The Double [Jose Saramago]

Although he does no really believe in Fate, distinguished from any lesser destiny by that respectful initial capital letter,

Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is a quiet, unassuming, slightly depressed history teacher who one night, while watching a film recommended to him,  sees someone who is identical to him in every way.
Confronted with this inexplicable loss of his own individuality, Maximo Afonso breaks out of his unremarkable life, and embarks on a quest to find out more about his duplicate.

To get a clear idea of his situation, suffice it to say he was married, but can no longer remember what led him to matrimony, that he is divorced and cannot now bring himself to ponder the reasons for the separation.

The quest becomes an obsession, and when he finally meets the other him, it becomes important to each of them to discover who is the original and who is the double.
Each faced with a loss of identity and individuality, they initially attempt to move on, but like an animal competing with it’s own reflection in a mirror, they are unable to tolerate the existence of the other, and so the tale winds along to it’s powerful conclusion.  Wives, mothers, girl friends and careers take a back seat as two people square up to each other in a bid to prove that they are themselves alone.
One thing that intrigued me while reading was how it was going to end, all the conclusions I came up with were at the most only partly correct, and books like Seeing show Saramago is not one to always go for a conventional ending.

Tertuliano Maximo Afonso fell onto the sofa, not the armchair, which was not large enough to contain the physical and moral collapse of his body

The Double is written in Saramago’s own unique style, the narrator at once inside Maximo’s head while at the same time not knowing what motivates him to do certain things.  It digresses and explains, while Maximo himself has numerous conversations with his own common sense, as he contemplates what it means to be the same in every way as someone else.

Now that Saramago has passed away, I’ve only got a few of his books left to read, well for the first time anyway.   His style of writing is tough to start with, but I find it immensely rewarding once you are immersed in his page long paragraphs and the cadence of his narrator.  As with most if not all his other novels I’ve read, The Double is wonderfully translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

This was how he knew that the world would not end today, for it would be an unforgivable waste to make the sun rise in vain.


The Lacuna [Barbara Kingsolver]

Work meant sitting in his library running both hands through his slick hair, drinking mezcal, and sweating through his collar while working out colonnades of numbers.  By this means he learned whether he had money up to his moustache this week, or only up to his bollocks

Any doubts about The Lacuna were dispelled by the phrase that ended with “..or only up to his bollocks”
The words of Harrison Shepherd, whose acerbic wit and unflinching descriptions of the people, places and situations around him, drive this juggernaut of a novel, and which are drip fed to the reader in the form of diaries and letters, and intersped (in the second half) with newspaper articles.

Dragged south of the border by his moth like mother, Salome, who flits between men as bulbs, attracted by their money and power, she seems to believe that when her scheming finally pays off, Harrison will benefit as much as she will.

It was such a monument of accusation, even Mother had to bow her head a little as she crept past it, sins dripping from her shoes as we walked round the nave, leaving invisible puddles on the clean tiles.  Perhaps God said her name was mud.  He would have to yell more than three times, for her to hear.

He ends up working in the household of Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, and as his mum flits around in the background, Frida becomes almost the centre of the novel, the core that Harrison winds around as he grows up.  The arrival of Lev Trotsky enthralls Harrison, and his time with the exiled Bolshevik leader is dutifully recorded in his journals.  Following his time with Lev Harrison moves back to the US during the second world war, and despite my initial interest in the book being it’s Mexican setting, it is the second half of the book that gripped me more.

After the end of the war, the US and Russia square up to each other and Harrison, by now a successful author, comes under scrutiny by the Committee of Un-American Activities and his diary entries fill with his bewilderment and comment on the state of the US, from it’s emerging economy driven by snazzy advertisments to the newspapers, whose fawning adulation turns to persecution as he is painted by a communist.  His fear of the media, and of engaging with them ultimately harms him, as they take free rein to paint their own picture of the communist in the heartland.

I read this at the time of the release of the Leveson inquiry report in the UK, and this book demonstrates the power of words, and through them the power of newspapers and others who wield them.  A paranoid government driving a paranoid population, condemning a man, in the end, on words he wrote in a story.  It is out of this one sided narrative that The Lacuna emerges, the hole, the other side, the part you don’t know about the man in the newspapers.

Of course we do” she said, sighing deeply as if to say “men do this.” And that is a fact, men do, unable to resist the same impulse that built the thing in the first place: senseless ambition.

The format of The Lacuna makes it a rolling read, you can read as much or as little as you like in small chunks and Harrison’s diary entries are genuinely funny at times, even in his most dire situations he finds humour, and paints the other characters of his life with both wit and compassion, while holding an honest account of himself and his life.

People contort themselves around the terror of being alone, making any compromise against that.  It’s a great freedom to give up on love, and get on with everything else.

Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain

It’s just drawings innit?  Someone could say.  Well yes, yes it is drawings.  But not just drawings, Spanish Drawings! Ole!  Well ok it’s not just drawings by Spanish artists, but drawings from within Spain, from the mid sixteenth century to the Early nineteenth century.

It says in the article in the British Museum magazine, by Mark McDonald, that Spanish prints and drawings are little known outside Spain.  Not any more.  March into the British Museum, resist the urge to look up and take in the much vaunted but not vaulted roof, glide up the steps round the Reading Room, past the mummys and through Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt, slaloming between frazzled tourists standing in a museum-fatigue induced daze and sweep up the steps into room 90 – Prints and Drawings.

The exhibition spills into the outer room, and right in front of you, probably the fist image you will see, is my favourite, Head of a Monk by Francisco de Zubaran (c1635-55).  It is the only drawing thought to be by Zubaran himself.  He captures the head in a dramatic light, highlighting three dimensions and imparting a sense of inner spirituality.  The closed eyes and mouth giving the monk a deep reflective gravity that captivated me as I wondered what the monk was thinking, of course he may not have actually been real, in which case that would not have been a lot.

The building of the Escorial, the final resting place of the Hapsburg dynasty, on the orders of Phillip II caused Madrid to grow (it was Phillip’s new Capital) and brought in print makers.  Pedro Perret, a Flemish artist rolled up in 1583 and made twelve engravings of the Escorial from the drawings of it’s architect Juan de Herrera.  Included are the Tabernacle of the Holy Sacremant and Section Through Middle of the Escorial Basilica On The North South Axis.l  In all the twelve are considered ‘the most technically complete and accomplished architectural prints of the sixteenth Century”

In The Assumption of the Virgin, Alonso Berruguete’s pen strokes resemble the effect of a wood carving.  After working in Rome and Florence Berruguete learnt how important drawing was for planning and preparing works.

Standing out in Red wash and ink, Francisco Camilo’s The Rest of the Holy Family and the Flight into Egypt (1650-70, it was a long flight) is incredibly detailed, the wash effect beautifully rendering the fabric of the robes, and was unlike anything else seen in Madrid at the time.  Eugenio Cajes took Hendrick Gultzeus’s engraving of The Circumcision of Christ (1594) and picked out only the elements he wanted and re-arranged them in his own composition in 1600-15, cleverly demonstrating that prints were important during the 1600’s as they were used as a starting point for drawings and paintings.

However it didn’t always seem to work out well, this planning and then painting, as demonstrated in my profressional (for professional read clueless) opinion.  Ahimelec giving to David the Sword of Goliath (c1711) was the final design for a sacristy painting by Antonio Palomino.  Sadly the incredible detail of the drawing seems lost in the final painting in it’s dull browns and reds.

The drawings were not just being admired, discussed or blithely ignored either.  An old man, with his crutch resting on the arm rest beside him, was quietly sketching The Dwarf Lusillo (1680) by Francisco Rizi.  I will not comment on which was better, but the artist was unconcerned with the flow of Spanish print and drawing devotees flowing around him.

Over in Andalucia, in 1660, Murillo, the greatest competitor of Zurburan (he of the monks head fame) and Francisco Herrera the younger established an academy for drawing, which ran for 14 years.
Francisco Pacheco embodied a slightly distinct Sevillian tradition, in his Saint Matthew and the Angel (1632) there are clear precise outlines with a brown wash in a carefully rendered character study where the angel has the face of a young girl.  A Saint tied to a tree (1626) scribbled in red chalk is detailed and life like, the twisted body kept all in proportion is my favourite of Jose de Ribera.

And so we come to Goya, one of the best known Spanish artists.  His etching the Blind Guitarist (1778) is a study for a tapestry that had to be modified because the weavers found it impossible to interpret.  The collection ends with Goya’s series of etchings called the Disparates, done with Aquatint.  They are dream like and nocturnal, Folly of Fear showing a giant death like figure looming over fallen people, while Figures Dancing in a Circle is, unsurprisingly, figures dancing in a circle.  Men and women cavorting against a dark background like a ball in an insane asylum.

I can honestly say this post is much less enjoyable than the exhibition itself (which is free, that must have sold it) but I can also say that it’s not just drawings innit.

The exhibition is on until the 6th of January, link is here

The Jaguar Smile [Salman Rushdie]

There was a young girl of Nic’ragua
Who smiled as she rode on a jaguar
They returned from the ride
with the young girl inside
And the smile on the face of the jaguar [Anon]

I discovered this in the Latin America section in Stanfords, quite unaware that Salman Rushdie had written it, and central America was somewhere I have always wanted to travel around.

Rusdie’s trip of three weeks was made at the invitation of the Sandinista Association of Cultural workers and he was there at the seven year anniversary of the Sandinista’s rise to power.  While there he conversed with the President, Daniel Ortega, ministers (most of whom are poets) the owner of the recently closed La Prensa newspaper, aid workers and a midwife and her cow.

Nicaragua, which Rushdie clearly falls in love with, is portrayed very much as the little guy standing up to the big ;un (The US under Reagan) as the revolutionary government is besieged by the Contra and it’s backers. It’s always hard to tell just how truthful or unbiased narratives like this are.  But to be fair to El Escritor hindu, as he is known, he does not shy away from asking fairly probing questions where he can, and presses the government on it’s closure of La Prensa numerous times, and he admits failings in the book of people who he didn’t get to interview.

It’s a slim book.  Rushdie articulately mixing in facts with bits of his journeys around the country and his conversations with those in power and those without.  The Jaguar Smile should be seen as a postcard, a snapshot of a time and a place, a place that I myself long to go.