Friday, 16 March 2012

Book Review: The Naked Civil Servant

The Naked Civil ServantThe Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This should be required reading for students of politics, sociology, creative writing, journalism, twentieth century history,and philosophy. And probably a few others.

To a twenty-first century reader, Crisp initially feels like a caricature of a drag queen, with his made up face, gossipy tone, and outlandish fashion. But when you recall that he was born in 1908 and the book was originally published in 1968, you quickly understand that he was the forefather of the beloved stereotype of the bitchy gay best friend. I mean that with the greatest respect.

The pace of the book is quick, almost fleeting, but not flighty. He crams the first 2/3 of his long storied life into a very slim volumen, clipping along with what feels like carefree-ness, but which actually becomes exposed as clear-cut bohemianism--a conscious unconcern with convention that permeates Crisp's life all the way down to his everyday housekeeping. It's not that he doesn't think about cleaning; it's that he's thought about it and come to the conclusion that it's not worth his while. There are more exciting things to do, like dying his hair crimson.

There is a temptation to say that he can dye his hair and grow his nails long, etc. because doesn't care what observers think of him. This is false. He cares deeply, and he cultivates his image. He very much wants his appearance to convey that he is queer. He has no interest in hiding this fact, but a deep interest in advertising it, as he repeatedly tells employers and other well-meaning types when they ask why he insists on dressing flamboyantly. Brilliantly, when he starts to go gray, he stops dying his hair bright red (because he is accused of doing so to appear younger) and starts giving it a blue rinse. Thus he cannot be reproached for trying to hide the grays and at the same time, he preserves the public flaunting of the fact that he dyes his hair, which is the whole point for him.

The most compelling parts of the book have nothing to do with his early upbringing or other pop-psychological origin stories that make so many memoirs deeply boring (he mostly leaves this kind of claptrap out, mercifully). The deeply moving bits are those that relate to his personal autonomy, which barely exists. Because of his defiantly public queer identity and its sexual implications, people conclude that his body is in the public domain. There are many occasions when he is beaten for no reason other than wearing makeup or is groped in the street. But there are odd moments where the infringement on his person is decidely more tender, and at these moments, the incomprehension by society of his humanity is magnified.

There is a particularly beautiful and intensely creepy passage, following on the heels of an account of another public beating, where Crisp boards a bus and sits in front of a soldier. Abruptly, without any conversation about it, the soldier takes out a comb and starts gently combing Crisp’s hair. You feel an odd sorrow for the soldier at first, and then, without any prompting by Crisp, moral outrage and loathing that this man thinks he can just touch Crisp without permission. Crisp himself sits perfectly still until the ordeal is over. He doesn’t give any reasons why he doesn’t move, but the reader can instantly understand that the soldier has asserted an oppressive dominance by assuming consent, or rather by assuming no need for consent. Not to get hyperbolic, but the mind can’t help making an instant connection with slavery and subjugation of women through old marriage laws.

Yes, yes, it’s all very topical in the current political climate. But for me personally, this dragged up memories of university years. I particularly recall groups of students wearing T-shirts with slogans like, “Stop looking at my chest” emblazoned across the chest, and the pettiness of this compared with actual bodily infringement. I felt then, and feel now more than ever, how simplistically aggrieved these students felt, without understanding (and for many of them, without desiring to understand) what a violation of personhood really means (meant?) in an institutionalized way. I’m not sure making them read Crisp would help; I think possibly it is a developmental stage to be endured by college students. Some people never require it and some never graduate from it.

In any case, read this. Aside from being interesting and moving, it is hilarious. There are occasional paragraphs that get bogged down in sentimentality, but they are few.

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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Angel's Game Review

The Angel's GameThe Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just shy of excellent. For as many books as there are whose setting is inconsquential or invented as representations of a concept (like Hardy's Wessex), there are as many for which the setting is not just the setting but an integral character (eg Dicken's London). This book takes the reader into a marvelously gothic Barcelona in between the World Wars, where vice and survival are so entwined, one cannot achieve one without battling the other. Ruiz Zafon's descriptions of the city and its architecture create a new horror, where the buildings themselves are alive and leering down from above. David Martin's tower mansion is as much a character in the story as any of the humans. It's spindly and hulking, secretive, mysterious, foul. The thought of the characters, even the damned ones, sleeping there is enough to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. There is a vague whiff of The Master and Margarita about this story, but without the playfulness.

Where it falls short:
It's heavy-handed in its condemnation of religion - there isn't as much nuance here as a truly great novel would employ and which I think Ruiz Zafon thinks he put in.

David skulks away into hiding without notifying the proper authorities after witnessing death after death after death. Too many for any plausibility. And yet he wonders why he is under suspicion. This is bizarre. Surely he should want to confide in SOMEONE, even if not the detective and his muscle.

There is no resolution over David's novel, nor any cohesive understanding of its commission or the mystery of Andreas Corelli (ie is he a figment of David's imagination / conscience or an actual supernatural entity?). In fact, the ending feels very much like Ruiz Zafon reached a point where he forgot why he was writing or like he had a concept but not an outline when he started writing. It doesn't end up going anywhere.

Lastly, and this is minor but highly annoying. David takes Lux Aeterna out of the book cemetery, charged with protecting it at all costs. And then he throws it into the fire with no consequences at all. Why have this mysterious secret society with mystical rules and magical bookshevlves, if nothing happens when the rules are broken? He even returns there at the end of the book and is welcomed. This annoyed me no end!

Ruiz Zafon obviously has an excellent imagination. He needs to corral it and not rely on publisher's deadlines.

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Monday, 9 January 2012

Book Review: The Ancient Ship

The Ancient ShipThe Ancient Ship by Zhang Wei

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last few years, I've had an increased interested in modern Chinese fiction, which is probably at least partly due to the fact that my local library is practically next door to the Sheffield Chinese Community Centre and features an unexpectedly large selection of Chinese language books. I'm sure I've read about 6 or 7 novels in this time either translated from Chinese to English or else written in English by Chinese expats. For the former, I find one ongoing problem: translation. I know nothing of Chinese, but some translations, by dint of the fact that they are clouded with awkward phrases and ambiguity or else nonsense, make it clear that the Chinese language is rich in metaphor and double meaning. Inevitably this makes me regretful that I'm reading a translation.

That said, especially considering its length, The Ancient Ship is well translated by Howard Goldblatt, to the best of my understanding. By that I mean that, while the narrative is dense, it is not made cumbersome by the inherent difficulty in translating artistic MEANING, as opposed to just words. Hats off there, then.

Like a few others who have reviewed this book on this site, I had some difficulty with the first third of it. It is nonchronological, and I have only a very little knowledge of modern Chinese history, so understanding what was happening to the village of Wali in a wider context wasn't that easy. The fact that I carried on reading past this point in spite of the challenge says a lot about the beauty of the writing, and the drive of the story.

The middle of the book very suddenly and briefly delves unflinchingly (cliche, but very accurate term) at the misery in the countryside brought on by the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. The violence and suffering is made more shocking by the fact that the rest of the story is about the normalized lives of the survivors, some of whom abused each other horrifically or who witnessed incomprehensible atrocities, only to find themselves continuing to live for decades amongst each other as neighbors.

These are the themes, but the narrative drive is the economic change from agrarianism to collectivism to the weird modern Chinese mish-mash of oppressive communism and free market capitalism that is now in place. It follows one generation of siblings through it all, including their resignation, indignation, action and passivity to it. It's intense, and I found that it got better and better right to the last page.

Two aspects of it were troubling, but not because of the writing. One was the constant self-identification of all characters with their clan. Everything they did was for or as a result of the history of the clan. Or in defiance of the clan. This was hard for me to understand because it's so different from my own upbringing, and it sparks a lot of thought on the obstacles to progress that clannishness creates. I'm not sure if this was a question Zhang Wei intended to raise or whether he took for granted that this was (is?) just the situation in China.

The other aspect that was very troubling was the abusive relationships between Jiansu and his girlfriends. He has one girlfriend who is a co-dependent type, to whom he makes various casual, unkept promises, and whom he generally walks all over. He has another girlfriend whom he threatens, hurts, and rants like a lunatic to. There is a lot of moral ambiguity from the other characters about this that made me unsure where the line was in the micro-society we are reading about.

In any case, this was very throught-provoking and rewarding to read. And long.

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