Fogo (2012, Yulene Olaizola)

Between 1954 and 1975, the Canadian government resettled thousands of Newfoundlanders living in remote, impoverished communities, many of which were deemed unviable and abandoned. Such a fate threatened the small island of Fogo. In the late 1960s, while the outlook was still grim, the director Colin Low shot a series of short documentaries known as the Fogo Process, which sought both to record aspects of an everyday life with extinction looming over it, and to address community concerns by giving islanders a platform to discuss them. These were films made by an outsider (from Alberta) in collaboration with locals, and which were then publicly screened on the island. Many of them were overtly political: plainly-shot discussions of the state of the fishing industry, reliance on welfare, religious divisions, education, the role of women, the lack of opportunities for the young, etc. A few others recorded weddings, parties and musical performances, while one―the delightful The Children of Fogo Island (1967)―allowed Low to indulge his more poetic impulses. Funded by the National Film Board of Canada and the Memorial University of Newfoundland, what emerges most strongly from these films is a collaborative ethos and a sense of community; they were primarily made for local audiences, and maintain a focus on the issues that mattered to those audiences. In the end, the residents won their battle to avoid resettlement, their cause aided by the films they collaborated in making. Today, a little over 2,000 live on the island. The fishing industry has declined, but tourism provides a new source of income, encouraged by some swanky new architecture.

Not having been to Fogo, I can’t report on the current state of the community or speculate as to its future, but it’s safe to say that no visitor today will encounter the extreme desolation depicted in Yulene Olaizola’s mesmerising pseudo-documentary. In this film, the community is on the verge of dying out; houses are dilapidated and abandoned; most residents appear to have left; a man announces the departure in a few days of the last ferry―presumably the last ever ferry. Norm, the main character, is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to leave his lifetime home or stay behind with no hope of a future. No information concerning the cause of this desperate situation is given; it could be the end point of a gradual, localized decline, or it could be apocalyptic in nature. The clothes, buildings, furniture etc. on view might as well indicate the 1960s or 70s as the present or future. It’s a fictional scenario, but doesn’t announce itself as such; the absence of a plot, the natural lighting, mostly static shots and observational study of the lives of ordinary people are features that together suggest a documentary. Norm is played by Norman Foley, a real islander; his friends Ron Broders and Joseph Dwyer also play versions of themselves (and what beautiful performances the three of them give).

Yulene Olaizola is, as was Colin Low, an outsider, though from a different country: Mexico. In her film, there are no overtly political discussions; the only visible community is that of one in irreversible decay. The film was funded by an artist-in-residency program run by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation, a body that didn’t exist in the days of the Fogo Process. The corporation strives to meet the cultural needs of the island, but Olaizola is also aiming at international art-house audiences (though there’s little evidence of commercial calculation in such a determinedly non-mainstream work), who may not know very much about the real Fogo, and so may not realize that they’re watching fiction and not a documentary. Whereas the majority of the 60s shorts are specific and functional, Fogo is elusive, puzzling, elliptical. It is both rooted in place (the contemplative attention to landscape; the use of residents as non-professional performers; the imagining of the terrible fate narrowly avoided by the island, and which might loom again) and general (the scarcity of detail regarding the scenario turns Fogo into an exemplar of similarly remote communities, and its decline emblematic of wider civilizational anxiety in the face of economic and environmental catastrophe). Its low-key naturalism might appear to be in the service of verisimilitude, but in fact the Fogo that appears on screen is the result of a distorting process of selection; in an interview, the director explained how she avoided shooting the modern Fogo―its houses, its roads, its vehicles―in order to realize her vision of a broken-down, all but deserted community.

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Why are the characters so attached to their tiny island? The question isn’t answered. Olaizola and her remarkable cinematographer, Diego García, contrive to make Fogo an astonishingly beautiful film, but they don’t make Fogo seem a particularly beautiful place, at least not in a way that commonly wins the approval of tourist boards. Filmed in winter, there is just enough snow to impress the cold on the viewer, but not nearly enough for the kind of gleaming, picturesque snow-scape the camera loves so much. We see little other than a bleak, boggy, windy tundra―hardly an inviting terrain. There may well be more conventionally pretty scenes to be found on Fogo, but if there are, Olaizola has chosen to ignore them. Instead, it is in the midst of the bleakness that she shows a sensuous appreciation for nature: the wind blowing through the long grass, the pressing of boots and paws into wet mossy ground, a breathtaking low shot of the wind blowing little wispy trails of sand-like snow across frozen water. Perhaps the ability to find and cherish natural beauty where it is not immediately apparent, where all around at first sight appears barren and featureless, is one of the things that binds Norm and his friends to their birthplace, which will strike many as inhospitable. ‘We’re staying here,’ says Ron to his two dogs, Thunder and Patch, in the darkness of the kennel, his voice expressing at once defiance, solace and uncertainty. A single beam of light sunlight illuminates him, to which he turns his head: religious lighting, it might seem, except that there is no intervening heavenly power here, just the indifferent sun.

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The hopeless intensity of the bond these men feel to their island is evident in Norm’s meeting with his older friend Joe, which mixes wry comedy and an aching sense of loss in two exquisite scenes. The first scene is mostly comic, as Joe’s awkward attempts to trade a scavenged tin of spaghetti for a beer are rebuffed until Norm agrees to give him a beer for free. Underlying the humour, however, is the scarcity of food and drink: the tinned spaghetti is the only one Joe has, the potatoes Norm is peeling are mostly rotten, the beer is home brewed. In the next scene, as the two men drink together and lament, the comedy largely retreats (exception: Joe’s reference to the weather-beaten Norm as ‘a young fella’) and the despair engendered by their situation comes to the fore, especially in close-ups of their careworn faces. The friends derive some pleasure from reminiscences of happier times, but talk of the good old days also brings pain (Joe: ‘Oh, my son. They’ll break your heart, my son’). Norm considers whether to stay or go, but Joe is so wedded to Fogo that for him leaving is not an option. The older man starts to sing in a hoarse, cracked voice (sample lyrics: ‘You can’t take a man from the soil that he knows/Tear off his roots and expect him to grow’*), but fluffs his lines, swears, and mumbles that he can’t remember anything anymore: memory, song and language fragmenting and disappearing along with the community of which they are part.

Norm takes two walks around the island, during the course of which Olaizola and García linger on the landscape. The first is an apparently brief stroll Norm takes after Joe’s visit; after walking for a bit, he stands in the snow with a troubled face before returning via the same route we saw him follow earlier. Does he need the air to ponder the situation and reach a decision? Is he taking a last look before he’s forced to leave? Or does the walk (which ends with him heading back home) illustrate the impossibility of his leaving? By the time he takes his second walk, we know that he has decided to stay. After discussing his decision with Ron, the two men decide to set off for an isolated, rudimentary cabin, with Ron’s dogs in tow. We do not see them return. Around half the film is taken up with this expedition, the purpose of which is unclear. Do they have some notion of holding out or hiding in the heart of the island, retreating still further from society while the one they have known all their lives crumbles and vanishes? Is there even something of a death-embrace to it? The last ferry has, after all, left by now.** The two men spend the night in the cabin talking about the past while they finish off a small bottle of whiskey―as with the home brew, alcohol is prized for its scarcity and consoling powers. ‘Good to the last drop,’ says Ron, and follows it with ‘So’s life,’ which may or may not be ominous.

One curious anomaly about our first sight of the cabin is that there is no snow visible on the ground in front of it, whereas the ground we saw over the course of Norm’s and Ron’s journey has a light, patchy, but extensive cover of snow. Nor is there any snow on the clothes the two men wear. Does this indicate that they have been travelling for such a long time that the snow has melted? This is not very likely on such a small and cold island (25km long and 14km wide), especially as they are not seen carrying any provisions. Could one tiny patch be entirely free of snow in contrast to the rest? It’s possible, I suppose, although it would have to be a very small patch, because when Ron goes off to find water, there is snow on the banks (and yet again, not too small, because the establishing shot of the cabin shows quite a wide area). Perhaps their arrival comes after a different, later journey (though they are wearing the same clothes). Of course, it is quite possible that the absence of snow around the cabin is simply the unavoidable result of the weather during shooting, but while that might account for the anomaly, it does not dispose of it. Furthermore, the shot of the cabin is preceded by an instance of one of the most striking formal features of Fogo: its use of fades-to-black to transition between scenes. The shot prior to our first view of the cabin is of the men and dogs crossing the snowy tundra; the fade that follows lasts about 15 seconds from the moment the screen begins to darken to the next shot. This ellipsis not only opens up the possibility of considerable time having elapsed between Norm and Ron setting off on their journey and them arriving at the cabin (and so opens up the possibility of there being two separate journeys), it also undermines the surface realism of the documentary style. Rather than seek a narrative solution for the anomaly, or shrug it off as a continuity error, or mark of budget constraints, the absence of snow on the ground might be regarded as a deliberate, playful disruption, resistant to explanation―prominent enough to arouse curiosity and provoke a few questions, but no so glaringly unsubtle as to knock the film off balance.***

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I counted seven fades-to-black over the course of the film, in addition to the opening, which is of a black screen. These fades range in duration from around 4 or 5 seconds to around 20 seconds. Some, but not all, mark the transition from an evening to the next day. Sometimes the screen fades quite slowly, as it does before the arrival at the cabin, while at other times it turns black quickly. The two longest and slowest fades occur after the shot of Ron with his dogs in the kennel, and at the very end of the film. In the latter instance, there’s a cut from Norm looking ahead into the distance to a gorgeous shot of the dawn sky, with a pillar or sword of pink light seen between purple-grey clouds; this shot is held for about a minute before the screen begins to darken. The power of the image is heightened by its gradual fading into black, the cinematic technique decreasing the light even as the natural phenomenon it records is increasing it. On one level, the paradox is perhaps Norm’s subjective experience of an astounding beauty, both familiar and revelatory, soon to be denied him. More generally, it provides a haunting visualization of time’s dissolution of all things, a dissolution which, crucially, does not operate on all things with equal speed, for the natural world so wonderfully captured by Olaizola and García―the landscape, the sea, the sky―will endure far longer than any mere human who lives within it.

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*It is worth noting in passing the very male-centric focus of this film. We only see five people on screen, four of whom are men: Norm and his friends, and the unnamed man who announces the departure of the last ferry. The only woman to feature is Ron’s elderly mother, and we only glimpse her wordlessly gazing out of the window. It is Ron’s concern for her welfare that prevents him from leaving Fogo; when it is revealed that her view is of no more than some kind of cliff or rocky outcrop resembling a large natural wall, the idea of confinement or even entombment extents to both mother and son. It’s a powerful shot, and makes one regret the absence of any further consideration of societal collapse on the island’s women. By contrast, the women who appear in Colin Low’s 1960s documentaries are given the opportunity to express themselves with a strong voice.

**Unfortunately, I was not able to make out what may be a key line said by Norm in response to Ron’s stated wish not to see his mother die in their house: ‘Fuck it, let’s go to… [inaudible]’.

***Another unexplained anomaly occurs earlier in the film. A man knocks at the door of a very tumbledown-looking house and announces the departure of the last ferry in two days; there is then a cut to an interior shot of Norm seated at a table by the window, seemingly pondering the announcement; the next shot returns to the first man walking away from the tumbledown house. From this sequence, it would be natural to assume that the house we see is Norm’s home, and that while the man stands outside announcing the ferry’s departure time, Norm is at that moment seated inside the same building considering what he has just heard. However, after a further few shots of Norm at his table, there is then an exterior shot of a house that, while resembling the first house to such a degree that an initial glance might take them to be one and the same, is actually a different building. The first house we saw from the front, while the second we see from behind. The architectural style is the same: a simple, two-story wooden structure, but the color of the wood is subtly different, as are the shape and location. So which is Norm’s house, the first or the second? If the first, why cut away directly from Norm at home to this house which has nothing to with him? If the second, that would mean that Norm did not hear the news about the ferry while he was at the table; the man conveying the news was at another house altogether. Olaizola is creating minute fissures in both the fictional and documentary surfaces of her film, undermining the viewer’s complacency about both. Another example: before Joe breaks into an abandoned house to retrieve his tin of spaghetti, we see him look around before he applies a crowbar to the door, as if to ensure that no-one is watching. If the film really were a documentary, as it pretends to be, then this action would be completely unnecessary, as the real Joseph Dwyer would have no need to be furtive about an act he knows is being recorded.

Asylum Piece (1940, Anna Kavan)

Asylum Piece is a collection of linked short stories or sketches, vignettes of mental dislocation and encroaching despair. It might be possible to read the book as a novel, for there is a narrative thread running through some the pieces, but Kavan does not seem to be concerned with genre distinctions. There are three distinct sections. The first contains first-person narratives: a woman makes a desperate visit to a pair of mysterious, disapproving ‘patrons’; a woman suspects that she has an implacable unknown enemy; a woman conceives a fear of her house; the resident of a mental asylum derives fleeting comfort from watching the birds (which may not be real) she sees in the garden. It is implied, but not made explicit, that the narrator of each of these stories is the same person, an unsuccessful writer; certainly some of the narratives are linked as they contain references to the same ‘advisor’ and impending ‘judgement’, the nature of which is not spelled out. The stories depict the narrator’s experience of the world as a living hell of paranoia, confusion and hopelessness, in which almost everyone is hostile, in which every grey sky is an omen of doom.

In the chilling first story, the ‘victim’ is not the narrator, but a young woman the narrator identifies, by means of a birthmark, as an old school acquaintance, now apparently a prisoner in a foreign country. This opening sketch is like a small overture setting the tone for what is to follow, and is suitably oblique; we are not told the name of either the narrator or the prisoner (as a schoolgirl, she is referred to as ‘H’), and the foreign country and the crime of which the prisoner was convicted are unspecified. The sinister guards at the castle the narrator visits, and in which the prisoner is being held, might indicate an authoritarian regime (the publication date of 1940 is significant here), but this is never confirmed. Rather, they suggest the presence of a cruel, overbearing state power not limited to any particular ideology, and analogous to the hints of a similarly shadowy tyranny back in the narrator’s home country. The coded references to the dire political situation in Europe at the time of publication are elements of the wider theme of authority and control Kavan explores. In the stories that follow, various authority figures (usually male) appear, or are mentioned: the narrator’s ‘advisor’, her ‘patrons’, her husband, her nurse, doctors, police officers, her mysterious enemy. They dominate, reject, patronize, demean, confine and terrorize the narrator, resulting in an attitude that veers between crushed, submissive fatalism and a steely determination to endure. Kavan never lets on as to how much of the oppression faced by her narrator is to be taken as ‘real’ and how much is a product of her paranoid imagination, nor is it even clear whether the stories are set in the ‘real world’, nightmarishly distorted through the narrator’s subjective experience and relation of it, or take place in an alternate reality. Nothing is moored down or demarcated; the boundaries between the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, are blurry and uncertain.

Perhaps the piece that best exemplifies this is the most uncanny of them, ‘A Changed Situation’, in which the narrator describes her growing terror of her house. The impassive solidity of the edifice melts away as the building, which is ‘of no definite architectural design’, and which was new when the narrator bought it, acquires an old part, ‘full of treacherous angles’. It is this old part (or newly old part) that occasions the terror. Here, readers might picture a building with old and new sections, an old house with a new extension, or a new house with a phantasmagorical old extension. A paragraph later, however, and there is no longer any mention of old and new parts, but of an old and new house―a single entity able to change appearance, or two entities with a symbiotic existence:

Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hands; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.

The house is a life-form, a host for the parasitical narrator, who is destined to be spewed ‘like an owl’s pellet into the arches of infinite space’. The delusions of a disordered mind, perhaps, or even an allegory of the crushing by settled domesticity of an independent, creative woman. But there is no contrast with a familiar external reality or a ‘normal’ psychology. There are brief references at the beginning of the sketch to the narrator’s family, but they are vague and fleeting, as if these relatives had no presence. The piece ends with an image of the old house rearing its head up ‘like a hoary serpent, charged with antique, sly, unmentionable malevolence’―an image of sufficient power to make the question of whether we take the world as described by the narrator to be ‘real’ seem beside the point. Kavan does not seem interested in placing her readers in the position of clinical observers, safely examining the narrator’s mental disturbance from a situation of harmonious mental order. Rather, she seeks to puncture our own certainties about the world around us, poking at our odd suspicions and secret dreads, making us aware of the fuzziness of the dividing line between sanity and insanity. When viewed in the context of the world’s alienating cruelty and barbarousness, and its effects on the people who live in it, any distinction we might make between sanity and insanity is made to look, if not necessarily illusory, then at least of minor importance. To see oppressors in the forms of everyday objects and the natural world seems less extraordinary when one recognizes the pervasiveness of oppression and brutality in ordinary social life. Non-human forces range against the narrator in an alliance with her human antagonists, as in the following excerpt from the piece entitled ‘An Unpleasant Reminder’:

The day was ill-omened from the beginning; one of those unlucky days when every little detail seems to go wrong and one finds oneself engaged in a perpetual and infuriating strife with inanimate objects. How truly fiendish the sub-human world can be on these occasions! How every atom, every cell, every molecule, seems to be leagued in a maddening conspiracy against the unfortunate being who has incurred its obscure displeasure! This time, to make matters worse, the weather itself had decided to join in the fray. The sky was covered with a dull grey lid of cloud, the mountains had turned sour prussian blue, swarms of mosquitoes infested the shores of the lake. It was one of those sunless summer days that are infinitely more depressing than the bleakest winter weather; days when the whole atmosphere feels stale, and the world seems like a dustbin full of old battered tins and fish scales and decayed cabbage stalks.

Something as ordinary as a day of disagreeable weather becomes part of a cosmic vendetta against an individual; the mundane futility of those tins, scales and stalks stands for the whole world. Minor quotidian irritants collaborate so closely with larger traumas and disasters that it can be difficult to tell them apart.

After ten of these first-person narratives, there is an abrupt shift into the next section, entitled ‘Asylum Piece’. This is divided into eight short, numbered sketches, the first of them a surreal dream like something out of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the second the anguished musings and memories of an asylum inmate. The remainder of this section is composed of sketches, written in the third person, of various inmates, staff members and visitors at a psychiatric institution in Switzerland. Kavan extends her theme of authoritarianism, with unsympathetic doctors and relations (including a ‘fine-looking, clever, successful, debonair physician with his graceful, athletic stride’ and a middle-aged man admitting his fragile younger lover against her will) exerting a hard dominance over the mentally ill. She also includes small acts of tentative solidarity and compassion among some of the inmates and workers which, although they hardly amount to an effective resistance to power, yet provide a glimpse of an alternative to the stifling confinement, isolation and impotence to which, as Kavan shows, society condemns those who do not conform to its models of sanity. Near the end of the final episode in this section, a desperate young woman gives up at the sight of authority and huddles in a corner, ‘limp as a doll’; shortly afterwards, an older inmate, who had earlier attempted to intercede on her behalf, ‘enfolds her in a compassionate and triumphant embrace’.

The whole ‘Asylum Piece’ section could easily be read as the work of the narrator of the earlier stories, who is a writer (so perhaps a bit of metafiction going on here). Kavan returns to this narrator in the penultimate and final pieces, entitled ‘The End in Sight’ and ‘There is No End’, which are as cheerless as the titles would suggest. The closing image is of ‘a garden without seasons, for the trees are all evergreens,’ in which ‘there is no arbour where friends could linger, but only concrete paths along which people walk hurriedly, inattentive to the singing of birds.’ Kavan’s narrator is always attentive to the singing of birds and to the natural world in general, which can, at times, offer brief solace, but there is no obvious egress from those concrete paths.

Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc/Visions of the Sleeping Bard (1703, Ellis Wynne)

Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc is one of the classics of Welsh prose; this is a judgement you will find in any guide to Welsh literature. If you’re not Welsh, the chances are that this judgement won’t mean much to you, for perhaps the only well-known work of Welsh prose is the much-translated, disparate collection of tales known as The Mabinogion. Even if you are Welsh―even if you speak Welsh―the chances of your being familiar with the title under review are not very great; Wynne can have few readers these days besides academics and their students. The work is obscure mainly because post-medieval Welsh literature is obscure in general, but there are other factors that keep a wide readership at bay. For those with no great love of religious allegory, Wynne’s schematic rigidity and on-the-nose portrayals of various types are unlikely to hold much attraction. Wynne’s religion is, as one would expect of a book published at a time of intense religious controversy, vehemently sectarian in nature, and his moralistic satire correspondingly harsh and unforgiving. Relentlessly, the message is hammered home: the vast majority of people now on Earth are knaves, fools and blinkered sinners deserving of nothing but scorn, and it is only a select band of the righteous who shall inherit the kingdom of God. What appeal can such a work possibly have today except as a historical curiosity? Few readers now will have the inclination or opportunity to judge the book’s worth for themselves, so why does it continue to be referred to as ‘classic’?

Tastes change. Wynne’s Visions (anonymous on their first appearance) were once popular in Wales, and went through several editions. The book was even translated into English―twice (first in 1860 by George Borrow, and then in 1897 by Robert Gwyneddon Davies, to be reprinted twelve years later). There was, then, for a long time a readership for the Sleeping Bard. It was a pious and respectable readership such as barely exists in the godless Wales of the present. But Wynne did not write merely a stern, edifying sermon; his work contains much that is crude and unruly, so that its second translator felt obliged, in the introduction, to express his disapproval, laying the blame at the unrefined sensibilities of a rougher age, and assuring the reader that ‘passages which might be considered coarse and indecorous according to modern canons of taste’ have been omitted. Perhaps these very passages were part of its former appeal. What might a reader today, at a time when canons of taste allow plenty of room for the coarse and indecorous, find of interest? Those unable to read Welsh will have to rely on the translations, both of which are freely available on the web. I have only skimmed Borrow’s version, which is, according to Gwyneddon Davies, ‘charming and racy’, but not particularly accurate. To my inexpert eyes, Gwyneddon Davies himself seems generally accurate apart from the occasional bowdlerization, and even has a fair go at charm and raciness once or twice, but on the whole he is a laborious stylist, often prolix and pedantic when the original is earthily direct. A short Welsh word becomes a longer English word; repeated words are unnecessarily weeded out and replaced by synonyms; oddities of vocabulary and syntax are smoothed over into blandness. To better convey the flavor of Wynne’s prose, quotations from the original will be accompanied by my own reworkings of Gwyneddon Davies’s translation, amended as I’ve seen fit.* I should stress, however, that I make no claims of my ability as a translator; my Welsh is a bit rusty these days, and I certainly lack the scholarly training a really professional job would require.

Some basic information. The book is divided into three sections, each of them containing a separate vision.** The first vision is of an allegorical representation of the world, the second deals with death, while the third provides a glimpse of hell. Wynne derived some of his inspiration from Los Sueños of Francisco de Quevedo (or, more particularly, from the translations by Roger L’Estrange and John Stevens), but although I haven’t read Quevedo, it’s clear that Wynne has created his own distinct work, rooted in the culture of Wales at the turn of the 18th Century. Paragraphs are almost entirely absent, the text running on in great unbroken chunks until the end of the section. Sentences are likewise long, with colons and semi-colons often appearing where a modern writer might place a full stop. Each section closes with a poem, each of these written in a different metre. Each section opens with the bland, guileless narrator falling asleep and being conducted on a tour by a supernatural guide (an angel for the first and third visions, Sleep himself for the second).

The first vision opens with the narrator ascending a mountain to regard the view with the aid of a spy-glass―a vision of something that is actually before him, though his ability to view it is enabled by artificial means. His own sight is weak, and so requires the spy-glass in order to see far over the Irish Sea (a bit of poetic licence, this, or else some exceptionally advanced lenses). His eyes, and then his mind, ‘journey’ for so long, that he becomes weary; Master Sleep (the same Master Sleep who will serve as his guide for the second vision) covers him with his cloak and locks up the windows of his senses. It is then that the dream-vision can begin. At first, it is something of a nightmare, as the dreamer is taken up into the air by fairies, who plan to kill him. Rescue arrives in the form of a shining angel, who tells him that the journey he is about to undergo is meant to instruct him on the folly of being unsatisfied with his life. Climbing hills to admire the view is potentially bad, and that bad is made worse by bringing a spy-glass along with you. Don’t pine after distant lands; stay down in your valley, humble and content.

The angel conveys the dreamer to a cloud far above the world, and gives him a special spy-glass that grants him a terrestial view of amazing clarity―except that what the dreamer sees is not the world as it is, but an allegory of it, with all human life contained within one gigantic city. Wynne economically provides a sense of concreteness to this allegorical vision:

Gwelwn un Ddinas anferthol o faintioli, a miloedd o Ddinafoedd a Theyrnafoedd ynddi ; a’r Eigion mawr fel Llynntro o’i chwmpas, a moroedd eraill fel afonydd yn ei gwahanu hi ’n rhanneu.  O hir graffu, gwelwn Hi yn dair Stryd fawr tros ben ;  a Phorth mawr difcleirwych ymhen ifa pob Stryd, a Thwr teg ar bob Porth, ac ar bob Tŵr yr oedd Merch landeg aruthr yn fefyll yngolwg yr holl Stryd ; a’r tri Thwr o’r tu cefn i’r Caereu ’n cyrraedd at odre ’r Caftell mawr hwnnw.  Ar ohyd i’r tair anferthol hyn, gwelwn Stryd groes arall, a honno nid oedd ond bechan a gwael wrth y lleill, ond ei bod hi ’n lanwaith, ac ar godiad uwch-law ’r Strydoedd eraill, yn mynd rhagddi uwch uwch tu a’r Dwyrein, ar tair eraill ar i wared tu ar Gogledd at y Pyrth mawr.

I saw one City of enormous magnitude, with thousands of Cities and Kingdoms within it ; and the great Ocean like a Moat around it, and other seas like rivers, dividing it into parts. From long observation, I saw that It was made up of three exceedingly great Streets ;  with a great glittering Gateway at the lower end of each Street, and a fair Tower on each Gateway, and on each Tower there was a stupendously beautiful Woman standing in sight of the whole street ; and the three Towers at the back of the Ramparts reached to the foot of that great Castle.  Of the same length as this enormous trio, I saw a dissimilar cross Street, which was but small and mean compared with the others, except it was spotless, and raised higher than the other Streets, leading up, up, away towards the East, with the other three leading downwards towards the North and the great Gateways.

This city, explains the guiding angel, is the City of Destruction; the castle belongs to Belial, who rules the whole city through deception, except for the high narrow street, which is ruled by King Immanuel. The three great streets and their alluring idols represent pride, pleasure and lucre―a parodic trinity worshiped by all inhabitants of the city except by the dwellers of the high narrow street. What follows is a closer inspection of these streets and their inhabitants, with a great deal of social and religious satire. The pope, of course, being proud, sensual and avaricious in equal measure, has a court in each of the main thoroughfares. There’s a cartoonish portrait of a priest who congratulates a woman for killing her Anglican daughter, and then demands that another woman sleep with him as penance for the crime of killing her illegitimate child.  The Catholic church is seen to depend on tricks and ruses such as moving a suspended image of St. Peter on hidden wires, and placing crabs under a carpet to simulate the sound of the souls of the dead. Secular vices are embodied by such figures as a rich young lady who vainly tries to woo even richer men; a fat alderman who insists on being addressed by his numerous titles; a falsely humble nobleman seeking political office; and an onstentatiously weeping widow whose interest is only in the dead man’s property. All levels of society fall under Wynne’s disapproving gaze, but he reserves his most biting invective for sinners of high status: rulers, noblemen, politicians, lawyers. He includes a couple of fine scornful lists, first describing the contents of the Tower of Pride:

Pob mâth o arfeu rhyfel i orefcyn ac ymledu ;  pob mâth o arfeu bonedd banerau, fcwtfiwn, llyfreu acheu, gwerfi ’r hynafiaid, cywyddeu ;  pob mâth o wifcoedd gwychion, ftoriâu gorcheftol, drychau ffeilfion ; pob lliwieu a dyfroedd i deccâu ’r wynebpryd ;  pob uchel-fwyddau a thitlau :  ac ar fyrr iti, mae yno bob peth a bair i ddyn dybio ’n well o honno ’i hun, ac yn waeth o eraill nac y dylei. Prif Swyddogion y Tryfordy hwn ye Meiftred y Ceremoniau, Herwyr, Achwyr, Beirdd, Areithwyr, Gwenieithwyr, Dawnfwyr, Taelwriaid Pelwyr, Gwniadyddefau a’r cyffelyb.

All kinds of arms of war for conquest and expansion ;  all kinds of arms of heraldry, banners, escutcheons, books of genealogy, sayings of the ancients, poems ;  all kinds of gorgeous garments, boastful tales, flattering mirrors ; every pigment and lotion to beautify the face ;  every high office and title :  to be short, everything is there which makes a man think better of himself and worse of others than he ought. The Chief Officers of this Treasury are Masters of the Ceremonies, Outlaws, Genealogists, Bards, Orators, Flatterers, Dancers, Tailors, Gamblers, Seamstresses and the like.

More comprehensive is the angel’s list of people to be seen in the Street of Lucre:

Yn y pen ifa, cei weled y Pâp etto, Gorefcynnwyr Teyrnafoedd a’i Sawdwyr, Gorthrymwyr Fforeftwyr, Cauwyr y Drosfa gyffredin, Uftufiaid a’u Breibwyr, a’u holl Sîl o’r cyfarthwyr hyd at y ceisbwl :  O’r tu arall, ebr ef, mae ’r Phyfygwyr, Potercariaid, Meddygon ;  Cybyddion, Marfiandwyr, Ceibddeilwyr Llogwyr ;  Attalwyr degymeu, neu gyflogeu, neu renti, neu lufenau a adawfid at Yfcolion, Lufendai a’r cyfryw :  Porthmyn, Maelwyr a fydd yn cadw ac yn codi’r Farchnad at eu llaw eu hunain :  Siopwyr ( neu Siarpwyr ) a elwant ar angen, neu anwybodaeth y prynwr, Stiwardiaid bob gradd, Clipwyr, Tafarnwyr fy’n yfpeilio Teuluoedd yr oferwyr o’u , a’r Wlâd o’i Haidd at fara i’r tlodion.  Hyn oll o Garn-lladron, ebr ef ;  a mân-ladron yw ’r lleill, gan mwya fy ymhen ucha ’r Stryd, fef Yfpeilwyr-ffyrdd, Taelwriaid, Gwehyddion, Melinyddion, Mefurwyr gwlŷb a sŷch a’r cyffelyb.

In the lower end, you can see the Pope once more, Conquerors of Kingdoms and their Soldiers, Oppressors, Foresters, Closers of common Lands, Justices and their Bribers, and their whole Spawn from the Barristers to the Catchpole :  On the other side, he said, are the Physicians, Apothecaries, Doctors ;  Misers, Merchants, Extortioners, Money-lenders ;  With-holders of tithes, or wages, or rents or doles left to Schools, Almshouses and the like :  Drovers, Dealers who manipulate the Market for their own ends :  Shopmen ( or rather, Sharpers ) who profit on the need, or ignorance, of the buyer, Stewards of all grades, Clippers, Innkeepers who despoil the Families of idlers of their goods, and the Country of its Barley, designated for bread for the poor.  All these are Notorious Thieves, he said ;  and the others are petty thieves, who for the most part are in the upper end of the street, such as Road-despoilers, Tailors, Weavers, Millers, Grocers and the like.

So that’s just about everyone, then. Only the very righteous and determined are able to make the trek up to the high narrow street and enter through its low gate, there to enjoy sober, modest, innocent, compassionate and peaceful contentment, broken only when they have to defend the City of Immanuel from one of Belial’s periodic attacks. It is the commotion of one of these attacks that causes the dreamer to wake up, to his disappointment, distraught to be once more confined to the limitations of the physical world. A piece of doggerel concerning the dire effects of sin and the church’s promise of redemption rounds off this section.***

The second part of the book is the shortest. It opens with the narrator at home in bed, having just engaged a now-departed neighbour in a fireside chat about the brevity of life and inevitability of death. As he drifts into sleep, Sleep himself appears to him, together with Nightmare (who doesn’t stick around, although the vision that follows is pretty nightmarish); where should he take the dreamer but back to the City of Destruction? Only this time, they arrive at the other side of one of the gateways, all three of which lead to another gateway at the back. This rear gateway was several doors, one for each manner of death appropriate to different sinners (hunger for misers, cold for scholars, fear for murderers, etc. ); the doors are attended by squabbling imps, who attempt to grab the terrified sinners and haul them through their own door into the land of Death. This, of course, is the entrance by which all inhabitants of the City who shunned the high narrow street are taken into Death’s realm. The dreamer himself does not enter through any of these doors, but finds himself awake on the other side after being made to fall asleep by his guide (that is, he sleeps in the midst of his dream). The description of the ghastly scene allows Wynne to really go to town with horrific imagery:

[…] mi’m gwelwn mewn Dyffryn pygddu anfeidrol o gwmpas ac i’m tŷb i nid oedd diben arno :  ac ymhen ennyd wrth ymbell oleuni glâs fel canwyll ar ddiffodd, mi welyn aneirif oh! aneirif o gyfcodion Dynion, rhai ar draed, a rhai ar feirch yn gwau trwy eu gilydd fel y gwynt, yn ddiftaw ac yn ddifrifol aruthr.  A gwlâd ddiffrwyth lom adwythig, neb na gwêllt na gwair, na choed nac anifail, oddieithr gwylltfilod marwol a phryfed gwenwynig o bôb mâth ;  feirph, nadroedd, llau, llyffaint, llyngyr, locuftiaid, prŷ ’r bendro, a’r cyffelyb oll fy ’n byw ar lyfredigaeth Dyn.  Trwy fyrddiwn o gyfcodion ac ymlufciaid, a beddi, a Monwentau, a Beddrodau, ni aethom ymlaen i weled y Wlâd yn ddirwyftr ;  tan na welwn i rai ’n troi ac yn edrych arnai ;  a chwippyn er maint oedd yn ddiftawrwydd o’r blaen, dyma fi o’r naill i’r llall fod yno Ddyn bydol ;  Dyn bydol, ebr un, Dyn bydol, eb y llall !   tan ymdyrru attai fel y lindys o bob cwrr.

I saw that I was in a pitch-black Valley of infinite radius and it seemed to me that there was no end to it :  and in a moment, by a few bluish lights like new-extinguished candles, I saw countless oh! countless shades of Men, some on foot, and some on horses, rushing back and fro like the wind, awesomely silent and solemn.  And a barren, bleak, malignant land, with neither grass nor hay, nor tree nor animal, save deadly beasts and poisonous vermin of every kind ;  serpents, adders, lice, frogs, worms, locusts, earwigs, and all the like sort that live on Man’s corruption.  Through myriad shades and reptiles, and graves, and Cemeteries, and Tombs, we went ahead to see the Land unhindered ;  until I happened to see some turning round and looking at me ;  in an instant, notwithstanding the prevailing silence, a whisper passed from one to another that there was a Man from Earth there ;  A Man from Earth, cried one, A Man from Earth, cried another !  while they crowded round me like caterpillars from every quarter.

Readers who don’t understand Welsh will perhaps be able only to dimply appreciate the beauty of Wynne’s sound patterning in the passage above, but his fondness for alliteration ought to be apparent (e.g. ni aethom ymlaen i weled y Wlâd yn ddirwyftr, which might be crudely approximated as nee eye-thom um-line ee well-led er w[oo]lard un thee-rooeest-rr). Quite as direful is the picture of King Death’s court:

[…] â phenglogeu Dynion y gwnelfid y murieu, a rheini ’n ’fcyrnygu dannedd yn erchyll ;  du oedd y clai wedi ei gyweirio trwy ddagreu a chwŷs, a’r calch oddi allan yn frith o phlêm a chrawn, ac oddifewn o waed dugoch.  Ar ben pôb twr, gwelit Angeu bach â chanddo galon dwymn ar flaen ei faeth.  O amgylch y Llŷs ’r oedd rhai coed, ymbell Ywen wenwynig, a Cypres-wydden farwol, ac yn rheini ’roedd yn nythu dylluanod, Cigfrain ac Adar y Cyrph a’r cyfryw, yn creu am Gig fŷth, er nad oedd y fangre oll ond un Gigfa fawr ddrewedig.  O efcyrn morddwydydd Dynion y gwnelfid holl bilereu ’r Neuadd, a Philereu ’r Parlwr o efcyrn y coefeu, a’r llorieu ’n un walfa o bôb cigyddiaeth.

[…] its walls were made of the skulls of Men, which displayed their teeth hideously ;  the clay was black and mingled with tears and sweat, and the lime outside riddled with phlegm and pus, and inside with black-red blood.  On the summit of each tower was seen a Deathling with a quivering heart at the head of his arrow.  Around the Court were a few trees―the odd poisionous Yew, or deadly Cypress, and in these nested owls, Ravens and Vultures and the like, crying without end for Flesh, even though the whole place was but one great putrid Slaughterhouse.  All the Hall’s pillars were made of the thighbones of Men, and the Parlour’s Pillars of shinbones, and the floors a layer of all manner of Butchery.

That lime is particularly horrible―so horrible, in fact, that Gwyneddon Davies couldn’t bring himself to include the phlegm and pus; ‘ruddy with gore’ is the most he can manage (Borrow has no such scruple). Weirdly, Gwyneddon Davies also translates ‘Adar y Cyrph’ (literally, corpse-birds) as vampires, rather than vultures, a blunder Borrow doesn’t make; it would seem that the later, less racy translator doesn’t always come off best as far as accuracy is concerned.

The third and final vision, which is the longest of the three, sees the dreamer being conducted on a tour of hell, which is reached via a vast chasm in the realm of the dead. A great deal of this section consists of the various torments suffered by the damned, described with conspicuous relish and some bitter humour. Drovers, for example, are given the faces of sheep and cows, and are driven like animals; apothecaries are ground up and stuffed into pots with animal fæces; an innkeeper who had served bad beer is boiled; women obsessed with beauty perpetually apply cosmetics which turn them ever more painfully hideous. As in the first section, all levels of society are scourged, but it is the agonies and humiliations of the powerful, with their arrogant certainty that the social status they had enjoyed in life will protect them, that are most gleefully depicted. Muslims, Puritans and Catholics are also excoriated; the Anglican church is, of course, the one true religion. One the most striking and, to me, alienating aspects of Wynne’s satire is the absence of any hint of mercy or compassion. This should not be surprising, as to feel any pity for the damned would be to risk questioning God’s judgement. When some of the condemned souls beg for mercy, a devil answers them that God has already shown humanity more than enough mercy, and that it should not be granted to those who do not deserve it.

There is no little sadism to be found in this hard-heartedness; this is exemplified by a scene in which the dreamer is almost overwhelmed by the ghastly sounds and sights of Hell, his angelic guide gives him a fortifying drink just to that he is ready to face even greater horrors. Vigorous as Wynne’s prose is (I doff my hat to two fantastic instances of onomatopoeia: ‘hai, hai, hai-ptrw-how, ho, ho-o-o-o-hwp’ and ‘drwp-hwl-rwp-rap dy-dwmp dy-damp’), I can’t deny a certain tedium creeping in. He carps on and on about various sins great and small, delighting at length the punishment of those who commit them, and then indulges himself in long gloating speeches given by the chief devils about the extent of their misdeeds and depth of their evil. It’s all too wearisomely repetitive, and the disdainful moralizing is never entrirely free of that obnoxious narrowness of mind one associates with religion at its most crabbed and petty, its most inhuman. Wynne’s sectarian satire remined me in some ways of Swift’s Tale of a Tub, which was published a year after the Visions (though it was written earlier). The comparison shows up Wynne’s limitations. Like Wynne, Swift (or at least his narrator) also holds up the Anglican church as a more rational, moderate alternative to the supposed extremes of Catholicism and Puritanism, and also employs a caustic wit deemed profane and vulgar by primmer readers. But Swift is altogether more ambiguous, diverse and unsettling; he is too fascinatingly idiosyncratic to succumb to monotony. Wynne doesn’t quite have that idiosyncrasy, and so my reaction to his hectoring is simply to reject it, though the drearier passages are not so frequent nor so long that they overcame the enjoyment I derived from reading the good parts. A mixed bag, then, but with much to savor. If you want to try a translation, I can’t say that I’d recommend Gwyneddon Davies, which amplifies Wynne’s flaws and reduces his virtues. Borrow is probably a better bet, inaccuracies be damned.

*I have also sought to adhere more closely to the author’s use of punctuation, italics and capitalizations.

**Wynne might have intended more sections. At the beginning and at the end of the book, it is stated that the pages in between are the first part, but there is no evidence of a second part having been written.

***The poem that ends the second section is more doggerel, this time about the inevitability of death. The last poem, on a similar theme, is far smoother and more musical; it seems to have been written with an existing tune in mind.

If you voted for Trump…

Let’s say you’re a blue collar worker in an economically depressed town. Your pay is low, you worry about your job security, you’re barely managing to stay on top of your bills, you fear for the future. You can see that the political establishment consists of remote, callous technocrats indifferent to your troubles – a smug, privileged elite wallowing in money while you struggle to make ends meet. An elite that regards you and the people you know and love with, at best, condescension and, at worst, outright contempt. You have known for a long time – in fact, it was obvious to everyone from the start, this foregone conclusion – that the party in office is going to choose as its presidential candidate a representative of this smug, privileged elite, someone who’s a perfect embodiment of the soullessly centrist, opportunist, globalized political class which has as its primary aim the maintenance and expansion of corporate power. You also know that the opposing party will try to foist another such candidate on you; if it can’t do that, it will settle for someone who poses as an outsider willing to shake things up but who will cravenly follow the script once the dust has settled.

If pressed, you would probably describe yourself as a conservative – at least in some respects – but you’re adamant that you’re no bigot. You have non-white friends, co-workers, perhaps even family members. Hell, you even voted for Obama. You’re a patriot, a proud American, but not some ranting nationalist. You’re anxious about the effects of mass immigration, but if people come here and work hard, keep their heads down, you’ll welcome them with open arms. You’re a devout Christian, but you have no ill will towards other religions, although extremist Islamism is obviously something that scares you. You were a bit uncomfortable about gay marriage to begin with, but hey, it’s no big deal; you’ve got nothing against gays themselves. Hard-core feminism exasperates you, but it goes without saying that you’re fully supportive of equal pay and all that. Abortion may be a sin, but you’re not going to condemn women who make that choice and you certainly don’t want to remove their ability to make it, even if you think it needs to be curtailed a little bit. You’re a decent, tolerant, live-and-let-live human being who has been driven to desperation by the grinding misery that surrounds you. The whole system fills you with disgust and anger, yet there seems to be no hope of changing it.

Then along comes Trump. You’ve known about him for a while. You’ve seen him on TV. You didn’t take him seriously before, but now he’s saying things that chime with your experience of the world. Sure, he’s not perfect: he’s crass, he’s vulgar, he shoots from the hip. But in a way, that’s part of his appeal: that there’s no fakery about him, that he’s true to himself. You don’t agree with everything he says, but that’s not important. What’s important is that he’s offering an alternative to the rotten status quo, a glimmer of hope. And that’s why you’re supporting him: not because you’re a bigot, a racist, a sexist or the rest of it, but because he’s someone who’ll help you get back some control over your life.

There was a point – long, long ago, it now seems – when I might have bought this line. Of course, I’d have disagreed with your take on things; I’d have pointed out the ridiculousness of looking for salvation from a ruthless, filthy rich egomaniac with a history of dishonesty, buffoonery and prejudice. But I might have taken your stated reasons for supporting him at face value, as misguided as they were. As the campaign wore on, however, I’d have found those reasons increasingly difficult to accept. Right now, I don’t accept it at all.

At what point do you say to yourself, “OK, that’s it, I’m out”? Is it when the candidate you’re cheering for slanders Mexicans as criminals and rapists? When he says he’s going to build a wall to keep them out and make Mexico pay for it? When he claims a judge who finds against him is biased because he’s a Mexican (even though the judge in question was born in the USA)? How about when he says he’s going to ban Muslims from entering the country, or calls for a database of Muslim citizens? Or when he lays into a grieving Muslim family of a soldier killed in a war he supported (in spite of his lying claims to have opposed it)? When he lies and lies again about thousands of American Muslims having celebrated the attacks on the World Trade Center? Or is it when his campaign uses subliminal anti-Semitic imagery against his opponent? How about when he refuses to distance himself from the endorsement of a prominent white supremacist, and repeatedly retweets other white supremacists? No? You’re still with Team Trump? And you’re still insisting that you’re not a bigot?

Alright, then.

How about his repeatedly making misogynist remarks? His leering, proprietorial attitude to women, exposed most graphically in recordings of him speaking about grabbing them by the pussy? The persistent allegations of sexual harassment, and worse? The threat to defund Planned Parenthood and to punish women for having abortions? When he selects as his running mate a religious fundamentalist well-known for his implacable homophobia? None of this makes you waver? Does his wholesale rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change not trouble you? Does his enthusiasm for torture and military tribunals for American citizens not give rise to even the slightest doubt? Does his continued refusal to release his tax returns not make you wonder if he’s hiding something? Do his calls for democratic protest to be restricted and his encouragement of violence against peaceful protesters not undermine his pose as champion of democracy in your eyes?

No? And yet here you are, still angrily denying that your support for this man has anything to do with racism, anything to do with xenophobia, anything to do with sexism, anything to do with any kind of bigotry or anything bearing even the slightest resemblance to fascism. It’s all about the economy, all about turning the ship around, getting the country back, making America great. Sure, Trump has some bad people supporting him, but neither he nor you can help that; you have nothing in common with them, and it’s outrageous for anyone to suggest otherwise. Well, I’m sorry, but the point at which your protestations retained even a vestige of plausibility has long since passed. You’re an adult. You have moral responsibility for your vote. Economic circumstances, no matter how dire, do not give you a free pass to vote for any sociopathic hate-monger who thumps a tub, and do not shield you from the criticism of those who stand to suffer as a result of Trump’s victory. Grow up and take a look at yourself. Take a look, too, at your fellow Trump supporters. You’re kidding yourself if you think the majority of them are people like you, facing the same hardships as you, enduring the same pain as you. They’re not. They’re prosperous, they’re comfortable, they’re doing nicely. A lot of them are doing very nicely. Yes, they’re angry like you, but when they try to claim that their anger comes from the injustices they have to deal with, they rightly get laughed out of town. There’s no obscuring the source of their anger, and it’s their anger that has propelled the great orange grub to victory, not yours. You’ve merely played along with it.

And now Trump’s headed for the White House and a lot of people are upset and they’re blaming you. And this makes you angry, because you’re not a bigot; really, you’re not. It’s so terribly hurtful to have this accusation hurled at you, because you’re a decent human being, not at all prejudiced. Your accusers just don’t understand; they’re snobby and bitter and out of touch. What they can’t get their heads around is the simple fact that Trump spoke up for millions and articulated concerns too long ignored. He’s speaking for you.

You’re right about one thing: he is speaking for you, and for your braying better-off fellow Trumpsters. We can hear you loud and clear, only the message you’re sending is not what you might claim it to be.

***

Now, let’s say you’re a middle-income worker with a stable job, a decent home, a college education and kids who can expect the same. You enjoy a fair level of material comfort, but that doesn’t mean you’re happy with the state of the country. On the contrary, you have a lot of anxieties and grievances. You voted Trump because… You know what? Just fuck you.

change lobsters

just watch those lobsters jive

cavorting up on deck

bopping a danse macabre

in their potted discotheque

 

as we caper in our kitchens

they’ll go waltzing while we whisk

our friends the kind crustaceans

will salute us as we frisk

we’ll clap their claws

in loud applause

as they boogie twist and tango

but the greatest thrill

is the lobster quadrille

finished

with a slice of mango

 

dancing on the boiling sand

dining deep beneath the sea

with claw in claw and hand in

hand with some for you and

more for me

 

take your places

form a line

the music’s about to

start throw your partners

into the brine

and tear their limbs apart

 

up the cry goes

change lobsters

and run

for nobody knows

when the dancing is done

and nobody knows

if it’s even begun

 

so pass the spoon me

hearties pass the spoon

to me

it’s far too late for supper

but it’s not quite

time for tea

 

the table’s set most

prettily with

trumpets toads and

pedants

while fainting waiters

discourse wittily of

deaf and dainty pheasants

 

be sure to take a

turn or two

with each bumbler at the ball

and just before those sleepy curtains

fall SCREAM lobsters

my lobsters

I love you one

and all

 

I kiss your frilly tails

now rolled up in your

mouths I

marinate your hearts

with a splash of

dry vermouth

 

avec sauce asks

the gryphon

a tad

disconsolate

 

just a little

the mock-turtle says

and weeps

into his plate

lobster-quadrille

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968, Ayi Kwei Armah)

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a filthy book. Dirt, decay, grime and ordure are everywhere, detailed in prose of rhapsodic disgust. The streets, the rivers, the showers, the latrines: these are the symptoms of an ungovernably reeking and befouled chaos, a social and political putrefaction afflicting Ghana just before the fall of Nkrumah, the country’s first post-independence leader (the novel was published two years after his overthrow). An expensive new bin is soon almost submerged under a pile of refuse (‘banana peels and mango seeds and thoroughly sucked-out oranges and the chaff of sugarcane and most of all the thick brown wrapping from a hundred balls of kenkey’); windows acquire ‘an oily yellow shine which [hides] their underlying color’; water stagnates ‘in puddles whose scum [is] visible even in the dark’. Filth is everywhere spreading, accreting, encrusting, building up, flowing, pooling, circulating, engulfing. There’s a terrific passage about a stair banister with an ‘uncomfortably organic’ touch to it:

A weak bulb hung over the whole staircase suspended on some thin, invisible thread. By its light it was barely possible to see the banister, and the sight was like that of a very long piece of diseased skin. The banister had originally been a wooden one, and to this time it was still possible to see, in the deepest of the cracks between the swellings of other matter, a dubious piece of deeply aged brown wood. And there were many cracks, though most of them did not reach all the way down to the wood underneath. They were no longer sharp, the cracks, but all rounded out and smoothed, consumed by some soft, gentle process of decay. In places the wood only seemed to have been painted over, but that must have been long ago indeed. For a long time only polish, different kinds of wood and floor polish, had been used. It would be impossible to calculate how much polish on how many rags the wood on the stair banister had seen, but there was certainly enough Ronuk and Mansion splashed there to give the place its now indelible reek of putrid turpentine. What had been going on there and was going on now and would go on and on through all the years ahead was a species of war carried on in the silence of long ages, a struggle in which only the keen, uncanny eyes and ears of lunatic seers could detect the deceiving, easy breathing of the strugglers.

The struggle is doomed to failure.

But of course in the end it was the rot which imprisoned everything in its effortless embrace. It did not really have to fight. Being was enough. In the natural course of things it would always take the newness of the different kinds of polish and the vaunted cleansing of the chemicals in them, and it would convert all to victorious filth, awaiting yet more polish again and again and again.

Contrasted with all this dirt, and yet at the same time bound up with it, are ideas and images of cleanliness, order, brightness and purity. One of the novel’s governing images is the Atlantic-Caprice Hotel, a big, gleaming white monstrosity that towers over the surrounding buildings, its gleam at once seductive and repellent. It is heavily symbolic, of course: the allure of money, of power, status, luxury. It proclaims the dominant position of the country’s post-independence elite, which pathetically apes the tastes, lifestyles, even names, of its former colonial masters. Throughout the book, the dazzling, the shiny, the spotless, the white, are associated with the corrupt values and practices of this elite, which is but an extension of the (white-skinned) ancien régime. An old man remembers, in the days of British rule, ‘the white mean’s gleaming bungalows’, which have since become occupied by their black successors, who also now drive gleaming cars with blinding white lights. The home of one of these big men is filled with glinting objects: ashtrays, pistol-shaped lighters, silver boxes, marble table tops, polished dishes and glasses, and so on. Even his dressing gown is shiny. As much as this elite strives to distance itself from the unclean masses it rules over, however, it cannot extricate itself entirely, for there will always be an unpleasant but unavoidable and even necessary proximity; the boundaries are moreover not secure. Armah provides a fittingly scatological image of this in a government office’s latrine wall, the upper part of which is a ‘dazzling white’, with no obscuring cobwebs, while the lower part is streaked with shit; the white area looks set to diminish over time, as people have resorted to jumping up in order to make use of a clean spot. The expensive new bin, now all but hidden under the rubbish, is topped by a sign which once was bright, ‘gleaming’ and ‘lucent’, but which is now stained and unreadable. It is a kind of a revenge against the elite, for the elite enriches itself by stealing money supposedly meant for the poor; the masses and the dirt in which they dwell are thus the substrate upon which the existence of the elite depends. But while the substrate may threaten to overwhelm that which it sustains, there are new elites waiting to take the place of the vanquished one.

The book opposes and conjoins clean and dirty with an almost suffocating intensity, so that after finishing it, I felt as if I was coming up for air. Such an obsessive focus packs a real punch, but the author falters in his failure to create a convincing protagonist. Armah gives us a hero or anti-hero in the character of a nameless railway controller, referred throughout the book as ‘the man’. If his anonymity is meant to suggest an everyman, then he’s a very strange kind of everyman. For one thing, he is profoundly alienated from his society, which is shown to be shallow, venal, conformist, amoral and rotten; his poorly paid job offers opportunities to advance himself through dishonest means, but he refuses them all, earning the contempt of his fellows and the resentment of his wife and mother-in-law. A real everyman would not, in such circumstances, refrain from giving or taking a bribe or two, or at least be seriously tempted; here, the man certainly desires material comforts, mainly for the sake of his family, but his uncompromising rectitude is never in doubt. Such scrupulousness marks him as an exceptional figure, yet his character is vague, unknowable; not only is he denied a name, but physical and psychological detail are also largely withheld. Armah is good on the feelings of guilt, frustration and estrangement that beset the man as a result of his principled stand, which condemns his family to remain in soul-sapping poverty, but these feelings never seem the products of an individual psychology. Detailed psychological realism is not a requirement of a novel, of course, and plenty do very well without it, but the trouble here is that the protagonist does little more than drift through the story feeling sorry for himself; he can’t even explain or justify his scruples. Fair enough as a condemnation of ineffective intellectuals who mope and grouch in the face of oppression and exploitation but cannot rouse themselves to act, or even to think about their situation with any clarity, but Armah stacks things so heavily against the man, and sees so little hope for meaningful change, that he makes personal virtue co-existing with despairing resignation seem like a pretty reasonable choice. The few other characters who shun the pervasive corruption are either dead or have cut themselves off from society, and are thus even less likely to help bring about social change. The man’s ethical stance, poorly though he understands it, is shown to be so unusual that it assumes a stature that undermines any criticism of his inaction. He is a figure full of contradictions―at once universal, extraordinary, unremarkable, heroic, passive and amorphous―but, unfortunately, Armah doesn’t know what to do with all these contradictions, and so they do not sustain much interest.

Far more compelling is the man’s wife, who is not only given a name―Oyo―but is also a more vivid, complex character, her outlines sharp while those of her husband are fuzzy. Being a wife and mother fully occupied with her domestic role, she is not faced directly, as her husband is, with having to choose between a state of honest privation and advancement through corruption; she can only live with the consequences of her husband’s attitude. The women in this book are excluded from the kinds of job that offer the possibility of advancement, and so dirty money only comes to their hands via their husbands, if it comes at all. Oyo and her mother are excited about a business opportunity, but their scheme is dependent on the assistance of a powerful man. Oyo’s resentment comes from bearing the brunt of her husband’s principles; it is she who, as a result of these principles, must run the household and bring up the children with next to no money. For her, there is no escape from the misery of home, as there is for him; there is no retreating to an office sanctuary. I suspect Armah might have done better to have made Oyo the central character. It is she who provides another of the book’s key images (along with the gleaming Atlantic-Caprice Hotel), when she mordantly compares her husband to the chichidodo, a fictional bird that hates excrement but eats only maggots, which are most plentiful in lavatories.

So then, back to shit, from which might emerge something as odious as a maggot, or as beautiful as a flower. The protagonist’s mentor, whom he addresses as Teacher, remarks that ‘out of the decay and the dung there is always a new flowering,’ yet he is a character wholly given over to pessimism and inaction. For him, hopeful thoughts are little more than bromides, which might ‘soothe the brain’, but cannot assuage ‘the ache and the sinking fear’ lodged in the heart and guts. For him, the maggots far outnumber the flowers. Of Nkrumah’s own decline from idealistic young anti-colonial activist to corrupt leader cut off from the struggles of his countrymen, the teacher asks how something could ‘have grown rotten with such obscene haste?’ Obscene, yes, but also quite natural and ordinary: the allure of shiny things, which ‘pull the tired body toward rest and decay.’ Here we have the source of all filth: the symbiotic, all-contaminating relationship between what is decaying, dirty, degraded and what is gleaming, hygienic, pure―a relationship of money and faeces endlessly generating more filth. The more people strive for the gleam of the Atlantic-Caprice, the more shit gets produced. A brilliant image: the stench of the public lavatory and the taste of rot forcing people to spit, a ‘doomed attempt to purify the self by adding to the disease outside.’ The cycle of birth, consumption, excretion, growth, decay, decomposition and rebirth serves as a cosmic backdrop to the story, a cycle from which there is no apparent escape. The only hope lies in a new kind of rebirth, freed from the influence of capitalism and the colonial legacy, but it seems a distant, desperate hope; the book’s very title defers its realization to an unspecified future. The ending, which involves a literal journey through shit and cleansing in the ocean, might point to the possibility of this rebirth, but the remoteness of this possibility weighs over the whole of this powerful, depressing book.

Two scenes from ‘The Masseurs and a Woman’

I’ll be looking here at two scenes from The Masseurs and a Woman, which contain ample evidence of the skill, intelligence and fluidity of Shimizu’s film-making. First, the opening. As the film begins, Toku and Fuku are making their way along a country road to the resort village, canes in hand, but walking at a confident pace, evidently familiar with the route. The camera retreats as they advance, keeping the same pace, almost as if it, and we, were walking alongside them―except that, if that were the case, we’d be facing the wrong way, unable to see in front of us. Toku extols the beautiful view (“It’s as if we could see!”), turning his head to the side as if he really were looking at it. Wonderfully, we are as reliant as Toku on the power of imagination, because the camera retains its focus on the walkers, keeping the beautiful view off-screen. We can infer, however, that there is indeed a view to be seen precisely at the spot Toku imagines one, because we can see that the road has a sheer drop at the side; moments later, as the two continue ahead, trees rise up on the same side, blocking any view into the valley below. Toku isn’t simply letting his imagination run wild; he knows when splendid scenery lies before him, and he isn’t going to let the small fact of his blindness prevent him from appreciating it. The two men’s blindness is apparent as soon as the film begins, but any sense of pity we (as sighted viewers) might feel for their condition is quickly nipped in the bud, as it is plain that two men are more than capable of looking after themselves. The old cliché about blind people compensating for their disability by developing their other senses to a heightened degree seems to be making another appearance. Subtly, however, Shimizu suggests that the two men’s abilities are not quite equal, and the difference has a bearing on their personalities. We can see this in the way they walk, for that of Toku is just a little bit more assured. His cane, extended straight in front of him, occasionally taps the ground, but you get the impression that Toku would manage pretty well without it. Fuku, meanwhile, uses his cane somewhat more tentatively, holding it closer to his body, sometimes bringing it around to his side in a small curving motion, and tapping the ground more often. He’s almost always fractionally behind his companion. Their conversation confirms the visual impression. Fuku wonders how many people they’ve passed; Toku knows the answer, taking pleasure in the fact that they’re able to overtake sighted people. Fuku remarks regretfully that he bumped into a few animals, which Toku blames on his carelessness. Both men express a certain degree of resentment towards the sighted society that may act kindly towards them, but which will readily kick them into a ditch. Toku’s resentment, however, is keener, the result, perhaps, of longer experience; he takes on the role of mentor to Fuku, advising him to rely on neither people nor his cane. Suddenly Toku stops his companion, and challenges him to guess how many children are approaching. The camera stops, too―but not immediately, as if it takes a moment for it to realize that the two men have stopped, and waits for them to continue. The viewer can’t see the children, and has been given no indication of their presence; while Toku and Fuku stand listening, only then do we begin to hear, very faintly, their voices―our hearing lags behind Toku’s superior senses. Shimizu cuts for the first time to a closer, stationary shot of the two men listening intently. Eight kids, says Fuku; eight and a half, says Toku, sure that there’s a baby among them. Another cut, back to Toku and Fuku advancing, the camera reversing; sure enough, eight children, one with a baby tied to its back, walk from behind the camera and pass the two masseurs. Fuku may be good, but Toku is something else.

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Having displayed the acuity of his ears, Toku next makes use of his nose, halting Fuku abruptly. Again, the camera stops to wait; Fuku, thinking there’s danger ahead, wields his cane like a sword, while Toku, with an expression of disgust, uses his cane to point down in front of him at something the viewer can’t see. Fuku by now has realized what’s wrong; there’s a bad smell, and as they veer to sides, the camera too resumes its journey, and we now see a pile of horse dung in the middle of the road. Fuku’s sense of smell is good, but were in not for Toku, he’d have stepped right into the dung. The viewer can’t smell anything; what’s more, looking backwards, we can’t see the dung either, until Toku and Fuku have successfully passed it. The camera does not veer to the side with them, but keeps to the middle of the road, so that we get shit on our shoes. Cunningly, Shimizu has set this up with a series of subtle shot changes. Before they stop to listen to the approaching kids, we see the masseurs either in full shot, or with only their feet cut off at the bottom of the screen. When the two men stop to listen intently, the camera gets closer, just above waist height, prompting us to look and listen more intently. When the camera starts moving again, all of the men’s bodies are again visible, only this time the camera is slightly further away, allowing us to see the children pass. Toku and Fuku stop again, turning their heads back in the direction of the children; there’s another cut, and now we see them from above the knees only. When they, and the camera, start moving again, the shot remains the same, so that we can’t see the horse shit at our feet. The same shot is maintained until the two of them stop when Toku catches a whiff; when they proceed cautiously, the camera pulls back to show their full bodies again, and to reveal the shit we’ve just stepped in.

This full-body shot is a brief one; there’s then a cut to a shot with the camera around waist-level (the reason for this will be apparent later). Fuku complains that he’s tired and wants to slow down, but Toku insists that they press on in order to reach their destination before nightfall. When his friend objects that travelling in the dark is hardly a problem for them, Toku reveals the real reason for his haste: a competitive desire to arrive ahead of a group of students who earlier passed them by. Fuku is sceptical, but Toku is adamant that he can do it, that his blindness is no handicap. Again, we are gently made to appreciate the differences in character between the two: Fuku is the more demure and circumspect of the pair, while Toku is more combative, determined to prove himself against sighted people, to demonstrate that he is every bit their equal. Toku, the film suggests, is someone frustrated by the constraints of his employment, which forces him to play the part of servant, something alien to his nature. It is his seeing customers who hold social power over him; it is their society that all but forces him into working as a masseur, to accept the role that rigid tradition, seeing him only as a blind man and nothing else, would thrust upon him. Fuku may be reconciled to his lot, but Toku aims to break free of it, and so strides ahead of his colleague, vowing, as he does so, to beat the students to the resort. Here there’s a cut, and the camera once more shows the pair in a full-body shot, the two of them walking silently, Toku at the front. What we can see, and the two of them can’t, is that there is a large rock in the road, and Toku is heading straight for it. Cutting to mid-shot for the conversation about overtaking the students has enabled Shimizu to point our attention to the rock in the foreground when he then cuts to long-shot, which would not have been so noticeable had the whole conversation been filmed in long-shot. It’s something of a reversal of the situation with the horse dung; the viewer, with the privilege of sight (over which, the director, nonetheless, exerts control) is able to know what lies ahead (which, for the viewer, is also behind)*, while Toku cannot. We watch as Toku stumbles, his cry as he falls frightening Fuku into wielding his cane as a weapon, just as he did when Toku’s nose detected the smell of horse manure. For all their independence and abilities, neither man is invulnerable. While Toku scrambles to right himself, a horse-drawn carriage passes them by, enabling Toku to regain something of his dignity by displaying his olfactory expertise in being able to tell from the lingering scent of perfume that a lady from Tokyo is on board the carriage. The focus then switches to the passengers, as we see Michiho, Shintaro and Kenichi looking back in the direction of the masseurs as the driver explains who they are. A fade-out marks the end of the scene, which has lasted five minutes.

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The second scene I want to examine is my favorite in the film, and one of the most magical two minutes of cinema I know. We see Michiho walk down the street towards the camera, evidently watching something that’s going on in front of her. A cut reveals the object of her interest: Toku, in long-shot, bumping into a pair of bathers. He is on his way to Michiho’s hotel, where he is supposed to give her a massage. The collision with the bathers is an unusual mistake for him (the carelessness of the bathers notwithstanding), perhaps suggesting that his senses have become compromised by his developing feelings for Michiho, or even that they are affected by his being unknowingly observed by her. Shimizu cuts back to the observer, a slight smile on her face; she turns away and retreats, then looks back and stops. As Michiho turns her body around so that she is facing Toku again, there is a change of shot so that the camera is behind her. Both characters are now visible in long-shot, Michiho at screen left, Toku walking towards the camera at screen right. As he passes her, she turns her body so that she is always looking at him. He stops, sniffs the air, detecting her scent. He turns back towards her, and there’s a close-up of his face as he turns. At first it seems as if his face is going to ‘look’ directly at Michiho (and the camera), but instead his head keeps turning until it’s facing downwards―abashed, confused, frustrated―we can’t tell. Shimizu cuts back to Michiho, smiling more broadly now, as she slowly backs away while so that she keeps looking at him. Shimizu keeps cutting back and forth between Michiho and an increasingly confused Toku, the former slowly moving away from the masseur, frequently stopping and looking back at him. Michiho keeps leading him forwards in this manner, until, at around the same spot where Toku earlier bumped into the bathers, she almost bumps into four masseurs (including Fuku). Toku continues to follow Michiho, until he passes the other masseurs, stops, and turns towards them. Not wishing to be detained, and anxious to catch up with Michiho, he continues turning so that he is back facing the camera (a 360° turn), but he still isn’t decided, and starts turning again towards Fuku and the other masseurs. This time, while he turns, the camera briefly switches as well, so that it is on the other side of Toku, before switching back to show Toku facing screen left, at an angle of approximately 90° relative to both the other masseurs and to the direction taken by Michiho. As Fuku approaches him, Toku turns away, then back towards Fuku, and finally once again towards where Michiho wandered off. The scene ends, and there’s a cut to show Michiho at the river, looking around her as if to check whether Toku has been able to follow.

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This marvellous scene, played for the most part in a haunting silence (apart from a few eerie notes from a flute-like instrument at the beginning, and some dialogue between Toku and Fuku at the end), is a kind of teasingly erotic dance, with the camera as a third dancer, along with Toku and Michiho. Shimizu superbly choreographs both Michiho’s playful, faintly cruel seductiveness and Toku’s helpless, bewildered desire,** placing the viewer, through the camera reversals, alternately in the position of seduced and seducer, eroticizing both male and female characters. Michiho and Toku can’t have the same experience of eroticism, of course. Michiho, as a sighted character, can see the handsome Toku as the viewer can see him, whereas Toku can only imagine Michiho’s visual beauty. As an object of desire, he experiences her through sound, touch and smell―here only through smell, which is denied to the viewer. That this desire is an unfamiliar feeling for Toku is suggested by his uncharacteristically confused dealings with physical space―a hesitant and uncertain gait, halting, turning around. As a masseur, he would have been expected to deny himself any erotic desire, for the expectation that any such desire would not be expressed is what allowed blind masseurs to handle exposed flesh. His familiar environment is male, blind and celibate, hence perhaps his indecision on meeting his fellow masseurs: should he stick to the life he has known for years, a life that seems to dissatisfy him, a life he has been more or less compelled to lead, but which for all that offers the compensations of homosocial camaraderie and regular travel? Or should he break free from his designated role and explore the new sensation of desire, with all the risks of failure and humiliation involved? For her part, as a woman, Michiho too is constrained by a rigid patriarchal society (we don’t discover her story until the end), and her flirtation with Toku, a man who intrigues her even though she doesn’t seem to seriously entertain the prospect of romance, is enlivened by the thrill of transgression. But trying to unpack this little scene like this still doesn’t get to the core of what makes it so special, for, in the end, the greater part of its delicacy and mysteriousness resist explanation; as much can be said of the film as a whole.

*The rock lies slightly to the side of the road, unlike the horse shit, so we’re not put in the position of having stumbled over it as we are made to tread in the horse shit.

** His helplessness and bewilderment accentuated by his white jacket, which makes him look especially innocent. In case the contrast between naïve male and worldly, seductive female sounds misogynistic, it is part of the film’s success that it portrays Michiho not as a clichéd vamp, but as a complex and sympathetic human.