Archive for August, 2011

Жунгли (The Jungle) Yuri Buyda

August 28, 2011


That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to them, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Looks like Auden managed to prophesy a fairly accurate review for this latest book by Yuri Buyda, best known I think for The Prussian Bride (which I enjoyed).  This book consists of a series of interlinked stories, so that a minor character in one becomes the protagonist of another.  The action takes place beyond the outskirts of Moscow, in a region where places have evocative names like Nerwbuild and the girls make some money by appearing in pornographic films shot  in a place called The Factory.  The most popular storyline involves the woman who is left alone with a daughter; then a new man appears and rapes the daughter.  By way of variation, there is one case where the new man takes the guilt on himself after the adopted son has raped and killed the daughter.  But again the nephew who has been taken into the family will do just as well.  And the daughter can also kill the mother and lay the blame on the stepfather.

For some time, there was a tendency for supernatural elements to become increasingly apparent from story to story, so I rather hoped there was going to be some kind of transfiguration.  But no.  The nearest was the trans-sense poem from At the knacker’s yard, kindly translated by Google at the end of this posting.

The problem with the book is that it all gets rather same-y and you don’t have any contrast. In The Prussian Bride, you had the contrast between the German and Russian ways of life in the Kaliningrad Oblast’, and that worked very well.

But it’s better than I’m probably making it sound here, and you certainly want to read on even though you rather dread what might be coming.  There are moments of grim, humour, as when the short, fat, bald seducer and utterer of forged banknotes Goribaba is apprehended thanks to his shiny Margaret Thatcher tie…

Те ан комали, лютер вертерог-
Those en coma, Luther verterog –

Гумер аморе, лав – те ан комали.
Gumer Amor, My Love – those en coma.

Но миролохи – те не паллонай ли,
But mirolohi – those not pallonay Do

Когда и бехер адорате рох.
When and Becher adorate Fox.


А вулли аберрок?
A Woolley aberrok?

Не филио, не мув и не опали,
Not filio, not MSY and not fallen,

Не без отеро, нежная афалли,
Not without Otero, gentle afalli,

О куннилингус!
About cunnilingus!
Стелла аннобох,
Stella annoboh,

Но тристия, те глосса и улла,
But three hundred, and they gloss ulla,

Те ан амиле, са не тор у края,
Those en amyl, self is not a torus at the edge,

Коль отто фил, то эстер те фулла.
Col Phil Otto, the ester those Fulla.

Не питто фаллос, номо, эт кормляю,
Pitta is not the phallus, HOMO, at kormlyayu,

Фелляция, лютеллия, – сола!
Fellatio, lyutelliya – Sol! – –

Коттаю анно: я тебя любляю …
Kottayam annotation: I’ll Ljubljana …

– Любляю, – прошептал он, – на этом языке, вероятно, так произносится «люблю». – Ljubljana, – he whispered, – the language is probably true, pronounced “love”.

One Day Peckham Multiplex 25 August

August 26, 2011


As everyone knows, the book One Day is for long stretches a repetitious load of drivel:  the story is that common Emma and posh Dexter have a night of passion after graduating from Edinburgh and then spend most of the rest of the book failing to get it together.  I said at the time that it would work better as a film and I was quite right,  even though there was quite a long time at the beginning where it looked like a date movie for lesbians–both to gaze in wonder at Anne Hathaway and to be quite certain they were missing nothing  in terms of relations with men.

The film-makers clearly took the entirely correct decision to throw away the encumbrances of the book and make something that people would actually want to see.  Perhaps they should have gone further, but never mind.  Many commentators have complained about Ms Hathaway’s Yorkshire accent, which is certainly wobbly.  But they’re missing the real point:  the character of Emma has been softened and glamourised as against the book, so this Emma might well have a wobbly accent; that Emma would certainly have kept hers intact.

As well as the accent, Ms Hathaway made a fairly unconvincing attempt at being unattractive and passive-aggressive and rode her bike like someone who’d never been on one before, especially in London.  In spite of that I thought her performance was marvellous in conveying all the conflict and change of this Emma’s emotions, and in giving the feeling she had dug up everything out of herself she possibly could to put the character across.

I personally had the true laughter-through-tears feeling on more than one occasion, and at least considered crying during the reconciliation scene between Dexter, the failed comic and Emma’s failed boyfriend.  Both that scene and the chronologically final scene put across the good and true idea that however bad your situation may be you can still choose to act decently.

***Spoiler alert***

But the film could be seen as supporting some rather bad ideas:  a good woman who enjoys sex has to die pretty soon after, and more specifically here Emma also has to die so that Dexter can become the kind of man his mother wanted him to be.  Any kind of grown-up in fact.

***End of spoiler alert***

I must say I was shocked not by Ms Hathaway’s accent but by the sight of Portcullis House (built 1998-2001) as Dexter drove out of London in 1994.  But I was more than gratified to learn of the contribution that Brockley (in fact Crofton Park) made to the creation of this movie.

Top Girls Trafalgar Studios 24 August

August 24, 2011

Picture from

This is a play by Caryl Churchill dating from 1982 about the soul of woman under Thatcher.  Naturally enough, about 80% of the audience were female, and they may have appreciated it more than I did.

We started with Marlene, who had just been made Managing Director of an employment agency, hosting a dinner for successful or famous women from history.  That was an interesting idea.  Pope Joan got to make some intelligent remarks, and also attempted to comfort Lady Nijo over the loss of her children, while Isabella Bird had the most to say.  So that was all right, if a little pointless, especially if one was already acquainted with Pope Joan and Patient Griselda.

Then the first scene of Act 2 was about the most cack-handed thing I’ve seen in the professional theatre, and I think that’s largely if not entirely down to the text.  Two adult actresses unconvincingly played girls with unconvincing Norfolk accents and woodenly pushed words at each other to make the points that Angie, Marlene’s niece, was not very bright and not much use for anything and also hated her mother.  Also she and her friend Kit were frightened of unemployment and nuclear war.  Scene 2 showed us life in the employment agency, and interviews with the job applicants had some good comic touches.  Some pretty leaden layers of lecturing as well.  Marlene had beaten out an offstage man to the top job, and he was taking it badly.  Angie turned up looking for bright lights and big city and Marlene concluded she hadn’t a chance.

Act 3 (a year earlier) had Marlene visiting Angie and Joyce.  As Joyce, Stella Gonet did a pretty good Norfolk accent, but I didn’t believe in the interplay between the sisters, and I think you would get more change from Marlene (Susanne Jones), at least in terms of accent.  There were of course disturbing revelations and also a disturbing prophecy about the soul of woman under Thatcher.

To me the first act was written by someone who didn’t appreciate how different and difficult life was in past eras of appalling infant and maternal mortality, while the third act belonged to someone who had very little idea of the lives of ordinary people.  In all:  Brecht without the poetry or the genuine bitterness and cynicism.




The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Arcola Theatre 21 August

August 22, 2011


That's his sister's white dress she nicked...

A couple of blokes came out dressed in white shirts and waistcoats.  One sat at the piano and started to play hesitantly.  The other encouraged him by (among other things) humming, tapping his pencil on his notebook, performing dance steps until the music got too fast, and getting the audience to clap in time.

Then that came to an end and it became clear that the guy who was not the pianist was the tenor and he was going to sing The Diary of One Who Disappeared, which is somewhere between a song-cycle and a very small oratorio and recounts how the hero is led astray by a gypsy girl and leaves his family to unite his fate with hers.

I found to my relief that I could understand almost all of the words (it was sung in English; texts were not provided).  The pianist played the very plinky piano–was it meant to resemble some folk instrument?–and a rather blonde gypsy slinked her way across the stage.  Nice to know that the Moravian countryside enjoys reliable supplies of peroxide.  Three women stood up from the front row to form the chorus.

A breakthrough in Janacek scholarship: the 113-year-old composer is still giving poor Kamila no peace

I was moved by the tenor’s final declamation, though overall  I thought the staging betrayed nervousness that the piece wouldn’t stand on its own merits.  Perhaps that it just wasn’t long enough–50 minutes overall is a bit of a strange length for an evening’s entertainment.  The soprano (Mary Bevan) had an easier time of it than the tenor (Robert Murray), perhaps because she had something a lot more singable to sing.

I’m not sure why the text’s indications of the gypsy girl dropping her blouse and sleeping in a rumpled shift led to the tenor removing his waistcoat and cufflinks.

And so ended my first visit to a Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola!

The Night Watch (Sarah Waters)

August 20, 2011


Try Books! greeted this book with relief and gratitude: a real novel at last, with a variety of characters and settings and some lovely instances of detailed evocation.  These included a properly respectful and detailed attention to South London, for instance Our lady from Forest Hill on the books of the marriage agency where Helen and Viv work.

I was also very glad to see some structural adventure:  the story is told in three parts that take place in 1947, 1943 and 1941 and which are set in London. The main characters are Helen, Julia and Kay; three lesbians, who found that wartime gave them more freedom than they expected.  Especially I suppose Kay, who worked in an ambulance unit during the Blitz.  We also meet Viv, a straight woman in a hopeless affair with a married and worthless affair and Duncan her brother, who has been in prison for a nameless and awful crime.  It’s fascinating to see the characters at the beginning and see these strange holes in their lives and wonder how that happened, and then as you go back to 1943 and 1941 you find out.

There are some lovely set-pieces:  Helen and Viv climbing out of their office window to smoke in the sunshine; typists in the Ministry of Food; a candle factory for the insulted and injured; Viv’s bungled abortion which completely terrified me.  I’m not so sure about the coup de foudre where Julia and Helen realise their feelings for each other when they visit St Dunstan-in-the-East during a bombing raid.

The main story, working forward chronologically, is that first of all Kay and Julia are together, then it’s Julia and Helen after Kay has rescued Helen from a hole in the ground; and at the end Kay is on her own and given to solitary wandering of the streets while it looks like Julia is going to leave Helen for Ursula, who works at the BBC.

Kay is a bit given to programmatic utterances.  At the end she tells the trapped Helen We never seem to love the people we ought to, while near the beginning she explains Sometimes I go through the films twice over.  Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first, I almost prefer them that way–people’s pasts being, you know, much more interesting than their futures.  As the other characters remorselessly point out, she plays the true man’s part–she rescues both Helen and Viv and indeed gives Viv a ring to make it seem she’s married, and in the end she ends up with nothing.

We had some discussion about who we identified with, and who we felt the author identified with.  We generally felt the answer to the second question was Helen, since we learned more about her inner life and quite a lot of the action was presented in terms of how it affected her.

The names are interesting:  ‘Kay’ is really the letter K and so short for Kate or something.  Helen and Julia begin with H and J, so we have H J and K.  Where is ‘I’ then?  The author has hidden herself.   It seems that Julia is going to leave Helen for Ursula–‘you’–outside the circle of ‘I’.  Also ‘Viv’ like ‘Kay’ is a pet name–I don’t think we ever find out whether she’s a Vivian or a Vivienne or what.

What’s the point of Viv and Duncan in this story?  It’s clearly something about love and the way time acts upon love–Viv used to love Reggie and now they just go through the motions, while Viv and his friend Alec seem to have had a mutual crush before the unmentionable thing and all the blood.

I’m inclined to think that in line with Kay’s pronouncement above Kay and Viv are meant for each other but it can never happen.  Kay needs a wife and Viv needs a husband.  Kay not only rescues Viv but also gives her a ring.  They are the characters who are known by pet names.

Whatever her full name might be, ‘Viv’ certainly originates from the Latin for ‘to live’.  She and her brother are both associated with blood.  So it looks as though they are on the side of life, while the lesbian characters are condemned to sterility.  It’s hard to believe that Sarah Waters consciously intended that.

Moskovskij gambit (The Moscow Gambit) Yuri Mamleev

August 20, 2011


Yuri Mamleev was one of the authors that was recommended to me in my survey of Russian novels deserving translation, so I thought I’d give this one a go.  So what’s it all about.  The Moscow gambit is a chess opening: as I recall a line in the Semi-Slav where Black ends up with his position looking a bit of a mess.  But since his pieces are active and well-coordinated, and he has an extra pawn,  he probably has the advantage.

The book is not about that.  Instead we have a group of underground artists and amateurs of the occult in Moscow at the end of the 1970s.  Not much happens.  The things which look as though they are going to happen don’t.  Three of the characters are promised initiation into some higher (but unspecified) reality via a complex and obscure process.  But that doesn’t happen and they turn to more or less orthodox Hinduism instead.

A young artist finds he is dying of an incurable disease and is unable to face the news.  What the author frankly admits is a sub-Dostoievskian scene ensues where a female friend goes to comfort him and then her official lover bursts in and says if dying is what’s needed he’s dying and of course there’s a skandal.  You expect some resolution of what happens to the artist, but first of all he spends his time playing draughts incessantly with a teenage neighbour, then a ‘master of death’ in the Orthodox tradition takes him away somewhere and we never find out what happened.

Not that one--they're playing draughts anyway!

At least one character describes at length how she wants to go on living somehow, to have some awareness of an ‘I’, whatever tortures that might entail.  [Personally, I am absolute for death.]  There are the kind of discussions you might expect about When will Russians be free?  and  Is unfreedom necessary for art?  Everyone spends their time drunk and hanging round with their pals.  Maybe a former pair of lovers are about to get it back together at the end.

So this wasn’t really a novel–the characters and incidents weren’t realised with sufficient concreteness and detail for that, and I found it very difficult to remember who was supposed to be who.  Nor where the ideas people sat around swapping novel or interesting enough  to make the book worthwhile on their own, and the artistic Moscow underground of the late 1970s is hardly uncharted territory in Russian fiction.

I did enjoy the description of the characters’ artistic productions:  the love story between the girl and the bedbug and the exhibition of pictures like stars in a two-room apartment.

Babi Yar

August 18, 2011

This pleasant-looking scene is unfortunately one of the most infamous sites of European history: Babi Yar, where Kiev’s Jewish population was massacred on 29/30 September 1941. The green lawn is where the ravine (yar = ravine) was later filled in, first of all by the Germans. The site is now quite a manicured piece of parkland, which makes me uneasy.  It looks like the place is out in the countryside somewhere, but actually it’s just a bit of parkland between one one block of housing and the next.

It feels like they’re trying to stamp on the famous Evtushenko poem: ‘There are no monuments above Babi Yar./ The steep cliff like a crude gravestone…Above Babi Yar the rustling of wild grasses/The trees look on sternly like judges. Everything shrieks here silently….’  That dates from 1961 of course.

Here’s the official (Soviet-era) memorial:

and an inscription in Russian:

which says:

Here in 1941-43 more than one hundred thousand citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war were shot by the Fascist German invaders.

This is an inscription in Yiddish, with pieces of stone (or glass) left to memorialise the dead:

I can make the last word into Kriegsgefangene (prisoners of war).  Interesting that while the official monument makes no mention of the Jews, there is an inscription in Yiddish.  Especially since the official–indeed any–use of Yiddish had been eliminated by this stage.

Finally, here’s an inscription from a small Jewish memorial:

It starts off with a quotation from Ezekiel (in the Valley of the Bones):

And I will put my breath in you, and you will live.

Notes on some bookshops in Kiev

August 13, 2011

Here are some remarks on bookshops I ambled round yesterday.


First of all, it was ‘Knigarnya’ at 47 ul L’va Tolstogo.  Inside it was quite a nice clean modern shop, but unfortunately all the books were in Ukrainian, rather than Russian.  I think there were some English books in the far reaches of the back room; there was also a granny selling vegetables outside.

Then I made my way further down L’va Tolstogo and came to the Litera ‘book supermarket’, which also had a nice park opposite it.


They had a pretty decent selection of Russian fiction on the first floor, and it wasn’t too strangely organised; also some books of lit crit (really literaturavedenie) in the sub-basement, together with books in Russian.  The address is…ul L’va Tolstogo 11/61.

After that I made my way to Khreshchatyk, where I found the following corpse:

Nothing so depressing as a dead bookshop...

But then I found something more interesting on ul Bogdana Khmel’nytskogo:


That was very nice:  clean, bright, friendly staff, decent selection of Russian fictiomn and also some books in English.  I completely overlooked the lockers you’re supposed to put your bags in to prevent you nicking stuff and nobody told me off.  I also came across H P Lovecraft looking a bit embarrassed to find himself in a prestigious-looking series of collections of works by ‘classic’ foreign authors:

H P Lovecraft shares his corner of the table with Jane Austen and (less bizarrely) the Marquis de Sade

Lovecraft is one of those writers who seems a great deal better in a foreign language because the poor translator has to decide what this garbage means and even render it into something resembling coherent prose in the target language.  Dostoevsky is the pre-eminent member of this tribe, with Dickens not so far behind.

The ‘book club’ thing apparently means there’s a card which gives you a discount, like France loisirs as I recall.

After that, my way led through the permanent anti-Timoshenko demonstration:

They don't like Yulia

I think their points were:

i)  Timoshenko was personally liable for Ukraine’s oil [and gas?] debt to Russia;

ii)  she had bought her English father-in-law a motorcycle.

Then the ‘Znaniya’ shop at Khreshchatyk 44 was gloomy and old-style:

The ‘we love Yulia’ faction favoured brighter  colours than  their opponents:

Crimeans believe Timoshenko


After that I failed to find any sign of the alleged bookshop in the ‘Globus’ shopping centre.  And on my way back to base I had a look in ‘Akademkniga’ at ulitsa B Khmel’nitskogo 42:

Reminiscent of the good old days...

That was real old-style, with the books displayed behind the counters so that they were safe from potential purchasers.  And since this was the shop of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, they were very largely in Ukrainian!

So that concludes my account of a journey through the bookshops of Kiev, conditioned as it was by my not speaking Ukrainian and this computer not speaking Russian.

Direct Red (Gabriel Weston)

August 6, 2011


OK let’s get some things straight here.  ‘Direct red’ is the name of a dye, and the narrator uses the phrase as a prop to hold on to when things in the operating theatre become too much and threaten to overwhelm her.  These are not true stories.  It says at the beginning:  This book is not literally true…none of these characters is real…events are a mixture of things that happened and that might have happened.

So what we deduce from the narrative (if we believe it) is that the author–a woman, as the name fails to tell you–did a degree in English Literature and then decided to train as a doctor and indeed become a surgeon.  That sounds like an interesting story, but we don’t really learn anything about it, except there is a description of the narrator meeting a presumably pseudonymous Mr Silk who invites her to his operating theatre to see his…operations…after which she decides to become a surgeon too.

I’m not sure that the background in Eng Lit has helped that much.  There’s a sentence (on p 19 of my edition, referring to Mark the fractured but fit motorcyclist)  that fails to make sense as it stands:

[it was..]He who asked me how trying to become the doctor I was, was feeling.

I guess that should be something like:

He who asked me how I,  trying to become the  doctor as I was, was feeling.

but that’s still pretty clumsy.  That story about the English professor with the aortic aneurysm reminds me of something out of Colin Douglas as well…

Anyway, having been deprived of the interesting story we get a series of vignettes largely connected with surgical episodes.  To me, they’re not really done well enough.  For instance, in the story about Troy the hip-hop DJ from Bradford we meet sullen lovely girls loitered there.  Those of us who live in South London know the kind of [black] girls she means, but I really think the reader needs something more concrete here.

At the end, the narrator describes how a boy in hospital makes her feel guilty about leaving her own child to be tended by paid help, and she gets off the career ladder and takes up a part-time post without prospects of advancement.  The interesting thing about that is that it’s what town-dwellers did in the Middle Ages–sent their offspring to be reared in the country.  But probably not  to protect the mother’s career prospects.

I was interested by the various cases of the narrator unfastening her bra as an intermediate form of relaxation.