre-stage for rather long actually have worthy dialogues, making this a beautiful book.

Incidentally, the Cheshire Cat can appear and disappear, and it doesn’t even need to pop, or fade, in and out of view; it can disappear from one end to the other.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Carroll, Lewis | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

No Country for Old Men

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 23, 2010

Originally published at PassionforCinema.

No Country for Old Men, 2007, 122 min

Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, based upon a book by Cormac McCarthy

Music by Carter Burwell

Cinematography by Roger Deakins

Story: Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad and takes the money, but a psychopathic killer with a cattle gun Anton Chigurh (Shi-GUR; Javier Bardem) is bent upon taking the money from him. Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) helplessly and uncomprehendingly tries to stop Chigurh.

A Still from the movieThe last half-hour of No Country for Old Men is one of the more surprising one can see in the movies. It’s much more surprising than in a con movie or a suspense thriller, because in those movies we expect to be surprised. This movie makes absolutely no claims at being a surpriser anywhere during its running length, and that lends the surprise an air of unexpectedness completely absent from most other movies.

For the first two-thirds of the movie, the dominant theme of my thoughts was: there are movies, which aim to mean more than movies, then there are movie-movies, which aim to be merely great cinematically, and then there’s No Country for Old Men, which just aims to be. It’s not about the two people engaged in this fatal struggle, for the few times we actually see their faces in any detail, in shots that in other movies would be supposed to deepen our connections to the characters, it is surprising and even slightly disconcerting; we suddenly realise how completely unexplainable these characters are. Why doesn’t Llewellyn Moss just stop? Why does Anton Chigurh… to hell with that, why is he?

The most important reason this movie completely draws us in is not because the landscapes are beautiful – quite the opposite, I’d say, but even that in itself has involving power – or because the plot has a deep metaphorical resonance with our daily lives – I’d need to see this one really well-argued to be convinced – or because the world this movie is set in is so bleak, and certainly not because we relate to the characters. No, the most important reason is the noisetrack. It’s not a soundtrack in the conventional sense; at one point it’s about to become one, but some musicians reveal themselves as the source of the music.

As I was saying before above irrelevant interjection, the charm of the first two-thirds of this movie lies mostly in its noisetrack. What draws us in is the clasping of the satchel, the cocking of the gun, the dragging of the shoe, the beeping of the detector, the flip of the switch, the buzzing of the fly, the banging of the door, and every other sound ever made by any man walking or driving across Texas. No Country for Old Men, dear reader, is the only movie that made me find dialogues spoken in thick Southern accents –with their long, loving drawls and habit of ending every sentence on a high note that I find to be the best things about many movies – anywhere near boring.

Yes, it can be argued that we are actually involved because of all the bleakness, and I would have to be a blind arse to not agree that there is some in the attitude of the plot, but that’s the only place you’ll find any of that. The Coens play it as a set of tense set-pieces; Brolin and Bardem play it merely like their characters, more along the lines of great performers than good actors; and the screenplay is more concerned with the minutiae of their actions than anything else. The only person who sees anything existentially scary about anything in the movie is the sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

And it is precisely this that No Country for Old Men becomes about in the third third. I’m not completely sure about whether this is a good thing; this turn-around takes away the status of movie-movie-movie that I was willing to endow upon this film, and a certain brand of uniqueness, and the major charm of the first two thirds, but this way the movie has an emotional heft going with the ending, Tommy Lee Jones (even his real name sounds like it’s from this movie) declaring, “And then I woke up.” An emotional heft that is much better for our memory of the movie than for the experience itself.

The problem with me, I suppose, is that I am, right now, thinking about my memory of the experience. Maybe, I think, it would have been better if I hadn’t watched it on a big screen (at the American Library in Chennai, where they show an American movie every Saturday) and I hadn’t so strongly noticed the little sounds and attributed my involvement to them. As things stand, at any rate, I’m slightly ambivalent about the ending, but this still remains one of the great exercises in style.

Posted in Coens, Ethan & Joel, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

The Puzzling Road

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 22, 2010

Book Cover

The best cover I could find; I read it in an awful blue one.

The Road, one of the most critically acclaimed books of the decade and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2007, has left me somewhat nonplussed; what was it about? And why was it about whatever it was about in the specific way it was about it?

When I heard it was the story of a father and a son travelling across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I was sure it would be about McCarthy’s post-apocalypse, with the father and son providing an emotional centre a la Ladri di Biciclette. The initial pages confirmed my opinion, and on my first try – sometime in 2008 – I only read around thirty pages because I thought it was getting too repetitive.

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

Notice, apart from the obvious melancholy, the number of sentence fragments in the piece. That is an obviously ‘artsy’ attempt at bleakness, which I don’t think generally works. Well, in this case it does, but this book is littered throughout with sudden onslaughts of description using these fragments which tend to be poetic descriptions structured without consideration for any narrative rhythm. Which is a pity, considering the quality of the rest of the prose. Another problem with this attempt is that these two characters are at a point beyond the ability to feel bleakness, where their life is basically drudgery, with occasional poignant reminiscences.

But the real point I was trying to get at using the extract was how much this sort of thing added to my puzzlement about the book; if the point of the book was its vision of the future, and this attempt at bleakness supports this idea, why was its vision nothing more than a generic one, an aftermath of floating ash a la the Triassic and no surviving food sources?

Okay, so maybe it’s not about that. Is it, then, about the complete lack of real hope in this world – in other words, an environmental message? The ‘bleakness’ would support this too, and I can see how some people might have taken it that way, but isn’t it the wrong point of time to capture this lack of hope, when the basic idea of hope has gone out the window and blown up in the nuclear blast? What I’m trying to say is, isn’t it a better idea to capture a moment while it’s still slipping out of their hands and heading for the window, giving some real room for poignancy in the bleakness rather than this plain, simple – I’m going to have to repeat a word – drudgery?

Then, I’m led to remember these passages, conversations between the father and the son:

He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. Shh, he said. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.
Okay.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I dont know. But it’s okay now. I’m going to put some wood on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didnt answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt turning.

I’m forced to conclude, that is, that the book is about the relationship between father and son, the father’s fears for his son, and the world is merely a device to accentuate it.

Well, shoot me for being puzzled.

Also, the themes weren’t the only thing puzzling me:

  1. The usage of obscure words. It was completely and utterly inorganic to McCarthy’s style. It completely contradicted his hopes to achieve bleakness by cutting his sentences up. He should have at least caught itself when he used one and had to explain it. “They were discalced to a man … for all their shoes were long since stolen.”
  2. The need for editing. There were sentences where both the father and the son were ‘he’, and one had to stop reading and think to find out which was whom. And there’s two – exactly two – passages written in first person, inexplicably breaking from the third person of the rest of the narrative.
  3. The need for copy-editing: There’s a sentence which starts with a small letter and, like that’s not enough, is very mysteriously butchered. Spelling mistakes I’m comparatively fine with, but this is totally unacceptable.

But all this is making The Road sound like a bad book. By the heavens, that it is not. When McCarthy isn’t describing anything, his prose has a level of mood and force few people can match. Not to mention that it did actually bring home the realities of living in a post-nuclear world, from the constant uncertainty about the next supply of food (there’s a beautiful bit where they stumble into a vault full of it) to the constant need for new shoes. All in all, however, I have higher hopes of the movie, which may be able to break free of McCarthy’s distracting obsession with his son and simultaneously bring home the reality of the world that McCarthy’s hackneyed method of description couldn’t.

Other interesting reviews of the book and movie:

Max Cairnduff of Pechorin’s Journal had feelings in many ways similar to mine, but for different reason.

William Rycroft of Just William’s Luck loved the book, found the relationship thing completely fine, and included it among his best of the decade.

Trevor Barett of The Mookse and The Gripes loved the book and was rooting for its Pulitzer win that year.

Roger Ebert loves the book and appreciates the movie.

A World Literature Forum member hates its very guts.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, McCarthy, Cormac | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

In no other Kurosawa movie would Mifune have chosen to fight with the spear instead

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 14, 2010

Originally Published at PassionforCinema.

Kakushi-toride no san-anukin (The Hidden Fortress), 1958, 150 min

Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Music by Masaru Sato

Cinematography by Ichio Yamazeki

Story (taken from IMDb): Lured by gold, two greedy peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) escort a man and woman across enemy lines. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess (Misa Uehara) and her general (Toshiro Mifune).


Spear-fights, unlike ones with swords, are fought at long distance, which makes them less adrenaline-inducing than swordfights. I think it is a testament to Kurosawa’s mastery as an editor and director that he makes the spear-fight from The Hidden Fortress I refer to in the title more intense, though possibly not as exciting, than any of the battles in his Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo. But this has nothing to do with the central question, which is: why did Kurosawa make Mifune’s character choose the spear?

People say that the first two parts of Sergio Leone’s ‘The Man with No Name’ were heavily influenced by Kurosaw’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The third part, however, was even more influenced by The Hidden Fortress. The first two merely borrowed plots, while the third borrowed an idea.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is popularly considered to be a ‘meta-western’, a western about the way a western worked. When the camera is jumping from hand to hand in the climax scene, what he is really doing is asking us how far he can go, before the tension levels off and leaves us bored. Similarly, in The Hidden Fortress, when people are dying when a sword touches their armour, when every scene changes with a swipe, when the whole story is seen from the point of view of two jokers, when the music is constantly telling us how to feel, when Mifune’s Rokurota Makabe starts fighting his greatest rival – and ‘truest friend’ – with a spear instead of a sword, and the Princess sings a song to bring about a change of heart in aforementioned greatest rival/truest friend, Kurosawa too is asking us how far he can go.

And the answer is… well, we don’t know the answer, but it certainly is at least as far as this.

So, how does he take it as far as he does? Certainly, there’s the virtuoso editing and camerawork. Then, there’s Ichio Yamazeki’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography, which converts anything and everything into a treat for the eyes.

But, most importantly, there’s Toshiro Mifune’s attitude. In all of Kurosawa’s other action movies, Mifune is a hyper-active – eh, you know the bandit in <I>Rashomon</I> who laughed when asked whether he killed the girl? Well, in this movie, he is not that. Rokurota Makabe is closer in spirit to Washizu from Throne of Blood than Yojimbo, lending – along with Misa Uehara’s tomboy princess – a much-needed air of seriousness otherwise absent from this magnificent experiment, an air of seriousness which is the major thing making this movie work.

But the funniest thing about this movie is not the ridiculous fighting or the in-your-face music or the comedy (which works); the funniest thing about this movie is that Hollywood action-movie-makers have chosen, out of all of Kurosawa’s action movies (called Jidai-geki in Japanese; read the first half of that word again, and if you still haven’t got it read it out aloud), Hollywood has chosen to borrow methodology – from the over-expressive form of the music to the melodramatic resolution and even ‘modern’ inventions like the shaky-cam – most heavily from this one; in other words, Hollywood considers serious what Kurosawa considers an experiment.

The essays of others:

James Berardinelli’s review

Armond White’s Criterion Collection essay

David Ehrenstein’s Criterion Collection essay

Posted in Kurosawa, Akira, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ladri di Biciclette

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 6, 2010

I put on Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves) expecting poverty porn of the best kind. I expected to end up crying like a little baby. What I got was something else entirely. While it is true that the movie is set during the Great Depression and is about the search for a bicycle of a man (Lamberto Maggiorani) whose entire livelihood depends on it, it’s not the poverty that director Vittorio de Sica is interested in, it’s how the poverty lives with the man, and how the man lives with poverty.

Very soon after he loses the bicycle, he goes to pick up his son (Enzo Staiola), and they walk into the empty street, two silhouettes in a bright sky. Unbeknown to us, this shot is exactly what the movie will show itself to be about.

For me, the most surprising thing about the movie was that it was as interested in the boy as the man. But what it was most interested in was the relation between them. We see a strange disconnect between them, a disconnect born of the fact that the father treats his son like a man; always, the son is expected to keep up, when he falls the father doesn’t even look back, when the father decides to drink away his sadness and “be happy for now”, the son gets wine too, wine that he doesn’t actually want to drink. It’s not that the father doesn’t care for his son, it’s that the son is grown beyond his years. The first time we see him, he is cleaning up his father’s bicycle, and complaining about the way the pawn-broker teated it. We see them leaving, at six-thirty in the morning, dressed in exactly the same way. The father drops him at a place, and drives off to his own newfound job, after two anguished “Bye, papa”s. Then, when we are expecting him to walk into a building for school or something of the sort, he goes into a shed and starts working at his own job at a petrol pump.

In that scene, what we notice is the two anguished “Bye, papa”s, but what the father notices is the money he’s going to make in his new life; dropping the boy off for his job is routine. Throughout the search – on which the son accompanies the father -, he’s huddling up to his father, like any normal kid. The father never even extends his hand to put it around the child’s shoulders. Once, the father hits him. There’s an obvious anguish on his face, but he’s unable to bring himself to apologise to his son. Right after that, he leaves him near a bridge and starts walking around, when the area erupts in the alarm of a boy drowning. Finally, he sees that the drowning boy is not his son. He goes up to his son, and all he tells the latter is to put on his jacket, with a little more insistence than usual.

Finally… wait, don’t let me make you think that there’s only two major characters in this movie; there’s three. The third one is the crowd. Every scene has the father, the son, and the crowd, and the movie is a sequence o set-pieces of how these three interact. Looking at the crowd, not to mention the father, one suspects that the reason for the success of ‘Italian neo-realism’ is none other than the Italians. These Italians, they don’t get sad, they get angry. Every movement of theirs is that little bit exaggerated when compared with ours; this lends a certain energy to even the most dreary stories, which means sadness works better than in other languages.

The characters form a triumvirate. The crowd provides opposition, right from the first scene where Ricci (the father) gets his job to the scene where he finally finds – or thinks he’s found – the thief. The father provides the force of action. The son provides the emotional connection through all of this.

Finally, in the end, the father breaks down, breaks down and reaches for the son’s hand. Then, they walk off, two silhouettes in a crowd of silhouettes, a bright sky in the background. They’ve all found peace with each other.

Posted in de Sica, Vittorio, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

In Herta Müller’s book, behind the back-pains, I read:

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 1, 2010

Book Cover

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller, translated from the german Herztier by Michael Hofmann. Published by Granta 2009, 240 pages. Design: Dan Mogford; Photography: Glen Erler

Nothing.

Don’t take me wrong, The Land of Green Plums – recommended to me as the second best of the 2009 Nobel prize winner’s books and the best among those translated into English – is a beautiful book, in almost every way possible. The problem is that there’s not much behind all the beauty. It’s just the chronicle of four independent spirits living under the cruel reign of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, and their various sufferings.

My strongest problem in all this was: exactly how happy these people would be in a free country? I never got an indication as to the unhappiness being a squashed happiness rather than just the lack of it. There is, in fact, an indication to the contrary, though I can’t reveal it because it comes too late in the book.

The book is narrated by a nameless woman (a stand-in for Müller, whose life-story this could well be), and aims to basically be a portrait of both the inner and outer lives in Ceauşescu’s Romania, following her through her interactions with friends, family, and agents of the state.

All of which could make for rather heavy going, and it does. Just never dreary. There are two reasons for this. First, obviously, the writing, which is so consistently good that no single passage stands out among the rest. So, picked out from a random review on the web:

The gym instructor was the first to raise his hand. All the other hands flew up after his. While raising their hands, everybody looked up at the raised hands of the others. If someone’s own hand wasn’t as high as the others’, he would stretch his arm a little farther. People kept their hands up until their fingers grew tired and started to droop and their elbows began to feel heavy and pull downward. Everyone looked around, and since no one else’s arm was lowered, they straightened their fingers again and extended their elbows. Sweat stains showed under the arms; shirts and blouses came untucked. Necks were stretched, ears turned red, lips parted and stayed half-open. Heads kept still, while eyes slid from side to side.
It was so quiet among the hands, someone said inside the cube, that you could hear the breathing up and down the wooden benches. And it stayed that quiet until the gym instructor laid his arm across the lectern and said: There’s no need to count, of course we’re all in favor.

And, second, the metaphors. This novel abounds in them, thanks to the often child-like and occasionally childish view taken of the world by the narrator, who has been slightly wary of life right from childhood. The green plums, for example. When she was a child, her father who she hated because he was an ex-SS man who still sang Hitler’s praises, warned her not to eat plums while they were still green, because she wouldn’t feel the soft pits going in and she couldn’t possibly be stopped from dying once it was stuck somewhere. From that day on, she starts sneaking in as many green plums as possible. Later, all the policemen in the city go out of their way to eat green plums while patrolling, and … well, never mind, I hope you catch my drift.

So, what makes this book “a beautiful book, in almost every way possible”? The handling of these metaphors within the beautiful writing; whatever forms of shallowness I found the book guilty of, emotional wasn’t one of them. Recently, I went to a short film making workshop, in which the instructor said that the best stories were the ones that had embedded in them the idea of a circle. I don’t know if I agree, but I can tell you one thing: this book takes the form of a circle, on the level of story, on the level of character, and on the level of ambient metaphor, and in this particular instance, at least, that’s how it works.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Müller, Herta | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »