Wednesday 27 January 2016

The Torch - Peter Twohig (2015)

Peter Twohig’s book The Cartographer (2012) hit the right note with book buyers and became a run-away popular fiction success. Set in the year 1959 in Richmond, a working class suburb of Melbourne, it featured an eleven year old boy who took shelter in the drains and lanes of the city to escape the man responsible for a murder he accidentally witnessed. The Torch begins shortly after the end of The Cartographer and the child protagonist is one year older and is, you guessed it, up to shenanigans in the drains and lanes of Richmond, this time seeking the kid known as Flame Boy before he, gasp, strikes again.

The Torch begins well enough, with the un-named protagonist (he refers to himself variously as The Spirit of Progress, The Railwayman, The Ferret and is called the Blayney Kid by most of the adults) having to move with his mother to his grandfather’s house due to their home having been burnt down by, you guessed it, Flame Boy. Unfortunately it’s not long before the flaws of this novel become all too apparent. There are a multitude of characters, literally hundreds; most are incidental and many are caricatures of what is supposed to be your typical Australian of 1960. As the book progresses there just seems to be no end to them, causing the principal characters to get lost in the general commotion. The Blayney Kid’s narration is chock full of Australian colloquialisms that are initially endearing, but soon become so irritating that the inward groaning starts to become audible. The attempt at giving the Blayney Kid some psychological depth with his angst over his twin brother’s death and his nascent romantic adventures fall flat. All the fires, car crashes and marauding criminals could have had more impact if the narrative had more tension, instead the same tone persists throughout. The rather flimsy plot, of which I do not wish to go into because, frankly, it’s just not worth it, is stretched out like an old rubbery elastic-band across the novel’s 457 pages. In the end, despite some faint hope, nothing truly significant is revealed and you look at your watch and think, my god I’m still alive (I’ll be putting in these blatant Bowie references for some time to come).

The Torch was selected by my library book club members, perhaps due to the success of The Cartographer, but at the meetings many were underwhelmed and disappointed and seemed to be enjoying their coffees much more than the book they had to trawl through. Perhaps if this shaggy dog tale had been more rigorously edited and had lost about half of its length it could’ve been a contender. The Torch came close to becoming only the second book on this blog to be rated as ‘reprehensible’, but it was saved by the fact that The Finkler Question was just so awful that other books have to try really hard to be its equal.

Monday 18 January 2016

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things - Lafcadio Hearn (1903)

A copy of this intriguing book was given to me as a secret santa present about four years ago (by my oldest brother I strongly suspect). It had been on my mind for a while so I decided to finally read it. I’m glad I did because this charmingly idiosyncratic book was a source of great fascination and entertainment. Written by Greek born Lafcadio Hearn during the last years of his life living in Japan, Kwaidan is a collection of Japanese supernatural folk tales, many of which are centuries old. Hearn traveled to Japan in 1890 to work as a newspaper correspondent but soon abandoned journalism for teaching, which eventually led to teaching english literature at the Tokyo Imperial University. Along the way he married and became a naturalized Japanese citizen. Unfortunately he died at the relatively young age of 53 from a heart attack. I wonder if he haunted anyone?

The collection opens with one of its best stories, The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi. This story was somehow familiar to me, although that didn’t stop it from being creepy. Set seven hundred years in Japan’s past it recalls the tale of a blind monk called Hoichi, whom was proficient with the biwa instrument, and his encounter with the ghosts of the Heike clan who had perished in a famous battle. Hoiche is tricked into playing the biwa for the ghosts deep in the forest at night and has to be saved by his masters who come up with a workable but flawed plan. Like many of the stories in the collection the narrative style is sparse yet evocative; the scenes described come to life with an unnerving clarity. Many of the stories are no more than a few pages long, such as Diplomacy. Diplomacy is a simple tale of a Samuri who cleverly tricks the man he is about to execute so he will not return as a ghost to take his revenge. Reading stories like these made me realize just how steeped Japanese culture is in ghost stories and other bizarre supernatural phenomena. It is no wonder they make such disturbing horror movies such as Ringu (1998). In fact four of these stories were made into a critically acclaimed film called Kwaidan in 1964.

Perhaps the best story here is Rokuro-Kubi. A Samuri named Isogai Heidazaemon travels through an isolated mountainous area. Deciding to settle down to sleep for the night a woodcutter happens upon him and warns him that he’s in a dangerous area and offers him shelter for the night. Little does the Samuri know that he’s being tricked and the woodcutter is a Rokuro-Kubi, a being whose head detaches from its body to rampage through the night. The Rokuro-Kubi heads plan to eat him while he sleeps, but Isogai has other ideas. This story is disturbing but at the same time reminded me of the giant slapstick heads in the classic Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away (2001). No doubt there are many references to centuries old supernatural tales in many of the brilliant Studio Ghibli films.

It’s a pity that this collection did not end with Horai, a story about a place where the atmosphere is made up of ghosts and the people never grow old (where did the ghosts come from then?). Instead Hearn ends by including some of his own studies of butterflies, mosquitoes and ants and their cultural significance in Japan. These pieces are moderately interesting but after the ghostly atmospheres of the preceding stories my interest began to wane and the book ended on a low note. Despite this flaw Kwaidan’s supernatural charms were enough to make this collection memorable and it has reignited my interest in Japanese literature. Many years ago my brother lent me a number of books by Japanese authors, many of which I enjoyed immensely. Lately I’ve bought a few books by Yukio Mishema, which coincidentally was one of David Bowie’s favourite authors. I’ll have to read them sooner rather than later, along with Murakami’s last novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013). Maybe on a long flight to Japan? Who knows....

Monday 11 January 2016

The Death of David Bowie

It’s strange, even though in the last couple of days I was thinking about Bowie’s mortality, I never thought that it would happen, as absurd as that sounds. I was thinking, “Well I hope he lives at least another decade, just think what else he could do.” He’s always been there for me, an inspiration, a connection with the strange and the brilliant; he shone like no other and most of all he was my friend. Bowie really was the all round entertainer - he had something for everyone and for every mood and every situation. In times of trouble you could whack that certain Bowie album on and it would help get you through. As someone once said, he was bullshit and totally genuine at the same time; he had artifice but he also had a deep soul and could articulate something universal that we could all connect with.

I loved everything about Bowie, his music, of course, but also his intellect, his artistry, his poise and grace; his darkness and his melodrama and pretense. He had it all and even his artistic failures were fascinating. He went out on the edge and sometimes he would fail, but that was ok, he could always charm his way out. It’s hard to fathom that I’ll never see another up to date picture of Bowie, to be able to wonder what he is up to and what amazing moves he could pull next. He really was a genius and I’ll love him forever. Thanks David, thanks for all the times I listened to one of your records and was transformed, thanks for all the gigs and for just being you. You gave it your all. Goodbye.