Friday, November 30, 2007

The Three Evangelists, by Fred Vargas (1995)

As unlikely as it might sound, Fred Vargas is the writing name of a French female author of detective fiction. This, her first novel, was written in 1995 but not translated into English until last year. I have not read any others (she has written 12) from her (yet, although I plan to): according to Wikipedia, the characters who appear in The Three Evangelists recur in the subsequent novels.

Unlike most policiers, it does not centre upon policemen (or women) as its detectives. Instead, there are three historians (Marc, Matthias and Lucien) and a retired policeman, Armand Vandoosler (godfather of Marc) who tends to refer to the other three as saints, much to their discomfort. Of course, they are historians from three very different eras (a pre-hi storian, a medievalist and a student of the Great War). All are in their mid-30's, very single and "seriously unemployed". Despite the fact that they are each highly disdainful of each other's professional period (Lucien is dismissed as an excitable modernist), they take up residence in a ramshackle old house known as "The Disgrace", with the former cop in the attic.

The initial mystery they're called upon to solve arises when their neighbour, Sophia, wakes up one morning and finds a tree has materialised in her garden overnight. She's worried that something may have been buried under it, and pays our heroes a large sum of money - not so much for the task of digging up the tree as for keeping quiet about whatever it is they might discover.

But the real mystery arises a couple of weeks later, when Sophia herself disappears. Might she be under the tree herself? She's rich, had some fame in the past as a notable opera singer, had become caught up in some sort of vendetta by a couple of critics, had an obsessed fan or two. Our heroes get on the trail, with the husband (as he always is) the prime suspect. The proper police, however, have other ideas: a niece of Sophia has turned up out of nowhere, one who has pulled at the heartstrings of two of our heroes. So, vindicating her becomes just as important as finding the killer.

Like all good murder mysteries, there are several false leads, and knowledge of the killer's identity is withheld until very near the end, at which point there is a mad rush to prevent one of the Evangelists from being killed. As to how the killer was identified, it was by processes which no policeman would employ. Indeed, it had a lot to do with Lucien's mad passion for the Great War: in trying to track down some diaries of that time, he came very close to solving it. Then Marc had a single "tectonic shift" in which all of the clues they'd been given were seen in a new light. As his uncle says "Medieval historians have special ways of thinking. When Marc gets his mind in gear, he gets straight to the answer. he takes it all in, important stuff and rubbish, and then all at once he goes for it." An interesting technique for crime solving.

Joshua, a film by George Ratliff (2007)

He may be a sweet looking kid, but appearances are very deceptive when it comes to Joshua Cairn (Jacob Korgan). I guess most kids feel a bit left out when the second child comes along and they are no longer the centre of attention. Joshua just won't let it go: he is one of the most creepily horrible kids I've seen for a long time. Quite an achievement for someone who is only twelve (and playing a nine year old boy).

Since I only went along because Rialto sent me a free ticket, I had no idea what to expect. At first it was like any family drama, with touching moments of bonding when the kid asks his dad (Sam Rockwell) "Do you think I'm weird?" and dad being quick to assure Joshua of how normal he is. This scene echoes somewhat later in the movie, when dad says to Joshua "I think you're sick". Young Joshua doesn't think so, gives a sort of sniff and is sure he's not sick.

It is a battle for control of the household, and Joshua is the undoubted winner. He knows his mum's (Vera Farmiga) weak points (such as finding it unbearable when her daughter cries) and exploits them to the point she needs to be taken away to somewhere quiet. In today's climate where a mere whisper is enough to condemn a father of child abuse, Joshua is in his element.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Soul Mountain, by Gao Xinjian

At some stage last year, my English Professor mentioned this as being the most fantastic book he'd read during the year. The author, a Nobel Prize winning playwright, found himself mis-diagnosed with lung cancer. He learnt the truth about six weeks later; this provoked in him the desire to wander through China. As far as I can make out, most of his time was spent in Southern China (around Chengdu) and the Three Gorges/Yangtze River region. This was in 1982, so around a decade after the official end of the Cultural Revolution (although it might be said not to have finished until 1975).

This journey and the Cultural Revolution are vital events in this book - some of which is evidently travel narrative, although the whole is portrayed as a novel. It is impossible to draw a line between fact and fiction, at least in respect of the "I" who narrates. This "I" is a Beijing writer and playwright, who has had a mis-diagnosis of lung cancer, and who is in some kind of political trouble. "I" goes wandering around, to places within China where Chinese is a foreign language, in search of folk songs, of signs of the traditions which pre-dated the Cultural Revolution and might be on a mission to find Lingshan (or Soul Mountain). In the process, "I" finds many signs of the next revolution - China's late 20th century Industrial Revolution, which is causing just as much damage to social life as the Cultural one and far far more damage to the environment - this desecration is a major motif. The novel is of a highly nostalgic, albeit unfulfilled, journey.

I have been referring to this fellow as "I" because the point of view alternates between that of "I" and of "you". There is also a "she" (or, more probably, a sequence of them) and, later on, a "he". They may or may not be incarnations of the same entity (and, obviously, are all manifestations of the same author). I'm not going to go into the theory of why the author has chosen this mode. There is a sort of explanation given in chapter 52:
You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness. You know that this loneliness of mine is incurable, that no-one can save me and that I can only talk with myself as the partner of my conversation.
In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate, a myself who listens intently to me - you are simply my shadow.
As I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she, because you are like me and also cannot bear the loneliness and have to find a partner for your conversation...
I never really got to the bottom of this, and am not sure that it works as a novel. We expect a certain degree of unity, and narrative continuity, and characters who don't get themselves stuck in irretrievable situations (such as on the edge of a mountain or middle of a river with no way forward or back) who simply show up in the next chapter as if nothing had happened. Again, there is a chapter (72) addressing these concerns - the "I" is confronted by a critic who complains it is not a novel and who then sets out his expectations of one.

But if I am struggling to see what the sum of the parts might be, I found that most of the parts were in their own way wonderful, even brilliant at times. As I see the relationship between these various "characters", "I" is the most focussed on realism: it is from him we get the clearest accounts of how China is, how it had been and what he fears it will be. He's a great one for talking to the various people he encounters and getting their story.

The "you" strikes me as being quite a bit younger - it is actually his idea to find Soul Mountain, as the result of a chance encounter (with someone who may well have been I) on a train: it represents freedom to him. He is not long on this path when he (i.e. "you") falls in with she and is interested. His chat up method is a curious one - he tells her tall tales, all of which involve rapes and murdered babies! She gets him to agree to stop, because these stories are freaking her out, and he tells her one about a female shaman which is even worse. She's initially restircted to factual accounts, but gradually develops story-telling to rival his (again, of women being put into awful situations) but about half way through, she (or maybe both of them) morphs into someone completely different, talking as if to a husband of longstanding about how badly he's treated her.

I think you have to just go with the flow of these eccentricities of story-telling: once I worked that out, I started to really love this book.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Lucid 3 @ 4:20

There is a certain difficulty when a venue uses its street number as its name. On Friday, I had trouble working out where Whammy Bar is, but if I hadn't found it by myself (under the St Kevins arcade, as it happens), I could have asked "Where's the Whammy". But how do you ask when you've managed to forget the number? I knew it was in the four hundreds on K Road, but after finding myself in one two many adult themed bars and shops, I had to resort to the internet. No wonder I couldn't find it: 4:20 is not at #420 at all, is in fact in the old Rising Sun Hotel, a place I spent many many hours when I lived in Auckland.

In those days, it was the #2 venue, after the legendary Gluepot, but the Rising Sun had many more gigs. I learnt a lot about music hanging out there, heard a multitude of bands where the vocals could not be heard, fell in love with 1.5 women (the other half of that process really happened elsewhere), even got laid for the first time there (well, after a night there). It was never the most charming of places, pretty grotty really, but it had a fantastic view of an evening out over the spaghetti of motorways (they virtually run underneath it) and a bit of a harbour view. In the intervening 20+ years, it has a bit of a makeover, it is quite sleek and stylish, with a pair of chandaliers gracing the back part of the bar. In my day, I'm pretty sure the big cans of Double Brown where the favoured drink: today, the only NZ beer available is Steinlager Pure. I think I even saw cocktails being made.

At various times tonight, these old memories nearly overwhelmed me: in some ways, it was the most successful stage in my life, in that I was living and working with people who also shared my interests. We'd have a great time at the Rising Sun, and then sometimes go into the new nightlcub which had opened in the Plaza (I think that's what it was called) and experience another new phenomenon: Japanese girls in high socks and short skirts. Not many of them in rural New Zealand, and I'd find them enchanting.

But none of that tonight. As I went into 4:20, Chanelle Davis was playing: a singer-songwriter singing largely about disasters with boys. I see she's on tour, including to Whangamata, which should be interesting, as she sings one song about somefellow who broke up with her and two weeks later moved to Whangamata with Amanda. Wierd singing accent, hard to place, almost Australian at times, yet she grew up in Tauranga and when she speaks is clearly a Kiwi.

For me, the main event was Lucid 3, it has been a long time between gigs, there has even been a new album out which I have yet to hear. Naturally, a lot of what they played tonight was from that album yet there's no significant change in direction. They put on a fantastic show: within about half a song, I had to move from my seat and spent most of the time they played being a happy dancing fool. Of course, they played a.m radio, but in a way I have never heard it, with far more trickery on the bass guitar than I recall.

Oh yeah, and Odessa played - apparently they were the headliners and it was their CD release party (not that I actually saw one). I'd never seen them before: I was impressed with Matthew Pender's dancing skillz and singing but at times they didn't hold my attention.

And another "oh yeah", the reason I was at Whammy on Friday was to see Cassette, which is always a good thing to do. Surprisingly few people seemed to agree with me; only about 30 people turned out, but then it was the night of the B-Nets.