Saturday 29 December 2012

A new year revelation

As new year’s eve approaches I am moved to reflect on new years past. One I remember particularly I spent with my brother Patrick, sadly no longer living. I was 16. He had just finished his first term as a dental student at Guy’s Hospital. I’d hitched to London to visit him – 100 miles up the A40. It was a journey I was familiar with for other reasons – a girl I knew in Clapham – but that would be a different story. And unlike those other trips, which ended with me slipping back into the house in the small hours of a Sunday morning (unmissed, thanks to the random comings and goings of large-scale family life), this new year’s visit was probably made with the knowledge and consent of the parental authorities.

As midnight approached, Patrick and I were making our way down Charing Cross Road towards Trafalgar Square. Patrick had learned to play the trumpet but liked experimenting with other instruments. His favourite at that time was a baritone horn (an upright brass instrument like a small tuba) which he’d found in a junk shop. It was battered and tarnished and leaky around the valves, but he could knock a decent tune out of it. As we wove our way down the street, Patrick was blowing air into the horn to warm it up and working the keys with his fingers. Was he wearing fingerless mittens as I picture him? Quite possibly.

Suddenly we were confronted by a drunk, a wreck of a man, his bloated drinker’s face sallow under the streetlights. He pointed an uncertain finger at the horn and said, ‘Bet I could get a better sound out of that thing than you.’ He wasn’t quite steady on his feet, and it had been a struggle for him to get that sentence out, so Patrick must have reckoned he was safe. Since he was holding the instrument, he went first. A small crowd gathered. I fancy he played Auld lang syne, but I might have imagined that detail, or imported it from another memory. When he’d finished there was applause and some raucous cheers, and Patrick handed the horn over.

Cradling the instrument, which looked smaller in his arms, the drunk reached deep into the pocket of his rumpled mac. I thought it was a handkerchief he was after – he could have used one. What he pulled out was a mouthpiece. That’s when I began to think we might be in trouble. He removed the mouthpiece from the horn, passed it to Patrick and fixed his own in place. He played Abide with me and gave that thing the kiss of life. The crowd where we stood fell silent. I’d never imagined such a sound could come out of such a ruin – the horn or the man.   

Friday 21 December 2012

Mislaid in translation

In Windows on the World, a novel by Frédérick Beigbeder (published in French in 2003 and in English translation by Frank Wynne the following year), the narrator reluctantly joins a demonstration in Paris against the Iraq war. Agonising over how the West should respond to the attack on the Twin Towers, he asks himself, ‘Am I a coward, an appeaser, an anti-Semite, a cheese-eating surrender monkey, as the American newspapers say?’

The phrase ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’ originated on The Simpsons as a parody of Bush era Anti-French prejudice before it was taken up and stripped of irony by rightwing American commentators. I was startled to find it in a French novel and curious to know what it looked like in the original. Had Beigbeder translated it from Simpsonese only for Wynne to translate it back again? So I got hold of a copy. I was surprised to discover that the American phrase stood in place of a single word – pétainiste.

In cutting this reference to Marshal Pétain, who led the Vichy government and collaborated with the Nazis, and replacing it with a joke off The Simpsons, Wynne made the text more accessible, I suppose – at least in the short term, until surrender monkeys chatter off into obscurity. But he sacrificed the historical resonance of Beigbeder’s soul-searching.

I can’t help thinking that an English-language novelist attempting to capture the French experience, would be more likely to opt for Pétain. The novelist is focused on evoking the strangeness of the other place. The conscientious translator  presumably finds satisfaction in substituting the familiar. Nobody could accuse Wynne of shirking his duty. But sometimes, with translation as with other things, less is more.

Opening at random my copy of A Farewell to Arms, a novel set in First World War Italy, I find this conversation among members of the army ambulance corps about the families of deserters:

‘They are all without law to protect them. Anybody can take their property.’
‘If it wasn’t that that happens to their families, nobody would go to the attack.’
‘Yes. Alpini would. These V.E. soldiers would. Some bersaglieri.’
‘Bersaglieri have run too. Now they try to forget it.’

I’m guessing that when I first read this I had no idea who the bersaglieri were, other than a branch of the army reputed to be less courageous than the alpini, whoever they were  alpine types? So I knew quite a lot actually. Enough to follow the conversation, anyway. Hemingway might have called them the light infantry and the mountain soldiers. And I would have gained some factual information, but I would have lost some of the illusion of listening in.

The protagonist of Tahmima Anam’s novel The Good Muslim, set in 1980s Bangladesh, rescues her nephew Zaid from an oppressive Madrasa. She puts him on a boat while he talks compulsively about what he’s been taught.

Maya pleads with Zaid to eat something. He refuses, gazing through the thin bamboo netting arches over the boat, his eyes searching for the night sky. I know the Arabic alphabet, he repeats. Where is my mother? She isn’t here, Maya tells him, you know that. Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem, he begins, reciting the words he has been taught. Nauzubillah hira-shahitan-ir-Raheem. A small lizard has made its way on board, and scuttles back and forth among the curved roof slats. He settles for this, chasing it with his finger.

Zaid says two things in Arabic. I quickly find a translation on the internet for the first of them. For now, the second eludes me. But the meaning isn’t so important. It’s their dramatic significance that matters – fragments of rote learning to which Zaid clings in his anxiety. And the language is part of the soundscape, which takes its place in the scene alongside the bamboo netting and the lizard and the night sky. 

Saturday 15 December 2012

Squeezing the giant's heart

There’s a Norse folk tale I remember from childhood involving a giant who hides his heart. The hero has to find the heart, so that he can save his brothers who have been turned to stone by the giant, and rescue the beautiful princess the giant has imprisoned. The princess’s job is to find out where the giant keeps his heart. 

It’s a bit like Delilah getting Samson to reveal the secret of his strength, except the secret in this case is more complicated. The heart, apparently, is on an island, in a church, in a well, inside the body of a duck, enclosed in an egg. Helped by creatures he has helped earlier in his travels, the hero eventually gets his hands on the egg and starts squeezing. He promises to save the giant’s life if he will free the princess and liberate his brothers from their petrified state. In the more authentic versions of the story, once all this is done the hero immediately ignores his promise and crushes the egg.

It occurs to me now that this tale of torture and retribution is the archetype of all those ticking bomb scenarios envisaged in dramas such as 24. To free the hostages, some heart has always got to be squeezed. And if you’ve got a problem with that, get over it – you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

But specifically what put the story in my mind was the latest episode of Homeland. For those who don’t know, this is an America drama about a US marine called Sgt Brody, who is released after eight years of captivity in Iraq. It turns out that during these lost years his captor and sometime torturer, Abu Nazir, befriended him and converted him both to Islam and to the Islamist cause.

We’ve seen Brody on the brink of detonating a suicide bomb. And we’ve watched him being co-opted by the CIA having been seduced (on more than one level) by an agent. Whose side he’s on now is anybody’s guess. Which I suppose is what makes us watch – those of us who do. To be honest, none of it makes any sense if you think too hard about it, but demanding hard thought is not its purpose.

Clearly Abu Nazir is a bad guy, but he’s well matched by the odious Vice President who represents all that’s most callous about Washington politics and the American imperial machine and is, from Abu Nazir’s perspective, a war criminal. And in the climax of the latest episode, Nazir gets to squeeze the VP's heart. It isn’t hidden in a duck’s egg, but on a laptop, because the VP, it turns out, has a pacemaker. Brody, all-American hero and establishment protégé and therefore uniquely placed to play the role of princess, texts the serial number from the VP’s office, thus handing control of the VP’s heart to Abu Nazir’s geeks. The VP shows up just in time to have a heart attack in Brody’s arms.  

We’re used to mythic themes being reimagined in the light of technological advances. Science fiction does this all the time. Huxley’s Brave New World is, among other things, about the ancient dream of eternal youth and its limitations. The crew in Danny Boyle's film Sunshine fly too close to the sun. Philip K Dick’s story ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (adapted for the screen as Blade Runner) is a version of the Pygmalion myth. But this is the first time I’ve encountered the heart-squeezing trope given the pseudo-scientific treatment. 

Sunday 2 December 2012

Dickens and the Time Lords

I find myself thinking of a good plot as a kind of TARDIS. Partly because it’s a vehicle for time travel, but mainly because the inside is bigger than the outside. There’s no mystery about how to get in – the doorway’s staring you in the face – but it leads to something unexpectedly capacious.

Five people on a daytrip to Margate to scatter a dead friend’s ashes in the sea. That’s the neat exterior of Graham Swift’s Last Orders. You can walk all round it and take in its scope at a glance. But open the door and you get all these entangled life stories, decades of love and conflict and betrayal. Time travel is crucial in this case, but just as important is the capacity of the plot to open up and lead you in many directions without just sprawling shapelessly.

I realise this TARDIS image might have a potency for me that not everyone can relate to. I can’t say where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I know that the following evening I was glued to the first ever episode of Dr Who. I think it was mainly exposition – no Daleks – but something gripped the childish imagination. Two schoolteachers follow one of their students home, a strange girl who is causing them concern, and they watch her walk onto a piece of waste ground and slip inside a police box. I remember their amazement when they followed her through the door and saw the style in which she and the Doctor were living (the white-haired William Hartnell, of course, before Who went hip).

I was hooked for a year or two. Then I probably just grew out of it. But I may have sensed that the plot was destined to be a sprawling mess because it lacked the most basic element, which is an ending. You can wander limitlessly inside, but there’s no outside to contain the journey.

I've just seen the new film of Great Expectations. I particularly enjoyed the young gentlemen Pip mingles with when he comes into his money. Those drunken dinners with the Finches of the Grove reminded me of the Bullingdon Club where I used to hang out with Dave and Boris in my student days (not actually). Dickens’ plot, necessarily stripped of peripheral material, shines through. The twists, revelations and reversals that punctuate Pip’s life provide the containing structure. What opens up inside is the whole of society from its wealthiest heirs to its most abject criminals and the secret networks of personal relationships, financial interests, and moral responsibilities that bind them together.