Wednesday, 16 January 2019
Wednesday, 14 November 2018
Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness, is pretty much all ‘tell’, with very little ‘show’. We follow Marlow, a rudderless young man, with a well-connected aunt, who tells his own story to a boat’s company, while becalmed in the Thames estuary. Marlow recounts his search for adventure and purpose, when he joined a commercial company out of Brussels, to captain a steamboat heading inland on the river Congo, in order to further despoil the river’s hinterland of its wealth, notably ivory.
Matters are vague from the outset. It’s not clear as to the specific purpose of the trip. The use of the term ‘pilgrims’ to describe the colonial officials, traders and adventurers, working for and leeching off the Company, among whom Marlow lives and works, is confusing. Are we in search of a holy site? Does Conrad want us to think we are?
And yet the deified figure, Kurtz, the end of this putative pilgrimage, while praised for his wisdom and his eloquence, never substantially manifests either. Is Kurtz modern English literature’s first reclusive celebrity? He’s not the leader of a cult, though suggestions that he is esteemed, feared, even venerated by local people, are hinted at, but never actually shown. The appearance, on two occasions, of a splendidly described local woman – lover? intended? shaman? - is just one instance of dimness. Who is she? What is her relationship with Kurtz? What actions does she take?
“Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky, at the same time the swift shadow darted out on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer into a shadowy embrace.”
There are, as you’d expect with Joseph Conrad, many such glorious sentences, in what was his third language.
“The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling waveof plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.”
The ‘us’ here is the steamboat’s company and an instance of Marlow’s view of everyone else as an ‘antagonist’, to the journey and the search.
The greed for ivory - read ‘oil’ in today's colonial commercial onslaughts. Soon oil will be overtaken by data as the treasure most craved - is the clearest driver in the story. Marlow’s almost sneering purposelessness is no more than common or garden collusion in a rapacious colonial enterprise.
Conrad’s story, a novella of 38, 000 words, has a significant impact on 20thand 21stcentury writing. Journeys, real and metaphorical, abound in novels since then. Searching ‘within’ forms the plots of many modernist texts. ‘Inner darkness’ is a widely visited locale for such journeys and searches, presenting in fiction, poetry and drama, often without showing, or telling, what is meant by the term, beyond a vague illusion to a spiritual vacuum.
An attempt by Francis Ford Coppola to show the story and the character of Kurtz in his sprawling Viet Nam war film Apocalypse Nowcomes across as heartless and dim. The star actor, Marlon Brando, mumbles his way through scenes that are less than certain and clear. It is as if the film-makers have taken over Conrad’s extensive use of un- and in- adjectives and adverbs, to timorously present the actuality of the characters and their actions.
The use of a colourful character lifted from Conrad’s story, as the boat arrives at Kurtz’s camp, maintains the distancing and the telling, until we arrive at the Brando scenes, which, depending on your view, are either acting and directing masterclasses or gormless ramblings, saved from incoherence by good editing.
Conrad uses the seanchaí approach, the embodied narrator, in other work, most notably in the adventures of Lord Jim. Is this distancing device intentional or is it a subtle manifestation of Conrad’s unease with his ability to write as well as he wished in his third language?
Joseph Conrad was Polish and learned French as a second language, while growing up. He learned English as an adult, working and reading widely when ‘before the mast’, in his early twenties. He later collaborated with Ford Maddox Ford, as they strove to write fiction in a form they called, in French, “progression d’effet, words for which there is no English equivalent.”Conrad asserted that English words are“instruments for exciting blurred emotions” and that “no English words have clean edges.”
Some readers and writers consider such attributes a boon, rather than a flaw.
Much has been written about ‘otherness’ and ‘foreignness’ in relation to Conrad’s work. Rudyard Kipling, when reading work by Conrad, felt that he was “reading an excellent translation of a foreign author.” Bertrand Russell, his friend, refers to Conrad’s “highly accented English”. Lady Ottoline Morrell, who had Russell as a lover, said of Conrad
“He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner.... He was dressed very carefully in a blue double-breasted jacket. He talked... apparently with great freedom about his life – more ease and freedom indeed than an Englishman would have allowed himself. He spoke of the horrors of the Congo, from the moral and physical shock of which he said he had never recovered.”
As a Pole, with nationalist leanings in the face of Russian occupation, he naturally tended towards emerging stances critical of imperialism. Yet with the arrival of post-colonial discourses in critical readings of Conrad’s work, Chinua Achebe was searingly blunt, referring to him as “a thoroughgoing racist”, in particular in his situating of Africa as an “other world”. In an interview, Achebe said:
“Although he's writing good sentences, he's also writing about a people, and their life. And he says about these people that they are rudimentary souls... The Africans are the rudimentaries, and then, on top, are the good whites. Now I don't accept that, as a basis for ... As a basis for anything.”
My latest novel, MAKARONIK,is in Irish, my second language. Writing it, I experienced a form of internalised ‘otherness’, a sense that, though the words and the sentences were my own, they were, to a degree, foreign to me. Is this an inversion of Conrad’s experience? He lived and wrote in a foreign language. I live and write in native languages, my second made foreign by the first and by colonialism, as experienced and lived through by Conrad.
I hope MAKARONIK has a heart and a clarity, even though it is a work in a second language, a language with “no clean edges” and many glittering facets. Like all languages.
The Heart of Darkness; Joseph Conrad; Penguin English Library; London, 2012; with an essay by Paul O’Prey
The arrival at Kurtz’s camp, from Apocalypse Now(Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Tuesday, 4 September 2018
There is a full chapter in E.M. Forster’s small, but significant, book on novel writing, Aspects of the Novel, on prophecy. Forster mines Herman Melville’s big and significant book, Moby-Dick, for examples of the prophetic in the novels he considers.
He focusses upon the coffin, which the ailing harpooner Queequeg commissions from the ship’s carpenter and which, though he lies in it, never actually bears his remains. Queequeg recovers to play his part in the galloping and horrendous chase scenes that form the climax of the novel. The coffin bobs to the surface and saves the narrator, Ishmael, in a turmoil of devastation and violence, the full and proper outworking of a grand sea-faring yarn of exploitation and madness that ploughs across the Atlantic and ends in the South Pacific’s bloodied waters.
To read Moby-Dick is to surge into the prophetic, but not in the ordinary sense of tellings about the future, but in a story that reaches back into the primordial past of the hunter, now capitalised by economic drives that launch men on vessels of war and rage in search of the largest animals on the planet to kill them mercilessly in order to harvest their oil and spermaceti to burn in lamps and to flavour perfumes. Essentially for money. When we now use the phrase ‘to monetise’ in relation to Apps and social media platforms, we are living out the prophetic tellings of Herman Melville’s great book.
The reader is swept into the power of the book as on a tidal wave, right from the famous opening injunction, “Call me Ishmael”, an Old Testament name that immediately draws the reader into the worlds of patriarchs of the Bible and the Koran and the prophetic songs they offer. From Genesis 16:11-12, we learn
And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
The name Ishmael can be translated as ‘God hears’. Thus the book begins with the Reader hearing voices that whisper and roar to create a demonic bedlam of character, story, incident, whaling lore, technical whaling information, philosophy, religion and sea-faring, sweeping the reader along, as much as s/he he wishes. Yes, you can skip chunks and still rush headlong with the thrilling yarn, but why miss the immersion in the prophetic?
And you can wrestle with the presentation of evil in the straight-forward revenge plot, that is the main-mast of the novel. Ahab, the monomaniacal captain of the whaling ship, Pequod, drives himself and all aboard in pursuit of the white whale, the Leviathan, despite the protestations and pleadings of his Chief Officer, Starbuck.
Moby-Dick is a tragedy for all, including the families of the men who drown. None but Ishmael survive, clamped to the bobbing coffin, not a symbol of survival but a prophetic enchantment of the tragedy of life served up with calculated literary irony.
The reader is left with a sense of having experienced a wonder. Questions of morality and action remain. What drives men to do such things? Monomania seems too simple an answer and can only be applied to Ahab. Ishmael says he goes to sea to overcome a deep sense of depression.
Yes, as everyone knows, mediation and water are wedded forever.
But not all the crew of the Pequod, and other whalers, sailed out of Nantucker into the Atlantic and away for three years or more, scouring the whale fisheries across the great oceans, north, south, east and west, because they were depressed. No doubt many were running away. For others it was ‘what they knew’, as their fathers and brothers went whaling before them. Throughout the novel, when Ishmael grows wistful, he muses on the economics of the activity and the huge draw there is, among the wealthier members of the society at home, for the products they seek.
The reader is left with the question: when it becomes obvious that doom is the only possible outcome of the chase, why don’t some of the crew jump ship? It requires a massive weight of mythology, a burdensome anchor of loyalty and duty and an explosive charge of power to force men to stay, when all around them is violence, danger and dread. Is the hope of a pay-off always good enough in the face of poverty?
The desperation of poor people is also found in a later American novel, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. And once again it is the prophetic voice of the novelist that resonates throughout. Faulkner obviously read Moby-Dick. He has a coffin bobbing about in tumultuous water too. He has language you’d expect from a religious book or tract. And he has a story of monomania. E.M. Forster might have identified a prophetic writer in action here again.
One ordinary prophesy that Melville makes concerns the survival of whales into the future.
… the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
Melville links the extinction of the whale with the extinction of human kind. He is optimistic.
Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.
Melville couldn’t have prophesied the massive industrialisation of whaling that has grown up in the 20thcentury. Or the pollution of the oceans by plastics, noise and effluent.
Expectations for the recovery of whale populations have been based on the assumption that, except for commercial whaling, their place in the oceans is as secure as it was a hundred years ago.
Moby-Dick is the great novel it’s cracked up to be. The reader surges with the seas and the prophesies. The reader is amazed by the lore and the technical data. The reader fumes at the racism. The reader is transfixed by Melville’s insights into human nature and by the total absence of women from the story. Would Melville write a different novel today? A different classic?
He might reflect on E.M. Forster’s final thoughts on the novel.
If human nature does alter it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way. Here and there people – a very few people, but a few novelists are among them – are trying to do this.
Moby-Dick; book, 1851; Herman Melville; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; U.S.A., 2009
As I Lay Dying; book, 1935; William Faulkner; Chatto and Windus; London, 1962
Aspects of the Novel; book,1927; E.M Forster; Edward Arnold Publsihers; London, 1963
Tuesday, 14 August 2018
Our first step is to search on Google maps. For a better chance of actually locating Yemen, we focus on one place; Saada. We take care to find Saada in Yemen, because a number of places in different countries in the region share that name, just like in Ireland, where you’ll find any number of Ballys.
When we find Saada, we search for the Zaydi Cemetery. It’s between Mufrah at Talh Street and the N1, quite close to the central market, the city’s main mosques and the archaeological site of Bab Narjan. We search for the graves of the children killed in the recent airstrike on a bus. Forty children were among the fifty one dead.
"My son went to the market to run house errands and then the enemy air strike happened and he was hit by shrapnel and died," said Fares al-Razhi, mourning his 14-year-old son.
We are in north Yemen, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. If Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, Saudi Arabia is one of the richest. We pore over the Google map images of the border between the two states and wonder how that can be.
There is a war underway in this part of Yemen. A complex war with militant actors frominside Yemen and also external to the country. The biggest external actor is the Kingdom and army of Saudi Arabia, one of Yemen’s close neighbours. What does that Kingdom and army want?
With logistical support from the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have carried out attacks in Yemen since March 2015 in an attempt to reinstate the internationally recognised government of President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In 2014, Hadi and his forces were overrun by the Houthis who took over much of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
Since then, the military alliance has carried out more than 16, 000 air raids on Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, with more than 3, 000 raids pulverising the Houthis stronghold of Saada.
We search the images on Google maps to see signs of ‘success’ for these air raids and bombings. The resolution on the maps breaks down as we zoom in. The maps cannot handle the devastation. They become coy and opaque. Can we hear the Yemeni people themselves?
Hakim Almasmari, the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Post, called it one of the worst days in Yemen in recent memory.
"Today is a tragic, sad day... that has gathered all Yemenis together. There are many people who oppose the Houthis, including residents of [the capital] Sanaa, but a crime like this has given the Houthis more support. You can't have sides when it comes to children."
The war is three years old now. Young, in world conflict terms. Young, like the children blown to pieces.
"I didn't find any of his remains, not his finger, not his bone, not his skull, nothing. I looked through all the remains in the hospital and I didn't see anything."
We look on. From afar, knowing that great amounts of money are involved in the international trade in the weaponry that produces these tragedies. Jobs too. Do we cringe or quake? Do we feel remorse? Guilt? Who are ‘we’?
Despite repeated petitions from human rights groups to Western powers over the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, the US, UK, Canada, France and Spain have all sold weapons to the kingdom in recent years, some of which have been used in the conflict.
The US has been the biggest supplier of military equipment to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), with more than $90bn of sales recorded between 2010 and 2015.
Are ‘we’ supplying weaponry to the Houthis as well? Probably. If not directly, then covertly, via brokers and dealers. There’s money in it. And probably alongside weaponry, with logistical and political support, from Iran. Wars are complex and multi-agency, often acting in overlaps and parallels. The war in Yemen is one of numerous proxy world conflicts between the Great Powers and their allies. We are well beyond the capacity of thetwo dimensional imagery offered by Google maps.
With grand profits to be made, it is not in the interest of arms’ manufacturers like Raytheon, who dispute the evidence of the use of their products in this war, to see efforts at a cease-fire make progress.
Images sent to Al Jazeera by the Houthis on Monday suggested a Raytheon Mark-82 bomb was used in the raid.
While the photo had yet to be independently verified, fragments of Mark-82 bombs have surfaced repeatedly amid the ongoing war.
Do we say “It’s not personal. It’s just business. If we don’t sell the arms, someone else will”?
Days after the attack, body parts remain unidentified and some families were still searching for the remains of their children.
Are ‘we’ as two dimensional as Google maps?
The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, recently announced plans for negotiations between the warring parties.
The peace talks will begin in Geneva on September 6 and focus on building a transitional government and laying down arms.
Can we go beyond the flat maps in the search for a further dimension? More than simply ‘laying down arms’, can we work to end the international arms trade?
Thursday, 9 August 2018
There is no need for a ‘spoiler alert’. This is a film in which a Goodie chases a Baddie and eventually catches him. Here is the chase in London.
The Baddie (August Walker, played by Henry Cavill) walks purposefully through thebusy streets of the City of London. The Goodie (Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise) races across the roofs and through the office buildings of that financial district. The chase continues across theriver Thames to the South Bank,where both make for the converted power station that houses the art gallery, Tate Modern.
Walker enters via a side-door he leaves open for Ethan Hunt now so hot on Walker’s heels that Hunt arrives at the lift right behind him. In classic Mission: Impossible fashion, Ethan Hunt grabs the underside of the metal cage in which Walkeris ascending. They converse, almost amiably, until Walker puts a photo on the metal grid of the lift floor, face down to Ethan Hunt.This shows the thorn, the prize and the treasure, the British MI6 assassin Ilsa Faust.She is Hunt’s desire and she is in mortal danger, as you’d expect. Forget the missing plutonium, the mad anarcho-terrorist on the loose, the threat to millions from a contagion of small-pox. When the shake-down comes, it’s a simple love and death triangle between two men and one woman. The Goodie must save the treasure, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). We’re not sure if she’s a goodie or a baddie, though she most certainly is a killer. As with many a relationship in the modern age, it’s complicated.
(Aside: that line is used elsewhere in the dialogue, stolen directly from a facebook status that became common usage. The film's dialogue is well-filled with contemporary commonplaces, many of which warrant the label ‘cliché’.)
As the film enters the third act, Walker escapes via a helicopter waiting on the roof of Tate Modern. The lettering on the side of the helicopter shows GDE-UP, which the viewer reads as GIDDY UP.
Did the film makers intend this or was the viewer silently articulating a desire for the film to get on with it? Certainly a quickening is required at that point, because, although we’ve seen pacy chases through the streets of Paris in cars, vans, trucks and on motorbikes, action seems to be lagging, despite Ethan Hunt jamming a truck into a narrow street, neatly foreshadowing the jamming of two helicopters into a crevasse on a cliff-face, the location of the very final showdown between the Baddie and the Goodie.This turns out to be a curiously muted affair, in spite of all the crash-bang-whalloping pyrotechnics that immediately precede it.
As you’d expect, the film has a surfeit of technical devices; phones, transponders, drones, image manipulators and ear devices for communications, all of which work miraculously well, despite being bashed, thrown, pummelled, shot and jammed throughout the one hundred and twenty minutes of the film’s duration, too long by about half an hour.
Would the old Hollywood feature length staple of ninety minutes better serve the 'and then.... and then.....' structure of the story?
There is a count-down, of course, given a slightly novel twist by lasting fifteen minutes, which is what the Super Baddie (Solomon Lane, played by Sean Harris) allots to give Walker enough time to get away with the detonator for their fiendishly clever double-plutonium bomb. This is linked by a trigger Walker carries as he gets away.Again.Solomon Lane goes hara-kiri at this point.
Ethan Hunt’s side-kicks are Benji Dunn and Luther Stickler, played by Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames. The latter neatly self-deprecates throughout the film by referring to his ageing. The side-kicks pore over a bomb each and are separately assisted by paramours of Ethan Hunt; the MI6 killer Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and his former wife Julia, who is now engaged in humanitarian work, played by Michelle Monaghan.
It is one of the great achievements of the Baddies in the films of the Mission: Impossible franchise that they contrive to gather all outlying threads of plot and relationships into one place for the final blast. In FALL OUT, we are among the snow-covered peaks and verdant valleys of Kashmir.
Though the agencies underpinning the activities of Ethan Hunt and his small team are from the USA, their challenges and endeavours are never domestic. They always happen far away from the territory of the USA. However, the current imperium and the role of those agencies in policing the globe from the threats wrought by rogues, individuals and states, means that everywhere is American territory.
Some domestic politicking does take place in the hissy-fit spats between the Mission: Impossible Secretary, Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin and the CIA lead, Erika Stone, played by Angela Bassett, as they cross, double and multi-cross each other, right up to the film’s end. They are, however, on the same side, the side of 'the good’, as are Ethan Hunt and his furiously adept side-kicks, the ageing and wise Luther and the clownishly wimpy Dunn. These aides are hi-tech savvy and Conor McGregor-level handy with fists and feet. They also fire automatic weapons in a night-time and undergroundfire-fight and come out well ahead and unscathed.
No irony is offered by the quest to keep nuclear material away from rogues by agencies working for the superpower in possession of most of the weaponised nuclear material on the planet and, so far, the only human organisation to use such material, for bombing the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seventy three years ago almost to the day.
There are women in the film, as well as Erika Stone (Angela Bassett). The blond double-agent, The White Widow, conflating espionage, arms-dealing and charity work, is the Lana Turner-channeling Vanessa Kirby. She kisses Ethan Hunt, but only in a loveless, dry manner. The MI6 assassin, Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), is an ace motor-cyclist and markswoman. She, like everyone in the film, wants, one way or another, to “come home” but again, “it’s complicated”. The viewer is left with the sense that her relationship with Ethan Hunt will continue and develop. After all, she makes him laugh, despite his shattered ribs and busted gob.
Woman as “self-sacrificing Angel” is present in Julia (Michelle Monaghan). She is Ethan Hunt’s great, early love, who says she owes her maturation and self-worth, her very place in the world, to her relationship with him. Seeing her in the film, together with the stabbing to death of the Secretary, Alan Hunley, (Alec Baldwin) leaves the viewer with a sense that we might be coming to the end of something, especially when we consider we’ve seen much of all of this before, not only in the Mission: Impossible franchise, but also in the Bond and the Bourne versions, in the comprehensive Harry Potters and the upsurging Marvel franchise.
The Baddies feature brutish East-Europeans, some dodgy French Fellas and, unusually, cockney wide-boys. There are no scheming Arabs and the Indian Army comes to the rescue at the end, led by the CIA, just as the US Cavalry did so often in the past.
Best scene? The street-side shootout when a Paris traffic cop, played by Alix Bénézech, stumbles upon Hunt and his team rendering their captive into the back seat of a car. A bunch of baddies surprises them and shoots the cop, wounding her. Hunt riddles the baddies, then, in the film’s keenest manifestation of human emotion, he leans over her and whispers Je suis desolé.
Apart from being too long, Mission: Impossible-Fall Out is just what you would expect. Drama-less and suspense-free, it is tamely predictable and un-troubling. It presents threat, fear and resolutions as neatly packaged experiences, well-managed by resources, endeavours and material readily at hand in the USA. We are cowered, but can still feel secure, if indeed we feel anything. That fine American-English word ‘hokum’ applies. As does the name of the Roman Catholic Church committee of 1622, the Propaganda.