Thursday, August 28, 2008

Head-On (Gegen Die Wand)

Every country bears a lot of weight on everyone who is born to it - all the history, the beliefs, fears, errors, successes and a lot more. When you chose to leave it, you also in a way try to offload all these weights and go out empty-handed to adopt something new with more openness. But no country is a new country. There are people already living there, weighed by the being of their nation. You can shed your weights, but it takes years before you can adopt theirs and become equal. That is the dilemma of emigrants - trying to lose and gain different weights at the same time, and stuck somewhere in between. A dilemma often propounded upon, but not always as well depicted and lived as the characters of Faith Akin's German-Turkish movie Gegen Die Wand.
Both Cahit and Sibel are Turkish emigrants living in Germany. Both of them are unhappy, disoriented and sick of their lives, on which they have given up. They meet in a clinic after making failed suicide attempts, and end up in a convenient marriage on Sibel's crazy insistence as she desperately seeks to move away from the dominance of her family and have an independent 'sexual life' as she puts it.
Both live as roommates, and slowly, even through their random and disjointed lives, a semblance of attachment begins to form between them, until they begin to fall in love. But just then a fit of anger lands Cahit in the prison, and Sibel disowned by her family. She moves to Turkey, and Cahit hangs on in the prison with only the thought of Sibel keeping him alive.
Sibel's disorientation in Turkey is almost complete, and it is such a vivid description of how she is more comfortable in the foreign land than in her own country. Even Cahit, when he finally lands in his country, seems to be so out of place and puzzled in being there. There is a scene when he tries to speak to Sibel's cousin in halted English to explain himself, because neither his German and Turkish appear adequate enough for expressing his emotions. That single scene says a lot about the emigrant's confusion.
What I liked about the movie is that even with many dramatic turns, it is a very non-dramatic film. The listlessness and the slow resurrection of both people is subtle and very natural. They are reticent people, never truly giving in to emotion, but more susceptible to anger and depression. There are some very good scenes - Cahit's Head-on in the beginning of movie being one, the English dialogue another. The last scene too, which reminded me of the last scene of Antonioni's L'eclisse in a way - though of course the latter was far more powerful and poetic. The movie is tied together with powerful acting and little dialogue. I found myself both disgusted and sympathizing with the two people who seem to have come unhinged.
Recently, I was also reading Sebald's Emigrants, which is such a subtly depressing but powerful book (as I have found each of Sebald's works to be so far, because he is an incredible writer), and it takes us through the lives of four emigrants. I have only read two yet, and neither of them are dramatic lives, but each life feels so uprooted and restless and unhappy that you could only imagine them waiting for the end.
Also, read a quote recently which sums it up a bit:
we all suffer in our different ways from being prisoners of birth..

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Death in the Andes

Recently I have felt inclined towards reading more Latin American literature – perhaps it is the after effect of reading a book as mesmerizing as Pedro Paramo, but I think I still have to find the right sequel. The Death in the Andes is definitely not one, and after putting it down, I can only feel slightly disappointed and confused more than anything else.

It begins as a mystery – a civil guard trying to find three men who have gone missing in a mining village of Peru. But even from the beginning, the mystery only seems to be in the background, somewhere hovering only in the mind of this guard and ignored by everyone else. Even the guard seems only to be flirting with this mystery, and is more distracted with hearing the love story of his adjutant and commenting on the social fabric of the village. Llosa spends a long time painfully detailing the romantic escapade of the young adjutant, on the other hand he fleetingly flips through many sublets that he opens and closes in the story. There are several characters in the book who hold centerstage for a while, as Llosa explores their thoughts, ideas, stories – but quickly brings them to a violent death at the hands of Sendaristas (the Shining Path Rebels), to return to the love story.

I don't know whether it is a positive of Llosa's work that the political motivation has been completely ignored in the book. The Sendaristas have been glossed over. They appear only to kill or punish or plunder, and remain as unexplained and mysterious as the pishtacos, the mythical vampires. It is almost as if they had no motives or reasons for the violence, and are only fulfilling the purpose of keeping death alive in Andes. Perhaps Llosa is being unjust to the rebels in doing so, or perhaps it is his polite way of rejecting their ideals completely. Once the villainy of the Sendaristas is completely established, they are suddenly dropped, and the ancient Peruvian love for death and sacrifice turns into focus. I suppose Llosa himself continuously experimented with the possibilities and followed them to a certain length till they appealed to him, and then abandoned them once they became stale. In a way, it does lead to some charm to the story, but to me the confusion created is slightly more compelling than this faint charm.

What is good in the book to me is the presence of many characters. It presents a collage of several stories, all leading to wasted lives, and you feel a certain gloom in every page. (Except the love story, which even though the main plot, appeared to me an anomaly in this tale of despair) For that matter, even the love story is sort of doomed, but the adjutant is so juvenile that it is impossible to feel depressed with his love.

I also loved the interplay between past narration and current dialogue. Especially, the civil guard's comments interspersed in the adjutant's story make it very interesting – it is like watching a trash movie with friends – you keep interjecting with comments, and later you can never separate the movie from those evil comments J
For all its failures, the book does succeed in inspiring fear. You see a land seeped in violence, and you can feel that the perpetrator of this violence or the cause is immaterial. From the ancient times, it is a land that has lived and breathed violence and worships spirits that demand death. Perhaps it is too imaginative a notion, but perhaps it is true that you cannot escape your history and continue to pay homage to it.

I did not think that this book was anywhere close to the Llosa that I have read earlier (The Storyteller). That was a very sincerely written tale, one which made you appreciate culture, history, even myths. This one is simply dark narration.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Spanish Cinema

Just getting into it - what better way to begin then to sink into the exceptionally beautiful and poetic Spirit of the beehive. To question the evils of the world through the silent eyes of a very pretty child.

And then watch the very beautiful Penelope Cruz play again the Sophia from Vanilla Sky in Open your eyes. This was certainly a far better version than the English one, though I have to say I had loved the English one a lot as well.

The Wanderers

The theme of a wandering man is central to many of Hamsun's characters, so it is perhaps only fitting that a book comprising of two of his writings be called The Wanderers. The cover contains two inter-twined Hamsun writings: Under the Autumn Star and Wanderer plays on muted strings, the latter a sequel to the first - and is a close but stale reflection of Hamsun's themes and moods, perhaps even a reflection of some of his own experiences
In the former, the wanderer Knut Pedersen leaves behind his city life with the romantic fantasy of leading a simple village life. He begins to do odd jobs on farms, but finds his heart often interfering with his idea of simplicity as he falls in love with the women of the house. His adopted simplicity is not able to lure him into settling down on a farm with one of the maids as his simpleton companion does. Like most of Hamsun's heroes, he hangs in abeyance in a feverish passion, that works to depress and exalt him alternatively, but also always keeps him on his feet. He is the confused man who does not know what he wants - whether it is the affections of one lady or the other, or merely a life in the woods. It is, in a way comical to read of his mild frustrations, because he seems to be oriented towards what he apparently escaped from while escaping the city. It is also comical because these are the confusions of a real person, whose element is inconsistency and not a singular approach to life which seems to be the characteristic of most other protagonists.
In On Muted strings, Pedersen, six years later, returns to one of the farms where he had worked during his earlier wanderings. And if there is a word that can describe the emotion of this narrative, it is the well chosen word in the title - muted. This hero is certainly different from Hamsun's other heroes, he is a quietened, withdrawn soul in contrast to the earlier restless character. There is that lack of the characteristic fervor, although still retaining his element of estrangement and frivolity. He is more a narrator now than the protagonist - as he observes the life of the landowners, which are portrayed in shades of decadence. Though I think he tries to refrain from it, Hamsun does pass his negative reflections on alcoholism and infidelity in his commentary, something that trivializes him a bit in my opinion. Though I do not expect an author to be an unbiased observer, I think he could keep well above the station of passing moral judgements.
I have quoted Hamsun on his view of his characters in an earlier post - I recently chanced upon a more detailed commentary on these characters which I found quite appropriate:

Fictional heroes who are estranged from their environment seldom emerge lifelike. With most writers, such heroes are mere shadows, or, at best, symbols. But Hamsun is able to portray both the environment and the alienation, the soil and the extirpation. His heroes have roots even though they cannot be seen. The reader never knows precisely how they have become what they are, but their existence is real all the same.
Hamsun’s favourite hero is a young man in his late twenties or early thirties, rash, good-natured, with no plans for the future, always anticipating some happy chance, yet at the same time resigned and melancholy. Hamsun’s hero is frivolous in word and deed. He speaks to people as he would to a dog or to himself.
Perhaps this work does not quite compare to Hunger or Mysteries, and is only a slighted shadow of these, but it is a very good read, describing a real man and his romantic fantasies of a simple village life, and of a lot of other romantic notions. The translation by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass is excellent.

For those interested, the full text of Hamsun's The Wanderers can be found here, though from different translators. The book is also available now on Project Gutenberg.