No Man’s Land – Harold Pinter, and the 2016 London Play

 

no man's land
No Man’s Land – Harold Pinter, first produced and published in 1975

I read this play for the 2016 London play starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. It seemed a very good timing to read this script by Harold Pinter – a Nobel prize winner in literature in 2005, and tick him off my Nobel project. I never heard of Pinter prior to hearing about the London play, and seems the libraries also have already forgotten about him, because it took me a lot of effort to procure a copy of this play. I finally found it tucked in a compilation of plays – the only copy I found in the whole Westminster libraries.

I wondered why it was so hard to find his plays in his own country (that’s the United Kingdom), if he was the Nobel prize winner in literature. After reading, I started to think I understand why. I can’t see how this could become popular outside a very niche literary circle.

No Man’s Land is an absurdist play. Plucking from Wikipedia: Absurdist fiction is a genre of fictional narrative (traditionally, literary fiction), most often in the form of a novel, play, poem, or film, that focuses on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value.”

Does that sound like a lot of nonsense? Yeah I think so too. Looking at Wiki, I have apparently read some absurdist fiction, namely Camus, Kafka, and Murakami, but probably as they were all in prose form, it didn’t feel as absurd as in the form of play. This is probably the first time I read an absurdist play, so apology if I sound amateurish. Waiting for Godot has been on my to-read list, and I’m interested to learn more about it.

As you can probably guess, there’s not much plot in No Man’s Land, as it is all about the dialogue. There are four characters. Two main characters in their sixties: Spooner and Hirst, and another two secondary male characters in their forties and thirties. Spooner is visitor to the wealthy Hirst’s mansion. Just by reading, I could already guess that Ian McKellen would be Spooner, and Patrick Stewart as Hirst. Something about Spooner not being very well dressed :)

I don’t have a lot to say about the script itself, and rated it 3/5. But the performance really made a difference. So continuing to…

The 2016 London Play

no man's land

In the stage, everything made more sense to me. There were cues from the audience on the supposedly funny bits – and it just dawned on me that it’s a comedy. I guess I had an inkling while reading, but it wasn’t just the dialogue, the physical movement of the characters and the comedic timing made it all come alive.

I loved Ian McKellen in particular. I had a lot more sympathy for the Spooner character on stage than on paper. On paper he often seemed to lose his mind as much as his “friend”, but on stage he was a kind person, humoring old Hirst who is, plainly, bonkers. The other two younger men, Foster and Briggs, are the ones who are less kind, and seem to just keep Hirst company because of his wealth and big house. Foster may be Hirst’s son or secretary, Briggs is another person working in the house, and on stage it seemed clearer that they may be lovers (which I didn’t get at all by reading).

So a lot of it for me was an exercise of interpreting one format into another, how performance, gestures, expressions change the impact of words on paper. It was an interesting experience. I enjoyed the play on stage a lot more than reading the script. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were a huge bonus. I loved them! The duo reminded me of Magneto and Professor X, or Gandalf and Picard. Patrick Stewart in particular was a definite reminiscence of Professor X, as he spent most of his time sitting down on stage. Ian McKellen was more Gandalf-like, a wanderer and waved his hands a lot. So sweet to seem them play together. I like to think they’re friends in real life.

Play on stage rating: 4.5/5

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Harold Pinter

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The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa

the book of chameleonsagualusa

Published by Arcadia Books. First published in Portuguese in 2004, published in English in 2006, translated by Daniel Hahn.

The Book of Chameleons won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007. Agualusa was again nominated earlier this year, for the same prize – merged with and now called Man Booker International Prize – with his second novel published in English: A General Theory of Oblivion. My GR book club are reading both books, but I chose The Book of Chameleons because it was the shorter of the two, and it actually won the prize :) (The winner of 2016 Man Booker International is The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I read and reviewed this year too.)

Just a few weeks before I started reading this book, I actually met someone from Angola, who told me lots of stories about the bad political situation in Angola. Funny how things often just come together around the same time. Prior to this, I’m not even sure whether I knew where Angola was.

A brief introduction to Angola: it’s a country in Africa – south west coast, its capital is Luanda. It used to be colonised by Portugal and only won independence in 1975. The effect of Portuguese colonisation cannot be underestimated. The two countries seem to be tightly knit. Angola’s official language is Portuguese, and both my friend and Agualusa spent considerable time in Portugal. In fact both of them also have close relationship with Brazil. Agualusa divides his time between the three countries, and my friend married a Brazilian. I’m curious how much the three countries’ cultures have in common, and would really like to read books from Portugal and Brazil soon.

So back to the book, The Book of Chameleons is narrated by a lizard, who acts as the fly (predator) on the wall. His human friend is Felix Ventura, who creates people’s past for a living. He doesn’t quite do forgery – it’s more romantic than that. People who don’t like their past can be given an entirely new past, full of better memories, lineage, photos, and little items to back up the stories. There are a few characters that come into Felix’s living room who require his service, and we get all the stories through the lizard.

Now this book apparently has been compared to Borges or Kafka. The downside of comparing a contemporary author with classic big name authors is that most often than not, it doesn’t live up to the expectation. I happen to love Borges and Kafka. So really Agualusa didn’t start fairly for me, and frankly, had no chance.

I think the premise is actually quite promising, and has a good potential, but I didn’t think it was substantial enough. The book is 180 pages and has a lot of blank pages, because the chapters are so short. Almost all chapters are a few pages long, some are only half a page. Some chapters felt like fillers – there was nothing in it, like vignette of unrelated dreams. In Borges’s hand this would be a short story – dense and full of twists and turns. In fact any one story in Ficciones would be comparable to this book. And better. While Kafka is funnier and more emotional, and simply weirder.

I’m probably being a bit unfair, but how you read one book is a combined result of all the books you’ve read in the past – and in practice there’s no way to read one book in full isolation.

Having said all that, I think it’s a pretty good book. Just not brilliant. Read it if you’re interested in translated fiction, and/or would like to tick off Angola from your reading goal. If you haven’t read Borges, as a companion piece, I’d recommend Emma Zunz short story.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

 

Tamara Drewe and Aya of Yop City (Graphic Novels)

Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds (2007)

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I watched Tamara Drewe the movie many years ago, remember liking it, and thought I wouldn’t mind reading the graphic novel to see it in different format. So I took it when I saw it at the library.

The setting is charming: a writer’s retreat somewhere in England countryside, where writers go to have all services done – meal, cleaning, laundry presumably, leaving them all the time in the world to ponder and write. I can only imagine how much this may cost.

In the oldest story structure style of a stranger coming to town, Tamara Drewe is a former inhabitant of the small town who went to make a pretty successful writing career in London, now back to her old family house with a nose job and glamorous London life under her belt. At one point she even starts bringing a drummer boyfriend who’s been in a band!

This feels like a really grown-up graphic novel. Simmonds often write in prose and paragraphs with illustrations on the side, in addition to the usual comic panels. The characters and conflicts in the story are realistic and down to earth. The open marriage relationship between the married couple host of the retreat is particularly interesting and believable – all the characters are. Love how all the threads come together at the end. The literary backdrop is a bonus.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Aya of Yop City (Aya #2) by Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie (2009)

aya 2

Aya of Yop City is the second book in the Aya series. It picks up a story thread from the previous book – which I read years ago, so it took me a while to remember. The premise isn’t complicated however, so it almost doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the first Aya or not.

The series is set in the idyllic Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. It seems rare to find books set in Africa that are not about bad things happening, and Aya fills in that gap. I love how it just tells the story of average middle class people with their middle class problems – that felt like it could happen anywhere in the world, except that this is in Africa.

But in some other ways it also felt uniquely African. There’s a baby in dispute at the beginning of the book (as pictured with Aya on the cover – but he is not Aya’s baby), and I love how the baby being passed from one hand to another and is essentially taken care of by the whole village. There’s a little note at the end of the book about the African culture related to this, how spoiled a woman would be after birth, how mom and grandmother would take care of her, while sisters, sister-in-laws, cousins would take care of the baby, and the rest of the women in the village help with the cooking and cleaning. In the weeks following, the mother would go from one door to another in the neighborhood to introduce the baby, sort of a ritual to make it part of the community. As it grows up, the whole village would keep watch together. Such a nice image.

Aya herself is a great main character. She is the sensible one amongst the other crazier characters. She is a good student and she clearly has dreams and goals for her future that is not simply playing housewife. Just like book one, book two also includes a recipe, this time Kedjenou Chicken. (I have yet to try the recipe in the first book =/ )

There’s interview with Abouet (who’s migrated to France at a young age) at the back of the book with a quote that’s especially poignant even to this day:

“As an African from the West, I would like to point out that the French had the black Africans brought over to do the jobs that no on else wanted to do. As long as the Blacks stayed in their assigned place – as supermarket attendants, house maids, street sweepers, in child and geriatric care, or at most, as artists and athletes – all went very well. But now some of the offspring and young children of those first arrivals are doing more than that. At the price of a difficult struggle, they are becoming company owners, managers, intellectuals, and they are more visible. These Blacks sense more discrimination because they have abandoned their role. This kind of racism is more frequent when the economy is doing poorly.

Today’s real danger is not idiotic racism and the increase in nationalists. We know how to deal with it — it is evident in ordinary attitudes which convey the worst paternalistic and condescending cliches that symbolically destroy Blacks even more surely than the overtly racist insults.” (Interview with Angela Ajayi at Wild River Review)

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

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