Six Degrees of Separation or Prophetic Voices of our Time

I’ve read several books in recent months that are good evidence of ‘six degrees of separation’, and I’ll just end with four here. But more crucial is why such content at this time? They are all published in 2016 but still enjoy current bestselling positions. All are similar in their historical backdrop, authoritarian dictatorship in the 20th Century in two neighbouring countries, China and Russia. Or, maybe these writers of our time are indeed prophetic voices to stress that eerie caution: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Here’s the sequence of my reading:

Madeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

The top selling book in Canada according to CBC Books, Madeleine Thien’s exceptional novel of three characters, musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music during the Cultural Revolution in China, leads us through decades of contemporary Chinese history from the Communist takeover after WWII to Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, spanning generations and across two continents. Thien was teaching creative writing when her program was abruptly cancelled in the aftermath of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ sprouting from the Occupy Central led by teenaged students in Hong Kong. That was a motivating force propelling the writing of the book. Following the most recent news that four young student leaders are given months of jail sentences for their actions, we know how timely a voice Thein is with this book.

 

Barnes The Noise of Time.jpgThe Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Dimitri Shostakovich’s music is in the minds of the three musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Thien’s book. Shostakovich, himself a composer treading a precarious line between authenticity and self-preservation under Stalin, is an apt parallel of the situation the trio have to face.

Julian Barnes has crafted an imaginary biopic of Dimitri Shostakovich during Stalin’s tyrannical rule in the Soviet Union (1929-1953). Barnes’ depiction is internal, presenting the struggles, the giving-in and the self-loathing of a world famous composer and pianist who was unable to stand up to a ruthless and manipulative dictator. Speak truth to Power? Who can still stand, or live, after that? And it’s not just about oneself, but one’s family and all those associated.

 

Cometh the hourCometh the Hour by Jeffrey Archer (#6 of the Clifton Chronicles)

Jeffrey Archer, a prophetic voice? While his Clifton Chronicles have entertained us with imaginary characters spanning three generations of two British families, Archer does have the political mood of our times firmly held under his pen, and Lord Archer is a savvy political historian in his own right. This summer I binged on Jeffrey Archer, okay, not exactly your serious, prophetic voice, but no less relevant. This is especially true when his fictional character, Russian writer Anatoly Babakov, is imprisoned in Siberia for his book Uncle Joe. Based on his own experience while working under Joseph Stalin, Babakov offers readers an insider’s look into the ruler, revealing the ruthless dictator that he really was.

Babakov is awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature while still in prison. But not long after the announcement, he dies of a heart attack. His wife Yelena although escaped out of the country, wants to return to honour her husband. Archer’s character makes me think of the real life dissident Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, also Nobel laureate, but was denied the freedom to go and accept his Prize. He had been imprisoned for 11 years and sadly, died of liver cancer in July this year, 2017. And even more sadly, Liu’s wife could not see him at his deathbed and had gone missing after his death. Archer’s book was published in 2016. I’d say that’s quite prophetic.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowA totally different tone, but the same historical backdrop. Towles has created an interesting and colourful character, the aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov, kept in house arrest when the Bolsheviks overrun the country. True to his personality and lifestyle – the major consolation of such a misfortune – Count Rostov serves his house arrest in the elegant Moscow Metropol Hotel across from the Kremlin, albeit in a cramped room in the attic. With his always pleasant demeanour, the former aristocrat makes himself at home at the grand hotel, meeting interesting characters, wine and dine to his heart’s content. He stays there for decades, with the historic changes happening outside the four walls of the Metropol: Lenin, Stalin, post-Stalin, and further. As fate would have it, Count Rostov encounters an idealistic youngster named Nina, and years later, takes up guardianship of her daughter Sofia, and thus his life and view begin to turn into something more purposeful. The Metropol makes me think of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Instead of speaking truth to power and get slapped in the face or worse, Count Rostov thinks of an ingenious scheme to beat Power at their game. If I were a filmmaker, this is one to bank on.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

 

The Sense of an Ending the Movie

When I first knew that The Sense of an Ending was being adapted into a movie, I thought whoever that took up the project had a tall order. That it’s a Booker Prize winner automatically adds pressure and expectations, but the more important consideration is the nature of the book, introspection saturated with internal dialogues.

The novel is powerful and intense in that, in merely 150 pages, Barnes has dismantled the scaffold of self-knowledge in his protagonist by challenging the accuracy of his memories. The eerie effect is, that can happen to us too. How accurate are our memories of ourselves, of others, of events in our life? It’s crucial because what we remember about them build up the person who we think we are today.

So, who had taken up this difficult task to helm the movie? It’s Ritesh Batra, the Mumbai born, Indian director who brought us the interesting film The Lunchbox (2013). Batra has an excellent cast to work with, that should have made his job a bit easier. But one can see he follow the script pretty closely and that’s what made me wish there could be more stylistic touch. Similarly, the screenplay by Nick Payne could have been spiced up a bit. However, its being overall loyal to Barnes’s novel, except a few addons, may have cleared up some ambiguity for the reader.

The Sense of an Ending

In his old age, Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) received a registered letter notifying him of a small inheritance from someone he had known way back in his university days. The money isn’t the important thing, it’s the diary that is supposed to go with it that opens up a door to his past. And so begins the story. Tony has to rethink everything about himself (younger played by Billy Howle), his first love Veronica Ford (younger played by Freya Mavor), Veronica’s family, in particular his mother Sarah (Emily Mortimer), and his school friends Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn, who plays Billy Lyn in Ang Lee’s 2016 movie).

There are hits and misses in this adaptation. Broadbent delivers a solid performance as the clueless Tony Webster, a man who has lived all his life lacking the lucidity of seeing himself and others in the proper light, or is it selective memory? The little bit of addon is good, letting Tony set up an old camera shop to get him out of bed everyday. It’s also a good link because when he first met Veronica, she was toying with one, and he had received one from her as a gift as well. Herein lies the linkage of the object with the distant past.

Tony has his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walters) to thank, for she humours him by meeting him time and again just to listen. She may be doubting what Tony is telling her, but she is patient and wait for him to slowly rediscover himself. That’s what a good listener does, isn’t it, she helps you question yourself.

Adding the plotline of Tony’s daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) giving birth to a baby is effective. Those who miss Downton Abbey would be glad to see Mary Crawley again, in a new role. But the real effect here is that her giving birth to a newborn son leads me to appreciate the title of the book, something that I did not quite get when I was reading. I wondered about the relevance of the book title when I was reading it. The movie’s last scene clears this up for me. After all these years of misinformed self-knowledge, Tony finally comes to the end of a chapter in his old age, still not too late. With the renewed relationship with his ex Margaret, and a new grandchild, Tony is ready to call an end to a clueless life and start anew. Once more, with feeling.

The weakest link I feel is with the elderly Veronica character played by Charlotte Rampling. It’s a missed opportunity for the director to draw out more from this veteran actor. Unlike in the book, which depicts an absolutely frustated Veronica, possibly traumatized by what had happened to her in life, finding Tony not understanding a bit about the past. “You just don’t get it, do you?” Exasperated, she has said this several times in the book, if my memory serves me correctly.

So here in the movie, the most crucial scenes ought to be Tony’s meeting with the older Veronica for the first time after all those decades and Veronica seeing Tony still oblivious to what had happened. But no, we see an utterly aloof Veronica, too calm for those tense cinematic moments. “You just don’t get it, do you?” has not been said even once, if my memory serves me correctly.

And the most crucial line in the pub when Tony finds out the truth, it ought to be the climax but the scene is so understated that any built up has been eroded. Now he gets it, and what reaction does he show at the moment and afterwards? I feel it’s the director’s job to augment the moment, and let it ripple into the next sequences. I’m sure the cast can easily oblige. Just for the sake of eliciting more emotional engagement from the viewers. I remember how sensational it felt when I came to that part in the book.

Overall, it’s a pleasure watching these veteran actors in the same production. Together with the above-mentioned cast members, there are also Matthew Goode, the history teacher, but not in a scene with Michelle Docerty, and Merchant Ivory star James Wilby playing the small role of Veronica’s father.

That it is shot on location in London, especially watching Tony meet Veronica again on “the wobbly bridge” leading to Tate Modern is particularly poignant in light of recent events. Overall, a watchable adaptation to go with the book.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

The Sense of an Ending Book Review

The Lunchbox Movie Review

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

When we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

How reliable is our memory? How accurate are our thoughts, analysis of situations, perception of people? Yet we live by them and interpret our experiences through their lenses.

The winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending plays with these subjective faculties and crafts a scenario that’s captivating and with a touch of surprise at the end. A man in his 60’s looks back at his life, focusing on what he can remember about his relationships and their aftermath.

In the first part of the book, we see three school buddies in the upper form, the narrator Tony Webster with his classmates Alex and Colin,  happy to befriend a newcomer, Adrian Finn. Obviously superior in brain, insight, and self-composure, Adrian soon becomes the model they look up to. Apart from the pretentiousness of youth in intellectual matters, Tony has to concede that Adrian is indeed  superior material. When asked by the teacher “What is history?”, while Tony gives the relatively pat answer “History is the lies of the victors”, Adrian articulates this thought:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

With these words at the beginning pages of the book, Barnes has quietly laid the enquiry of his story.

Post-secondary life leads them to different paths. Adrian, not surprisingly, gets into Cambridge on scholarship, while Tony goes to Bristol to read history. There, he starts to go out with Veronica Ford. One weekend, Veronica brings him home to meet her family. In Tony’s memory, that is a humiliating episode. He leaves with bewilderment: Veronica’s aloofness, her father’s joking insults, her mother’s mysterious gesture, and her brother’s silent wink.

After that, Tony introduces Veronica to his friends. Naturally, she strikes up a good rapport with Adrian right away, with a common tie of Cambridge where her brother also attends. Later, Tony and Veronica break up.  Adrian soon starts to date Veronica. As usual, Tony seems resigned to his circumstances and  moves on with his own life, and assumedly, others too with theirs… until later he hears the shocking news about Adrian. Time flows by, Tony marries a less mysterious Margaret, has a daughter Susie, and years later, his marriage ends in divorce.

Tony is now retired in his 60’s, expecting a life that’s bland and uneventful. Retired life for him is a natural drift of time, flat and oblivious. But he’s roused by an unexpected letter from a solicitor one day, naming him to receive £500, a bequest in the will of someone he has only met once forty years ago, Veronica’s mother. What’s more intriguing is together with this money, he is to be left with Adrian’s diary.

Life to Tony now is a quest for finding out what had actually happened to these people. His investigation has cast fearful doubts on his own memory and sense of personal history. In his retirement, Tony is awakened to re-interpret his past.

… the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.

It will take his whole remaining life to solve the mystery of how real his perceptions are, and what has taken place in the lives of those he once knew as close friends. Such queries only lead to a more taxing question: “Does he play a role in other people’s fate?”

In just 150 pages, Barnes has opened a floodgate of inquiries into our subjective mind, carrying us through with a tantalizing story, towards an ending that, I feel, is a tad bit sensational, however reserved the tone. Nonetheless, I come out of the reading experience marvelling at the power of the economy of words in the hands of a master storyteller.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes, published by Random House Canada, 2011, 150 pages.

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