‘They Burn the Thistles’ by Yasar Kemal

Kemal captures the poetry of the Anatolian countryside; bees buzzing bucolically beneath the pulsating sun, thistles swaying under the gentle current of the wind, the white iridescence of a mountain peak following a sun-rise, Kemal is in love with the Anatolian landscape, with the flowers, mountains, streams and plains from which it is formed;

“The dark-brown stallion, after a long round, together with a shooting star, entered the narcissus-bed of Ajhjasaz. The narcissus flowers were tall enough to touch its belly; they gave off a heady scent in the warm spring air. The big, gliding, gleaming stars in the sky were reflected in the shimmer of the horse’s bare rump. He plunged into the limpod waters of Ajhjasaz, where the big, broad leaves of the water lilies floated on the surface.”

Shimmering with a myriad of colours, a tessellation of blues, pinks, reds and whites, the beauty of the Anatolian hosts the conflict between the peasantry and the landlords. Cruel, vindictive and selfish, the landlords, with the support of the corrupt police, constantly tyrannise and exploit the peasants. The peasants are powerless to stop the exploitation-or at least they feel powerless-Kemal is, perhaps critical of their passivity, of their weakness and inability to fight their oppressors-instead they look to others, such as Memed, the book’s protagonist, a outlaw and brigand who, by the time of ‘They Burn Thistles’ feels over-burdened by the expectations of the peasants to fight their battles for them. Moreover, Memed  is going through an existential crisis of sorts; his previous attempt at ending tyranny only ended up creating worse monsters-Memed ponders whether evil will always exist in perpetuity and whether there was any point in killing oppressors if there were a thousand men to take their place.

By the end of the novel Memed gains an answer of sorts-the peasants finally begin to take action and fight back and this prompts Memed to join them and kill the men who had been tyrannising them, yet, beneath all of this, the reader feels like, in consolidating his place as a hero, Memed’s humanity was slowly eroding, as he becomes a myth and a legend, a composite of cliches and illusions, a giant with a booming laugh, invincible and impervious to bullets-Kemal deftly explores the dehumanising aspects of being a hero and being mythologised, of the sacrifice Memed needed to make to ensure the peasants could witness the blue thistles slowly coalesce with the rising sun on a Anatolian morning.

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‘Suite Française’ by Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished and unpolished opus Suite Française reads somewhat anachronistically; like a composite of 19th century French Literary cliches; the larger than life characters, such as the disaffected and ribaldorous intellectual Gabriel Corte, the cynical aristocrat Charles Langelet and the naive yet heroic Hubert are characters straight out of Hugo and Stendhal; pale caricatures and echoes of well-established literary types, their motives and dialogues can come across as slightly cloying, a little too conventional. It would be harsh, however, to judge Némirovsky on a work which was left unfinished and, judging by the appendixes, she was seeking to substantially and it would be unfair to judge her solely on these characters, after all, as Gabriel states, Proust imbued his secondary characters with as much importance as the main characters and although some of Némirovsky’s secondary characters have originality and depth, they lack the nuance and depth with which Proust coloured characters, coming across as monochrome against Proust’s kaleidoscope.

That is not to say that Némirovsky is not a good, perhaps brilliant writer, he descriptions of the exodus from Paris following the German invasion, her depiction (and humanisation) of the relationship between the occupied French citizens and the German soldiers, the atmosphere of taut tenseness, of humans being caught up in movements beyond their control, of gardeners forced to be soldier and peasants compelled to welcome-and even befriend-their captors, dispenses with the usual simplistic depiction of Nazi’s as being unanimously evil and French unanimously heroic, instead they are just people caught up in history and compelled to choose sides which, as with the Nazi’s, led to what would normally be normal, upstanding individuals to commit horrific atrocities. Likewise, her depictions of the myriad colours which form the night sky and moon around Paris and France imbue the novel with a sense of poetry and beauty;

“The short June night was fading. The stars grew paler, the air smelled of milk and moist grass; now, half-hidden behind the forest, only the pink tip of the moon could be seen, growing dimmer and dimmer in the mist.”

One wonders whether, if given the chance to finish the novel, Némirovsky would have polished some of the rough passages, fleshed-out the characters and created the masterpiece which ‘Suite Française’ had the potential to be; instead, like the characters in the book, she was swept away by events greater than her, her light extinguished by the morass of darkness of Nazism.

“God’s Bits of Wood” by Sembene Ousmane

There is a bareness and sparseness to Ousmane’s Senegal; a place where the people have had their humanity stripped away by their colonial oppressors; persecuted and down-trodden, the characters find themselves fighting to re-gain every aspect of what makes them human, from their language, to the culture and way of life, all of these things had been taken away by French colonists, who misguidedly viewed their exploitation as an attempt at civilisation. At the core of the novel is the labour movement and workers rights, the dynamics of not just the colonial system, but to a lesser extent the capitalist system which, according Ousmane seeks to exploit its workers for the gain of faceless corporations-the workers in the novel are triply exploited for their labour and because of their race and all under the auspices of benevolent colonialism. Ousmane is able to convincingly  re-create the desperate, yet at the same time social febrile atmosphere engendered by the strike, the sense of common purpose and unity which it brought up. The characters are perhaps not as full realised as they could have been, with some of the more interesting characters, such as the charismatic Bakayoko, not receiving enough time-in many ways, this was very much Ousmane’s intent, to document life from a variety of different perspective and characters, however he may have benefited from concentrating on a smaller cast of characters to allow the reader to build a better emotional connection with them, which would have helped increase the emotional impact of the story.

‘The Years’ by Virginia Woolf

The sunlight-dappled passages of ‘The Years’, deciduous and delirious with Woolf’s painterly vision hold the key to understanding Woolf’s view of the world as an atmosphere of beauty enveloped in a haze of  human melancholy, regret and isolation; although ‘The Years’ ostensibly follows the Pargiter family, the true star is the city of London. Verdant and vibrant, from the tree-lined streets to  bilious  lamp-light which imbued London with a sickly luminescence, to the maze like streets which have entrapped the characters, few writers had described London with as much verve and originality as Virginia Woolf;

“The moon which was now clear of the clouds lay in a bare space as if the light had consumed the heaviness of the clouds and left a perfectly clear pavement, a dancing ground for revelry. For some time the dappled iridescence of the sky remained unbroken. There was a puff of cloud; and a little cloud crossed the moon”

London is enveloped in a haze of harlequin colours, of crepuscular dusk and golden rain, Woolf’s poetic descriptions are a testament to her painterly vision, to an eye which was accustomed to catching the small, unnoticed and unappreciated details of life, of gas-lights shaped like peacock feathers, of the fall of moon-light on tables, of night coalescing into day;

“It was a clear night and every tree in the square was visible; some were black, others were sprinkled with strange patches of green artificial light. Above the arc lamps rose shafts of darkness. Although it was close on midnight, it scarcely seemed to be night, but rather some ethereal disembodied day,”

Perhaps the weaker element of ‘The Years’ is the characters; although part of this is reflective of the fact that Woolf presents their inner lives via snapshots of different days in various years of their lives and so it can come across as slightly disjointed and so it is difficult to form an emotional connection with the family. However, that does not completely detract from the beauty of the story, from the magical atmosphere which Woolf weaves around London.

“Offside” by Jafar Panahi

Iranian cinema is the ultimate example of censorship working against itself. In seeking to censor the art, the Iranian government has elevated it, allowing the artists masquerading as directors (or directors masquerading as artists) to explore the human condition via beautiful and unsentimental stories of a young girl wanting to buy a gold-fish, a directionless man impersonating the film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf or-in this case-a group of adolescent girls and a miscreant attempting to watch a game of football.

Viewers should not watch ‘Offside’ expecting outstanding cinematography or unconventional narrative techniques-instead viewers should be aware of the deep humanism which runs through ‘Offside’and Panahi’s other films, a film which disregards concepts of heroes of villains but instead concentrates on people trapped in the webs society creates around them. It would be easy to paint the soldiers who imprison the girls as narrow-minded bigots, but instead they are just normal men, men who want to return to their farms for military duty or spend time with their wives, or who, just like the young women, just want to enjoy a game of football. Each of the young women is portrayed, in the little time which is allotted to them, with their own set of individual quirks and foibles, yet all are brought together by a desire to watch a game of football a desire which symbolises a need to break free from the arbitrary limitations imposed on them via the bigotry of parochial politics.

It would be easy-and all too obvious-to reduce ‘Offside’ to just being a critique on the prejudices Iranian women face-although that is a core component of what it stands for, it is also a film about what unites us, about what brings a group of grown men and young girls, along with the entire country, together, which in this case is a group of grown men kicking some cylindrical leather around a football pitch. For me, Offside is a film of hope, of hope against bigotry, hope against hatred and hope for a bright future.

“Neruda” by Pablo Larrain

A wonderful and irreverent biopic which seeks to upend the conventions of biopics, ‘Neruda’ showcases both Larrain’s artistic originality, but also his unique vision; from the choppy rawness of ‘Tony Moreno’, to the hand-held homage to amateur film-making  in ‘No’, Larrain has never been afraid to experiment with experiment with different forms and techniques and this is true in ‘Neruda’-there is something artificial in the cinematography, something false, whether it is in the deliberately artificial back-project or the obviously fabricated background in the car scenes, the viewer feels like they are merely observers in the farcical cat-and-mouse game taking place between Pablo Neruda and the bumbling, incompetent, yet incorrigible cop who is chasing after him, Óscar Peluchonneau. Whether Oscar is a figment of Neruda’s imagination or vice versa is largely irrelevant, after all this whole film is just a figment on one person’s imagination, what is important is the causal link between the pursuer and the pursued, as both are searching for something-in Oscar’s case acceptance and Neruda’s infamy and fame, which are both a type of acceptance and one cannot exist without the other; Oscar, bludgeoned and left to freeze to death during his pursuit of Neruda, is revived and brought back to life once Neruda acknowledges his existence (given this, more than likely Oscar has been made up by Neruda, a testament to his egoism which strives to invent a pursuer who lives up to the characters in the detective stories he reads.)

Neruda is left constantly frustrated by the police’s inability to capture him after a warrant is issues following the Chilean president’s decision to ban the Communist party and undergoes a deliberately provocative hidden exile-or, rather he doesn’t really hide at all, continuing to go to public parties, dressing up as an unconvincing prostitute during a policy raid or, more often than not, walking down the street without a care in the world. The viewer feels that Larrain is lampooning he narrow-minded and parochial politics of demagogues and he banality of their narcissism- not that Neruda isn’t something of an egoist himself (another strength of Larrain is his unsentimental depiction of his characters-even the heroes)-yet this is balanced by his deep humanity, his artistry and his greatness, whereas with the dictators who run Chile’s country, their own source of meaning and worth is themselves.

‘Jazz’ by Toni Morrison

An unmistakable musical cadence echoes through the voices of the various narrators of “Jazz”; the ebb and flow of the narration reverberating with the tempo and intonation of the inner lives of the characters, from the violent romanticism of Joe, the vituperation of Violet or the hopeful lyricism of Dorcas, Morrison imbues the characters with their own inner voice, as each of them tells the story of Joe Crace and his affair with Dorcas and his eventual murder of her.

Morrison explores the post-slavery shift in the African-American experience, from the initial freedom of breaking free from the chains of slavery, to the realisation that they had become entrapped in a more insidious form or enslavement, where the chains African-Americans were forced to wear were no longer physical, but tacit and the febrile freedom offered by cities to African-Americans to enable them to overcome the prejudices they faced, but how this caused them to forget the beauty of the country in comparison to the artificiality of the cities;

“He forgets a sun that used to slide up like the egg yolk of a good country egg, thick and red-orange at the bottom of the sky, and he doesn’t miss it, doesn’t look up to see what happened to it or the stars made irrelevant  by the light of thrilling, wasteful lamps.”

Yet, beyond all this, Jazz is a wonderfully told account of the inner lives of the characters caught up in the romance between Joe and Dorcas. Joe, charming and convivial, is caugh up in a passion for Dorcas whilst visiting her house; Joe references that he had never tasted sweetness until he tasted the honey of Dorcas’s skin, yet it is honey which is tainted with poison and which drives Joe to jealously murder Dorcas, who, being 32 years younger than Joe, feels suffocated by his sentimentality and begins seeing a somewhat brutish character named Acton. Observing all this is Joe’s half-mad wife Violet. The reader is left constantly uncertain about how or what to believe, as each of the narrators is unintentionally unreliable, each wrapped up in their own hopes, dreams and fears beneath the violence and vituperation of 1920’s Harlem in which the vast majority of the novel is set.

The novel is frequently broken apart and fragmented beneath the different narrative voices, and becomes increasingly fragmented, yet febrile, rich with the inner lives of the characters, whose journeys to find a sense of identity, whether it be Joe’ search for his parents or Violet’s such for love, is central to the emotional journeys they go through. ‘Jazz’ is one of Morrison’s masterpieces.

“Kokoro” by Natsume Soseki

Like a series of Japanese miniatures, “Kokoro” follows the story of Sensei, an introverted old man, whose disdain for humanity intrigues the narrator. A prose is imbued with a languorous, almost somnolent quality, as the reader is drawn into the outwardly quiescent lives of the narrator and Sensei. In many ways the novel charts Japan’s march into Western modernity, as it slowly sheds the skin of Confucianism to embrace the sense of individuality and egotism inherent in the West, as symbolised by Sensei, who, wracked by a lifetime of guilt caused by his adolescent indiscretion which caused the suicide of a friend. Sensei’s introspection, his gentle, almost genial cynicism, his aloofness and detachment, were perhaps no longer possible in modern Japan, as the sun is setting on the Meiji era, to rise and blaze forth with the light of individuality inherent in Western societies. Sensei is shocked by the darkness which exists inside him, by his selfishness and petty-mindedness, yet perhaps, in many ways Sensei was blind to his own faults; as he says to the narrator, he is very vindictive and capable of holding grudges for decades, as evidence in his decision to disregard humanity after being cheated by his relatives. And perhaps, deeper than this, Sensei’s belief that he is free from egoism and darkness is in itself deeply egotistical; indeed, in being so far removed from humanity and lacking in human warmth and feeling, Sensei  is displaying a sense of individualism more insidious than any Western concepts of individuality. Gradually the narrator and Sensei coalesce, as the narrator increasingly takes on Sensei’s weariness, his introspective nature and his cynicism.

The novel perhaps, lacks the inner poetry of ‘Sanshiro’, lacks some of its ebullience and etherealiy, as the style and content slowly become darker and culminate in Sensei’s long confession about his past. Yet there are lyrical passages dotted throughout the book, such as:

“I was entranced by all the young leaves around me. Looking carefully, I discovered all were subtly different. Even on the single maple tree, no branches held two leaves of exactly the same hue. A passing breeze lifted Sensei’s hat from where he had hung it, on the tip of a slender little cedar sapling, and tossed it to the ground.”

It is in these moments of introspection that the narrator is able to escape from the shadow of Sensei, from the darkness which has shaped and influenced him and moulded him into becoming an unwitting disciple of Sensei, to regain the sense of humanity which Sensei chose to regret.

 

‘Another Country’ by James Baldwin

There is a sombreness to James Baldwin’s New York; a sense of urban desolation and claustrophobia, of grayness and decay beneath New York’s bright lights and a sense of apathy and alienation which overcomes the cast of characters who inhabit ‘Another Country’; there is something rotten at the core of the big apple, something false behind the hopeful symbolism of New York, a city in which people are either trapped by racial prejudices or the emotional burdens placed by other people.

The novel opens with Rufus Scott; a disaffected Jazz musician who, beneath the hubris and superficial superciliousness is hiding a disaffection and vulnerability which draws in others like moths to a flame which is destined to dissipate and die out, consumed by its own incandescence. At the root of Rufus’s vulnerability is the deep-seated prejudices which he had to face as a black male. James Baldwin was critical of contemporary notions of masculinity-especially black masculinity-finding them insipid, arbitrary and limiting and in many ways Rufus encapsulates internalised notions of black masculinity; hyper-sexualized, violent and volatile, although there is undoubtedly something vicious in Rufus, this viciousness is as much a product of societal prejudices than it is of Rufus’s innate personality. In the end Rufus feels ensnared beneath the web of expectations society has wrapped around him, unable to break free and assert his own individuality, it leads to his mental and moral disintegration.

Race is the defining characteristic of the relationship between  principle characters,  Rufus’s best friend, the amateur artist Vivaldo and Rufus’s sister, Ida. Baldwin explores the fetishiziation which lies beneath Vivaldo’s (and other white male) attraction to Ida, who is constantly exoticized, yet Baldwin also explores the flip-side of the coin-Ida is so consumed with her sense of ‘blackness’ and internalised prejudices that she is unable to form a relationship with Vivaldo. Race is a social construct and despite the best intentions of the characters, they are unable to overcome this, unable to shake off the labels which society places on them, unable to turn a blind eye to the indignation people felt upon seeing an inter-racial couple.

It would be unfair, however, to limit ‘Another Country’ to being a novel which is just about race-the other key theme is love, from the passionate relationship between Eric and his lover Yves, to the monotonous marriage of Richard and Cass or the professional jealousy which lingered beneath the friendship of Richard, writer of mendacious murder mysteries, and the aesthetic (and ascetic)  Vivaldo, Baldwin is able to skilfully paint their relationship, colouring them with the selfishness, violence and joy which is at the core of human relationships. #

‘Another Country’ is a brilliant exploration of race, identity and art in 1960’s New York.

“The Smell of Hay” by Giorgio Bassani

A collection of wonderful short stories, Bassani takes several rare excursions outside of Ferrara, other the cast of characters will remain familiar to those who have read his Ferrarese novels; the lachrymose and recalcitrant, the lonely and the jilted, Bassani is able to pain them all via his subtle bush-strokes, to render ruefully, their lives hopes and dreams.

Although the stories are loosely connected, a deeper thematic connection runs between them of identity; class, racial, politics and religious, from a jilted lover obsessing over the creation of the racial laws which he feels have separated him from his former lover, to familial political divisions, Bassani explores the arbitrary and artificial social divisions we impose on ourselves, how the define us and our relationships with others and how, as with the Jewish characters they can change over time, subject to the whims of wider society or time, which reduced the once popular and handsome Marco Giori into a portly pessimist with dark, leathery skin. More than this Bassani is able to capture the small, such as the colour of a lamp in a hotel room, to re-create and bring to life the literary world his characters inhabit;

“In the violet sky of the evening (as the sun set behind the shoreline woods, in thrust blades of most poignant green light between the ancient trunks) little silvery fighter planes made trials and loops.”

Love, hatred, life and death are the key components of Bassani’s short stories, which act more as snapshots, picture perfect explorations of the trials, tribulations and happiness of the cast of characters who inhabit his stories.