Category Archives: Reviews

The Other Side of Silence

As it follows his tragic heroine from her early life in Bremen to the deserts of colonial Africa, suffering untold horrors along the way, André Brink’s novel passes through a number of fictional hinterlands. As an indentured skivvy, farmed out by the orphanage where she grew up, Hanna is forced to wait on a series of abusive patriarchs, late-night indignities hidden from their wives; and one thinks of The Handmaid’s Tale, published some years earlier, particularly when a chess board is brought out, the equality of the game shaming the imbalance of power. Later, having been rescued and nurtured by tribespeople, themselves brutalised by German rule, she enters a pre-modern world of myth and oral tradition that reaches back to sagas and song lines, the culture of animism and memory that was murdered by print. Then her fightback begins and I found myself being reminded of that old Hollywood chestnut, the ragtag band of victims and losers which somehow revenges itself on enemies too stupid to exploit their superior numbers and strength. Only Bruce Willis is missing. And throughout these episodes the violence, remorseless and bloody, conjures the Shakespeare of Lear or Coriolanus. Here is our stage, both authors announce: let’s see how much blood we can show being spilled.

The scope and anger of Brink’s vision is epic in tone, perhaps self-consciously so. Implacable, as well, the horrors inflicted on subject peoples being twinned with the oppression of women by men. These are the original sins of empire and gender, the foulness to which so many present-day ills can be traced. Yet in order to bring home the extent of this savagery he describes the humiliation piled upon Hanna with a degree of detail that verges on prurience. Is this an example of looking evil in the face, or does his narrator belong to the long list of males from whom the poor woman should have been protected? And about that voice. Our guide to these events is someone researching the case long afterwards. The sketchiness of the records (even Hanna’s family name is unknown) excuses, or mandates, some uncertainty about what happens. This is a not uncommon device which in other hands has allowed a dialogue to be established between the story and the act of storytelling itself. Yet here, the writer’s intercessions are rare enough to feel token in nature, while long passages of action and description – of both actual and interior landscapes – go far beyond what historical reconstruction could hope to achieve. The God-like narrator – another avatar of patriarchy – is fair game nowadays but the alternative requires more attention than it receives in Brink’s cake-and-eat-it approach.

These quibbles give me no pleasure because for an Afrikaner to assault one of the creation myths of his tribe took courage, even after the end of apartheid. Has anything quite so excoriating been written about Britain’s imperial past, ignorance of which lies at the heart of current misconceptions regarding our country? The idea of truth has taken a battering recently, swapping its definite article for inverted commas. Yet fiction is one sphere in which that goal is deemed attainable, however crafty the means. In giving voice to the silenced victims of injustice Brink has affirmed the moral purpose of the novel, as he did throughout his life, while falling short of its highest standards.

Soul of a Nation

‘West Coast Black art stands in direct opposition to art for art’s sake. It insists that if art is not for the sake of something it is not art.’

This quote, from the American artist Noah Purifoy, is to be found in Tate Modern’s exhibition Soul of a Nation. Art in the Age of Black Power, and raises questions that, overtly or otherwise, are central to all artistic endeavour: Why am I doing this? What purpose, if any, does it serve?

Throughout most of history such agonising would have been thought pointless, even heretical. Art was not a separate category but embedded in social or religious life, the artist a craftsman who knew his or her place. The cave painters of Lascaux were admired no doubt but served an ecstatic vision that was collective in nature and possibly drug-induced. However exalted, Imhotep the pyramid-builder worshipped as well as obeyed his god-king. And Phidias, great sculptor of Zeus, immortalised deities or perfection in human form, both subjects inherently ideological. The architects of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals were billed as masons, where they are known at all, the glory they strived for not personal but royal and divine. In Bali, an island as saturated with images as anywhere on earth, artists only began to sign paintings in the 1930s, when visiting westerners taught them to monetise their work. And so on.

So where did it come from, the notion of art as a subjective activity, sufficient unto itself? Talent would always have had its due, pushing boundaries and attracting reward: a place near the fire, first dibs on the slave girls, one’s mark on the chancel wall. By the time of the Renaissance artists as celebrities were well-established, albeit deferential to prince or Church. Then, as capitalism developed, new patrons and subjects came into play, Dutch masters like Vermeer becoming fascinated by the landscape, exterior and domestic, of their new, mercantile world. In Britain, birthplace of industrialism, art became a commodity available to an emerging middle class which, keen to imitate aristocratic taste, was a soft touch for artists and dealers; while developments in printing enabled the wholesale reproduction of images, which hung as engravings on ever-more humble walls.

Thus the grip of ideology and patronage was slackening as the artist’s options increased. Still great voices were raised in defence of art as secondary to values – Ruskin’s high-mindedness stands out, as does Nietzsche’s insistence that art cannot avoid strengthening or weakening current hegemonies of thought. But the contrary view had begun to be theorised, by Whistler among others, and with Turner’s work light, hitherto the medium through which some prescribed reality was depicted, became a subject in itself, just as physics was supplanting religion as the key to understanding the universe. Art developed a momentum of its own, with movements and fashions driven by practitioners’ experiments with style, the market struggling to keep up, chequebook in hand. It helped to have Gaugin, Van Gogh & co perpetuating the image of the doomed genius, one’s tortured soul established as the proper concern of art; but mostly they were becoming cannier at milking the punters, Picasso’s signed napkins to the fore.

Art for art’s sake became a slogan, a watchword for integrity and the human spirit. What was this: an aberration, or a new, liberating stage in human development like access to education and cheap travel? Accountability still had strong advocates, backed up by armies and secret police. Socialist realism was Stalin’s riposte to artistic freedom: heroic labour, hummable tunes. And now we have Islamists destroying temples in Syria and threatening libraries in Timbuktu. Yet is the culture that evolved from artistic freedom any less shallow or beholden? Today’s market panders to the super-rich. Paintings sell for hundreds of millions. Boardrooms outbid galleries in a war of the walls. ‘Art for art’s sake,’ sang 10cc, ‘Money for God’s sake’. Meanwhile style and subject matter have never been further removed from the understanding of most people, at a time of pressing global issues like poverty and climate change. Can we afford such self-indulgence? Is this the result of allowing artists a free hand?

Which brings us back to the Tate exhibition, Black Power and Noah Purifoy. His statement, quoted at the beginning, can now be seen as historically more representative than the opposite, supposedly prevailing point of view. What would we have thought of a black artist choosing that moment to explore the quality of light in Mississippi, as cities burned and bodies dangled from trees? Yet Purifoy’s own response was far from what Stalin meant by art relevant to the people. No images here of the oppressed, nobly struggling. Instead, he made his mark with sculptures formed from wreckage left behind by the 1965 Watts rebellion (called riots by the media: how we name things is also contested, politicised). In other words, even if we expect art to be ‘for the sake of something’, the form that engagement takes is open to interpretation, with gifted, creative minds able to lead, rather than follow opinion. And that is what we find in the rest of the exhibition. Just as the civil rights movement and Black Panthers enacted contrasting strategies of resistance to oppression, so the artistic community differed in its creative response. Those working with abstraction were criticised for being too rarefied or introspective, but insisted they were articulating a no-less distinctive voice. Others, while being more accessible, also focused on developing a black aesthetic as a means of dignifying their community rather than portraying its immediate troubles, the photographs of Roy Decarava being a case in point. And in America the Beautiful Norman Lewis could dare to make an arresting image out of Klan members gathering in the night, its appeal not only moral but aesthetic as well.

I left the Tate troubled by Purifoy’s polemic but here is one way the circle might be squared: expect art to address some form of meaning external to itself but defend with your life the freedom to choose how this is done.

The Noise Of Time

A man steps from a train wearing amulets made of garlic. He stands all night, with a small suitcase packed, waiting for the lift doors to open. The fate of his opera, and therefore his life, is determined behind a screen. His interrogator, having prepared him for the worst, unaccountably disappears. In the Land of the Free, where any question can be asked, they want to know if he likes brunettes or blondes. His name appears under articles he has not written. Banned, unbanned, it feels much the same.

The structure of a book, like everything else about it, contributes to the author’s purpose and the reader’s response. By recounting The Noise of Time in this episodic, non-chronological way Julian Barnes creates an impression of someone cut adrift by the capriciousness, sadism and incompetence of tyranny. There are no fixed points any more. The past changes daily. Friends betray you. Truth, lies: they change places all the time. The figure observed squinting in this spotlight is Dmitri Shostakovich, most gifted of Soviet-era composers, most compromised as well. Heroism is not the subject here but survival: bewildered, squalid, often unexplained. Dmitri Dmitrievich is hapless socially, rootless politically and not infrequently envious of the dead. Only music, its writing and performing, matters to him which makes this portrait of the artist so downbeat and so painfully honest. Not that his peers fare much better. Stravinsky, coining it in the States, is a prima donna. Prokofiev sells his soul for a succession of flashy cars. And in case any Cold War triumphalism intrudes, America is portrayed as a nightmare of shallow commercialism, where art falls short of being serious because, however lavish the rewards, the stakes are so miserably low.

Barnes is a peerless tactician, never once stating the obvious, allowing the nightmare he describes to speak for itself. The prose is precise, sardonic and self-aware. His appreciation for the subtleties of Russian culture is lightly worn (the recurrence of old sayings, the fact that even Stalin can be addressed by his first name and patronymic). The lickspittles and nonentities who serve the General Secretary are largely condemned out of their own mouths. The general awfulness is not overdone. This reluctance to adopt a moral, still less moralising position adds to the dismayed but detached tone of the book, which exists in the ever-more fertile ground that has opened up between fact and fiction. Cowering or collaborating, Shostakovich cuts a memorable but pitiable figure whose flawed humanity brings us face-to-face with that most uncomfortable of questions: in his place, what would I have done?

The Buried Giant

No book is completely original. Too much has been said before. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant comes as close as any novel of recent times to breaking genuinely new ground. As much as anything, this is related to mood. The latter is what remains from a book after names and other details have faded. Often we are less conscious of it while reading but in this case the atmosphere captures or bemuses us right from the start. How is this trick performed? Characters regard as normal things which are anything but. The world that seems real to them strikes us as dreamlike or illogical. Their emotions are familiar and involving, their expectations and response to events not. And we are equally wrong-footed in terms of fictional genre. Is it historical? Tenuously, at best. How about romance, in the original sense of the word?  There are elements of quest and chivalry, but too much that is offbeat and dark. Fantasy, then? But this is the opposite of escapism, of sublimation in made-up worlds. If a label has to be applied it might be ‘allegorical’ yet bearings are still hard to find as the unexpected keeps occurring. In these circumstances much depends on one’s trust in the author. Is he taking me somewhere or wasting my time? Ishiguro’s track record and the limpid gravity of his prose underwrite the promise in any story of resolution. And as the point of it all finally edges into focus we begin to recognise the stealthy but impressive ambition of his work.

Perhaps the book reflects his own hybridised heritage, there being something of both Beowulf and Murakami in its straight-faced bending of the real. An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, leave their village to visit a long-lost son. The time is that period after the Romans have left when Britons and Saxons sometimes fought, sometimes lived side-by-side. Or is it? Early signs of historical accuracy are undermined by the presence of ogres, dragons and giants. Arthur is referred to as a real person, not least by one of his knights who has survived. And a curious loss of memory has settled over the land.

At first the pace feels slow, the scenes and conversations somewhat becalmed. A tone is being established, groundwork that may deter the less persevering. But as other characters are encountered the story becomes more eventful, with passages of genuine tension and dramatic power. That dream-like mood persists, however, so that we remain unsure of the writer’s intentions. Great deeds are performed with the stylised grace of figures on a frieze. We peer through the amnesia to which most have succumbed and glimpse the terrible cost of remembering. Even as it draws near the nature of the dénouement is hard to grasp, the fog slow to lift in fact and metaphorically. Then the final clash and its aftermath are described with heart-rending unaffectedness. At last what Ishiguro is writing about becomes apparent – or at least imaginable. One feels wiser, admitted to something, bereaved.

The Radetzky March

Great books keep finding new things to say. That might even be the definition of greatness. I had this thought while reading The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, written in the early 1930s but set in the period leading up to the First World War. It is one of two masterpieces to come out of Austria in this era, the other being Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities. Whereas Musil’s unfinished epic is a key Modernist text, Roth wrote in a more traditional form and style but to no lesser effect. Taken together they prove there is more than one way to skin the literary cat.

The Radetzky March observes the decline of two families, one great, the other with a smaller but no less burdensome dignity. Its main characters are the Trottas (no relation to Del and Rodney in Peckham). Their fortune is made when the Slovenian Joseph Trotta, an infantry lieutenant, saves the life of the Emperor Franz Josef at the Battle of Solferino. His son, both proud of and unequal to the father’s heroism, becomes a provincial official: lonely, self-important, disappointed. His son enlists in the army, with largely unhappy results. Thus the second and third generations struggle to uphold the glory of the first. Parallel with this story, and presiding over it, is the life of the Emperor himself. Prodigiously long-lived, virtually senile, he dithers as the empire slides towards disaster and disintegration.

The two dynasties are linked by this trajectory and by a simple but elegant device. When the Trottas are in need of help they appeal to the old man in the Schönbrunn Palace who, reminded of his debt to their founder, obligingly intercedes. It is this form of absolutism, unequal to the task of governing a vast, fractious dominion, that dies with Franz Josef’s heir at Sarajevo. History and the novel’s cohesion are neatly, fatefully served. Translated into English, Roth’s book makes this background accessible to British readers, poorly-informed (I include myself) about Austro-Hungary. It was landlocked, for a start, and therefore a different kind of empire to Britain’s, contiguous peoples in a forced embrace, with all the potential for mixing and conflict that implies. But it shared the dream common to all such polities, of transcending differences in some great project of union and shared identity. And it is this spirit which provoked the thoughts mentioned at the beginning of this review.

The idealism of empire generally masks the self-interest of the imperial power and groupings derived from conquest are unlikely to last, however benign they become. Still, as we learn from the book, this one had its guiding principles, honour high among them; a degree of even-handedness; a sleepy, ceremonial status quo. Peace was kept between peoples with ancient enmities. Trade was facilitated. Remind you of anything? Towards the end of the novel the entire edifice – overblown, grandiloquent, bureaucratic – is teetering. National sentiment makes ready to break its chains. Violence brews. The parallels should be clear by now. Attempts to unite part or all of Europe form a long procession from Charlemagne to Delors, with failure implicit in the exercise. And at this moment in our own turbulent times it is tempting to draw parallels between Roth’s Vienna and present-day Brussels as cases of centres that cannot hold. The Radetzky march even has its counterpart in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: sooner or later, anthems tend to ring hollow. Brexiteers might well rub their hands, the centralising impulse in retreat once again, history favouring the border over the open road. But which lessons should we learn from that history? What breaks out at the end of the novel is World War with deaths counted in millions, the scion of the Trottas among the first. A second instalment followed, not to mention genocide in the Balkans. Roth and his wife were casualties of this descent into barbarism, whose momentum the EU was intended to reverse. Some law may be at work here, sentiment tilting one way then the other, the logic of events irresistible. And it is true, transnational groupings, even when voluntary, are cumbersome, temporising affairs. But read this wonderful book and ask yourself: is the alternative really better?

The Thrill Of It All

I had two bites at Joseph O’Connor’s novel, hearing the first half on audiobook during a holiday then reading the paperback after finding a copy in Oxfam. As a result it was Ciarán Hinds’ restrained, confiding brogue that rose to me from the printed word, even when it was a woman speaking. For once my imagination, normally insistent on playing every part, did not complain. Being read to well is a pleasure, even when the voice is inside one’s head.

The Thrill Of It All relates the slow ascent and rapid break-up of a pop group or rock band (the distinction a matter of opinion, a marker of allegiance and taste). It is mainly Robbie’s story, although the others also have their say. The least talented of the four (and nothing without them) he is somehow key to their success: peacemaker, ballast to larger egos, harmonic counterweight, rhythm-navvy: a sort of Ringo without the drums. His friendship with Fran, a Vietnamese-born outcast from foster care, lies at the heart of the book and the band. Fran is a genius and, in time, a monster, his demons (displacement, abuse) projected and magnified. There are echoes here of Lennon and McCartney, the one bitter and edgy, the other safer in every sense of the word. The group is completed by a sister and brother with more technical ability and perspective on the business. In less resourceful hands they would have made up the numbers, nothing more; but, viewing the book as an album, Trez and Seán get a few tracks of their own. The chemistry between the four of them feels authentic, bearing in mind that we readers are a tough crowd, being experts in rock psychology from following our own favourite outfits as they fight, make up, splinter and reform. There is a script to be followed, certain niceties to observe, and O’Connor has done his homework – on this and much else besides. In getting it right he seems to be telling the story of all groups and that part of our own lives as well.

Tellingly, it is the pre-fame sections of the book which work best. Robbie and Fran meet and grow up in Luton, depicted as a drab, small-minded town notable chiefly for not being London. But they transform it through their adventures into a mythical landscape of suburban kitchens, grotty pubs, windy busking pitches and college corridors. Anyone who fled where they grew up but feels rooted all the same will recognise this sequence of get-me-out-of-here and take-me-back. This is their Hamburg phase, full of scallywag energy and irrational hope: having the dream, as many have found, is sweeter than living it. And in many ways the stand-out creation of the novel comes from this period in the person of Robbie’s dad. Jimmy is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Role, not only in his own right but on behalf of the Irish diaspora in England, doggedly tribal, modestly self-made. I laughed out loud when hearing his words spoken and did so again when reading them for myself. In fact, just thinking about him calling his son ‘Bridget’ makes my windpipe convulse.

The band’s brief spell in the limelight is harder to make original and therefore less gripping. Details of stadiums played, studio sessions with celebrity producers, the obligatory musical differences – for the first time one thinks: I’ve heard this before. And despite covering the longest period chronologically, the years after they split are skated over – necessary to prevent the book overrunning but lopsided, nonetheless. That said, there is some A-list name dropping and no let-up in the flow of musical opinions to agree with or shout down – the very essence of fandom. None of which is a plot spoiler, by the way. Because it leaves unanswered the question that arises regarding all ex-groups from the Beatles onwards: will they get back together? To know that you will have to read the book. Or submit to being spellbound by Mr Hinds.

Twelfth Night

Rarely has a Shakespeare production startled as many horses as Simon Godwin’s take on Twelfth Night at the National Theatre. The headlines belong to Tamsin Greig, brilliant as a gender-reassigned Malvolia. Like all the best ideas, this re-imagining seems obvious once the initial surprise has registered, being a logical extension of Viola’s cross-dressing; of the boys-playing-girls convention of the Elizabethan stage; and of our modern fascination with identity. Indeed, it is a sign of how far we have come as a society, and as an audience of the play, that the idea of Olivia falling for another woman is not what makes the deceit practised on her steward preposterous. That still relies on the priggish nature of the latter’s personality and on the gulf in status that separates them. On psychology and class, in other words, of which more presently.

Malvolia’s fall from grace has no shortage of contemporary echoes. Deemed crazy rather than disloyal, her imprisonment raises uncomfortable questions about the definition of madness and how we treat those diagnosed as insane. Even more uncomfortably, the sight of a woman bound and gagged, her costume suddenly resembling a state of undress, brings to mind our present-day plague of rape, domestic violence and kidnapping. Greig handles this change in mood quite movingly, the butt of our derision turned into an object of pity. Whatever else she represents, this wretched creature has carved out a position for herself in a predominantly man’s world, the same threat to patriarchy which lone abductors and alt-right movements alike are motivated to repel.

As with gender, so with otherness, a further context by which this production is framed. The appearance of strangers in our midst and what to do with the victims of disaster: we are faced with these challenges almost daily, and Shakespeare dramatizes the responses available to us. Having been rescued from the sea, Viola is immediately accepted, albeit with her true nature concealed, while Sebastian’s initial experience comes closer to the modern refugee’s, although even in his case love finally prevails. These twists and turns may be plot-driven rather than point-making; and the show’s gestation presumably predated the triumph of Trumpery. Yet the parallels are almost uncanny. At a time when progress towards racial and gender equality is under attack, Illyria, one of those Shakespearean dream-places located between reality and imagination, shows us what the world might look like if where you came from mattered just as little as who you fancied.

The origins of the production must also predate Brexit and the death of Martin McGuinness. But, whether by accident or not, it manages to be timely in this regard as well. The sea captain Antonio, besides having his love for Sebastian made homoerotic, is given an Ulster accent, as is his nemesis in the duke’s entourage, their old enmity still simmering. Suddenly we are back in the Troubles, whose return is feared if the Irish border becomes ‘hard’ once again. In those scenes – and those voices – with their hard edges of hatred and violence, the sexual politics feel almost benign. Yet here, too, some kind of truth and reconciliation is achieved, a reminder of how much, in the present climate, we stand to lose.

It has to be said, however, that these nuances are sometimes in danger of being obscured by the production values that Godwin brings to the play. The set design, with revolving spaces that open and close, is dazzling, the flights of stairs symbolic in clever and unexpected ways (contrast the light-footed descents of the privileged Olivia and Sir Toby with Malvolia’s struggle to ascend). But with every innovation something traditional is lost, and the show business razzmatazz detracts from the genius of the words. Performing Shakespeare used to be all about how you spoke the lines. Granted, this could produce wooden or cerebral acting but the text was privileged above all else, an appeal to the intellect as much as the emotions. In recent years we have seen Shakespeare: The Musical taking over, with musicians on stage, dance routines and ever-more garish costumes. These values pander to a modern sensibility, unbuttoned, participative but less exacting, perhaps – witness the cheering from tonight’s audience, which made it sound like a school production at times. Of course, it might equally well be argued that, far from being a modern travesty, this represents a return to the original spirit of Tudor and Stuart performance: rowdy, irreverent and crowd-pleasing.  In which case I am cast as the po-faced disapprover, frowning on a bit of innocent fun.

As Malvolio, in fact. It is to him – or in this case, her – to whom our thoughts inevitably return. One should be wary of psychoanalysing a fictional character, but can we agree there is a suggestion of insecurity, even self-loathing in this portrayal, of the kind that is turned outwards into spitefulness towards others? After all, narcissism is a front, a means of hiding or compensating for its reverse. How else to explain being hoodwinked so easily than by a desperate, if sublimated, longing to be loved? When that prospect unexpectedly arrives, with the reading of Maria’s forged letter, Greig’s character is briefly but spectacularly transfigured. In therapy such an outcome would be hailed as a breakthrough, with a softening towards others expected to follow. But to reveal oneself so openly is also to become vulnerable, and the play loses no opportunity to expose her to even greater ridicule. By inviting us to laugh, is Shakespeare shaming our complicity in her debasement, or were these simply the values of his age? Either way, the sight of this once-loathed-but-powerful figure being baited is difficult to take and holds up another mirror to our age, with its revenge porn and demonising of the disadvantaged.

But she is already plotting her revenge, an unusual ending among Shakespeare’s plays, with their timely comeuppances and knot-tying. And who might that payback be intended for? First in line would be Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, her two tormentors-in-chief. The original lords of misrule were pranksters licensed by their aristocratic patrons, although the archetype has acquired a more positive reputation for preventing society from becoming overly controlled. Viewed from another angle, however, they are feckless members of a purely decorative ruling class, exempt from the duties of hard work and solvency imposed on the rest of us. In contrast, Malvolia is a meritocrat raised by her own efforts, a product of ability rather than birth – a heroine, potentially. The trouble is her puritanism, emphasised in most productions by dressing the character all in black. Shakespeare knew all about that tendency, with its hatred of the theatre, and this may have been a means of acting out the artist’s distrust of censoriousness, of ‘visualising’ his fear by defeating it on the stage. Of course, he was too subtle and wise for single dimensions, for cardboard cut-outs with no life of their own. Olivia’s household would not function without her steward’s brand of punctiliousness and sense of duty. It represents, if you like, a kind of management style. But it is meanness of spirit we are intended to remember – and beware. Those words at the end of the play, threatening ‘the whole pack of you’, may express Shakespeare’s premonition of the killjoy’s triumph one day, in which case he was right, given what happened after the Civil War. In fact, the figure of Malvolio, dark-clad and implacable, returns throughout history. Murderous Jacobins, regicidal Bolsheviks – even fanatical Islamists: all have gone for a non-frivolous look in the service, as they see it, of remaking the world.

Argument of Kings

First published forty years ago, Argument of Kings was initially well-received and made the transition to paperback in 1989, a new edition following almost a decade later. Yet I only came upon it by chance in a second-hand stall while waiting to see a film, the kind of discovery that vindicates all those hours of fruitless browsing. I knew of Vernon Scannell as a poet without ever having read his work; but this is a memoir told in the third person about his experiences in the second world war. It presents a vision of that conflict which may seem jaundiced, even heretical, but would surely convince all except the most blinkered of patriots with its candour about the home front as well as the beaches. Not a great book if judged by the highest standards, still it manages to do most of what we hope for in a story, providing a strong narrative with agile changes of backdrop and pace at the same time as challenging our assumptions.

A boxer of some resolve, John Bain (Scannell’s original name) was no coward; yet he became a serial absconder from the army in circumstances easily characterised as desertion. Moral distaste, a common-or-garden bolshiness, sexual appetite, impatience to be demobbed: his motives varied but had in common a dislike of authority and following orders. There was fear as well, his own and his comrades’, the temptation to do a bunk always present, some minor wound (a so-called ‘blighty one’) the best that could be hoped for. This view of men under arms is remorselessly unheroic – excessively so, you may be tempted to think, but a bracing corrective to the usual pieties, what Larkin called the ‘solemn-sinister / Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall’. I realise halfway through that it is also about class, as any honest book on the subject of England is bound to be. The squalid self-preservation on display was born in the slums and factories – likewise the suspicion of anything more rarefied like Scannell’s interest in poetry. The picture drawn of being on leave in Manchester is particularly unstinting, with few resources, inner or social, to draw on, leaving drunkenness as the only form of release.

This is one of several claims made by the book to authenticity. No punches are drawn with regard to language, either the obscenities with which everyday speech was littered or their mantra-like repetition in moments of danger. The description of life in a military prison is harrowing, a system as inhumane as anything Hitler devised. And the effect on Bain of his friend’s death in action, a routine fatality numbing in its pointlessness, is poignant without being sentimental, a slow-release trauma from which the author and those close to him suffered for many years. There is a paradox at work in our attitudes to such things, a risk of unintended consequences. By honouring the dead and making their sacrifice seem worthwhile we run the risk of dignifying war, which only makes the next one more possible. Scannell’s book is as far removed from the standard version of events – and from any prospect of consolation – as it is possible to conceive. It is also commendably free of moralising. Yet in looking so squarely at the horror, degradation and wastefulness of a conflict still shrouded in national myth he did the rest of us a great service while seeking to exorcise his personal demons.

Bleeding Edge

If there is a record for the number of dialects and vernaculars you can cram into a novel, Thomas Pynchon just broke it with Bleeding Edge. Techno-babble; internet lingo; New York street jabber, with ethnic twists; dot com jargon; film buff arcana; even foodie in-talk – they tumble over each other as the complex, paranoid plot entangles and unravels like wires in an exploded junction box. If you understand more than half of what is going on you are a lot cleverer than me – and probably a lot younger, too. But even half was enough for this reader to be gripped and set thinking by. Might there be something to those 9/11 conspiracy theories? Is New York a freak show or a template for the rest of us?  Must human experience, and therefore nature, become more virtual than real? Will English split or hybridise into separate languages? How much fast food can people eat before their stomachs give up – or evolve? The mind whirls with distractions and possibilities, even before it starts grappling with the plot.

Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator with a Beretta in her handbag and a taste in unsuitable men, happens upon some shady dealings at a hi-tech company run by the mysterious Gabriel Ice. In trying to discover the truth she comes into contact (sometimes intimate) with hackers, geeks, hitmen, Mossad agents and other life forms whose intentions are never obvious or trustworthy. Why is money being channelled to the Middle East? Might America be sponsoring jihadist terrorism? What exactly is going on in the Deep Web? How come the smart money has been ‘shorting’ the stock of certain airlines? Is Maxine’s ex- (and now maybe current) husband in his office when the Twin Towers are hit, and will their marriage (not to mention their children) survive? I am not sure that all – if any – of these questions are answered by the time the book staggers, exhausted to its final page. But that may be the point. In the world being depicted, ‘not enough’ is as much as we are ever going to know, and ‘for now’ is as long as bad stuff can be prevented from happening.

Lester Traipse. Nick Windust. Eric Outfield. Pynchon has a genius for improbable names, one of several features in common with his previous novel, Inherent Vice. The latter is where his ‘late style’ might be said to have started. But for all their word-play, in-jokes and cultural currency both stories have one foot planted in tradition. Doc Sportello, the hippy private eye of the earlier book, is really Sam Spade with beads: a loner, a hard-ass when necessary, but also a moralist, aghast at how badly people behave. The new opus reaches even further back, to the origins of the novel, with a concern for its characters that celebrates empathy. And Maxine’s protectiveness towards her sons, with which the action both starts and finishes, says something about the vulnerability of innocence and love in our frenetic, exploitative age. There are laughs aplenty in Bleeding Edge but its vision is dark.

Great minds are said to think alike, and some of the same ground has been covered by Peter Carey in Amnesia, whose plot involves hackers and political conspiracies, Australian-style. Carey’s book is a fine achievement and less effort to understand; but Pynchon has taken a similar vision of post-modernity to another level, producing a work that might just be predicting where fiction, not to mention humanity, is headed. It pulls no punches and demands stamina and concentration on the part of the reader. But I like writers who refuse to compromise. It means they have something serious to say.

The Berlin Syndrome

If criminality has a zeitgeist, something which defines or typifies the age, then holding girls or young women captive, often for years, may well be ours. It retaliates against the progress made towards equal rights, which some men experience as emasculating, a woman’s place restored to the kidnapper’s definition of ‘home’. The unsettling question which haunts our understanding of these cases (one recently explored by the BBC series The Missing) is the possibility of a bond being forged between captor and captive. Known as the Stockholm Syndrome, after first being recognised during a Swedish bank siege in 1973, this is usually considered a survival strategy; but emotional complications arise, especially when children have been born, that shed light on our need for affection and on the unsettling dynamics which ripple like muscle beneath the surface of love.

Berlin Syndrome, the third feature-length film by Australian director Cate Shortland, takes this difficult issue as its subject, and produces a tense, involving drama that is often uncomfortable to watch. Clare, a photographer from Brisbane, arrives in Berlin with the aim of recording the architectural legacy of the GDR. She meets Andi, an English teacher in a physical education college and they spend the night together at his apartment, the start, it would seem, of a holiday romance. But Clare wakes to find herself imprisoned – an ordeal which she is not, it soon becomes clear, the first to have suffered at his hands.

For this to be convincing the set-up has to be right. The apartment is in an otherwise unoccupied block of flats, ironically the kind of relic she has come to photograph. The windows look out on an interior courtyard which no one else uses. In any case, Andi has double glazed them with reinforced glass. In making her premise watertight the director imitates the thought processes of the criminal, by no means the only role reversal in the film. For our part, enjoying the spectacle of another’s humiliation is pretty much the definition of sadism; and although we know that Andi will slip up eventually, the suspense is pleasurable and we want the moment postponed, making us accomplices in a way. As for Clare herself, this was no kidnapping by a stranger so it comes as less of a surprise that her feelings towards him are ambiguous. She submits to being tied up during the day like a participant in bondage; poses for the polaroids he takes of her in sexy underwear – another role reversal, the image-maker objectified; and virtually seduces him, the lovemaking too passionate to be wholly simulated. Of course, all of these actions can be seen as self-protection, and she attacks him when the opportunity arises. But the scenes with a sexual content, or at least implication, are shot in such a way as to blur the lines between compliance and desire. That is a difficult trick to pull off. A man could not do it these days, a sign of how far we have come – unless perhaps he was Lars von Trier.

That leaves us with Andi and his reasons for acting this way. A motive, or at least pathology, is suggested rather than explored, and I wonder if the original novel, by Shortland’s compatriot Melanie Joosten, has more to say about this. The decaying hulks of GDR buildings, along with the secrets they conceal, equate to memories repressed by the conscious mind of a unified Germany, whether these relate to crimes that were committed or to the hopes of a fairer society destroyed. Perhaps more could have been done to tease out this context or atmosphere. And, my only negative comment, Andi’s English class is hard to believe. Would PE students really be studying the work of James Baldwin? As a general point, teaching is badly served by cinema. Nonetheless, whether as psycho-sexual thriller or political allegory, Berlin Syndrome keeps us transfixed until the end. It is the work of a visual stylist and natural storyteller able to suggest layers of meaning beneath the conventions of a genre. Suspense plus thoughtfulness: what more can you ask?