Monday, June 30, 2014

My Log 432 June 30 2014: Two amazing works by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, difficult to describe, hard to catch their real meaning, but nevertheless a great read

English: Haruki_Murakami_at_the_Jerusalem_Prize
English: Haruki_Murakami_at_the_Jerusalem_Prize (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The signature of Haruki Murakami
English: The signature of Haruki Murakami (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Kafka on the Shore"
Cover of Kafka on the Shore
Cover of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A N...
Cover of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel
I have spent a lot of time recently reading two 600-page novels by a Japanese writer I had never before read, Haruki Murakami, who is apparently ranked right up there with such novelists as Yukio Mishima (remembered as a rightwing fanatic who took his own life by the ritual form called seppuku), Kobo Abe (author of the unforgettable Woman of the Dunes, which was also made into a marvellous film),  and Kenzeburo Oe (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature).
I am not well versed in Japanese literature, but have read enough to know that one cannot expect anything ordinary from their novelists of quality and certainly these two works by  Murakami fulfil that expectation.  Murakami has written 13 novels, of which The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle published in 1997 is the eighth, and  Kafka On the Shore, the second of the two I have read, was published in 2002.
It is hard to say which strikes the foreign reader as the stranger of the two, although the strangeness of his subjects and his approach to them does not seem to have put off foreign readers, because he is said to have been translated into fifty languages, has sold millions of copies world-wide, and has won innumerable prizes and accolades abroad.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle  tells the story of a man who has recently quit his job and is living contentedly at home looking after the household while his wife earns their daily bread. One important thing he has to do as the book opens is to find their cat, that has run away, and without which the wife says she would find it difficult to live. So, he goes along the road they live on into an alley where there is an empty, abandoned house that can  be reached only by climbing over a fence. He thought the cat might have taken refuge there, but when he finds himself in the yard of this house he encounters a 16-year-old girl with whom he enters into an elaborate conversation. There is also some sort of statue of a bird, which our protagonist, Mr Okado identifies with the song of real birds that he has heard singing while in the yard, singing a strange, wind-up kind of song, and when he explains this to the young girl she takes to calling him Mr. Wind-Up-Bird. Also in the yard the young girl points out a disused well, and Mr. Okada throws a stone into it and hears a thud as it falls, so that he knows the well is empty of water.
Though he finds these things --- all of which as the story develops begin to play an important role in the narrative --- he does not find the runaway cat. And meantime he has received a strange phone call from an unknown female voice which nevertheless says it knows him intimately, but ho says that ten minutes of his time should be enough for her purposes.
Meantime, his wife who has often worked late, does not come home after leaving for work one day, and it is her brother, a man very successful in Japanese public life who Mr Okada hates and his wife seldom speaks to, who arrives to tell him his wife has left him for a man who has been her lover for some months. He is reluctant to believe him, and astonished that she should have depended on her brother to bring him the news. Such is his disorientation that Mr. Okada continues to climb the fence into the yard, which is watched almost every hour of every day by the 16-year-old girl, with whom he continues to have interesting conversations.
Eventually, Mr, Okada takes to going to sit before the city’s railway station in the hope that he might spot his wife. But there he is approached by a powerful woman who asks him to follow her, and thus begins a different part of the story. Mr Okada is seduced by three women, or it may be even more, I lost count, including a pair of sisters called Malta and Crete, because they had once lived in Malta and Crete. An old man of his acquaintance before dying tells him a horrendous story about atrocities he had committed and seen committed while a member of the Japanese invasion force in China before the Second World War, which ended in his being thrown for dead down a well.
These characters all play into Mr. Okada’s odyssey as he tries his best to get his wife back.  His relationships with the women cannot be described as salutary, except with the young schoolgirl with whom he continues to have long-distance communication, the impression being given that she has fallen for him. 
The events in this novel are extraordinary, seem somehow to be sort of peripheral to the characters involved in them, and it all works through to a conclusion that is unlike any real conclusion.  It is a very strange mixture, this story, but told with such immense narrative drive that I could not put it down, while wondering why else I would be reading it.
Kafka On the Shore, the second novel I read, is even stranger. It has two main protagonists: one, a 15-year-old boy who decides to run away from home, a home that had been abandoned many years before by his mother, of whom he retains only vague memories, and from whom, somehow his sister and brother had disappeared also.  His father had cursed him, he believed, saying that, like Odysseus, he would murder his father, sleep with his mother and betray his sister. He ends up in a private library presided over by a remarkably beautiful 50-year-old woman whom he immediately begins to fantasize is his lost mother.  His father,  a famous sculptor, has meantime been murdered, and the police are searching for his missing son.
The second protagonist is a shell of a person which is all that remains of a child who suffered a terrible humiliation during a mysterious incident in which schoolchildren were all struck unconscious by something that was never identified, in spite of a massive, secret investigation by the U.S. Army. All the affected children recovered after a few hours, except for this one boy Nakata, who was sent to a hospital, and who, when he did emerge from his coma, was a personality who had been emptied of memory, who never learned to read or write, and whose premier talent was the ability to talk to cats.
As in the previous book there is one really horrifying incident described that vitally affects the narrative, and it is this that leads to the murder of the sculptor, a man who has been in the habit of collecting cats and beheading them so that their souls could be made into a wondrous flute.
This strange person takes over the second part of the novel in which the author deliberately identifies a sort of third dimension to life in which people can appear as  their 15-year-old selves 35 years after the event, and in which strange intuitions are needed that belong to a world that I personally have always thought of as rubbish. I kept asking myself why I was reading this, given my attitude towards such things, and again the answer lay in the amazing strength with which the tale was told and the incredible story-telling skills exhibited in its telling.
These are two of the hardest books that I have ever tried to describe in writing, and I am only too conscious of the inadequacy of what appears above. All I can add is that anyone who finds that my descriptions whet their curiosity at all should try to read these books, which I personally have found among the most rewarding of novels I have ever read.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Log 431 June 29 2014 “Thinking about life and death” has become the fallback position for performers who can’t think of any other description of their work

English: Portrait on wood panel of Irish write...
English: Portrait on wood panel of Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Painted by Reginald Gray from life in Paris 1961. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Pete Seeger (right), nearly 89, with his longt...
Pete Seeger (right), nearly 89, with his longtime friend the writer/musician Ed Renehan on March 7, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Español: Instalación de Anish Kapoor en el CAC...
Español: Instalación de Anish Kapoor en el CAC Málaga, España. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Umeå sculpture park/Sweden with Pillar of Ligh...
Pillar of Light (1991) by Anish Kapoor# (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Dubrovnik - rooftops
English: Dubrovnik - rooftops (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Anish Kapoor at the Deutsche Guggenhe...
English: Anish Kapoor at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin 1108 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Christian Boltanski photographed in his studio...
Christian Boltanski photographed in his studio by Bracha L. Ettinger in 1990, for the artist book 'Matrix et le Voyage à Jerusalem de C.B.', 1991 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Stones Holding the Recordings Used for 'Th...
The Stones Holding the Recordings Used for 'The Whispers' by Christian Boltanski, created for the Folkestone Triennial. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I always numbered wine writers as kings of the garbage pile, in that more rubbish is written about wine than almost any other subject on Earth.
But lately I am beginning to think that stage performers are running them a close second. This has come about from attending a week-long show called  Le Petit Festival de Dubrovnik which has been staged every year for the last ten by a rather odd little fellow called Vinko Prismic, a Dubrovnik man born and bred who nowadays lives most of his life in Amsterdam. He turns up every year with a band of performers in tow ready to perform in a centuries-old building along the city waterfront called Lazaret, which was originally used for quarantining people before allowing them entry to the city-state (as Dubrovnik then was). It is a building composed of a line of stone rooms each of which makes an excellent place for theatrical performance, and that, since I was here last year has been --- and is still being --- fitted out with new roofs which further enhance their value as performing spaces.
Having now been a member of this audience for four or five years I can at last say that one thing that stands out from Vinko’s shows is that you never know what you are going to get, but another thing that most of his performers have in common is that they give high-flown, extravagant descriptions of their purposes.
Some of  shows I have seen have been appalling; one or two have been magnificent. Most are not too bad, if not quite of the top flight. Last year (or maybe it was the year before) the infamous madame of yesteryear, Xaviera Hollander, now grossly enlarged from her famous years, came to give us a little performance which was, not to out too fine a point on it, an insult to the intelligence of Vinko’s audience.
But was it last year, or the year before, he also produced two Japanese bhuto dancers who were quite astonishing. I will never forget the magical quality of one woman who appeared naked  at the top of a flight of wooden stairs, and made her way down to the bottom by barely perceptible but gloriously elegant  and breathtaking movements.
I remember also from past years an excellent, just short of superb, torch-singer from Paris.
So what about this year? As usual, a mixed bag.  Each night’s performance was preceded by the screening of a film about artists, the films made by a German former journalist called Heinz Peter Schwerfel. Each film was of an hour’s length which, if I may enter a dissenting judgment, was pushing it beyond the half hour or so that each artist seemed to deserve. However, my opinion is possibly not shared by others in the audience: while I was sleeping through the films, others were paying attention and applauding vigorously at the end. It is not the first time I have seen films about artists, but I remember many that were more interesting, following a more gripping narrative, than any of Mr, Schwerfel’s films about Anish Kapoor, Bruce Nauman (the one film I didn’t see), Alex Katz, Rebecca Horn, Christian Boltanski, and Annette Messager.  Except for the film on Kapoor, which was relatively comprehensible, these films were full of ponderous long shots that promised some kind of payoff when they ended, but seldom delivered.  At the end of the festival, Vinko arranged for Mr. Schwerfel to receive an award for “the most unique short film.” Since his were the only films on show during the week….not so difficult to win the award, no?
One thing Vinko is not very good at is describing for his audience the background of the obscure musicians and performers he had in tow, and it was when looking for this information that I began to find a common, New Age-kind-of-thing to all the descriptions they were giving of themselves and their work.
A rather plump woman with a Yemeni background, a folk-singer, put herself forward as someone who uses music to heal, although what it is she is healing is rather less clear. She described herself as a “self-proclaimed public-pleaser” who used music “to entertain cold audiences into participation and collective happiness.”  You know, I could take it from Pete Seeger, who always managed to     get his audience to sing-along, but to a rather overweight singer of doubtful quality, I confess to remaining more or less unmoved.
Next came a local girl Ines Trickovic whose gimmick was to change her clothes after every one of ten songs. She was peppy, I will say that, but when she described the sick-making song “Tenderly” as one of the peaks of popular culture, I am afraid I had to part company with her. However, on a five-letter scale, I would give her a C.
The following evening Vinko produced a more interesting pair, a Japanese woman Kaori Suzuki, and her husband Sebastian Vuillot of France. Her show opened with her hanging from a strap from the ceiling. This kind of thing --- as any student of ballet and dancing knows --- depends to a considerable degree on the bodies of the performers being almost perfect in form. Ms Suzuki was certainly not overweight but unfortunately the position in which we first saw her emphasized her buttocks unreasonably, giving us an immediate sense that she was rather heavier than she looked later when we were able to see her more whole. (In fact, not many women would be able to pass he test of such buttock-exposure). I found it difficult to decide what was the purpose of her dance, because just when she had attained some degree of elegance she would break into jerky, compulsive-type movements, which seemed inappropriate to the feeling she seemed to be trying to achieve. Once free from the strap, she performed in front of a huge pile of paper that eventually began to move forward until it engulfed her. Then she manipulated this paper effectively to give it a monstrous appearance that could have been frightening if we had been able to believe it was real.
As for meaning, I will have to lean on the performers themselves, who say their purpose is “to raise audience awareness about cultural exchange.” About the specific piece they showed us, they said it was named after their son --- a small boy who sat asleep in the front row, until, at the end of the performance, they awoke him, unnecessarily, I thought. The programme said they were making a philosophical and spiritual investigation into the continuum of life and death”, a description that they enlarged in their web site where they said their project “explores  the soul, existence, nature, the cycle of life, the sacred, connection, heritage transmission,” the sort of description that surely invites a modicum of ridicule.
The nadir of the week for me came with a performance of what was suggested --- although it was never directly claimed --- to be one of Samuel Beckett’s plays (or play-snippets they might more accurately be called) by a couple of local performers, one a very tall, thin, woman in a white wedding dress, the other a short, fat woman of rather immense girth. The woman in white came in, went out, came in again, went out again, and then was carried in and carefully placed on top of a coffin that was sitting on the stage. The man carrying her played no further part in the proceedings. The two women actors then spoke some mysterious text, in English and Croatian, complete with a great deal of whispering and shouting, which, to me, was the acme of pretentiousness, although it was greeted with rapturous applause by the audience.  I tried thereafter to ask people what was the play all about and no one had any idea, except to say --- as one of the earlier acts had said --- that it was about life and death  This seems to be the fall-back position of the modern stage performer, when he or she can’t think of any other explanation.
The last act of this evening came when the beloved Vinko Prizmic himself strode forward, dressed in his ordinary street clothes, to play a part in anther snippet, as it was again suggested, by Beckett.  I couldn’t hear a word he said, but at one point he reached down into the coffin and began the laborious task of hauling out the woman lying within--- she seemed a bit of a lump for a little fellow like Vinko to carry --- and then got in the coffin himself. The final act of the highly-applauded play was that the woman secured the top of the coffin, thus shutting Vinko in, where, if everyone had gotten his true reward as an artist, he would have remained to this day. Unfortunately it was not so: he popped up full of smiles to accept the plaudits of the multitude.
Okay, what’s next?  In the category of hard triers, fairly successful, the next night came the cabaret troupe Albert Kessler and company, from Austria, whose work I enjoyed, except that the leader, Mr, Kessler, obviously fancied himself as a comedian, and managed to work terribly hard to raise a laugh without from beginning to end raising even a titter. There are few things sadder than a man trying to be funny who is not getting any laughs. Apart from that Mr. Kessler had a good young singer and a beautifully expressive woman dancer in his troupe and I enjoyed their show.
Like any good showman, Vinko kept to last his best performers, but, true to form, he mixed them on the same bill with an appalling show featuring the children of Dubrovnik, about whose amateurism and embarrassment the less said the better.
On the final night --- I am not intending to go to his closing beach party tonight ---  he produced a final act, composed of two young Frenchwomen, one with an accordion, both with beautifully modulated and blended voices, who sang a wide variety of folk songs from various parts of the world, and some of their own compositions, and who could have given a few lessons to the unfortunate failed comic Mr. Kessler the night before. Calling themselves Les Folles de Leon, these two women Leslie Guivarc’h, and Amelie Venisse, with their accordion, had a perfectly produced, beautifully modulated act in which they made gentle fun of each other and garnered barrels of laughter from the audience in doing so. Their singing was beautiful, and for my money theirs was one of the best acts I have seen at Vinko’s festival in all of my four years of attendance.
Notable for Les Folles de Leon, a highly experienced and well-known act in France who have also appeared in Montreal,  is the fact that they do not engage in any high-flown descriptions of their intentions, but a diligent search of the internet shows that they are active in protests against racism and other evils of modern society, both in France and elsewhere. This is a brilliant, funny and touching group, these two girls, and I could watch them and listen to them night after night.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My Log 430: Visit to Prague (2): Jn 24 2014: The trouble was, I went to Prague as a tourist, so all I did was sit and drink beer

The trouble was, I guess, that I went to Prague simply as a tourist and I have long known I am the world’s worst tourist.
 I see them, these modern tourists, day after day crowding the streets of Dubrovnik, dragooned into groups, sometimes 50 or more, under the leadership of a guide who speaks their own language, marching around the town from one church to another, one battlement to the next, and I marvel that anyone can think that a holiday.
Of course, when I was a kid I was as rubber-necked as the next man, though never in some dragooned group. Like many others I travelled for education, knowledge, experience: every time I bicycled through one of those immense fields of clover they grow in France, engulfed and overwhelmed by the fragrance of it, I was being educated, just as much as when I stood in wonder before those 
two marvellous doors on some building or other in Florence. Every time I cycled as a 24-year-old with my wife on our ancient tandem bicycle around the Place de la Concorde in Paris, I was extending my knowledge of the world and its beauties and dangers;  when I sat in the Edinburgh Church Assembly Hall as the supreme young actors Alan Badel and Claire Bloom finally made Shakespeare mean something in my 25-year-old ears, after years of not getting it, I was being profoundly educated.
But those were the years I spent educating myself, not going to university, fitting my learning in between the long hours spent making a living, getting to work every morning at eight o'clock, moving from one small city, one minor country, to another, making these the most rewarding and valuable years of my life. 
Now I have moved past those gawky years, my legs cannot support the long hours of walking as they once did, and so, when I saw and marvelled at Prague on my first visit after 86 years of life, all I could do was sink into a chair, order a beer, and watch as younger people, tourists undoubtedly, and just as hungry for experience of the world as I was, crowded the beautiful central square of the Old Town, each of them marvelling at what they were seeing as I once did.
How fortunate I have been, and am!
So here are some impressions left with me after four days in this great central European city:

1. The existence of a whole modern city made up mostly of beautiful, ornamented buildings very few of which reach above four or five storeys.  The public building below on the right illustrates the uniformity of design that makes Prague so satisfying to the eye. 

But the line of houses below indicates that within this uniformity of style there is an immense variation in type, each house standing out from its neighbour by reason of its individual colour, ornamentation, or decorative touches on the exterior.

And these, as you will have noticed, are in major streets with plenty of room for cars to park, which is unusual in the Prague Old Town, made up of a veritable maze of tiny streets just wide enough for a car to pass, but allowing no space for parking.  One day we took a bus tour to enable us to have an overview of the central city, and were really surprised to find the bus stuck in a huge traffic jam for more than three quarters of an hour, which just went to show that Prague for all its beauties so carefully preserved, is not immune from the pressures of modern life.
The traffic jam

Some of this ornamentation is bizarre, as the following pictures show, but even when it is rather strange it does aways, it seemed to me, exhibit a sense of humour, which I had always thought the Czechs were noted for lacking. Not so, to judge by this magnificent city, built so laboriously over the last 2500 years, and maintained with the utmost care, as layer after layer of changing tastes have been added and I imagine subtracted when found not to be suitable or in good taste.

Two horrible looking birds support the doorway to the Italian Embassy, but even here there is room for a couple of statues.

2. Other features that we noticed immediately were the pavements and the roofs: whether on the road or sidewalk, all of the Old Town pavements are made of millions of stones of various sizes, cobbled streets in the centre, and the sidewalks with a variety of designs made with small stones of about one inch in diameter, of which the picture below is representative. And the roofs everywhere are of pleasing, slightly worn-looking red tiles, house after house of them which make a wonderful sight especially when seen from above, as is sometimes possible.

This pavement in the city's huge Old Town square is typical of the roads in that district, carefully laid, meticulously maintained cobblestones. The picture above is a good example of the many designs lavished on the sidewalks, in smaller stones, some even smaller than those shown here. 

The above two pictures give an excellent idea of the roofing of Prague. To be noted are  elegantly designed roof slopes, intended no doubt to deal with snow pileup. These were noted when descending from a visit to the immense Castle which lies above Old Prague, and is very much part of it.

3. Perhaps the most bizarre feature of Old Prague is the proliferation of statues. It seemed that every church --- and the guide book identifies more than 50 churches, including Our Lady of the Snows, Our Lady Beneath the Chain, Our Lady of Unceasing Succor, Our Lady Victorious (thank the Lord for that, I thought the Victory would never come!) and quite a number of HolySaviours, as well as St..John on the Rock, and others dedicated to a variety of saints, of whom 56 are named in the guidebook, including rather esoteric ones to me (but then, all saints sound esoteric to me!)  such as St Ludmilla  (doesn't she sound irrevocably suburban?),  St. John Nepomuk, St. Vitus  (he of the well-known .dance, I guess),  St. Ursula, and St Wenceslas (I always wondered about that good Old King, where he came from). 

But not only churches let it all out on statues, many private buildings do as well, and the famous Charles bridge has 20 or more along its quarter-mile length, many of them so disgustingly blackened by age that it makes you wonder what they've been up to to be so shabbily treated. Below is an indication in photos of this strange obsession with saints and statues.

This building seems to be the winner in terms of simple numbers of statues

But here's a church that really believes in its saints, whoever they are

I can't be sure, but I believe the church in the picture is one of those in the Old Square, a magnificent open space surrounded by spectacular buildings, the centrepiece of which is what they call the Astronomical Clock, which people line up to observe every hour as it records the hour. Actually not much happens: the top windows open, and little men peek out as they pass. Meanwhile one of the figures on the right is jigging up and down, and finally there is a clang, and everything shuts down again.

One day I stood in the square and took pictures by turning in each direction. These are what I came up with:

Except for the building advertising Warhol and Dali exhibits (which didn't interest me) most of what I saw were churches. Since I have absolutely no interest in churches, nor even in their great traditional works of art (which I tend to believe are the opiate of the modern intellectual classes) I simply sought out a seat in one of the countless cafes that line the square and ordered a beer.
So that was my view of Prague, and all that remains to record is the fact that there are more fine eating houses than you can shake a stick at: if you can afford their fare, which turned out, on translation, to be not so excessive, you could depend on having a thoroughly enjoyable meal in beautiful, vaulted dining rooms with a long history that they were usually exhibiting  by use of various --- you guessed it! --- statues.
So I leave you with two statues that indicate the Czech sense of humour. The first is a very odd statue to Franz Kafka, to whom I feel I have a tenuous link, since in 1953 the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, who, with his wife Willa was the first translator of Kafka into English became my teacher for a semester. A more delightful couple than these I have never met, Willa a ferocious but kindly Scottish dragon whose mission in life was to defend Edwin, a meek, quiet little fellow from the Orkneys, from the insults of the modern world. Edwin was teaching at Charles University in Prague when the Communists took over in 1948. When the commissars walked into his room to tell him what he teach, he thought it was time to retire to Scotland.
A strange statue  of a strange writer, the Czech Franz Kafka, whose nightmarish stories must say something about his native land
Just around the corner from our hotel, this man hung, a statue among statues, to testify to the sense of humour of the Czechs. The fellow hanging on by one hand is said to be Sigmund Freud, trying to make up his mind whether to change hands!