‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay

9780099593690A Danish journalist is chasing down a sex scandal story involving a high-ranking government official: a young Frenchman holidays alone in Cyprus. All That Man Is – a pan-European series of nine short stories or a cohesive, singular insight into different strands of ‘maledom’? The jury is out but its shortlisting for the 2016 Booker Prize suggests it’s officially accepted into the latter category.

Personally, I err towards the former. And, as with any compendium of short stories, I felt slightly cheated in its reading. Twenty or so pages per narrative leave little in terms of any sense of significant depth of character or situation. Yet, to be fair, David Szalay, in those few pages and through his quick sketches, generally portrays more about his characters’ emotional limitations than some writers achieve in 300+ pages.

Nine stories, nine variously aged men hailing from different European countries – with each protagonist on a journey, actual as well as metaphorical. Bookending the book are two British characters. 17 year-old Simon is inter-railing round Europe with a friend before their first year at Oxford: his grandfather, a retired diplomat, is spending time at the family holiday home in Italy. Sandwiched between is a series of stories that include a Russian billionaire looking to commit suicide, a Hungarian bodyguard on a job in London and a Belgian philologist delivering a luxury car to a buyer in Krakow.

The protagonists are diverse but there exists a level of homogeneity, a melancholic undercurrent of yearning for something almost intangible or beyond their grasp. No matter how ostensibly different they are, their concerns appear to be similarly mordant and narrow.

Inevitably, with nine separate (linked?) narratives to choose from, some are stronger/more appealing than others. The Danish journalist is a particularly strong tale as we journey through the different stages of man (each man is progressively approximately seven years older than his predecessor) – the deputy editor of Scandinavia’s biggest selling newspaper, Kristian is surprisingly humane towards his ‘victim.’ And the final story, of Tony slowly recovering from a heart attack, listening to a young girl sing in a café whilst he ponders on the inscription Amemus eterna et non peritura (Let us love that which is eternal and not what is transient), seen earlier that morning at Pomposa Abbey, is a gentle, allegoric narrative that packs a punch not initially obvious.

Less interesting were the earlier, youthful stories – Simon and his yearning for a classmate back in England, the Hungarian bodyguard finding himself outside the Park Lane Hilton in the early hours of the morning on too many occasions.

All That Man Is was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize but lost out to the first American to win the award, Paul Beatty and his The Sellout.

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’20th Century Women’

HO00004115The latest from Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker) is a beautifully balanced late 70s nostalgic ensemble piece of likeable people.

As a single mother, the matriarch, a never better Annette Bening (American Beauty, The Kids Are Alright) quite rightly takes centre stage, persuading Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning help raise and guide her 15 year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Arguably not the most sensible choices as mentors – Gerwig’s feminist influences leave Jamie in fights with school friends over clitoral orgasms and Fanning heads off on a road trip with Jamie in tow.

It’s a film full of contradictions and it does occasionally slip into anecdotal gratification but relative newcomer Zumann is a delight and, possibly for the first time, I personally liked Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) on screen.

Rating: 69%

‘Sing Street’

sing_streetDelightful, feel-good and totally endearing, the latest from John Carney (Once, Begin Again) yet again presents the good in both character and narrative (and provides a ripper of a soundtrack).

A nostalgic revisit to the 80s with a story that, whilst hardly innovative (new boy at school overcomes bullying, wins the girl and gains popularity), uses music to flesh out its tale. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a convincing innocent discovering his inner Duran Duran or The Cure – and the relationship with his music mentor brother Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Free Fire) adds an extra layer of oddball warmth.

Rating: 69%

‘My Cousin Rachel’

my_cousin_rachelMisunderstood innocent or scheming gold-digger? Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) largely keeps you guessing about cousin Rachel (a superb Rachel Weisz – The Constant Gardener, Denial).

Intense close-ups, occasional tears, grubby manor houses, surly (and scruffy) servants all add to the uncertainties of Phillip (a doe-eyed Sam Claflin – The Hunger Games, Me Before You) for her role in the death of his guardian. Infatuation replaces revenge.

It’s a gorgeous potboiler (author Daphne du Maurier was one of Hitchcock’s favourites – that should give you a clue) with one caveat – the truly awful soundtrack that is at times cloyingly sweet and generally infuriatingly intrusive.

Rating: 64%

‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar

9780241957073Not surprisingly, nine year-old Suleiman (Slooma) does not fully grasp events going on around him – not helped by the fact his wealthy parents, in order to protect him, are choosing not to tell him very much.

It’s 1979 Tripoli and ten years after the Gaddafi people’s revolution. But Libya is now closely monitored, awash with surveillance, secret police and a culture of reporting anti-revolutionary activity. Yet Suleiman’s father, Faraj, a successful businessman, is involved in clandestine activities against ‘The Guide’.

In the Country of Men is not a novel focusing on specific historical content or events – it is more an emotional journey as seen through the eyes of a nine year-old, resulting in events being frequently misunderstood or distorted. Thus, the narrow rituals of childhood are elevated in importance – games in the street with friends, the mood swings of his young alcoholic mother, gifts from his father’s overseas trips. Away from dusty Mulberry Street and home, events play themselves out without a great deal of impact. Until, that is, Ustath Rashid is arrested for anti-revolutionary sentiments. Next-door neighbours and the father of Slooma’s best friend, Kereem, his arrest sends events into a tailspin.

A narrative of love and betrayal, In the Country of Men is a lyrical yet unsentimental portrait of both a family and a country. Betrayal runs rampant throughout – Gaddafi’s to Libya, Faraj to his son, Slooma himself to both his parents as well as Kereem. But below the surface is the tenderness and confusion of love.

Suleiman makes mistakes in his desperate need for the love of his father. Forced into a marriage at 14, Slooma’s mother finds solace in illegal schnapps: like Scheherazade, she tells stories of her life and betrayal by her family to her son long into the night. But, with Faraj’s arrest, so a deep love for her husband comes to the fore. It is only years later, with Suleiman a 24 year-old living in Egypt, that the tragic sadness of events begin to fall into place. And by then it is mostly too late.

Born in New York in 1970 of Libyan parents, Hisham Matar returned to live in Tripoli with his parents when he was three years old. His family was forced to flee to Egypt just six years later due to political persecution. Matar’s father disappeared in 1990 and has been missing ever since. In the Country of Men, his debut novel, may be a fiction, but it is very much a story of the heart.

Shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize, London-based Hisham Matar, with his debut novel, lost out to Kiran Desai and The Inheritance of Loss.

 

‘Churchill’

Churchill-Film-PosterIt’s June 1944 and just days before D-Day when the Allies plan to land on the beaches of Normandy. Only British PM Winston Churchill has become more and more marginalised from the military planning – and the splendidly bombastic Brian Cox (X-Men, The Bourne Identity) is not happy.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man, Burning Man) focuses on the irascible Churchill, at odds with wife Clemmie (a long-suffering Miranda Richardson – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Hours) as well as President Eisenhower (John Slattery – Mad Men) and General Montgomery, head of the British forces. The result is a moderate, one-paced drama with little sign of Churchill’s famed charm or wit.

Rating: 43%

‘The Mountain’ by Drusilla Modjeska

image24-1There’s a great deal to admire in Drusilla Modjeska’s ambitious, sweeping, multilayered novel that takes us into the heart of colonial change as the fractured island of Papua New Guinea moves towards independence from Australia in the 1970s.

Centred round academia and the new university in Port Moresby, the island’s capital, The Mountain introduces an Australian ex-pat community along with their Papuan contemporaries. It’s a country on the cusp of change but still dictated to by tradition, both colonial and tribal. Into this world arrive Rika and her anthropology documentary film-maker husband, Lawrence.

Several years his wife’s senior, Lawrence resists the idea that anthropology is about simply observing as if under a microscope: change and external influence has validity. He travels to the (fictional) remote mountain and local villages to film, leaving Rika in town to acclimatise to a world very different to her Dutch background.

While Lawrence records and experiences clan relations and rituals, art and ancestor stories and the influences of western teachings and medicines, so Rika herself confronts her own changes and conflicts, falling for Aaron, the young and charismatic local academic and future leader. Friends and colleagues are not overly fazed by this development, but the rarefied air of academia is not representative of colonial society. Some Papuans are disapproving: members of the white community turn to violence.

With one foot in Moresby and one on the mountain, Modjeska’s novel is very much about place and time. Rika’s coming-of-age runs simultaneously with PNG’s introduction to democracy and the position of tribal practices of tradition and superstition in this new world: her exposure to life on the mountain when she eventually joins Lawrence further changes Rika.

The second (and considerably shorter) part of The Mountain is set 30 years later: Rika is a successful artist living in New York while Aaron is long dead. It is Jericho, Rika and Aaron’s adopted son, who returns. A successful art dealer in London, Jericho is mixed race and feels he belongs nowhere. He needs to understand his sense of place – but also needs closure with details about Aaron’s death so soon after Independence.

It’s a dense, luminous work of fiction. Modjeska is a celebrated non-fiction writer and The Mountain is at its brilliant best when it navigates that sense of place and the realities of that world – the politics, its history, its traditions. The complexities of PNG are palpable, particularly in the first half of the book as we journey with Rika and, to her, the newness of the island and its culture.

Less successful, less engaging, are the individual stories and narratives. Jericho arrives too late to hold the sympathies and empathies: his personal journey of identity in part mirrors Riva’s arrival in PNG. But it is too obvious where his questions will be answered – he is, at the end of the day, a mountain man. And his long-held love for Bili, daughter of Riva’s close friend Laedi, is all too neatly wrapped in her activism for PNG’s right to self-determine.

The Mountain is, throughout, full of convenient love affairs, analogies for events – the disintegrating marriage between Laedi and Don; the rocky marriage of Pete and Martha (that at least survives until his death in Sydney many years later); Wana and Sam; the unexpected Lawrence and Janape. And, central, Rika and Aaron.

Through them and their friendships, we gain an insight into the local cultural mix: through them and their children, we experience, when Jericho returns to the island, how independence has impacted and how tradition has withstood the test of time.

It’s a long journey for all concerned – Lawrence and Jericho return from the UK, Martha from Sydney. A bitter Riva will never travel from New York to the island. It’s 30 years since Papua New Guinea gained independence: it’s 30 years since Aaron died. It’s also a long, overly detailed journey for the reader – particularly in the middle where the newness of discovery has worn off.

Drusilla Modjeska’s first book of fiction was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin award but lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

 

 

 

‘Neruda’

neruda_ver3Tedium sets in early in director Pablo Larrain’s latest bio. As with his Jackie, Larrain is never rushed in his storytelling and even a manhunt across Chile in the aftermath of World War II verges on inert.

“The most famous Communist on Earth”, Pablo Neruda, is a persona non grata in his own country and is hunted by Inspector Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal – The Motorcycle Diaries, Amores Perros) from hiding place to hiding place. Neruda is a man unwilling to play by the rules – but the problem is that as played by Luis Gnecco (No, Perez) the poet is not particularly likeable.

Rating: 44%