Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Wallander - the troubled detective

Kurt Wallander is a grim man. Whether you meet him in books, or in the TV series, you will seldom see him (or read about him) smile. Both Branagh & Henriksson, who have played him in the English & the Swedish series, know this well. In fact, Branagh has even admitted to visiting flower shows to cheer himself up from the starkness of his screen life.
The hero of Henning Mankell's several mystery novels is a police inspector in the Swedish town of Ystad. He is a fictional detective, yes, but if you are thinking of the cocky Sherlock Holmes, then you are way off. For starters, Wallander doesn't jump from windows like Sherlock (as Mr. Downing or Cumberbatch have lead us to believe). If you are now thinking of the smiling, more laid back Poirot,  then cut the mustache, the smile and add a lot of severity and self-doubt instead.

I have only read two Wallander books, so my impression of him is largely from what I have seen on the tv series. I have come to like this detective who has doubts, who is not perfect, who is stubborn, and labors through investigation (instead of having some elementary interventions). He is a very good police officer, but he gets into each difficult case with a reluctance, as if dragging himself to the gym, hoping he will find it closed when he reaches there. But once he is there, he goes all in, forgetting everything else - sleep, personal commitments, food. 
Wallander brings detection face to face with existentialism. He is confused with the world around him, always trying to make sense of himself, and struggling to be a good policeman in the ever-changing Sweden. Having failed as a husband,, he is also constantly worried about being a good father, which is difficult with a rebellious daughter like Linda. He is anxious that he forgets to keep appointments with his father and does not spend enough time with him. In essence, Wallander brings to front all the angst of the modern man - is he doing enough? Is he capable? What should he be doing to fulfill his responsibilities better?
I have also seen in him some puzzling contrasts. For instance, he has driven his wife away by being too immersed in work. Yet, when he meets the widow of a Latvian Major, he takes leave from work, and crosses borders illegally to help her. I wonder if its the same person being talked about, and the only rational explanation seems to be is that he has a strong desire to be needed. So as long as it is a damsel in distress, he can expend his energies and time saving her, but cannot work on a relationship with a woman who is safe and needs him only for emotional support.
I also find it interesting that since Wallander, a few troubled detectives have found their way on screen. (Detective Hardy from Broadchurch being one from recent times). Even those who love the dazzling Sherlock Holmes, are happy to see these real people struggle through detection and grapple with their personal demons.

Friday, July 12, 2013

This way for the gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am sometimes embarassed of my interest in holocaust literature. There is something morbid about wanting to read the tales of death chambers, of cattle cars, of people being pulled out of their homes in middle of the night.
And yet, it is such a bizarre side of reality - something so humongous and beyond understanding, that I feel compelled to know more, to understand what happened. The many books and many films on the topic mostly share the survivor tales, or tales of tragedy - the after-effects of the holocaust (or more appropriately "Shoah"). These tales, the most beautifully written ones, like from Sebald, or Kertesz - bring to fore the sense of loss, the disorientation, which goes far beyond the actual physical act of mass-murder. But there is little written or said to explain the perpetration, what went on in the minds of the tormentor and the tortured when the physical act was being carried out. How did a whole machinery get convinced to participate in the barbarism? What went on in the minds of people in the camps, seeing the fumes from the chimney?

Borowski's collection of short stories touches upon something of the latter - but his reality is so harsh and inhuman, that I almost want to scratch it out as cynical rant. He himself spent 2-3 years in Auschwitz, and the stories seem autobiographical. So you would assume that they would have some truth in them. But if there is, it is a disturbing truth.

"Weakness needs to vent itself on the weaker". This seems to be a theme of Borowski's stories, and also the centre of life in Auschwitz. The prisoners, enslaved by the Germans, have more respect for their guards than they have for their fellow slaves, whom they often spy on, tell on, beat-up, steal from. There is little sympathy for the person who is in the same boat.

In the title story, slaves help to unload the cattle trains. There is a selection process - those unfortunate, are being sent to the gas chamber directly. The slaves are doing their own sorting - of the belongings of the new arrivals -  they collect gold and valuables for the regime, food and utilities for themselves. They deceive the people being led to the 'evil eye', sometimes even laugh at them, but most of all, treat them with contempt.
The tone of this story, and most of the others that follow is cold and sharp. There is little emotion - only a very animal-like awareness of senses - hunger, lust. The narrator sounds nihilist, but his bitterness sometimes escapes into the text.

The most compelling story, which is also beautiful, is written as a letter (or rather collection of letters strewn together) called Auschwitz, our home. It is beautiful for the shimmer of humanity it offers. The writer of the letters writes to his girlfriend (these are, in all likelihood from the letters written by Borowski himself to his girlfriend whom he had followed into the slave camps). He writes about the absurdity that is going on around them.
He tells her:
If I had said to you as we danced together in my room in the light of the paraffin lamp: listen, take a million people, or two million, or three, kill them in such a way that no one knows about it, not even they themselves, enslave several hundred thousand more, destroy their mutual loyalty, put man against man, and...surely you would have thought me mad. Except that I probably would not have said these things to you, even if I had known what I know today. I would not have wanted to spoil our mood.

He writes about how hope and God have weakened the people, who, imagining justice, and looking to a better future, are not tearing down the death camp. He also talks of his own hopes of surviving the camp.

It is difficult to accept Borowski's account as objective truth. He wrote most of these stories after coming out of the camp. He mentions somewhere that the slaves were only surviving on hope - but it is impossible that the world outside of the camp walls could match up to the enormous Eden these hopes must have built. 
There will be no borders after the war, I know, and there will be no countries, no concentration camps, and people will not kill one another. This is our last fight.
Any unfairness, any punishment, any harshness in the post-Auschwitz life would have seemed like a much bigger failure to the survivors, who had come to expect a heaven outside Auschwitz. Disappointment and bitterness were bound to follow - therefore I think Borowski's account is tinged brightly with his disappointments of the Poland after war. The fact that he committed suicide within a few years of freedom, highlights this disappointment.
Besides, his letter, which seems to have been actually written while in Auschwitz, is less brutal, more human and looks out with some hope, however feeble, makes me think that a lot of steeliness must have come post-Auschwitz.

In one of the stories, the narrator calls the Chimneys to be the great eye - it made me wonder if Tolkein's mordor was indeed the death camp? Where else could he have drawn inspiration for a world so bleak.

Borowski and his work has been described in Czeslaw Milosz' work The Captive Mind which I had read sometime ago. There, he had referred to Borowski as Beta - and it is thanks to one of the comments on the blog post that I could find out who Beta was.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Jagten (The Hunt)

Does a misunderstanding or misconception ever correct itself? In stories, misconceptions often place themselves at the center, sometimes spinning the entire tale around. Mostly, in the end, people speak up, and miraculously the fog lifts.
Not so in the crisp and stony reality from Thomas Vinterberg. In his movie, he marks out how it is not enough to be acquitted from a court trial, and certainly not enough to have done nothing wrong. Long after being cleared, doubts persist and hunt the accused - may be in reality or may be in his own mind.
Lucas, a nursery teacher at the center of this drama, is wrongfully accused of sexual conduct in front of a child. A child who is his best friend's daughter and who he is very fond of. The small town discounts the many years in which it has know Lucas to be a charming, lovable person in face of a child's thoughtless accusation. The paranoia of parents at the thought of sending their child to a potential predator everyday spirals out of control. Suddenly, all parents begin to see signs of molestation in their own children. The children work themselves up in a hysteria where they begin to remember an evening in Lucas' basement alone with him. 
The image remarks how immaterial it is that the basement does not exist. There are moments when, as a viewer I began to wonder if indeed it lies hidden elsewhere, even when I had been privy to the wrongfulness of the accusation from the very beginning. Mass perception has a way of becoming reality. Aided by the insecurity people have for their children, and in the unshakable (but really quite questionable) faith that children are always honest and innocent, this perception becomes wildly accepted, even by the band of brothers Lucas has grown up with.
This remarkable hold on rumor and the hazard it poses - this is what makes The hunt the best film I have watched this year. Mads Mikkelsen's performance and the mood-landscape is a treat on top. Even though this film goes against the severe principles of Dogme, somehow the use of editing and cinematography adds to the stark reality and therefore appears to follow the Dogme in spirit.

Monday, June 10, 2013

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead

Sebald's characters live in memories and the past - this is perhaps the least kept secret about his books. Their dead keep returning to them, the possibilities of their own deaths continue to haunt them - until they can bear it no more and often embrace that death which has been following them.
In Emigrants, which I am now re-reading after a few years, four stories follow four people who escape (or are forced to leave) the places where they were born. The places where (in a now archaic worldview) they were supposed to spend their lives. In the face of evil which reaches these places in the form of racism, nationalism or other forms of vile hatred, they abandon their fate and chose different paths. For some it is merely a different country, for others it is a completely different life. However, they continue to be haunted by the memory of their past. It is as if they should have stayed back and faced the consequences of being born in a place. In a bizarre link between fate and birthplace, these people believe that the persecution their birthplace offered will pursue them no matter where they go.
So these emigrants spend restless hours climbing mountains, or walking the countryside, or catching butterflies - either whiling away time in wait for that destiny they escaped or trying to listlessly walk away from this persistent destiny.
I have, so far, read only two sections. The first one, on Dr. Henry Selwyn struck me as a little odd. What strikes me in Dr. Selwyn's story is that his homesickness is not something he has carried around him since his emigration. It is in the later stages of his life, as estrangement with his wife grows is when he begins to think about home. This is uncharacteristic of Sebald's tragic heroes, who, displaced at a very early stage, seem to carry the burden of exile throughout their lives. In Dr. Selwyn's case, homesickness seems more a romanticism of past in the face of an unhappy present. In Dr. Selwyn's life are enclosed many possibilities - the possibility of a happy country life in Lithuania, the possibility of persecution in the holocaust, the perils of an immigrant's life in America, a happy life with his wife in England. Dr. Selwyn has escaped all these possibilities, to end with the most banal of all maladies - an unhappy marriage. Perhaps he is tormented by the banality of his misery, and yearns for a more dramatic tragedy (of being buried under snow like his friend, or living the holocaust). May be this is what lies behind his melancholy - not the memory of home, but what home seemed poised to bring when he left it. Is Sebald trying to say that even those who completely avoided the holocaust are victims of it because all other miseries look embarassingly small in comparison?