The public underground toilets of Alexanderplatz, Berlin in the early 1990s. It's the wee hours and it's snowing outside onto the vast tarmac and concThe public underground toilets of Alexanderplatz, Berlin in the early 1990s. It's the wee hours and it's snowing outside onto the vast tarmac and concrete rectangle of the empty square. In the toilets, drunken toothless men zip up their flies. The smell of disinfectant and urine, the sight of vomit stains and cigarette butts.
You bet that not many books begin in a less glamorous setting.
What's even more unusual is the way the author introduces herself: hungover and bumping into rubbish bins, memories of her drinking session at the pub only a "smoky blur". Certainly, Miss Funder doesn't gain much credibility as a reliable journalist with such an overture. As long as Hunter S. Thompson is not her mentor as a gonzo reporter.
Just like the actual aims and reputation of Anna Funder in Berlin, "Stasiland" took its time to convince me. This is a book with a clumsy and uncertain beginning. The author seems to avoid at any rate the hard task of introducing her readers to the once called German Democratic Republic (GDR). What Miss Funder focuses on and seeks for are the relevant details that made the big picture: the personal stories of some of those who lived in the GDR.
But this summon of the drowned and the saved after the collapse of East Germany between 1989 and 1990, develops very slowly. At first, it looks like the author herself treats the whole thing as a pastime inbetween her part-time job on TV and drinking bouts at the Berlinese pubs. Then, little by little, Anna Funder finds her angle and "Stasiland" eventually takes off as a very good book with that extra bit of research that fills the gap in each personal account.
Even though, the author puts too much of herself into the book (and seems to enjoy despising herself, for what it's worth), this was an interesting and important reading. Just don't leaf through "Stasiland" expecting to find much of the remorse and redemption of the Stasi agent portrayed in the movie "The Lives of the Others". Actually, the former Stasi agents Anna Funder meets up after putting an insertion on a local newspaper are all but regretful for what they did and look pretty carefree in the new post GDR years.
As for those who were the victims of the Stasi apparatus, the author gets the credit to pick up a few but significant and rather poignant personal stories.
What I liked is the way physically or/and psychologically tortured people recount their awful and often absurd experiences chatting with Miss Funder in a lucid and analytical way. What didn't convince me is the counterposition that shows men as the only enforcers and women as their chief victims. I believe this choice is not deliberate and is due to the fact that Funder got in touch more easily with women telling her their private stories while in Berlin. At the same time, there were statistically more chances that former Stasi agents contacting the author (she calls them "my Stasi men") were male. But still.
"Stasiland" does have its flaws, but it's a refreshing book and a honest collection of first hand accounts on the GDR, that dinosaur of a blabbermouth nation once called East Germany. ...more
A few years ago, I came across a book by Anton Chekhov in a second hand stall in Ferrara, Italy. The book was on sale for a song and I promptly boughtA few years ago, I came across a book by Anton Chekhov in a second hand stall in Ferrara, Italy. The book was on sale for a song and I promptly bought it even though at that time I had no idea what "Sakhalin Island" was about and had never heard of it. I knew something about Chekhov and that was enough.
Well, needless to say that the travelogue of Chekhov visiting the remote detention island of Sakhalin - somewhere between Russia and Japan - became one of my favourite books pretty soon. True, the great Russian playwright and writer was shown a mock-up of that huge chunk of frozen land thus grasping only a fragment of the terrible conditions convicts lived in. Nevertheless, "Sakhalin Island" was an eye-opener for me. The author thanks to his literary and medical background, but also because of his qualities as a caring and sympathetic human being brought me there among the settlers of Sakhalin in the Tsarist forefather of the Stalinist archipelago of "working camps". From then on, I read Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn and Herling as well as Anne Applebaum's masterful Gulag becoming more and more familiar with the gruesome Soviet equivalent of dreadful Nazi concentration camps.
Now, let's leave Sakhalin behind flying to another and bigger island, Australia. Down Under. Oz, Terra Incognita. The land of plenty. You name it.
You know where it lies. You know we're talking about a massive island which is actually a continent on its own. You know they speak English there (although some Englishman might object they actually don't). You know they drive on the left side of the road. You know about kangaroos, koalas and - perhaps - even of wombats and platypuses. You know the king of all sports: Australian rules Football. And if you don't, that's entirely your fault and you deserve to watch some cricket sticking to you Crocodile Dundee on VHS.
Well the thing is, it's all a coincidence. No, not the Aussie football and its sleeveless gladiators in itself, but actually this whole country of Australia as we now know it. Yessir, just a coincidence. With just a little twist of history, Australia could have been something completely different for the joy and despair of former Python and current documentary maker Michael Palin.
Consider this, if the random Spanish navigator, Portuguese explorer or Dutch merchant had had better instruments for calculating their longitude, Australia would have had very few chances of becoming the less tempting British colony from the end of 18th century to a good half of the following one.
In fact, well before the first Briton set foot on the Australian continent, a few other Europeans had already done it even though none of them understood the extent of their discovery. Documents show how Dutch vessels reached the coasts of Northern Australia 164 years before James Cook and his Endeavour dropped anchor in Botany Bay, south of modern day Sydney.
With peculiar pragmatism and lack of imagination (scurvy and homesickness must have played a role in the choice), Dutch gentlemen of fortune named that stretch of hostile land New Holland and that was pretty much all they did. The northern Australian soil looked sterile enough and even less welcoming with the visitors were the local aborigines who put the Europeans back on their ship by means of arrows and spears. Two thousand miles southwards, the Dutchmen were the first to put on the maps a triangle-shaped island they christened as Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). There was a whole continent between New Holland and Van Diemen's Land, but no Dutch seafaring vessel stumbled upon it.
Ahead of the Dutchmen, Spanish and Portuguese navigators looked for a Terra Australis, but always missed it for an inch or two and, if they ever landed on its shores, failed to bring tidings to the eager courts of Madrid and Lisbon.
You see? Coincidences. Luck and fate were with the Britons. On 29 April 1770, captain James Cook "discovered" Australia a good 50,000 years after its first inhabitants moved to the continent coming from Asia. The funny thing is that this discovery was a serendipity or rather an accident. As Robert Hughes makes clear, Cook had no intention of discovering an entire new continent. What the British navigator and his crew wanted to do was actually going back to England as quickly as possible after their long journey around New Zealand and Tahiti. And so it happened that the Endeavour and her crew came across the eastern coast of Australia by mere chance looking for a shortcut back home.
Cook and his men followed the discoverers' protocol. They claimed those lands for the Crown of England. They put a flagpole with its customary Union Jack on the sandy shore. They meticolously named every bay, cove and promontory around them. They picked up a few local specimens to show in London. They waved at the reluctant Aborigines by shooting a gun. Then, they left. The land beyond Botany Bay looked far too vast to explore thoroughly and on the spot, so the Endeavour came back into the open sea.
Now, another funny thing is that in London nobody could care less about this new land of Australia. All the interest of the public was for the fierce Maori warriors and the spectacular natural scenery of New Zealand as well as for the tropical bliss of Tahiti with its sophisticated rituals and its sensual beautiful women (Paul Gauguin would have understood that completely). Even the kangaroo Cook somehow managed to bring back to England didn't excite the British scientists who found it vaguely similar to a hare. Call them stupid now.
The reason why eleven English ships came back to Australia eighteen years after (18!) Cook's landing is very simple: England wanted to get rid of hundreds of petty criminals who overcrowded its gaols. And what better place to send these thieves, forgers and good for nothings (no prostitutes, but plenty of rapers) than a distant dustbin like Australia? And so the story went on.
I want (or better need) to cut it short now. This book is extraordinary. To my knowledge there is not a single aspect of the whole early Australian epic that the recently gone Robert Hughes - an Aussie himself - forgot to cover in "The Fatal Shore".
From the age of explorations to the bad conditions of Georgian England which led to the decision of sending convicts overseas. From the first meetings with Aborigines to their sad fate and, quite often, careless extermination. From fascinating early descriptions of wild Australia plants and animals to the harsh and primitive life spent by the convicts and their keepers in Sydney, Norfolk island and Van Diemen's Land. From the appalling way women were treated in the new colony to the crazy attempts of those who tried to escape from Australia ending up dead in the bushland or caught by the seas. And much much more.
"The Fatal Shore" is a gem of a book and a captivating account of approximately a century of Australian history which nobody talks much about nowadays. The documents, letters, stories you will find here are second to nothing else. And Robert Hughes shows an unbelievable talent in keeping everything accessible and at the same incredibly rich, meaningful and multi-layered. This is history telling at its greatest and if you're Australian, visited Oz or are planning to go Down Under make sure to add this book up to your Lonely Planet or Rough guide....more
"How to Spoil a Good Plot" a dissertation in form of a novel titled "Bliss" by Peter Carey.
Take a great idea. The apparent death and unexpec"How to Spoil a Good Plot" a dissertation in form of a novel titled "Bliss" by Peter Carey.
Take a great idea. The apparent death and unexpected resuscitation of the main character would do. Develop the aforementioned great idea a step forward. The main character thinking that he actually died, went to Hell and that his own life after-resuscitation is just a day to day performance set up by demonic-characters impersonating his family and friends sounds perfect.
Now, this is definitely something. And if you add up that the main character writes down notes comparing the differences between the people he knew before his stroke with those he now believes are performing their roles, the plot you have it's just great with a hint of absurdity.
But that's not the purpose of the dissertation you put your nose onto. What Mr Author, needs first and foremost is to spoil a good plot. And that's what Peter Carey does for the remaining two thirds of the book.
How he did it? It's quite simple. Just put the absurd element to an extreme, introducing madness, manias of persecution and some deranged characters flirting with lost ambitions, homeopathy, alcohol abuse and - why not? - drugs. Leave behind all the potentially good subplots you started at the beginning of the novel to focus on the madness of the main character and his clumsy need of redemption while in a psychiatric hospital.
Forget about mentioning Hell again as the same quality of your prose will lead the readers straight into the infernal abyss leaving them quite confused and with an unbearable urge to put the book aside.
Well done! "Bliss" is just ready to be read and, most likely, heavily misunderstood for a decent novel. I repeat: this book is nothing of that sort but the crafty disguise of a masterful dissertation titled "How to Spoil a Good Plot".
Very much a novel of its age. But looking backwards rather than forward.
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" made me think of Muriel Spark and Louisa May Alcott,Very much a novel of its age. But looking backwards rather than forward.
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" made me think of Muriel Spark and Louisa May Alcott, but the Australian girls/little women here have very little sense of humor and much more mannerism. The writing here is rather plain in the worst sense of the term, while the dialogues are rarely any better than fulsome.
In a sense this is twice a Victorian book as its author (née Miss à Beckett Weigall) was from St Kilda, Victoria - now a vibrant place - and definitely a Victorian in spirit and prose. I expected intrigue and ambiguity to pop up at some specific point of the novel, but am afraid I couldn't find much of both here.
It's interesting because if I come back to my childhood, I remember how much the movie Peter Weir took from this novel haunted me for years with its enigmatic light conveying a distinct sense of evil in beautiful but unknown nature.
Oh well, I guess how I should watch that movie again rather than trying to find reasons to reappraise the novel....more
I wish I liked it more, but the truth is that this book has been (I'm still finding my way through it) a major disappointment.
Mind you, I have read soI wish I liked it more, but the truth is that this book has been (I'm still finding my way through it) a major disappointment.
Mind you, I have read some books dedicating a superficial analysis to the mechanisms of either the Russian CPSU or the North Korean communist dynasty and I know something on how things went in the DDR or in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary behind the Iron Curtain.
I've never suffered of the complex that Germans like "Ostalgie" (nostalgia for life under communist East Germany), I've never voted for a party with the term "communist" or "socialist" in its name and I like calling myself a "right leftist" - whatever that means. I'm definitely not a conservative supporter and don't believe in the cheap virtues of liberalism.
What I would probably be quite satisfied to vote for - if Italy or England had something like that - is an equivalent of the Norwegian Arbeiderpartiet, a decent "party of workers" with some greenish issues which doesn't suffer the identity crisis experienced by the British Labour and the unbearable nihilism ravaging the Italian Democratic Party.
But Norway is a fairytale. And green socialism there wipes its oil-stained face.
The only time in which I somehow flirted with communism I was 16 years old and a bunch of nice girls claiming to be "Young Leninists" - whatever that meant - approached me out of school. I was invited to one of their weekly politburos. I went there and it turned out that taking part to that meeting was important for two reasons: 1) it gave me enough inspiration to write a short story named "A Little Leap Backwards" years later (unpublished, I'm afraid). 2) it led me to lose all of my potential interest for any aspect of the Communist cosmology (Che Guevara posters, Marx quotes, CCCP branded football shirts etc.).
It's true the Young Leninist girls were attractive, wore pantyhose and knew who Trotsky was ("a renegade!"), but how I could cope with such convincing logic that "Karl Marx wrote 300 books, have you read all of them?" as the (male) leader of the YL addressed me with a grin painted on his face?
I simply didn't have the time (and the money) to make myself a Marx bibliography. And that's where the flamboyant Young Leninist groupies lost me. No regrets left.
Alright. My apologies for this useless preamble. What I wanted to stress out is that I cannot help but finding quite interesting the stories narrating the way in which the communist apparatchiks overruled over the economic, cultural and social lives of whole countries. And I like reading about deranged politics and politicians' idiosyncrasies.
However, "The Party" by the Australian journalist Richard McGregor is a bore. At least for me. I never managed to get into the narrative structure of this author and found his way of writing so dry that I had to keep a bottle of water at hand.
Seriously, I did my best with this book but haven't like it a bit so far.
I see there is a lot of insight work, research and first account stories behind "The Party", but maybe it's just me not caring that much about "The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers". Who, accidentally, are all but communist in their thirst for good business. And I am sure my beloved Young Leninist girls would have not approved this. ...more
Next to a whole room dedicated to the deeds of a horse named Phar Lap - whose stuffed bulk looms over the bored pupils of a primary school and the puzNext to a whole room dedicated to the deeds of a horse named Phar Lap - whose stuffed bulk looms over the bored pupils of a primary school and the puzzled visitors from overseas - the Melbourne Museum offers a little corner to the music scene of Victoria.
Among a documentary worshipping AC/DC, posters of distant gigs and photos portraying groupies and clubgoers wearing awful trousers, pops up the kohl eyelined face of the vocalist of "The Boys Next Door", a local band.
That lad with a pale pale skin and a dark dark tuft of hair is no less than Him. The frontman of The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman, the actor, screenplayer and author: ladies and gentlemen let me introduce you to Niiick...Caaave.
The local pupils in their green blazers may not know who Mr Cave is, but their parents and some of the visitors from overseas do. Just like Phar Lap, the horse, Nick Cave left Melbourne long ago to pursuit a career who made him an international artist and an ambassador of Australia. Whereas Phar Lap found his death in the US (and some say he was poisoned), Nick Cave decided to settle in Brighton, UK.
It's important to know the current whereabouts of Mr Cave because "The Death of Bunny Munro" - his second novel - takes place in Sussex, and more precisely between Brighton and Newhaven. Now, chances are you've been to glamorously decadent Brighton at least once in your life, but most likely not to Newhaven.
If that's the case, let me just tell you that you lost one of the dullest and most depressing towns in England. Newhaven is a built-up area of depauparated cottages, deserted flats and shut factories facing a port canal where rust and seagulls dung pile up on boats, ships and a half-sunk hydrofoil. The reason why I know this is that you can take a ferry from Newhaven to the French city of Dieppe which I once did with a return ticket (see the photo of my profile). You won't be surprised to know that even a backwater French town like Dieppe looks as vibrant and sophisticated as Paris when compared to gloomy dead Newhaven.
It's hardly surprising to learn that Bunny Munro - the marvelous anti-hero of this novel - is a familiar presence in Newhaven. In fact, it's between Rottingdean and Newhaven that Mr Munro makes most of his business of a door-to-door (but by appointment!) seller of beauty products on a perpetual sexual heat.
Bunny Munro is a lust-driven, theatrical bastard who drools over every female between 12 and 60 years old and whose ultimate purpose in life is screwing around as much as he can. A man masturbating himself thinking about the genitalia of Avril Lavigne (!) and the golden hot pants of Kylie Minogue (which is pretty ironic if you think that Nick Cave himself sang a famous duet with the petite pop star back in 1995).
Picture a 30 something guy in an awful suit driving his yellow shit-stained Punto in the streets of Sussex with "Spinning Around" as a background music and howling obscenities at the local teenagers and you will have Bunny Munro. Visualize a 9 years old kid sticking his reddish eyes into a voluminous encyclopedia sitting in the passenger's seat of the Punto and you will have Bunny Junior, the Boy of his Dad and the former apple in the eye of his Mummy.
Yes, horny Bunny Munro is a married man. And in the course of this novel, his poor wifey Libby will manage to haunt Bunny's escapades, thus paying off his infidelity. But let's say no more. The title of the novel will suggest you its ending but not how it ends. I'd say it's worth reading what Nick Cave has to say here although it's sometimes very hard to distinguish between the dirty thoughts of Bunny Munro with his anti-social behaviors and the impression that the Australian songwriter himself is the main character of this novel.
I thought about Leonard Cohen more than once while reading this as the Canadian minstrel shares a similar - if more talented - approach to sexual perversion in his books with Mr Cave here. And I suspect that the leader of The Bad Seeds wouldn't be displeased by this analogy. Cohen and Cave are two Don Juans who elevated the literary status of the word "vagina" with their lyrics and prose and I bet that even the most hardened feminist would close an eye or two when confronting them. ...more