Review: Santa Evita (Tomás Eloy Martínez)

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(Photo by Robin Minchum, at Perón Perón [x])

I accumulated floods of file cards and stories so as to be able to fill in all the unexpected blank spaces of what, later on, was going to be my novel. But I left them where they were, leaving the story, because I am fond of unexplained blank spaces.

In this, I am of one mind with the author. And it is more for the ‘unexplained blank spaces’ and for the swampy, indefinable territory between history and fiction that I came to Santa Evita, than out of any knowledge or particular interest in Argentine history.

It’s a long, meandering novel, and it feels appropriate to begin by discussing the ending, not least as the ending concerns the work’s beginning. By its close, I felt more than anything the strength of its similarities with Javier Cercas’ far more compact Soldiers of Salamis (2001; Santa Evita was first published in 1995). Whether there was direct influence I won’t speculate, but the same slightly neurotic, ambivalent narrator is pulled inexorably, reluctantly into both stories. Both are stories mired in a violent, vivid memory of history, and both thus encourage ambivalence: the accidental moment where a leading fascist was spared death, and the strange indignities to which the body of Eva Perón was subjected after her husband’s first deposition in 1952. Soldiers of Salamis discovers an ending full of internationalism and hope, however, where Santa Evita finds the author finally able to return to Argentina after years of exile, unable, or unwilling, to fully describe the hold that Evita’s story has on him — and on the other subjects of his story — though perhaps it is indescribable, recognised and understood only by the Argentines who lived through the politics of the twentieth century.

It is an interesting story, though not, perhaps a satisfying one. Santa Evita weaves an imagined account of Evita’s last days with the author’s interpretations of newsreel footage and his interviews with figures such as her hairdresser. It also wanders into her past, via the recollections of her mother and fellow actresses, and the lascivious speculations of her political enemies, but its focus is largely on the reception of her corpse by Perónists and by the military following Juan Perón’s flight from Argentina later in the year that she died.

The author retains a sympathy for all the characters who appear in his text, though he describes himself as a distant, unemotive and on occasions cruel researcher, as in the encounter with ‘Irene’. He is perhaps keen to emphasise the journalistic intent that originally prompted his investigations; or perhaps mired in the depression that he claims lifted miraculously upon his decision to write the story down. The sympathetic approach to all the individuals involved, from his depiction of Eva Perón’s last days, to the struggles of the man initially tasked with concealing the embalmed corpse, means that this is not a novel with a particularly strident political message. It explores madnesses and insecurities on all sides, teasing out the human doubts of its subjects, and the inappropriateness of their equally human lack of doubt. Some of Martínez’s ‘revelations’ are shocking — such as all that is inflicted upon the corpse — and others are less so — the proposed reason for the young actress Evita’s mysterious absence from the historical record for a period of eleven months or so will probably surprise no female reader, at least.

A sense of personal dislocation and unease permeates the novel, where description is at its finest in instances such as when a source’s brief flashes of emotion are accompanied by his need to look away from the author, who describes this expression as one in which the subject’s experienced emotion is thought to be the mislaid emotion of some other person, whom he then looks for. The involuntary nature of our feelings and the actions that they induce us to take is a constant here: never investigated directly, nor questioned, but implicitly underlying the inexorable descent into obsession that so many characters in the novel experience.

The story is also one of male possession. Evita’s voice opens its narrative, her dreamy self-reflections as she lies weakening, dying of cancer, but after her death her wishes are denied, she is talked of and talked over and constantly redefined as an object of want by so many others. The way in which her requests are ignored upon her death; the way that her mother gradually loses influence over what is to happen to her daughter’s remains; the fearful helplessness of Colonel Koenig’s wife; of Arancibia’s sister-in-law; the unaffected horror of Irene when informed that she had not had a doll as her childhood companion, but a real, human body; all cry out pitifully from the margins of the novel. As Perón claimed to have made her, so each man who encounters her body after death remakes her in his own imagination, turning the hatred of slurs — Mare — and attempts at distance — Person — into a fierce struggle to ‘tame’ bones and formaldehyde, and the dangerous ideas that live on with her preserved corpse.

Eva Perón died at 33, the same age that Christ was supposed to have died, the same age that medieval representations of the dead aimed to show their subjects. Like all good saints, she must have a martyrdom, only in Santa Evita the deprivations and misunderstandings that martyrs are subjected to occur after her death, to her impassive body. Flowers and candles apparently planted by her supporters, and the scent of lavender from the embalmer’s ointments, are the standard attributes of a saintly corpse. But the removal of a finger, a nick of her ear, a star-shaped incision, and the endless longing hands of a stream of fascinated men are Evita’s trials after death; she is as passive in her ‘sufferings’ as the tortured women of medieval saints’ lives.

The novel offers neither historical fact, nor closure to the reader. Like Soldiers of Salamis, I am most fond of it when the author’s voice is clearest, musing on the nature of truth and fiction and watching, listening to his sources, drawing sad and lonely people with an effective line or two of description, or by recounting a night of conversation between them and the author. Martínez somehow needed to tell this story, but he does not offer a full explanation of why. Prompted to ‘join the cult’ by Rodolfo Walsh, who stayed, and died, for his publications, he does not say whether following the story that he found himself investigating to its end(s) brought him any closure for himself. But he doesn’t really need to say; the loose ends, the blank spaces, are true to both life and to the form of the novel. They leave us space to think in, and they leave the story space to just be, without imposing any trite, moralising conclusions or explanations for the events within it.


I read the translation by Helen Lane from 1996.

Review: Maxïmo Park (The Junction, Cambridge)

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“If you could just … just suspend your belief in the Power of ROCK. Just for now …”

Not likely, Paul. It’s been ten years since Maxïmo Park played in Cambridge — I know, I was there — and boy, did Cambridge miss you.

Last time they played Cambridge it was at the Corn Exchange, the venue bands are said to play once on their way up, and once more on their way back down. Well, I like a band that don’t do things by the rules. This audience seemed to be split in even halves: those who were long-time fans, and those who were enjoying their first Maxïmo Park gig. This was only clear because the band asked, though; everyone sang their hearts out to every song, old or new, regardless of how many gigs they’d been to before.

The set list was skewed heavily towards material from the new album, Risk to Exist, and this went down particularly well. The response to songs that have only been available for a little under a month was huge, and the combination of leftwing, compassionate politics, great tunes and sing-along hooks suited Cambridge down to a tee. The singer Paul Smith, introducing ‘Make What You Can’, wondered ‘how deep’ he should go in his explanation of the song. He floundered between disclaimers that he wanted people to interpret it how they wanted, emphasising that this was a rock gig and not a political speech, and yet clearly appreciating Cambridge’s support for the reason the song was written: the valid question — why is our Prime Minister taking support away from those who need it most? It’s okay though, he also talked about how his dancing sometimes got a little bit Axl Rose, so it wasn’t quite a Corbyn rally (Cambridge likes those too, anyway).

The customary energy of their live shows took a few tracks to build, but with the crowd-pleasing ‘Books from Boxes’ behind them momentum grew quickly. I think it was noticeable that the more the crowd responded, the more the band enjoyed themselves, being clearly both exhausted and affected by the cheering at the end of the encore. Their long touring experience showed in the rapport with the crowd and in the determination with which they pushed through a somewhat confused version of the new track ‘Alchemy’, laughing off the ‘variations’ afterwards and soon regaining confidence with another old fan favourite, By the Monument. Honestly, we were eating out of their hands by that point anyway: the response to the band’s gestures, waving for more noise, was vast; there was a lot of clapping along, sometimes band-led, sometimes audience-led; and you could see the pockets of old-timers in the audience by who jabbed the air with a finger on the right lines in ‘Going Missing’ (‘forget it, forget it’, ‘regret it, regret it’) and pressed their palms skyward to apply some pressure…

Although it was a set list that seemed to have been chosen in a hurry (Paul had to check his notes quite a lot at the start), it fitted together really well. The segues from old tracks to new worked well; for anyone who felt a bit leery about the overt politics of ‘Make What You Can’, it was followed by the soothing, needs-no-introduction classic, ‘I Want You to Stay’. ‘Our Velocity’, with the line ‘are you willing to resist / for people you’ve never met?’ also chimed surprisingly well with ‘The Hero’ and other new tracks.

I’ve been so pleasantly surprised each time I’ve been to a Maxïmo gig since I ended a six-year hiatus on seeing them live at the final Split Festival in 2014. The fans that have stuck around, and the new fans that have accumulated long after the heyday of the 2000s takeover of the charts by indie bands, are a devoted and happy bunch; there’s dancing, not shoving (well, not much, anyway…and it depends where in the crowd you are), people take a few pictures and videos, but not so many that you can’t sing and dance around them, and the audience is always a diverse one. The band themselves, sadly now permanently without Archis, always put on a great show, and the dorky excuses Paul makes are as much a part of that as the dancing — like Axl Rose or otherwise…

The set list was an epic twenty tracks, drawn largely from their new album, but including material from their whole back catalogue. It went something like the following, though I may have the order mixed up here and there:

  1. What Did We Do To You To Deserve This? (RTE)
  2. Risk to Exist (RTE)
  3. The National Health (TNH)
  4. Books from Boxes (OEP)
  5. Leave This Island (TMI)
  6. Make What You Can (RTE)
  7. I Want You To Stay (ACT)
  8. Questing, Not Coasting (QTH)
  9. The Undercurrents (TNH)
  10. Work Then Wait (RTE)
  11. The Hero (RTE)
  12. Our Velocity (OEP)
  13. Alchemy (RTE)
  14. By the Monument (OEP)
  15. Going Missing (ACT)
  16. What Equals Love (RTE)
  17. Girls Who Play Guitar (OEP)

Encore

  1. Nosebleed (OEP)
  2. Apply Some Pressure (ACT)
  3. Get High (No I Don’t) (RTE)

Key: ACT=A Certain Trigger (2005), OEP=Our Earthly Pleasures (2007), QTH=Quicken the Heart (2009), TNH=The National Health (2012), TMI=Too Much Information (2014), RTE=Risk to Exist (2017).

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (cinema)

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Sometimes I find it hard to remember how much I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It’s one of those things (aka a part of the MCU) that, although I am glad people are critical of it, was fairly effectively ruined for me last time I had a tumblr. Yes, Drax has one dumb line. Yes, Rocket’s an asshole about that guy’s leg. These aren’t enough to make me want to write off the movie. One might even argue that they’re in-keeping with both these guys’ characters. Do so if you want; I don’t really care enough. I’m here for: pretty pretty space, the AMAZING supporting cast, the music, and the family themes/character development. And in those respects, volume 2 delivered, even more than volume 1.

I was dubious about the additions to the ensemble going in, and about the tiny cutsey Baby Groot, worrying that characterisation would get swamped and the movie would be aiming to appeal to a much younger average viewer. Although it took a few minutes to properly hit its stride — the opening’s fun, but was Trying Quite Hard — I needn’t have worried. Mantis and Nebula are incorporated successfully into the emotional arcs of the rest of the team, and much to my delight, my surprise favourite from vol. 1, Yondu, got a really great journey.

As usual, the theme is one of found family; all of the Guardians have family issues of one sort or another, and although this movie is centred around the story of Peter’s father, the other characters’ stories are never fully eclipsed by this. Gamora and Nebula finally have a chance to work things out — to an extent — Rocket finds a kindred spirit in Yondu, Drax’s continued mourning is exposed through particularly effective scenes with Mantis. This time, despite the gaping absence of several fridged women — Peter’s mother, Drax’s wife and daughter — the movie works hard to let those who are onscreen — Gamora, Nebula and Mantis in particular, but even the Priestess Ayesha — have their own stories. Splitting the team for part of the movie actually makes this development for effective too, rather than resulting in a focus on one group as opposed to the other.

It’s also a movie I’d love to see on the course list for a ‘psychoanalysis and literature’ module I took a few years ago. We watched Jurassic Park, but Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2 isn’t even subtle about its Freudian influences. Peter’s father is called Ego, for one, and Peter’s struggle to come to terms with his identity, via opposing father figures, manages to be both entertaining and affecting, if oh-so-familiar. Spoilers: (I think there’s something particularly interesting going on in the inversion of Peter’s fantasy view of space, as played out by Ego. The movie has an early reference to Peter’s womanising, reminding us that he’s part of the old fantasy where human males go off travelling in space to make out with all the hot alien chicks. Then we find out his father did that too, in a concerted effort to spread his kind, going on to kill his own offspring when they didn’t live up to his ideals. Peter’s not just participating in the classic sci-fi fantasy, he’s a product of it, and enjoys some of the benefits of being that special human in space still.) End spoilers.

Other things I really appreciated about the movie were: Tommy Two-Lines Flanagan! Living up to the nickname I gave him over ten years ago again… (and providing symmetry with his Gladiator colleague Djimon Hounsou’s role in GotG vol. 1). Did I mention that I love Yondu? Coz I love Yondu. And particularly how the movie doesn’t really excuse his behaviour; he broke the code and he knows it and he doesn’t apologise because he messed up. Similarly, Ego’s moral code isn’t really judged as ‘evil’, just too destructive to be tolerated. Villains are normally the most boring part of a movie for me — and I like it like that, I’m not interested in identifying with them most of the time — but this is a setting that successfully avoids ‘villains’, leaving just enough nuance (or absurdity) in to make it about more than inherent good vs inherent evil.

Also, there’s a satisfying level of meta going on between the seventies/eighties soundtrack and the presence of David Hasselhoff, Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone.

Some scene changes felt rushed, and some dialogue was trying too hard for my tastes, particularly Peter’s references to Cheers. But these were minor points in what was a fun, funny addition to the MCU. Not only did it remind me how excited I am for Thor: Ragnarok, it also put me in the mood to watch some Farscape. Can you imagine the crews meeting? Crichton and Peter’s conflicting cultural reference points, Gamora and Aeryn eye-rolling so hard, Drax and Drogo probably completely misunderstanding each other, and Rocket stealing Rigel’s chair to modify it/for shits and giggles. I hope there’s fic of that somewhere out there. If not: internet, you know what to do.

Review: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (Chris Packham)

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Behold, one of my earliest TV memories: Chris Packham, Terry Nutkins and Michaela Strachan, and a very ’90s introduction to the animal world. It began broadcasting about 11 months before I was born, and despite the fact that Wikipedia claims no crossover between Terry and Michaela on the show, this is the only line-up I remember watching. Combined with a very rural childhood, it had me nose-deep in Collins Gem guides, tramping the woods on dawn-chorus walks with my Dad, and picking through owl pellets and feather collections. None of that’s really comparable with Chris Packham’s animal-entrenched life, but that’s why he’s one of the best naturalists, nature presenters and wildlife activists around and I’m not (also because I can’t hold onto my obsessions for that long, they dissipate and form anew too quickly).

Also, you should know that because of this being such a long-standing connection, and because he worked an insane number of Smiths song-titles into his Springwatch presenting, and because Tory twats who hate the BBC like to pick on him at any opportunity, I will judge you on your attitude to Chris Packham. If you don’t like Chris Packham, I don’t much like you. That’s even more true having finally got my hands on the paperback of his sensuous, often brutally frank childhood memoir.

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The memoir never once uses the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, which the author was only diagnosed with relatively recently. It just asks you to come along, to see things through his eyes, and to feel what he felt through some of the defining moments of his childhood: moments of intense emotion, of loss, fear, puzzlement, and most of all, of love. His love for animals is as absolute, as unconditional as he sees their love being in return. He knows that others will think it’s strange that he can celebrate this love by taking, piercing and blowing bird’s eggs, by shooting sparrows to feed his pet Kestrel, by collecting dead things to dissect their wings and workings, but he makes no apology for it; he just presents you with his single-minded fascination and with the way he revels in discovery and experience. Words flow across the page, synaesthetic and winding sentences that describe the light and the English countryside in a way that puts you right there. No matter whose perspective he writes from, they all see the countryside as he does: they all experience the living world in the same way, though they may not be able to recognise it.

The narrative swoops from perspective to perspective, first introducing us to the reticent little boy collecting insects through the eyes of the ice-cream seller. It’s such a self-conscious technique, inserting himself into others, imagining how others imagined him, fleshing out their moments in the narrative limelight with details to fit their lives, their position in space and time. But it’s done sensitively, with a careful regard for each person; although most of those whose heads he imagines peering out from are people who showed him sympathy or empathy themselves. The only exception I can think of currently is the school bully, Bazza, and in that instance, Packham’s not so much seeing himself through Barry’s eyes, as imagining Barry hoping to cop a feel of the same pair of tits young Chris himself was interested in. When Barry comes to beat him up, he views Chris from a distance, sees only the lack of reaction. The rawness of feeling that Packham admits to his therapist in between chapters — no, he doesn’t forgive people like Barry. He can’t — is revealed more subtly through the use of these other perspectives. Outsiders like the shell-shocked ‘Tramp’ and the divorcé next-door see the introspective little boy far more clearly than other, equally well-meaning strangers.

The memoir flits back and forth between the sixties and seventies, tied largely together by the story of his time as the trainer of a young Kestrel and by interludes based on the therapy he sought after an attempted suicide. He’s unflinchingly honest throughout, letting the reader in on the necessity of everything he does, whether it’s the absolute, impossible-to-deny-it need he has to take a Kestrel chick, legal permit or not, best interests of the bird or not, or the incident with the fox in the snare, that turns from foolhardy, shockingly brave rescue, to a reluctant, miserable euthanasia.  He’s never knowingly or deliberately cruel, and he’s pragmatic about nature, but humans often are cruel, and when confronted with the preventable cruelty of the two boys smashing tadpoles with a hammer, he’s furious, white-hot with anger and sadness, and it’s palpable in the prose that even the memory stirs echoes of that strength of feeling.

Packham also turns a critical eye on the War generation’s buttoned-up attitudes to emotions, to pain and to sex. Much is not explained; much more is not discussed; and the things that go untalked about weigh heavy throughout his childhood. The disastrous response (lack of response) to the death of his Kestrel (a far more prosaic, lingering death than that suffered by Kes‘ bird) actually sends the boy into a spell of muteness: post-traumatic stress disorder repeatedly ignored by his parents. But again, his empathy wins through, self-taught though it may be; despite this, and despite their blazing rows and eventual separation, he’s in awe of both of his parents and all they did for him. But the childish bewilderment, the search for guidance through the most deeply-felt hurt he’d ever experienced, remains heartbreaking.

The more recent loss, the one that drove him to take far too many pills — and, thankfully, not enough pills — is never named. His eloquent rebuttal to his therapist’s question (“what about your family?”) is magnificent, and I hope that those inclined to ask questions like that of suicide survivors (and of those who don’t survive) read this passage and take a long hard look at themselves:

Everyone says that suicide is selfish. How fucking stupid. Selfishness would only be apparent if you could be conscious of your actions’ effect on others. But there are no fucking others, they are not there. There is nothing there … but you and a fucking, great, hopeless vacuum.

If that resonates please get in touch with the Samaritans.

Just as the loss of an animal affects him greatly, so he then describes the impossibility of contemplating the same thing when his other animals are in the house: the devoted, uncomplicated love of his dogs means that he can’t make a second attempt.

For all the fact that ‘if not fully constructed his ability to empathise has been learned’, it’s Packham who displays the most empathy in this memoir. He notes that

Back then I thought they were too cowardly to think deeply about themselves, that they chose to protect themselves by loving themselves and their world, but now I know they had no more choice than I did, we’re just wired differently, different parts of our brain are a bit more developed than the others. They’re out, I’m in … it’s the way it is.

But by constantly looking inwards, pouring the depth of his feelings onto the page, he reveals a desire to understand others that lingers, and that is rooted in the curiosity and observation that drives his engagement with nature. It’s often more wry, aloof, but it’s a knowing take on humankind nonetheless. Shades of that Munch quote here again.

Despite his fears (‘pure love, immaculate, perfect love, is the thing that is there waiting to destroy you. Because it becomes all of you and when it’s gone there is absolutely nothing left…’), there is so much love, and so much of his vivid, poetic view of the world in this book, that all I can think of at the end is Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb:

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Review: Soldados de Salamina (2003)

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“I was about to tell her that Miralles hadn’t fought in one war, but many, but I couldn’t, because I suddenly saw Miralles walking across the Libyan desert towards the Murzuk oasis — young, ragged, dusty and annonymous, carrying the tricolour flag of a country not his own, of a country that is all countries and also the country of liberty and which only exists because he and four Moors and a black guy are raising that flag as they keep walking onwards, onwards, ever onwards.”

I love this book. I only read it relatively recently, at the nagging reminders of He Judges (ta love) and adored its introspective, meandering blend of history, fiction, biography and autobiography. I found the movie by accident, on what must be about the 50th trip to Diego Luna’s imdb page. My repeated ignoring of it must have been down to the slightly different place-name (I read it in translation as Soldiers of Salamis), and to the fact that the author, Javier Cercas, becomes Lola Cercas in this movie adaptation. And it’s also quite expensive still on Amazon; lucky, then, that I work in a city with more world-class libraries than you can shake a stick at.

It’s a strange story to adapt: it’s the story of how a journalistic investigation hits a dead-end and slides into wishful thinking and unanswerable questions, told through the self-doubting lens of the author, a one-time novelist who’s been bereft of inspiration for years. But the movie does an amazing job of adapting its source, contriving situations that allow for all the historical exposition in the book, and retaining a good deal of its humour, not least that which comes at Cercas’ expense.

In the first half of the movie, Lola thinks she’s conducting a serious investigation into facts from the Spanish Civil War — tracing the steps that led to the fascist writer, Sánchez Mazas, surviving a mass execution on the Spanish/French border, and returning to serve Franco with the help of his ‘Forest Friends’ and some Catalan farmers. The movie uses documentary footage, real and expertly mimicked, plus flashbacks featuring Ramon Fontserè as Sánchez Mazas, to show the narrative in all its detail. Most effective of all is the way in which Lola’s discussions with the old survivors are filmed: the camera focuses on the men’s faces, and the outside light washes the colours thin, giving the impression of documentary filming, whilst Lola quietly prompts them from the edge of the shot. There is far less of this on show in the second half of the movie, where Lola looks for a hero, a heart for the story of the cold fascist’s survival, trying instead to identify the man who spared him in a clearing in the forest just outside Collel. In this part, it is just one or two flashbacks that are returned to again and again: the vivid, romantic image of the soldier dancing his paso doble in the rain, and his dark-eyed, enigmatic, happy expression as he decides to spare Sánchez Mazas.

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Joaquín Notario does not look anything like how I imagined the soldier in the forest. But he’s perfect. The movie lingers and returns to his wondering, open expression again and again and rightly so; if you don’t get that shot right you lose so much of the story’s beating, intangible heart. Similarly, Joan Dalmau looks not a jot like my imagined Miralles, but he’s wonderful nonetheless. He Judges and I were alternately cackling loudly and sitting in stunned silence as he slipped between observations on the present and on the past. Although a lot of detail had to be culled from Miralles’ memories, the effect was still profound, even without that closing narrative meander that I love in the book, where Cercas imagines dancing the paso doble ‘Sighing for Spain’ with Sister Françoise on Miralles’ grave, watched by Conchi and Bolaño.

The latter doesn’t make it into the movie at all, but oh boy, Conchi sure does. She gradually comes into her own in the book; Cercas’ first relationship since his divorce, someone who seems strange and unrelatable to him, even as he takes solace in the physical side of their partnership, yet whose feedback and pushy support keep Cercas on track to complete the novel. She’s a blend of brash overconfidence and brittle fears, and she bursts to life in the movie in María Botto’s hands, the character barely altered despite the fact that Javier has become Lola. The scenes between Lola and Conchi are easily the best of the scenes set in contemporary Spain (barring Miralles’ interview perhaps), but rather than have them in an established relationship, here it’s about Conchi’s unrequited lust/love for Lola. It does a good job of allowing the movie to show Lola’s emotional distance, but feels like a bit of a cop-out in some ways, too; not least because it then shoehorns in a quick snog between Lola and young Gastón, the Mexican exchange student, to prove that Lola likes men, no, honest guv, she does! I wonder if Diego Luna felt he was being typecast after Y tú mamá también? Can’t imagine he’d mind much, if so…

Ariadna Gil holds the whole movie together, despite the historical male figures threatening to make it only about them. She’s a delightful klutz, constantly dropping things, fixing a hole in her pocket with a stapler, falling asleep at the keyboard with her glasses on, and it’s always great to see a female character who’s this clumsy, and who gets to remain emotionally aloof rather than becoming some sort of cutesy ditz who just needs a sexy guy to carry her stuff for her (not for lack of Gastón’s trying). She’s as frustrating as she should be, single-minded about her search for the man who spared Sánchez Mazas, even when Miralles is telling her far more interesting stories from his own life and those of his long-dead friends.

More so than the book, the movie shows how prickly mentioning the Civil War still was (is!) in Spain. Cercas struggles to identify the precise nature of the humanity he’s looking for at the heart of his story: the mass execution is wrong, regardless of its victims’ repellent political beliefs, so it’s good that Sánchez Mazas doesn’t become just another body in the mud in that clearing. But what does he go on to do? We know he remains loyal enough to his Forest Friends to order the release of a son of one of them from jail, but he’s still an influential part of the fascist dictatorship. The soldier who spared him is a naïf, a romantic child caught dancing in the rain rather than guarding his prisoners, and Miralles is a hardened fighter, troubled by the loss of so many friends, and no longer at home in Spain at all. It’s up to Cercas, listening to figures from all sides, drawing out the individual, human stories, and telling Miralles that he will not be forgotten, to blend this awkward cocktail of all-too-recent memories into a story of both hopelessness and hope.


And then I’d take Sister Françoise by the hand and ask her to dance with me besides Miralles’ grave, I’d insist that she dance to a music she didn’t know how to dance to on Miralles’ fresh grave, in secret, so no one would see us – so no one in Dijon or in France or in Spain or in all of Europe would know that a good-looking, clever nun (with whom Miralles always wanted to dance a paso doble and whose bum he never dared touch) and a provincial journalist were dancing in an anonymous cemetery of a melancholy city beside the grave of an old Catalan Communist, no one would know except a non-believing and maternal fortune-teller and a Chilean lost in Europe who would be smoking, his eyes clouded, standing back a little and very serious, watching us dance a paso doble beside Miralles’ grave just as one night years before he’d seen Miralles and Luz dance to another paso doble under the awning of a trailer in the Estrella de Mar campsite, seeing it and wondering if maybe that paso doble and this one were in fact the same, wondering without expecting an answer, because he already knew that the only answer is that there is no answer, the only answer is a sort of secret or unfathomable joy, something verging on cruelty, something that resists reason, but nor is it instinct: something that remains there with the same blind stubbornness with which blood persists in its course and the earth in its immovable orbit and all beings in their obstinate condition of being, something that eludes words the way the water in the stream eludes stone, because words are only made for saying to each other, for saying the sayable, when the sayable is everything except what rules us or makes us live or matters or what we are or what that nun is and that journalist who is me dancing beside Miralles’ grave as if their lives depended on that absurd dance or like someone asking for help for themselves and their family in this time of darkness.

Review: Swimming with Seals (Victoria Whitworth)

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Julia Sorrell – Stones of Stenness (via)

I really want to compare reading Victoria Whitworth’s immersive, liquid prose to an exhilarating swim in the North Atlantic. Each wave is heralded by a tiny, crested Pictish beast — the essence of cetacean, as the author beautifully describes it — no, a pair of the beasts, flanking a dreamy paragraph of description, each wave begun with a morning on a shivery, light-infused stretch of sand. There are no chapters, no chronology in particular, just expertly interwoven memories and descriptions, separated by the short accounts she’s been writing of her morning swims on a remote Orkney beach. Some waves are bigger than others; some go deeper, and are consequently more frightening. But I’ve never been a good swimmer, whereas I felt quite at home in Whitworth’s confident, personal narrative.

Swimming with Seals is a memoir, a narrative of nature and the seasons, and a circling, cautious stalking of the abyss; of our fear of death. Whitworth swims to find herself again, driven from the land by excruciating plantar fasciitis — Ariel in reverse — re-learning to be herself, in herself, through sensuous, sometimes fearful encounters with the sea and its inhabitants. Orcas haunt the edges of her writing, as they haunt the edges of her vision in the sea, representing the unknowable end that we all must come to terms with. There is a lot that Whitworth thinks is best seen through peripheral vision; indirectly. She works through her own mother’s death in the book, scrutinising her response to it, picking inevitably away at recurrences and patterns in her life — like Charcot island, named by the son of the man who discovered the disease that caused her mother’s death, which finally became an island instead of an archipelago in the years after her mother’s death. Whitworth is aware of our tendency to seek out patterns; it’s with a wry, knowing smirk that you imagine her leading you through the patterns she nonetheless cannot help but discern.

Medieval themes and a frustrated attempt to get to know God run through the book too. She is frank about her approaches to both, like the scholar that she is, but she also shares her vivid novelist’s imagination with us; again, clear-eyed pragmatism runs hand-in-hand with the thoughtful, longing possibility of knowing something, or someone, that is utterly inaccessible. Yet Whitworth succeeds in making it seem, momentarily, eminently accessible. What a treat.

Stay home with me / You are the reason I am here

tfw your favourite band’s lyrics echo one of your favourite quotes, from one of your favourite books, that you first read on the Megabus north, when going to see that band over ten years ago…

People who never doubt
Are the ones I’m worried about
People who never doubt
Are the ones who carry the clout.

Maxïmo Park – The Reason I Am Here

“The ones who are not afraid are those who don’t know anything, aren’t they? They have no inkling of the values which must not be harmed, the threads which must not be broken, the threads which will link people together, threads which will bind together each link in the chain of generations. Those who do know this become cautious, afraid of doing any harm. They’re circles, aren’t they? There are those who trample under foot, tear down. Those who have an inkling of eternal values, of a higher meaning, become afraid; they proceed cautiously, they are sensitive and respect the richness of existence. They seek it out.”

Ketil Bjørnstad – The Story of Edvard Munch

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Edvard Munch – The Girls on a Bridge (1901, Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

Review: Risk to Exist (2017), Maxïmo Park

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It’s 2004, it’s 2am and I don’t really know what I just heard, but I’m pretty sure I’m in love. Something under two minutes just blasted out of the radio and made a mockery of my idea that listening to it would help me sleep. A Northern accent, deranged with the memory of uncontrolled nights dancing and drinking; too many words for the already agitated beat; wild-eyed and frantic all the way through. I’d just heard ‘The Night I Lost My Head’ and it was like the primal part of my being had been given language for the first time.

~ What equals love? Well I don’t know, but I think it’s trust ~

Last weekend I got back late from a conference abroad and had to be out of the house a few hours later for a full day’s shift in a library in the city. Risk to Exist had arrived in my absence. I cranked up the car radio (yes, I put a CD in the car and played the CD. It may as well still be 2004), and I fell in love ten times over all over again, as yet again this band reached into my chest and pulled everything inside out.

Compromise is not a sin, but you’d better not make a habit of it ~

This is an album about love and language and feelings (like many a Maxïmo Park album) but here the sentiment reaches beyond awkward teenage emotions and canny expressions of frustrated romance, and a clarion cry for human compassion emerges. I knew they were political; that was plain from their stage chatter at the last few gigs I saw; and then the single ‘Risk to Exist’ came out (well actually, I heard it last summer at the Times Square gig), and at first I lamented that a song so blatantly inspired by the refugee crisis came out with no mention of charity donations … and then they announced the MOAS collaboration. And the album just gets blunter and blunter, until peak irony is reached with the line ‘I’m angry but I’m not explicit, the message was there but you blinked and you missed it’. No chance of missing the messages here!

~ What’s left for me? If everybody’s turning right… ~

Musically, the brass sections and backing vocals are a new touch, and I get the impression they’ve been revisiting a lot of Prince since his death. In this album you can hear — clearer than ever before — Paul Smith’s Stevie Wonder-belting karaoke persona, with falsettos and ‘ooh-oohs’ thrown in with clinically precise abandon. It’s full of perfect, summery pop anthems; they just happen to be anthems suitable for a summer in which we’re being subjected to another election, at which we’re expected to behave like obedient little children and give Mother May her mandate for fucking us over however which way she fancies.

~ I won’t be put in my place ~

17-year-old me was not the queen of good decisions, that’s fair to say. But boy oh boy, she got this one right. Bar a brief blip with the second album, the loves of my life have only improved record by record,(1) and Risk to Exist doesn’t change that. Heart-bursting joy is what I felt listening to this new album, and it’s so damned catchy that they joy will stay with you, even with the anger, frustration and disgust at current politics. Above all, it’s still love that drives their music, and in love that they look for solutions. For all the angst, they’re still hopeful, still calling for us to ‘show some empathy’, and I’m so grateful they’re still here, still making music that speaks for those of us who are perpetually caught between existential dread and a fierce joy in living.(2)


(1) I love a lot of tracks on Our Earthy Pleasures, and to a degree my problem may be that I’ve grown up with each of their albums fulfilling my emotional needs at the time they came out. It’s just that this one came out when I was having my messiest undergraduate phase…

(2) And someone once had the cheek to say to me ‘I never imagined them as a band to inspire such loyalty’! How very dare.

Review: Hysteria (2011)

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My, those Victorians, what an odd bunch. With such a familiar starting point, and a cast like this one (everyone’s in it. Everyone. It’s one of those British movies that just has all the people in it), you know what to expect. Maggie Gyllenhaal, with a flawless accent, is the one surprise in the cast — and the one surprise throughout most of the movie, too.

It’s delightful — of course it is — but there’s actually very little to shock or to make you think any deeper about what’s going on here. It’s a light-hearted comedy about the accidental invention of the vibrator (or ‘personal electrical massage device’), and features the usual suspects found in plenty of British period pieces. Rupert Everett plays Rupert Everett, the character everyone knows is outrageously gay, but no one minds because he’s terribly, terribly wealthy and he has a useful rich boy hobby (tinkering with electricity). Jonathan Pryce is the cynical businessman, in the business of bringing wealthy ladies to orgasm: a ‘tedious’ business, because he’s the kind of chap for whom imagining any woman experiencing joy is an affront to his senses. Maggie Gyllenhaal is his firecracker daughter, her every line delivered with breathless, manic conviction as she rattles from scene to scene defending the poor, the female, the sick, the unwashed and more; with Felicity Jones the passive, doll-like younger sister who merely wafts from studies of phrenology to studies of, apparently, one single book. Hugh Dancy’s the proud young doctor, booted out of all the hospitals in London because he has the temerity to believe in ‘germs’, who then finds himself caught between smugness and tedium (and RSI) as Jonathan Pryce’s heir-apparent. There’s loads more that could be said about the supporting cast, but they’re all playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect, so let’s move on — everyone is perfect in their role, and because of this the film bounces along merrily without any unevenness to the pace.

The actors sell their characters well, the film looks lush, and frankly it’ not a film that invites you to trouble yourself about the plot. However, it does hit a bit of a snag for me with some of the characterisation. Charlotte Dalrymple, the passionate suffragist, is evidently the sister to root for — her whirlwind energy is almost intimidating, and certainly made me think that she was a character who would also have almighty lows in between the driven, single-minded highs we saw. So she ends up a bit one-note, and rather more perfect than she needed to be; the problem being in the script here, and not in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s exuberant performance. But honestly I felt like Mortimer Granville was the only person who could be surprised at the sweetness of her response to him after the trial. His surprise is plausible from the perspective of his character, who is not nearly as socially progressive as Charlotte is, and may remind us that her contemporaries wouldn’t have seen her as a personality beyond the rhetoric, but it’s a reminder of just what a man of his time Mortimer remains. And that’s not a great reminder to get just before his big romantic proposal.

Which, may I add, kind of comes out of nowhere in the film. If he’s suddenly so damned rich, why does he have to marry her, when she’s expressed ambivalence about the prospect of marriage anyway? Is she even on good enough terms with her father at this point to get her dowry? Yes, yes, social conventions, I do understand. But it felt a little too close to a bribe, too soon after she left prison — I will come and work in your scuzzy little clinic but only if you marry me. Not that the film doesn’t show them enjoying each others’ company earlier, or having things in common, but it still felt a little too rushed for me, like they wanted to wrap up ALL the threads as quickly as possible at the end. I’d have liked to see her make use of the £2000 on the community centre before any prospect of marrying the person who provided her with those means came up, but that wouldn’t really have fitted the movie’s arc I suppose.

I did spend much of the movie wishing we saw more of Charlotte and Emily’s relationship — there were nice touches, with Emily defending her sister, but her thought-process remained inaccessible throughout the trial, until she appeared almost as a new woman, explaining why she was really quite happy not to be marrying Granville in the end. Having been convinced that she’d get thrown under the bus in favour of modern, spunky Charlotte, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Emily probably got the better deal in the end — free of Granville’s lukewarm attentions, free of the idea that she should try to please her father by being who he wanted her to be, Emily will take that personal electrical massager, thankyouverymuch, and Emily will not be using it to a prescription. Meanwhile Charlotte has to teach Granville how to kiss properly.

What prevents the movie being anything more than light entertainment is, for me, the use of Granville’s perspective. Contrast it with the best episode of Season 3 of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, where posh young women are undergoing treatment for hysteria at good old Aunt Prudence’s (Miriam Margolyes) house. The episode gets more into the female characters’ reasons for ending up there, and the ending is a powerful acknowledgement of the effect of repressing emotions, particularly grief, in a conservative, straight-laced society. Hysteria isn’t really that interested in the women at Dr Dalrymple’s clinic, nor in Emily and Charlotte, not beyond their easily recognisable stereotypes anyway. That it is told very much through Granville’s eyes is the reason for this, and probably also the reason why I wasn’t convinced by his proposal in the end; despite some nice interactions, there was little depth to his scenes with Charlotte.

Nevertheless, it was a fun watch, I did laugh a lot, and the performances of the excellent cast kept the standard higher than the script might otherwise have allowed for. And the actual closing line did have me in hysterics…

Rewatch: Rogue One (2016)

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Enthusiasm might not quite cover this one. Obsession, maybe, or fixation. I think I’m one of those people who’ll tell you Rogue One is their favourite Star Wars movie, but my feelings about it are far more difficult to articulate: there’s a lot of flailing and despairing noises and BUT I JUST WANT TO KNOW THEM ALL BETTER BUT THE ENDING WAS SO RIGHT.

It’s not perfect, so let’s get that out of the way first. CGI Tarkin isn’t going to age well, and I wish they’d not shown Leia’s face at the end because the same applies as soon as she speaks. There are two things I’d change in a trice, one of which occurred to me on the first viewing, the second of which has been more of a burgeoning annoyance. The first is Cassian’s band of assassins, saboteurs and spies. They’re all men. Every time I see him slinking out of the hangar, followed by his rag-tag bunch of warriors, all I can think of is:

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He’s mad, he’s really mad

It kind of kills the mood, you know what I’m saying? The second thing I’d change is a variation on the same theme, and one that only occurred to me when I read James Luceno’s prequel novel, Catalyst. Lyra is an explorer in it: intrepid, outdoorsy, maybe she’s also a geologist or surveyor, though I don’t think it’s specified. Then she marries Galen Erso and becomes the person who types up his notes. So far, so … true to much of academia and writing in general. And she’s still a great character. BUT — radical idea here — why not make Lyra Erso the famed Imperial scientist and have Galen sacrifice himself desperately at the start of Rogue One instead?(1) Instant Bechdel-Wallace pass, representation of women in the STEM subjects, doesn’t really change Jyn’s tragic backstory and Furious Angst™, so why not? Of course, He Judges pointed out to me that in that scenario the film-makers might not have been able to resist making the relationship between Lyra and Krennic massively skeevy, but allow me a world in my imagination where we could just make a straight swap and nothing else would change.

That’s … kind of it for my complaints. I love this movie. I love the look of it, the feel of it, the characters, the plot (I know the archive storage is dumb and I don’t care), the nods to the other movies, the humour, the hope and the hopelessness, the ending, the fact that, even more than The Force Awakens, after my experience of the prequels, it made the galaxy feel big again. These are the people I want to know in the Star Wars universe, not so much the Skywalkers or the Jedi Order. I want to know about the decisions of insignificant ensigns like Bodhi Rook that end up having huge consequences, and the fact that the Rebellion needs people like Cassian to do its dirty work and doesn’t always look out for them properly, and that there are people like Jyn who have been used as a bargaining chip by everyone but who can still find enough to care about to keep fighting. Also the Guardians: I’m so glad the Star Wars universe seems to have remembered that the Force exists independently to the Jedi. From Force worshippers/followers like Lor San Tekka and Lyra Erso, to all the cults in Jedha City, to the idea of ‘The Force of Others’, the Force can be interesting again, now that it’s not inextricably linked to a Jedi Council and its regulations. You can tell me again and again that Chirrut’s not a Jedi, and that’s fine — but you won’t convince me he’s not still Force-sensitive. I doubt that will ever be confirmed (just as I doubt that Disney is brave enough to make it explicit that he and Baze are a couple), but the fact that he could be is enough for me, for now. Again, in those EU books I grew up on, people could be Force-sensitive and not know it for years, only finding out far into their adult lives.

Big point to make here, now: I think Felicity Jones is great. And she makes a great Jyn. I think the complaints about the character stem from the fact that Jones does a really good job of showing someone who’s had a terrible time of things — who’s prickly, and mistrustful, and confused about her feelings towards a family and a galaxy she thought had abandoned her — and that this can’t be conveyed if she’s a cool, calm hero all the time. It’s understandable that she’d forget the holo message on Jedha, that her voice isn’t always steady when she makes speeches, that she’s often silent and taciturn and ungrateful for things that some people think she should be grateful for. Someone I know said that the only reason she saved the child on Jedha was to demonstrate her ‘maternal instinct’ and, wow, my rage about that is as fresh as ever, because that’s the most misogynistic thing I think anyone could imagine when watching that scene. Thematically, it should remind you of her past — she’s been a frightened child alone before and doesn’t want to leave another in that situation — and also of what’s to come — the futility of saving that child when the Death Star destroys the city anyway. At the very least it’s meant to be a sign to the audience — and a certain Captain Andor — that she’s not quite as devoid of values or ideals as might be suspected at this point.

Also, if you’re one of the ones clamouring for more alien representation … pray, tell me which of Star Wars’ first ethnic minority heroes would you like to swap out? I’d rather have the gang we have, while still enjoying the practical effects that remain ever-present in the background. Rogue One takes place over such a short amount of time, and packs so much in, yet the sense of camaraderie between the thrown-together heroes is strong — despite the Rebellion’s dysfunctional leadership, it still works, at least on some levels, because enough people believe in the cause.

It’s not radical to say that Rogue One is a movie about hope, but I find it hard to say how much I appreciate its message. It’s never not heartbreaking, every time I watch it, to see the troops facing down Darth Vader on board Admiral Raddus’ ship: like the main characters, none of them want to die, they didn’t show up to the battle intending to get killed, but they keep going, even as it becomes clear that there’s no way out. They keep going, taking one chance after another, until all their chances are spent. And don’t talk to me about Vader, and ‘why didn’t he just grab the plans with the Force?’ because ANAKIN SKYWALKER IS AN ARROGANT DICKBAG, DID YOU MISS THAT PART?(2) He’s a showman, he relies on the intimidation provided by his presence, and he’s over-confident, assuming that he’ll get his way in the end anyway. So fuck him, of course he was complacent enough to let the plans slip away on the Tantive IV.

I don’t go to Star Wars movies to see Vader and his cool red lightsabre. I go to Star Wars movies to see the Rebels kick the fascist Empire’s ass. Rogue One is my bag.

Oh, and if anyone from Disney/Lucasfilm is out there: please please please PLEASE can we have a spin-off Tales of Jedha City book, in the vein of the old Tales of… books? I want to know more about all those weird cults, and about the Decraniated and Dr Evazan, and the sister they were meant to meet at the temple, and Saw’s fighters, and the bor gullet. I guess some of this will be covered by the forthcoming Guardians of the Whills book on Chirrut and Baze’s backstories, but a revival of the Tales of… series would fit Jedha so well.

(1) Yes, I know, because Mads Mikkelsen as opposed to little known Irish actor Valene Kane.

(2) For real though, I love the Rogue One HISHE. It’s more plausible than a whole lot of the fix-it/AU fanfic I’ve read.