Thursday, 30 December 2010

Io Sono L'Amore (I am Love)

I’m trying to improve my Italian, so spending some time here watching TV programmes and films. This 2010 film features Tilda Swinton, an actress I really admire, and has won a lot of awards.

At the beginning of the film a beautiful Russian woman, collected when very, very young by the Italian heir to a textile fortune, has just spent 30 years as a trophy wife in fashionable Milan. Tilda Swinton plays Emma, the inscrutable, perfect wife whose life lacks love and passion. Her 3 children are grown up and she claims she can no longer remember her Russian name and has no identity outside her marriage. Then Emma meets a young chef, a friend of her son and her whole existence as wife and mother is thrown into jeopardy.

It’s a good study of the Italian family and a woman’s place in it. Lavish family meals form the narrative spine of the film - celebrations of birthdays, engagements, business deals, illicit lunches, funerals. It’s all beautifully filmed, gloriously stylish, but rather slow.

If the film has a message beyond food and sex it’s that the old Italian family is in decline - the Recchi’s business is being overtaken by competitors from Asia and their women are no longer under patriarchal control. Emma is having an affair with a chef and her daughter has become a lesbian.

I was left feeling rather dissatisfied at the end though, feeling that the narrative should have had deeper layers. But perhaps that’s unfair - it was very enjoyable and films are all about entertainment. It’s filmed by an Italian director with music by John Adam and definitely deserves its ‘best foreign film’ award.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain

People have been telling me I should read this book ever since it was published. A friend of mine even teaches it to her creative writing students. I think I must have an inbuilt aversion to hyped books because it’s been sitting on my shelf and I’ve been avoiding eye contact for over a year. Now, I wish I’d read it earlier.
It begins with a quote from The Grapes of Wrath - that other iconic novel about American society. ‘They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.’   These days it seems to be illegal immigrants who are de-humanised by a society that doesn't want to see them or address their problems.   Boyle’s writing, like Steinbeck's,  is tight, so perfectly crafted it never gets in the way of the story - which is explosive. The whole novel is an indictment of contemporary American life - obsessed with material possessions, paranoid, fearful, guilt-ridden and increasingly angry.
Delaney, one of the main characters, is an eco-journalist who wants (in public) to preserve the wilderness, but he has second thoughts when it encroaches on his own private patch of earth. His wife Kyra is a realtor with her eye permanently on closing the next deal. Their lives change dramatically when Delaney knocks down and badly injures an illegal Mexican immigrant, Càndido - the same day a wild coyote skims their fence and goes off with the family’s pet dog.
Càndido is living rough in the canyon with his seventeen year old pregnant wife Amèrica. They have been tempted by the American Dream and have found only a nightmare existence of hunger, discrimination and violence. Càndido is badly injured by the accident, but they can’t afford a doctor, dare not go to a hospital and he’s unable to work to earn money for his young wife.
Delaney is shocked by the accident and, to assuage the guilt he initially feels, gives the man $20 and then convinces himself that Càndido had jumped out in front of him deliberately in order to get money. It’s the beginning of a long sequence of deceptions that ends with the realisation that no gates, walls, or fences, however high can keep out The Wild, or the hordes of hungry people from across the border.
The ending is magnificent. I read it three times in order to grasp its full significance, which is all in the sub-text, pitching you forwards to a future that still holds hope. This is one of the important novels of the 20th century, with a very serious message. But is anyone listening?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Allan Russell: Veiled in Shadows

I’ve been following the progress of Veiled in Shadows through all its stages via the Australian author’s blog ‘Publish or Perish’, so it’s very satisfying to finally be in possession of a copy of the novel. Allan Russell chose in the end to design his own cover and have the book printed by Lightning Source, distributed through The Book Depository and
Allan Russell is a very interesting person - he has Bachelors Degrees in Anthropology and Education, but has also studied Archaeology and History.  He lives near Melbourne Australia with his family and is a social worker, currently working for a charity supporting the homeless. He is also a wonderful wildlife photographer - as his blog testifies - and now a published author.

I see a lot of ‘self-published’ books, as the judge of a small regional literary award, and my heart often sinks in anticipation, because so many of them are so poorly edited and badly produced, however good the content. Veiled in Shadows is very different - a lot of thought has gone into it and the result is a quality product.

The novel itself was also a surprise - though it shouldn’t have been. I think there is still an inbuilt prejudice against ‘self-publication’ and an expectation that the quality will be of a lower standard than mainstream publishing. Not a bit of that with this one.

World War II fiction is not my first choice, so that was another reason to be wary. I opened Veiled in Shadows when it arrived, just for a glance over a mug of coffee; half an hour later I was still reading and my coffee had gone cold. Al is a born story-teller and I was quickly wrapt up in the characters and their lives - I’ve been compulsively reading it ever since. The ending didn’t disappoint either.

Briefly, Ebi Gausel is an ambitious young SS officer who, in 1938, meets the half English Princess Victoria Katharina von Brunnenstadt and they fall deeply in love. When war breaks out, their engagement is broken off - Ebi believes because of a misunderstanding over another woman - and Victoria is taken to England by her father. There she meets a young RAF officer, Peter Robinson, and grows to love him too. At the beginning of the war, Victoria is recruited by the English secret services and played back into Germany, involved from then on in a dangerous double game at the risk of her own life. To tell you more than that would spoil the plot. One of the other female characters, Jena, is a Polish jew who survives a massacre and is subsequently recruited by Victoria as both friend and agent. Jena was one of the characters I most cared about - feisty and vulnerable and utterly real. Even Ebi, the ‘bad guy’, has his human side, as all the Nazis did, though his deeds are graphically depicted.

Veiled in Shadows isn’t literary fiction, but it’s a very good read, and more than that it’s a book that has a moral and emotional core. The characters and their lives will be with me for a long time. Allan Russell is a very good writer. I know he’s working on his second book and I will be reading that one too!